Last Thursday night Charles and I looked for an offbeat movie for the night and found it in the DVD of Hell’s Angels, the World War I (or “The Great War,” as World War I was usually referred to before there was a World War II) aviation movie Howard Hughes — yes, that Howard Hughes — not only produced but directed personally. It started out as a silent film with a script by Marshall “Mickey” Neilan — the Irish-American director who eventually drank himself out of a major career but made some surprisingly good movies along the way — and Joseph Moncure March, who made his literary “bones” with two long-form narrative poems, The Wild Party (about the Fatty Arbuckle scandal, filmed in the 1970’s with James Coco as Arbuckle) and The Set-Up (a tale about a burned-out boxer who refuses to throw a fight his backers have bet on him to lose, filmed as a noir in 1949 with real-life ex-boxer Robert Ryan in the lead). Neilan probably hoped Hughes would give him the nod to direct it as well, but according to Noah Dietrich, Hughes’ long-term aide whose unpublished memoir was the basis for the Clifford Irving fake Hughes “autobiography,” the director Hughes originally hired was Paul Sloane, a well-regarded filmmaker in the late 1920’s who’d also actually seen combat in World War I. Alas, Hughes and Sloane didn’t get along and Hughes decided to fire Sloane. “I’ll keep a director on the set, but the basic decisions will be mine,” Hughes told Dietrich. The director he hired was James Whale, who’d just made a sensation in both his native Britain and the U.S. with the play Journey’s End, another World War I story, which starred Colin Clive as Captain Stanhope, who eventually goes crazy under the stress of leading men in the trenches and occasionally sending them out to get killed in suicidal attempts at “advances.”
The final credits list Hughes as overall director and Whale as supervisor of English dialogue — which probably means Whale directed the scenes set in Britain and Hughes directed the spectacular aerial action scenes that are the main reason people went to see the film in 1930 (when Hughes finally finished it after retaking quite a lot of it — more on that later) and why anyone would want to sit through it today. (The Hell’s Angels page on imdb.com lists Edmund Goulding, not Sloane, as the original director Hughes fired, but I’m going with Noah Dietrich on this one. In 1932 Sloane would get fired from another World War I aviation movie, The Lost Squadron, and that would pretty much kill his career.) Hell’s Angels begins with a title, “Germany — Before the War,” and deals with the Rutledge brothers, strait-laced Roy (James Hall) and his scapegrace skirt-chasing brother Monte (Ben Lyon, top-billed). In Germany before the war they’re on vacation from Oxford University with a fellow student, German-born Karl Arnstedt (John Darrow), who says that after three years at Oxford he feels more British than German but … well, with a set-up like that we know what’s going to happen: World War I is going to be declared, Britain and Germany are going to end up on opposite sides and Karl is going to receive his draft notice at Oxford and return to Germany to fight on their side in the war. Meanwhile Roy and Monte both enlist in the Royal Flying Corps — Hell’s Angels was an obvious opportunity for Hughes to mix his two biggest real-life obsessions, movies and aviation, as well as fulfill his wish to have fought in World War I (for which he’d been way too young — 11 when the U.S. entered the war and 13 when it ended) — Roy because he genuinely believes in Britain’s cause and Monte because he falls for the lure of a kiss from a young woman (Marian Marsh, later Trilby to John Barrymore’s Svengali) in return for signing up. There are scenes in training camp showing these people learning to be pilots — though we’re only told when they take their solo flights; we’re not shown them — and then the scene abruptly cuts to a German Zeppelin staging a bombing raid on London aimed at taking out Trafalgar Square.
The person in the observation pod that’s supposed to be directing the bombs is, you guessed it, Karl Arnstedt, and he’s loyal enough to Britain that he directs the bombs to fall harmlessly into a lake instead of making their target, but then he gets his when the captain of the Zeppelin notices British planes flying towards it in an obvious attempt to shoot it down, and when he realizes the only way the Zeppelin can escape the planes is to climb to a higher altitude, and the only way it can do that is if it’s made lighter, the first thing he does is cut the cables connecting the observation pod to the ship so it falls and takes Karl to his death. (It’s a pity to lose him that early because he’s really the most interesting character in the film.) Alas, that’s not enough, so the captain orders every dispensable piece of equipment to be thrown overboard, and when even that doesn’t do the trick he orders the crew members to jump out of the Zeppelin and commit suicide for the glory of the Fatherland. This was the scene Charles remembered from the last time we’d seen the film and also the one the original reviewers singled out for particular interest — most of the original reviewers said Hell’s Angels was worth seeing for the spectacular action and enduring the dull plot portions between the big set-piece action scenes — and of course it’s very much in the usual mode of war propaganda (“The enemy has no respect for human life — including his own”), but it’s also the most chilling moment in the film. It was also one that Hughes insisted on shooting again and again and again, changing the camera angles each time — he had a full-scale set of the Zeppelin’s crew car from which his extras would jump and fall 10 to 12 feet to a mattress — and Noah Dietrich remembered asking James Whale, who was on the set that day but not actually doing anything, why Hughes kept changing the camera angles and retaking. Whale had no idea; he told Dietrich that it wasn’t going to look substantially different from all the various angles — and indeed what we see in the film is straight-on shots of the various extras playing Germans heading to their deaths, and if the scene makes an impact it’s due to its horrific content rather than any creativity in its presentation.
Roy is in a long-term relationship with a young English girl named Helen, who in Hughes’ original all-silent version of the film was played by Greta Nissen — only when the film was finished in its silent form Hughes decided that for a movie he was consciously attempting to build into the greatest ever made (it was certainly the costliest — Hughes spent $3.8 million on it, more than was spent on any single film until Gone with the Wind), he couldn’t let it go out without sound. Other producers solved the problem by patching sound sequences into films otherwise shot silent, but that wasn’t good enough for Hughes; he put out the word that he’d reshot the entire film with sound (which he hadn’t; the action scenes were reused from the silent version and so was most of the footage of the German dirigible bomber, and you can tell because silent film was shot at a slower camera speed and thus the action in the silent scenes moved considerably quicker), and when Greta Nissen showed up for work before the sound cameras Hughes decided her thick accent was totally unbelievable from a character who was supposed to be British. (I’ve seen one of Nissen’s talkies, The Circus Queen Murder, and she spoke English comprehensibly but no one would ever have believed it was her native language.) So he recast the role with an aspiring actress, a socialite who’d come to Hollywood when her marriage broke up and done two brief bits in the Laurel and Hardy two-reelers Bacon Grabbers (which cast them as repo men) and Double Whoopee (in which Hardy is a hotel doorman in what’s pretty obviously a parody of F. W. Murnau’s German silent classic The Last Laugh). Her real name was Harlean Carpenter but her movie name was Jean Harlow, and while her Midwestern U.S. snarl wasn’t that much more believable as a British accent than Greta Nissen’s voice would have been, she’s an electrifying screen presence not only visually — that platinum-blonde hair and those low-hanging outfits that hung uncertainly around her breasts and looked like wardrobe malfunctions waiting to happen — but also as a character.
In this genuinely “pre-Code film” — in which, among other delights, you can hear one of the pilots in the final sequence yell, “Son of a bitch!” at the German who comes to shoot him down — Harlow gets to play Helen with a cheery indifference towards morality in general and monogamy in particular. Monte successfully seduces her just to prove to Roy that she isn’t so good after all, and later, after the war has started and she’s volunteered to run a canteen serving the British army, she abandons both Rutledges and throws herself at the lieutenant who’s their commanding officer. Roy gets so upset at the whole thing — especially when he catches the two of them together in a private booth at a restaurant — he punches out the lieutenant. Ordinarily that would be a serious offense deserving of a court-martial, but neither the officers, the Rutledges themselves, nor Howard Hughes and his writers (the credits are Neilan and March for the original story, Howard Estabrook and Harry Behn for “adaptation,” and March for the dialogue) stop to notice that because in the meantime the Rutledges have been tabbed for what promises to be pretty much a suicide mission. The British have captured a German two-engined Gotha bombing plane (Hughes had been able to buy all the other planes he needed — in some cases modifying the first mass-produced U.S. plane, the Curtiss “Jenny,” to look like the Sopwith fighters flown by the British in the actual war — but he couldn’t find a Gotha bomber, so he got the original plans and had one built) and decide to use it to take out an ammunition dump and thereby deprive the German artillery of the ammo they need to repel the big advance the Brits are planning in that sector. By using a German plane they figure they can get close to the ammunition dump without the Germans shooting it down — though this also means that the pilots will be treated not as combatants but as spies, meaning the Germans will be perfectly within the rules of war to execute them. There’s a big argument between Monte, who wants to take this opportunity to desert, and Roy, who wants to fulfill the mission instead of turning traitor and letting down the British army, and they end up drinking and carousing until nearly the 4 a.m. flight time but showing up at the airfield much the worse for wear.
They take out the ammo dump — there’s some spectacular effects work here even though most of the blown-up “buildings” are obvious balsa-wood models) — but get forced down by Baron von Richtofen’s Flying Circus. (Richtofen is flying a two-wing Fokker rather than the famous three-winged one he used earlier in the war, but that’s historically accurate since the two-winged plane was newer and more maneuverable, and the real Richtofen made the switch for those reasons.) They crash-land over German territory, and guess who the German general in charge of their interrogation is? That’s right, Baron Von Krantz, the guy Monte Rutledge cuckolded in the opening sequence. Von Krantz says the Germans know a big attack against them is coming but offer to spare the Rutledges’ lives if they tell him where and when — and Roy, realizing that Monte is a coward and will thereby tell them, tricks Von Krantz into giving him a gun so he can shoot Monte (he’s got Krantz to believe it was Monte who’d be the hold-out) and then he’ll tell Von Krantz the secret. Of course, once Roy shoots Monte (and James Hall and Ben Lyon get a surprisingly homoerotic death scene — they seem to be slobbering all over each other and one half-expects them to kiss on the lips) he announces that he’ll never tell the secret, and he’s marched off to be dispatched by a German firing squad. The End. Hell’s Angels was one of the three films that set the clichés for future World War I aviation films (William Wellman’s Wings — the 1927 Academy Award winner for Best Production — and Howard Hawks’ 1930 Dawn Patrol were the others), and though Wings and Dawn Patrol are better movies Hell’s Angels is certainly good fun. The film’s weakest parts are the ones in which the servicemembers lament the carnage around them and wonder if the war is really right — it’s potentially powerful dramatic material (and if Mickey Neilan had been directing he probably could have done justice to it), but in Howard Hughes’ hands Monte’s anti-war arguments come off as just so much cowardly whining.
The best parts are the action scenes in the air, for which Hughes not only paid big bucks for every operable World War I-vintage aircraft he could find and every available pilot who could fly them, he kept his cast and crew waiting for days on end for suitably cloudy skies to supply the dark background for his heroic (and sometimes non-heroic) tale. He also went hysterical when Howard Hawks included in Dawn Patrol a scene in which a pilot, hit by machine-gun fire while in the air, coughs up blood; Hughes told him that Hell’s Angels had a similar scene and therefore he would sue if it appeared in Dawn Patrol. Hawks told Hughes, “You’re making movies for a hobby. I’m making movies for a living. My scene stays in.” Since Wings contains a similar scene, Hawks actually had grounds to defend it since both Wings and Dawn Patrol were written by John Monk Saunders, who’d actually flown in combat in World War I and made a good living writing film stories about it — if Hughes had sued, Hawks could always have said, “You ripped it off from us! My writer thought of it before yours did!” In some ways Hell’s Angels is a film ahead of its time — notably in the vast gap in interest and commitment between the action scenes and the plot bits that set them up — though it’s also badly dated in others, and one aspect that definitely marks it as an early talkie is the virtual absence of background music: the big aerial scenes are unscored and all we hear is the natural sounds of planes flying, diving and shooting at each other. One interesting aspect of Hell’s Angels is it contains a fairly long color sequence during a party at which Roy, Monte and Helen are all guests — accounts differ whether it’s in two-strip Technicolor or the short-lived Multicolor process Hughes was pushing as an alternative to it (though it would have made sense for Hughes to use his own in-house process the scene certainly looks like two-strip Technicolor to me) — and apparently the one print in which the color scene survived was given by Hughes to his close friend John Wayne and found among Wayne’s effects after he died by Wayne’s son Michael. It’s noteworthy as the only footage of Harlow in color ever shot — and, oddly, her hair looks less electrifying and more like that of a normal blonde than it does in her black-and-white films.