Hell's Angels (1930)
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Considering all the hassles that went into making Hell's Angels (1930), it's amazing that producer Howard Hughes and distributor United Artists ended up with such a hit on their hands. And a lucky thing that was for its teenage female lead, appearing in her first substantial role. Luck definitely seemed to be on Jean Harlow's side at this point in her life and career. A year earlier she was almost bumped from her first notable part in the Clara Bow vehicle The Saturday Night Kid (1929). Bow, the leading sex symbol and flapper icon of the late 1920s, was losing her grip on the box office (not to mention her waistline) and didn't want the voluptuous blonde upstart drawing attention away from her. But she and Harlow soon warmed to each other, and Bow proved to be a generous supporter of the younger actress. Still, the movie did little to advance Jean's fortunes, and she floundered in uncredited bit parts until her reputed one-time lover, actor James Hall, introduced her to a lanky, eccentric Texas millionaire who was determined to become a major Hollywood player.
Howard Hughes had been at work since 1927 on his first major screen effort, a picture he intended to rival the hit aviator flick (and first Best Picture Oscar winner) Wings (1927). A year and a half into the production of Hell's Angels, Hughes had lost his wife (to divorce), two stunt pilots and a mechanic (killed filming the movie's stunning aerial sequences), two directors (Marshall Neilan and Luther Reed; Howard Hawks and Edmund Goulding were also among those said to have worked on it), and more than $2 million. And he still had roughly 2 million feet of unedited silent footage in a market that virtually overnight was clamoring for talkies. Rather than scrap the whole thing, Hughes decided to add sound to the air footage and re-shoot the dialogue sequences. That was bad news for the film's leading lady, Greta Nissen, a Norwegian dumped from the sound version because of her very thick accent, and good news for Jean Harlow, a fresh face on the Hollywood scene who took the opportunity to make a real impression on audiences and reviewers - at least for her looks and sex appeal, if not for what many called her "awful" acting.
Harlow, known in those pre-Code days for appearing sans lingerie, was cast rather improbably as a British siren who comes between two aviator brothers fighting the Germans in World War I. Hughes dressed his starlet in gowns with highly revealing necklines, causing endless arguments with censors. Harlow also got to deliver one of the most memorable lines in cinema history when she asked co-star Ben Lyon (an experienced pilot in real life) if he would be shocked if she slipped into "something more comfortable." Immortal as the words have become, Harlow thought it "the corniest line in movie history." That wasn't the only downside of her first big break in the movies. Hughes, who had taken over direction of the film at this point, brought in British James Whale, soon to become famous as the director of Frankenstein (1931), to helm the dramatic sequences, but Whale found it impossible to guide Harlow toward anything resembling a decent performance. By most accounts of those on the set, she was "one of the world's worst actresses." Hughes even tried his hand at directing her in a few scenes, to little avail. But he did attempt to make use of her more obvious assets by filming some of her scenes in color, which required exceptionally intense lighting. Forced to stand under those harsh lights 16 hours a day and generally abused by her directors, Harlow developed "Klieg eyes" (burned eyeballs) and a bad case of nerves and insecurity. Her gratitude and excitement at being signed to a long-term contract by Hughes soon gave way to bitter disappointment, as her producer ignored her and her career and eventually sold her contract to MGM, where she would earn millions and reign as the decade's leading sex goddess and one of the most beloved performers until her untimely death in 1937.
The love triangle plot of Hell's Angels is certainly secondary to the action sequences, and for all the troubles during shooting, the flying sequences remain spectacular, even by today's computer-generated standards. (Cinematographers Tony Gaudio and Harry Perry were nominated for their work.) After some stunt men were killed, the remaining pilots refused to perform a dangerous aerial sequence Hughes demanded. An expert pilot himself, Hughes did his own flying, getting the shot but crashing the plane and breaking several bones in the process. But with some amazing footage already in the can, and determined to make his mark in Hollywood, the millionaire playboy spared no expense, shooting roughly 250 feet of film for every foot that was used in the final cut and running costs up to nearly $4 million. He went all out promoting it, too, staging what is still the largest movie premiere ever. A mob of 50,000 people (Hughes's company claimed it was half a million) lined Hollywood Boulevard leading up to Grauman's Chinese Theater, May 27, 1930. The street was illuminated by 185 arc lights Hughes rented at a cost of $14,000. Scalpers sold $11 tickets for $50, and an actual fighter squadron flew overhead. By the time the film was scheduled to start, the crowd was swarming the limos of celebrity guests, forcing the overwhelmed Los Angeles Police Department to call the National Guard for back up. (Was this the inspiration for the movie premiere riot at the end of Nathaniel West's 1939 novel, The Day of the Locust?) Harlow, appearing all in white two hours later, made a lasting impression that helped further her career more than her limited acting abilities at that time ever could. Although a popular success, Hell's Angels was nowhere near able to recoup its staggering costs on its initial release.
Director: Howard Hughes, James Whale
Producer: Howard Hughes
Screenplay: Harry Behn, Howard Estabrook, Joseph Moncure March, from a story by March and Marshall Neilan
Cinematography: Tony Gaudio, Elmer Dyer, Harry Perry, E. Burton Steene, Dewey Wrigley, Harry Zech
Editing: Douglass Biggs, Frank Lawrence, Perry Hollingsworth
Art Direction: Carroll Clark, Julian Boone Fleming
Original Music: Hugo Riesenfeld
Cast: Ben Lyon (Monte Rutledge), James Hall (Roy Rutledge), Jean Harlow (Helen), John Darrow (Karl Armstedt), Lucien Prival (Baron von Kranz), Frank Clarke (Lt. Von Bruen), Roy Wilson (Baldy Maloney).
by Rob Nixon