Hell's Angels (1930)

Rating: ***
Review Date: 7/9/12
Producer: Howard Hughes
Director: Howard Hughes
Cast: Ben Lyon, James Hall, Jean Harlow

A story of two brothers who join the R.A.F. during World War I, and the venomous seductress who comes between them. The film is awkward and tedious for most of the first half, but it's redeemed by an amazing aerial battle with a German zeppelin, and a jaw-dropping aerial dogfight finale featuring dozens of planes in the air. The aerial cinematography is stunning and the flight choreography is amazing (and harrowing). Sadly, several stunt pilots died during the making of the film, which was the most expensive film ever made at the time. And in true Howard Hughes form, when his stunt team refused to perform a particularly dangerous stunt, Hughes performed it himself instead, crashing his plane and breaking his collarbone in the process. In addition to the impressive and highly realistic flying scenes, the miniature zeppelin effects are extremely well done and the bombing raid on the German ammunition depot features some of the best explosions ever captured on film. They really blew up a lot of stuff and it looks absolutely marvelous.

Shot almost entirely in black and white, and re-shot with the recent advent of sound, the actors are definitely a bit out of their element. They steadily improve as the film progresses, but things get ridiculously melodramatic and over-the-top towards the end, culminating in a protracted death scene that you think will never end. As a result of the re-shooting, eighteen year old Jean Harlow was cast in the role of Helen, since the original actress had an inappropriate Norwegian accent. She also wears an impossibly low cut dress, which even by today's standards would be scandalous. The pre-Hayes Code script is also surprising, featuring swearing, bloodshed, and an extremely casual attitude towards sex. Even more shocking is that the entire ball sequence was shot in multicolor, which is both fascinating and surreal, and is the only existing color footage of Ms. Harlow. Unfortunately, even with the huge budget and all of the technical advances of the time, the film still suffers from awkward pacing and questionable editing. Considered by many to be the first blockbuster action film ever made, fans of aviation and military history will surely be pleased. And like many action blockbusters, it's probably best to just jump straight to the good parts.