“Hell’s Angels”, the first film directed by Howard Hughes, is one of the most remarkable unremarkable films you will likely ever see.
If you have seen “The Aviator”, you know a little about the production of this film. Hughes, who suffered from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, was a rich man when he arrived in Hollywood, ready to conquer the industry. He labored over every frame, spending a lot of his own money and taking a lot of time to make sure every frame was just right. Just as the film was ready to be released, sound was introduced to movie screens with “The Jazz Singer”. Hughes decided that he needed to reshoot the entire film in sound. Adding more money and time to his production schedule. The film was finally released in 1930 and caused a sensation. More on that later.
The story is about two brothers, Monty and Roy, and their German friend, Karl, all of whom are attending Oxford just before World War I begins. A few months earlier, on a trip to Germany, Roy is caught having an affair with the wife of Baron Von Kranz. Challenging him to a duel, the Baron expects to see Roy at sunrise. However, Roy flees back to Oxford. Monty decides to uphold the family values and fight in his place, getting wounded. They return to Oxford, where Monty begins romancing Helen (Harlow). As soon as war is declared, Karl is yanked back to Germany and all three become members of their respective country’s air forces. You can probably guess what will happen throughout the remainder of the narrative. We have all seen variations of this narrative a hundred times since.
“Hell’s Angels” is remarkable for two reasons. The first are the aerial battles. As documented in Scorcese’s film, Hughes was obsessed with making these two scenes realistic, terrifying and memorable. He succeeds. The first involves a Hindenburg airship flying towards London. The RAF, and the brothers, get word of the ship approaching and set off to destroy it. These scenes are remarkably realistic. Considering the film was made before 1930, it is difficult to tell which parts of the scenes were shot using real people and which, if any, were shot using special effects. We get the sense that we are actually on the flight deck on an airship as the German officers try to determine where to drop their bombs. The first shot of the airship coming out of a bank of clouds, tinted dark blue for night, will be an image that I remember for a long time. It almost seemed like visual poetry.
The second scene involves two squadrons of flyers, one British, the other German, fighting it out in the air. This is the scene Hughes was making during the beginning of “The Aviator”. If we are to believe that film, this was shot with real airplanes, actors, and cameras. And it is also amazing. It has a different sort of visual poetry to it, but it is no less effective than the previous scene. The planes flying around, fighting, dropping through clouds (“We need clouds.” “There are clouds in Oakland.”), is fantastic to watch. Again, both of these scenes are all the more amazing because they were shot before 1930.
The second remarkable thing about “Angels” is that it marked the first starring role for Jean Harlow. Harlow, 19 at the time, would become one of the biggest stars in Hollywood before she died at a young age. Hughes, always looking to provide the audience with the latest in technology, chose to use color tinting throughout the film. Tinting was a fairly common practice in silent films. Filmmakers used a color to provide the scene with an overall feeling, to enhance the drama or action unfolding on the screen. Night scenes were frequently tinted dark blue. A suspenseful scene might be tinted purple. Hughes goes one step further. He uses early color techniques for one scene featuring Harlow. I believe this is the only color film of Jean Harlow to exist in a motion picture. The scene itself is unremarkable except that we get to see this icon, this future sex symbol, in as close to an approximation of real life as possible. Imagine if we had never seen Marilyn Monroe in color and you begin to get the idea of the importance of this small segment of the film.
Watching the film for the first time seventy-five years after it’s initial release, I noticed something in the credits. James Whale, the director of “Frankenstein” and other films, is credited with directing the dialogue scenes in “Angels”. This caused a number of things to click into place for me. In “The Aviator”, Hughes is portrayed as being obsessed with getting the aerial scenes just right. He needs a twenty-fourth camera. He wants clouds in the background to give the planes a feeling of speed. He wants everything to be perfect. He was also obsessed with creating fast airplanes. Both of these elements would seem to fit together, to make sense. It would be natural for someone like Hughes to be more than a little disinterested in worrying about something like dialogue or story. He left this part of the filmmaking process to Whale.
“Hell’s Angels” was a huge hit, earning a profit for Hughes and leading him to direct “Scarface” starring Paul Muni. Audiences were no doubt awed by the aerial scenes and less critical of the rest of the story.
When I watch a film for the first time, I try to think about the film as it might have been perceived in its original release. This was nigh on impossible for me with “Angels”. The three male leads all appear to be in a high school play, attempting bad British accents, speaking bad dialogue. Even the actor playing Karl, the German friend, appears to be “acting” British. They walk stiffly and everything is staged as it would be in a play. This was actually a lot more common in the early days of film, because they simply didn’t know how to stage the action in a more interesting way. There are a number of films from this period that have much more engaging acting.
The plot is very predictable. Given the film was made seventy five years ago, we should consider whether credit should be given for all of the copies that we have seen in the years since. But I can’t imagine that this story was fresh even in 1929 or 1930. It seems lifted straight out of a parlor drama or from the stage, from a play that may have been popular at the time, but which we have never heard of since. Rightfully so. If you think about the story I have outlined above for a few moments, you will be able to predict all of the turns in the story.
When a filmmaker goes to such great pains to create a part of their film in such vivid detail, you would expect the rest of the project to be of an equal caliber. A good modern example of this would be James Cameron’s “Titanic”. Cameron spent a lot of time and money recreating the ship and then sinking it. This happens close to two hours into the film. What keeps the audience watching until this point? It is the romance between Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio. Yes, the story is predictable, and we have seen it a million times, but it works. Cameron spent a lot of time on the special effects, but he also devotes a lot of time to the story and characters leading up to the event. If we don’t care about the people on the boat, we won’t care that the boat is sinking.
Hughes creates two great aerial sequences, which run about 20 minutes. Unfortunately, you have to sit through almost 110 minutes to get to them. And, ultimately, as good as these sequences are, we really aren’t that concerned with the outcome, because we don’t know or care enough about the people in the planes to care if they crash.