Saturday, April 21, 2018

Stubs - Hell's Angels

Hell’s Angels (1930) Starring: Ben Lyon, James Hall, Jean Harlow Directed by Howard Hughes with James Whale (uncredited) and Edmund Goulding (uncredited). Screenplay by Harry Behn, Howard Estabrook, and Joseph Moncure March (uncredited) Produced by Howard Hughes. Run Time 131 minutes USA Black and White w/ Color inserts. War. Melodrama

One of the first casualties of the coming of sound may be actress Greta Nissen, a Norwegian actress who had appeared in several Hollywood silent films. Originally hired to play Helen, the female lead of Howard Hughes’ big-budget production, Hell’s Angels. The critically acclaimed actress was with the production from its inception on October 31, 1927 and was involved until Hughes decided to get onboard the coming of sound and scrapped much of the film he’d already shot. While accents are not issues with silent films, they are with sound and Nissen’s was too noticeable for a film that up to that point was the most expensive film production to date.

Howard Robard Hughes Jr. was a lanky millionaire from Texas, who came to Hollywood after dropping out of Rice University. While Hughes’ fortune was inherited, his father’s Hughes Tool Company, he wanted to make his first splash in Hollywood. The first two films he produced, Everybody's Acting (1927) and Two Arabian Knights (1928), were financial and critical successes, the latter receiving the Academy Award for Best Director. His films The Racket (1928) and The Front Page (1931) were also nominated for Academy Awards for Best Picture, the latter also receiving nominations for Best Director and Best Actor.

The idea to film a World War I aviation picture was first suggested to Hughes by Marshall Neilan, an actor, director, producer, and writer, in the fall of 1926. The film was set to star Ben Lyon, James Hall, and Greta Nissen.

Ben Lyon had been in films since 1918 after finding success on the Broadway stage opposite Jeanne Eagels. He would develop into a leading man starring opposite such renowned silent era actresses as Pola Negri, Gloria Swanson, Colleen Moore, Barbara La Marr, Viola Dana, Anna Q. Nilsson, Mary Astor and Blanche Sweet.

James Hall hailed from Dallas, Texas and had been acting in films since 1923’s Man Alone. His sound debut had come in The Canary Murder Case (1929), opposite William Powell and Louise Brooks.

Neilan would be the film’s first director when production began at Metropolitan Studio. But Neilan didn’t last long and left the production because of Hughes’ overbearing techniques.

Luther Reed, a director from Paramount, was the next to take the helm, but he didn’t last long either, quitting in January 1928 again because of Hughes’ annoying interference.

After Reed’s departure, Hughes decided to direct the film himself, taking special interest in the air sequences of the film. For the film, he personally acquired forty warplanes, many authentic fighters from World War I. Over the next three years, the production was plagued by a number of fatal and near-fatal accidents. In three separate air tragedies, two pilots and one assistant were killed.

When finished, the silent version of Hell’s Angels was previewed in March 1929 and did not fare well. At the urging of co- but uncredited director James Whale, Hughes scrapped the entire film and reshot it as a sound picture. The rewrite fell to MGM’s Joseph Moncure March, who thought that the original silent film was "depressingly bad."

Shooting began again in September 1929 without a female lead. Hughes auditioned many women as a replacement for Greta Nissen including June Collyer, Ann Harding, Carole Lombard (then known as Carol Peters) and Dorothy Mackaill. It was Lyon who introduced Hughes to Jean Harlow after picking out the 18-year-old actress out of a chorus line performing on a nearby sound stage.

Whale, who was new to Hollywood, would work closely with Harlow, even shutting down production for three days so that he could get the performance out of her that he wanted. Whale, who would not receive credit on the final film, handled dialogue scenes while Hughes would concentrate on the aerial scenes and dogfights.

The final scene of the film was shot on December 7, 1929, and involved 1700 extras. The entire production involved 20,000 extras and a total of 2,254,760 feet of film (about 560 hours) that were shot and developed, the largest amount of negative discarded for a single film.

The film begins with three Oxford students vacationing together in Munich, Germany; Roy Rutledge (James Hall), his brother Monte (Ben Lyon) and their German-born classmate Karl Arnstedt (John Darrow).

Roy and Karl are waiting in a beer garden for Monte, who arrives with a woman clinging to him. Unlike his brother, Roy has already found love with Helen (Jean Harlow) and has no interest in other women. Monte begs his brother and Karl to take the woman off his hands, as he has another engagement to attend to.

Roy shows Karl a photo of Helen (Jean Harlow), the woman he loves.

His other engagement is with a married woman, the Baroness von Krantz (Jane Winton), who thinks her husband, Baron von Krantz (Lucien Prival), is out on military business, but he arrives home early and catches the two lovers. The Baron does not get angry, but rather challenges Monte to a duel.

Baron von Krantz (Lucien Prival) challenges Monte (Ben Lyon) to a
duel when he catches him with his wife (Jane Winton).

Monte’s first reaction is to run and he is packing his bags when Roy comes back to the hotel. Monte doesn’t tell Roy why he’s leaving in such a hurry and is gone by the time the Baron’s seconds arrive to make final arrangements for the duel. Roy upholds his brother’s honor by taking his place in the duel.

In a tinted color scene, we see the duel from a distance as the Baron shoots but only wounds Roy.

The Baron shoots Roy (James Hall), unaware he's not the man he challenged.

Back at school, there is talk of war. Karl speaks openly about not wanting to fight against the British. Meanwhile, Roy takes Monte to meet his girl, Helen, but when they get to her house, she’s out and Monte doesn’t have the patience to wait to meet her. Roy though stays, what seems to be hours, to see her.

Roy takes Monte to meet Helen, only to find out that she's out.

When war does break out, Karl is called back to Germany and Roy enlists with the Royal Fighting Corps. Monte, who seems to have a cowardly streak, wants nothing to do with it, but ends up enlisting accidentally in order to get a kiss from a pretty girl being used to lure men to enlist.

Roy, who is anxious for Monte to meet Helen, finally gets his wish at a Charity Ball given by Lady Randolph (Evelyn Hall) which he also helped organize.

Helen is obviously taken with Monte when they're introduced by Roy.

Helen is obviously taken with Monte and uses her considerable charms on him. Roy keeps getting called away, which allows Helen more opportunity to snare Monte. She asks him to take her home and while there slips out of her slinky dress into something more comfortable, a loose-fitting dressing gown. Monte thinks twice but, in the end, can’t resist her.

Helen makes her play for Monte.

The Germans mount an attack on London using one of their Zeppelins, whose commander (Carl von Haartman) uses Karl as the spotter. Not wanting to see London destroyed, Karl leads them to an unpopulated lake area which he convinces his commander is right about Trafalgar Square. The Zeppelin unloads all of its missiles, which explode harmlessly in the lake below.

German-born classmate Karl Arnstedt (John Darrow) is used as the spotter for the
attack, but feeds his commander bad information to save London.

The British are not too unaware and send up several planes, including one with both Rutledge brothers flying it. The Zeppelin tries to outrun their pursuers and when they are not getting the speed and height their commander wants, they start to get rid of excess weight, starting with Karl, whose observation gondola is thought to be slowing them down and would take too long to retrieve.

Karl is the first to be sacrificed in an effort to save the zeppelin.

When they are still too heavy, all excess equipment is thrown overboard. And when they need to go even lighter, men volunteer to jump to their deaths in order to keep the zeppelin from falling into enemy hands.

German soldiers jump to their deaths to keep the Zeppelin from being shot down.

While the Rutledge brothers are shot down, Roy manages to land the plane. They have a view of the Zeppelin which is struck down when one of the British fighters crashes into it. The Rutledges narrowly escape harm when the burning wreckage falls to Earth on top of their stranded plane.

The Zeppelin gets struck by a plane and catches fire before falling to Earth.

The brothers are sent to France, where Helen is also working in Lady Randolph's Canteen. Roy goes to see her there and she is openly flirting with another man.

Back at their base, Monte pretends to be ill to get out of Night Patrol, a duty that always seems to cost someone their life. Monte wants nothing to do with the war and openly says so in front of the other pilots in the mess hall.

Somewhat surprisingly when superiors are looking for two volunteers for a dangerous mission behind enemy lines, Monte is the first to volunteer. Not wanting to let his brother go on alone, Roy also volunteers. The mission is to fly a captured German bomber over the enemy’s munitions dump. The goal is to fly the plane back but in event of being shot down, they are to destroy the plane. And, if they are captured, they will be shot as spies since they will be pretending to be German pilots rather than enemy combatants.

The brothers find Helen in a backroom with another man.

On their last night, the boys are given freedom to do whatever they want. Roy wants to see Helen but when he gets to the canteen he’s told that she’s out. He leaves her a note and then joins Monte when they go to a nearby café. There, in the back room, they see Helen with another man. They are both drunk and affectionate. When Roy tries to get the other man to leave, Helen informs him that she’s never loved him and tells him to get out.

Helen tells Roy that she never loved him and to get out.

The brothers retreat to a bar across the street where they get drunk with two French girls. Monte tries to encourage Roy to forget about Helen. The brothers keep drinking and the closer it gets to their time to report, the more Monte talks about not wanting to go. But Roy won’t hear of it and drags his brother away and back to base.

While Roy flies, Monte lines up the bombs.

While the mission is initially successful, their bombing is witnessed by Von Richter (William von Brinken), who is commanding his Flying Circus. They attack the bomber which is trying to outrun them. The plane is hit by machine gun fire but continues to fly. Finally, a contingency of British fighters appear and take on the Germans. A large-scale dogfight takes place in which both sides lose planes. But when it looks like the Rutledge brothers might get away, Von Richter sweeps down and shoots the bomber down.

British fighters come to the Rutledges' rescue.

The plane crashes and burns but the Rutledge brothers survive. They are taken to a military prison run by Baron von Krantz, who recognizes Monte but not Roy. Despite their duel, the two never actually met. Von Krantz is interested in the position of the British troops and airplanes. If the boys cooperate, von Krantz promises them they will be sent to a POW camp near Munich where they can wait out the war in relative comfort. If they don’t it is the firing squad that awaits them. He gives them fifteen minutes to discuss.

The brothers are captured and taken to see General von Krantz.

It should come as no surprise that Monte wants to talk, but Roy talks him into letting him speak with von Krantz. Roy doesn’t reveal that the two men are brothers and instead tells von Krantz that they are rivals for the same girl. He says he’ll talk if von Krantz lets him kill the other pilot, a request the General agrees to.

Roy lies to von Krantz about his relationship with Monte.

Monte is all too willing to talk to spare himself. Seeing no other alternative, Roy shoots and kills his brother with the one bullet the General gave him. After watching his brother die, Roy is taken back to the General, who is surprised to learn the men were brothers. Roy refuses to talk and is taken away to be executed before a firing squad.

Roy stays with Monte while he dies.

The brothers' sacrifice is not in vain, however, for their brigade's attack on the Germans is a complete success.

The total budget of the film was reportedly $4 million, per Hughes, but in truth was closer to $2.8 million. Still a lot of money in its day, but far less than the $4 million M-G-M spent on Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ (1925). Hell’s Angels premiered on May 27, 1930, with a huge fanfare at Grauman’s Chinese Theater but wasn’t released to the public until November 15, 1930. The film was a box-office success, making nearly $2.5 million in rentals. However, considering it took in less than it cost to make, it lost money for its wealthy producer.

Hells Angel's premiere at Grauman's Chinese Theater.

While the film has some spectacular scenes, they aren’t necessarily as involving as say similar scenes in Wings (1927) were. In Wings, the actors actually flew the planes they were in. That is not the case here. The dogfights, while enormous, are for the most part not all that exciting. Too many long shots of small planes against enormous cloud formations.

Impressive but involving dogfights.

There are some really interesting shots in the film, like seeing a Zeppelin falling down with the camera underneath it. And the pyrotechnics, no doubt real explosions, are spectacular as well. But for a war film, there is relatively little war footage. Hell’s Angels is, after all, more melodrama than action.

Fairly impressive pyrotechnics.

The film has remnants of its silent roots, including the use of tinted scenes, like the violet hues used during the early morning duel scene or the use of blue tints during obvious nighttime shots. There is actually a color sequence in the film. The party where Helen falls in love with Monte was shot in a two-strip process called Multicolor, though the actual sequence was printed by Technicolor. (Multicolor was not prepared to print the number of inserts needed for the wide release Hughes wanted.) This would turn out to be the only time Jean Harlow would ever be seen in color in a film that wasn’t colorized.

Hell's Angels is the only film to feature Jean Harlow in color.

It should also be remembered that this is a pre-code film, meaning there is some fairly frank sexuality, and a surprising amount of adult language (for the time). During the final dogfight sequence, you can hear such phrases as "son of a bitch", "goddamn it", and "for Christ's sake", along with the words "ass", "hell", and a few uses of "God" in other scenes. These were not common on the screen then and would not become a staple of films until the MPAA Rating system was adopted in 1968 and films could be rated according to the language used.

Despite the setting, the story itself is sort of mundane. None of the actors, including Harlow, really burn up the screen with their acting prowess or develop beyond being one-dimensional characters. Harlow was in fact, called out by New York Times critic, Mourdant Hall. In his review, Hall says that while the overall film is “absorbing and exciting. But while she is the center of attraction, the picture is a most mediocre piece of work."

Jean Harlow at the beginning of her career still exudes sex appeal.

That criticism is a little harsh. I don’t think her shortcomings as a leading lady in Hell’s Angels is really her fault, so to speak. This was, after all, her first major role. She’s only 18 with very little experience acting. It’s not her fault that she might have been thrust into the limelight before she was ready just because she’s pretty. Despite the critical reviews, Harlow became a star based on the film. She does exude sex, especially when wearing her barely-there gown at the party. She has the same platinum blonde hair that would help make her a star at MGM, though her eyebrows would be thinner than they are here. While her acting was oftentimes a little stiff, that would not keep her from becoming an icon in American culture, even though she died when she was only 26.

Her impact is somewhat reflected in the story of Ben Lyons, her co-star and the man who discovered her. While he received generally positive reviews for his performance as Monte, his career began to wane and he went to work on the business-side at 20th Century Fox in the mid-1940s. On July 17, 1946, he met a young aspiring actress named Norma Jeane Dougherty. After their first meeting, he stated that she was "Jean Harlow all over again!”.  He organized a color screen test for her, renamed her, and finally signed her as Marilyn Monroe to her first studio contract. Talk about a man with a good eye for beauty, as he discovered arguably the two most iconic actresses in Hollywood history.

James Hall’s career in films ended in 1932, with Manhattan Tower, when he went to work in vaudeville. By the time of his death in 1940 at the age of 39, he had basically fallen into obscurity. Hall is part of one of the most powerful scenes in the film. Roy feels that for the greater good of the war effort he has to kill his own brother. No doubt Monte would have done just about anything to save his life and Roy finds it in himself to kill the brother he’s been looking after and cleaning up after his whole life.

Even though he has a relatively small part, Lucien Prival’s appearance as Baron von Krantz provides bookends for the film. It is a nice touch to have the husband of Monte’s lover be the one who gets to decide his and Roy’s future. Even though he’s not in this film, Prival’s performance as von Krantz predates how many Nazis would be depicted in World War II films.

While I prefer Wings, I am glad to have finally seen Hell’s Angels and would recommend it to anyone interested in early sound films or anyone who is a fan of World War I themed films. Though flawed there is still a lot to like and there are some spectacular shots. To top it off, you get to see a young and still learning Jean Harlow.

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