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Hell Divers

Hell Divers(1932)

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teaser Hell Divers (1932)

The famous WWI movie What Price Glory (1926), with its story of an adversarial friendship between two soldiers, was officially remade in 1952, but unofficially it came around many times again. One of those loose remakes was Hell Divers (1931). Clark Gable and Wallace Beery play Navy air force officers and boisterous rivals who are constantly squabbling but deep down really like each other. Things turn serious when they wind up stranded on a tiny island and try to contact the mainland for a rescue.

The action is plentiful throughout, and the aerial sequences are especially thrilling, even today. The picture was made with the cooperation of the U.S. Navy and was shot on the aircraft carrier Saratoga and on North Island, Panama. Critics dismissed it ("There is no story," said The Hollywood Reporter), but the film was very successful commercially. And it did have a story, credited to Frank "Spig" Wead. Wead was a WWI flying ace-turned-writer whose interesting life story would later be told by director John Ford in The Wings of Eagles (1957), a movie that even incorporates a clip of Hell Divers.

This was Gable's eighth film for MGM in 1931 alone. He had started as a bit player earlier that year and by Hell Divers, he was a star. Beery was still the bigger star at this point, however, especially since he had just finished work on The Champ (1931), for which he would win the Best Actor Oscar®. Gable did not care much for Beery or this film, but he did research the role by hanging out with Navy men. One little quirk he learned was that the Navy fliers never took a lemon twist with their gin but rather had a slice of lemon on the side, biting the lemon between gulps. Gable picked up the habit himself for years after this film.

Director George Hill was a very imaginative filmmaker whose silent-era experience as a cameraman led to visually atmospheric talkies as a director, such as The Big House (1930) and The Secret Six (1931). He was married to screenwriter Frances Marion for three years and collaborated with her many times. We'll never know what gems his talent might have produced, for after Hell Divers he completed only one more picture, Clear All Wires (1933), before committing suicide at his beach house. (He had begun pre-production on The Good Earth; director Sidney Franklin took over and the film, starring Paul Muni, became a classic.)

Supporting actress Marie Prevost died gruesomely only six years after this film. A silent screen star who had appeared in three sparkling Ernst Lubitsch comedies (including 1924's The Marriage Circle), she had trouble transitioning to talkies due to her strong accent (she was raised in Canada), developed weight problems, and fell into bit parts in the 1930s while turning to the bottle. Broke, she died of alcoholism and malnutrition in her run-down Hollywood apartment, and her body wasn't discovered for two days, during which time, according to Kenneth Anger in Hollywood Babylon, her starving dog had nibbled on her corpse.

Prevost's co-stars would have happier futures. Dorothy Jordan, who appears here as Gable's love interest, retired in 1933 to marry producer Merian C. Cooper, and made a brief comeback in the 1950s to play small roles in three John Ford films - including the wife still in love with John Wayne in The Searchers (1956). Cliff Edwards, who plays the character "Baldy," would go on to supply the voice of Jiminy Cricket in Pinocchio (1940) and sing the Oscar®-winning "When You Wish Upon a Star." Also in the cast is future star Robert Young in a bit role as a sailor.

Producer: George W. Hill
Director: George W. Hill
Screenplay: Frank Wead (story), Harvey Gates, Malcolm Stuart Boylan, James Kevin McGuinness, Ralph Graves
Cinematography: Harold Wenstrom
Film Editing: Blanche Sewell
Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons
Music: Sarah Adams, General Daniel Butterfield, Lowell Mason, J.L. Molloy, Charles A. Zimmerman
Cast: Wallace Beery (CPO H.W. Riker), Clark Gable (CPO Steve Nelson), Conrad Nagel (D.W. Johnson), Dorothy Jordan (Ann Mitchell), Marjorie Rambeau (Mame Kelsey), Marie Prevost (Mrs. Lulu Farnsworth).
BW-110m. Closed captioning.

by Jeremy Arnold

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