Hell’s Angels: the perils of plot vs. action

Hells Angels Howard Hughes 8

This post is my contribution to the World War One is Classic Film blogathon, hosted by the fabulous Silent-ology and Movies Silently.

The story behind Hell’s Angels (1930), Howard Hughes’ long-in-the-making WWI epic, is almost more interesting than the film itself. It cost more than $4,000,000 to produce (making it the most expensive film of its time) and was almost entirely reshot – the original silent version was shelved because, just as it was ready for release, sound took over Hollywood. Every aspect of the film is epic – from the number of extras (reportedly more than 20,000) to the air battle scenes. Hughes, all-consumed by notions of authenticity and realism, purchased more than forty warplanes to use, in the process becoming the proprietor of the largest privately-owned military aircraft fleet in the world. He used his flying experience to choreograph the fight scenes and even piloted the plane during one particularly dangerous manoeuvre, after Paul Mantz (the film’s principal stunt pilot) refused to participate. Hughes was rewarded with a skull fracture (and facial surgery) for his efforts but must’ve considered himself lucky: four airmen lost their lives in connection with the film.

Hells Angels Howard Hughes 1

In contemporary cinema, the ‘epic’ moniker is overused and misplaced, thrown at summer blockbusters and star director-led movies. But Hughes understood the potential power and meaning of cinematic ‘epics’, and was determined to produce a war film that showed off his filmmaking credentials but also left moviegoing audiences in awe. In some instances he succeeded. Even to the modern eye, the war scenes are spectacular – especially those in the German-controlled Zeppelin and the dog fighting scenes. But in many others ways, he failed. Hughes was too close to the project to recognise its flaws; a labour of love, the movie was so much a part of him that any criticism was likely taken as a personal affront. Many of the early scenes are short, awkward and superfluous, and much of the acting is stilted and wooden.

The plot is almost secondary and tangential, and certainly doesn’t win any prizes for originality. Following the outbreak of WWI, two brothers (played James Hall and Ben Lyon) with very different temperaments abandon their studies at Oxford and enlist in the Royal Flying Corps (RFC). Sensible brother Ray (Hall) is besotted with the promiscuous socialite Helen (Jean Harlow) who enjoys a fling with his sibling Monte (Lyon) and several other officers. Before the two leave for a dangerous ‘suicide mission’ over Germany, Ray discovers Helen in the arms of another man, only for her to reveal she never loved him. During the mission, the brothers plane is shot down, and the duo are captured by a German commander (Lucien Prival) who’d previously been cuckolded by Monte. He offers them freedom – if they’ll reveal the details of the next British air attack.

Hells Angels Howard Hughes

Hells Angels Howard Hughes

Hell’s Angels was Jean Harlow’s breakout role, and is the only colour footage that exists of the star. Harlow replaced Greta Nissen, the original female lead, whom Hughes felt wasn’t fit for a ‘talkie’ version; reportedly Hughes decided on Harlow after being introduced to her by leading man Ben Lyon, who picked the actress out of a group of dancers who were performing at a nearby sound stage. Although Harlow had previously had a handful of uncredited roles she was by no means an experienced actress, and co-director James Whale struggled to get a polished performance – in many of the shots Harlow gazes at the camera and, for a film set in England, her accent is remarkably American (although she’s not the only character guilty of this). In some ways Harlow’s inexperience allowed her to deliver some lines guilelessly, including the famous ‘would you be shocked if I put on something more comfortable?’. She was clearly comfortable portraying an openly promiscuous character (remember, Hell’s Angels is Pre-Code) who returns the male gaze with a bold and direct stare yet brings an joyous energy to some of the films quieter scenes. In terms of characterisation, Harlow’s Helen is ahead of her time: she’s willing to use the war to get ahead, and is quick to take advantage of the situation to behave like a man in peace-time. Her predatory and vampish traits are undercut by her angelic face and halo of blonde hair – surely someone so beautiful could never sin?

Hells Angels Howard Hughes

Hells Angels Howard Hughes

Harlow contributes to the eccentric energy that pervades much of the movie. Hughes was essentially an independent, self-financed filmmaker who was working in a fledgling industry; templates for talkies were yet to be established, allowing Hughes to follow his own creative vision – maybe not always successfully, but it was this early experimentation that shaped future tropes and ideas. Aged just 22 when production began in 1927, Hughes was young, confident and determined to do filmmaking his way. There’s a sense that Hughes is trying to prove something to himself and to Hollywood – Hell’s Angels is a lavish, no-expense-spared production that was the best it could be. And whilst it’s easy to dismiss the human elements – mostly because they’re the worst part – props to Hughes for attempting to create a film that blends action and bravado with quieter reflection. But this decision was almost the film’s downfall: by focusing on both the individual and the overreaching social experience of war, Hughes took on too much and, as a result, the film is a complex muddle of the personal and the universal. The small and intimate vignettes that punctuate the ‘action’ (Germans drinking and eating, students enjoying ‘high jinks’ at Oxford) add depth and contrast, but seem out of place and interrupt the pace of the film.

Hells Angels Howard Hughes

Hells Angels Howard Hughes 6
Hell’s Angels premiere at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, May 24 1930

Hell’s Angels wasn’t an immediate box office success, and critical reaction was lukewarm. Enthused by the aerial scenes, film critics were less impressed by the plot and the acting. Morduant Hall at the New York Times was particularly dismissive: ‘In every instance so soon as the producer forgets Helen, the flaxen-haired creature, and takes to the war, his film is absorbing and exciting.’ Despite this, the film went on to earn more than double its production cost. Whilst that must’ve been vindication for Hughes, it’s likely that box office receipts and revenue were of little consequence. He was wealthy enough to make films to the sake of it, and the creative process (along with the chance to invest in and be at the forefront of) technological innovation was his motivation.


28 thoughts on “Hell’s Angels: the perils of plot vs. action

  1. The age of a director is not something I usually give much thought to and I had no clue Hughes was only 22 when he made this!

    Enjoyed reading this, and learned a lot about the production that I didn’t know before. I’ll have to give the film a re-watch soon!

    1. It certainly made me think about him in a new light; perhaps he deserves more credit than he’s often given. There’s so much in the backstory that I didn’t mention too!

  2. Ha! Mordaunt Hall strikes again. “Why are they showing Jean Harlow? What’s up with that?” I can’t imagine, Mr. Hall.

    Thanks so much for joining in the event with this wonderful review. You’re right, what an intriguing background story!

  3. What a great post! Hell’s Angels is a good early example of one of those films that’s big on spectacle and short on plot and character development–the former alone does not a masterpiece make (although it can make the experience of the film more exciting!). I, too, was taken aback when reading that Hughes was 22 when he started making this film. I know a lot of directors back then were young, but DANG.

    I was wondering if you’d include that clip from the premiere–and there it is! Buster Keaton fans, take note: YOU MUST WATCH THAT CLIP. There’s another version of it without a narrator where you get to hear the stars talk, too!

    1. Ah I must look for the clip without the narration! It’s so rare that you hear stars from that era talk as ‘themselves’. I’m actually surprised that Hell’s Angels is as cohesive as it is, considering its unusual road to release, but it’s certainly a flawed masterpiece.
      I guess Hughes’ age gave him the confidence he needed to just go for it – I’d never thought about him as an indie filmmaker before, but that’s what he was – albeit a well financed one!

  4. Excellent look at at this flawed but still must-see epic. The aerial sequences are still stunning today (and frightening as hell in some shots where it’s CLEAR that actual danger was in play) and yes, the main reason for watching this. I’d actually LOVE to see the original silent version just to see if the acting was better without the dialog. The acting and plot are the weakest links here, though, so I’d guess I’d still be disappointed to some extent. Then again, it may have worked better that way. And 22? WOW. That sort of partially explains Hughes’ thinking he was invincible enough to push through a near-entire re-shoot (who did he think he was, Chaplin? 😀 ) no studio would have stood for.

    1. So glad you enjoyed reading the post! The aerial scenes actually had me on the edge of my seat – I don’t know what I was expecting but it certainly wasn’t such suspense (although maybe for the wrong reasons!). And I’m sure somewhere in his mind Hughes was convinced he was making a film on a par with Chaplin – he had that kind of confidence!

  5. Excellent post. BTW, Jean Harlow was *never* shy about acting promiscuously. Most of Laurel and Hardy’s filmography is pretty sedate, but watch Harlow in their silent short “Double Whoopee,” in which she spends a glorious 30 seconds traipsing pretty-close-to-naked across a hotel lobby.

    1. Thanks for the recommendation – I’ll keep an eye out for that! Funny how she could look so innocent (border-line angelic). I guess it’s always the quiet ones…!

  6. Wonderful review – the significance of this film is truly epic in so many ways. Harlow, for all of her inexperience, is the only think you can look at when she is on screen.

    1. I agree, although whether that’s all the result of her luminosity or a reflection of the wooden acting displayed by Lyon and Hall is up for debate 😉 Thanks for reading!

  7. Great review. Harlow’s promiscuous, direct character was certainly ahead of her time. While I found the scenes incredibly boring, some of the photography, such as the duel, was still brilliant. However, the movie really comes into its own during the aerial scenes. The movie may not work as a complete story, but some parts are stunning, especially the entire disturbing sequence on the zeppelin.

      1. The duel scene was an unexpected and welcome distraction from the early scenes’ tedium. I wasn’t expecting it and it certainly made me look at the film in a new light (and persuaded me to keep on watching). I can’t stop thinking about the Zeppelin scene, it was truly heartbreaking!

  8. I haven’t seen this one but Jean looks gorgeous in the pictures you posted. I wonder how many other movies have both a silent and talking version like Hell’s Angels? The only one I can think of is The Unholy Three with Lon Chaney.

    1. That’s a good question – I’ll have to do some research! I haven’t actually seen The Unholy Three but I’d like to see see the comparison. We take so much about filmmaking for granted now, it’s so important to consider the early experimenters and pioneers! Thanks for reading

  9. I can never get into this film and I’m ashamed to say I’ve never sat through it. But your post has changed my mind. With the information you’ve presented, I’m actually keen to see this from a different perspective. 🙂

  10. That was a nice essay on a film that is all over the place. Personally, I watch it for Jean Harlow and the airplanes. Hughes tried hard to produce movies that were a cut above, like Scarface. I’m not sure he made it here, but is fascinating to watch. Thanks for sharing with all of us.

  11. I watched this movie last night and was mesmerized. The battle scenes are breathtaking, and I must say the same about Jean Harlow in Technicolor: too much beauty and sexiness at only 20! A really beautiful and powerful movie. THe plot may not be outstanding,but I must say I was rooting for all three (Karl, Roy and Monte) to survive the war. By the way, Monte’s death scene gave me chills.
    And, well, since I’ll be 22 next year, I think it’s time to buy 40 planes to shoot my own epic!
    Thanks for the kind comment!

    1. I agree that Monte’s death scene is probably the most emotional in the entire film. You could feel the respect between the two, and that surprised me – especially as so much of the other acting is wooden at best. I look forward to your endeavour – I hope you have Hughes’ finances too 😉

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