Wednesday, 13 March 2013

Hell’s Angels, 1930

Movie Poster
No, not the Bikie gang, the 1930 war movie set during the war in Europe – World War One as we now know it. It starred Ben Lyon and James Hall as English brothers Monte and Roy Rutledge, and Jean Harlow as Helen, the girl that gets between them. It also features John Darrow as the brothers German friend, Karl Armstedt.

James Hall, Jean Harlow and Ben Lyon

The plot is basic – boy meets girl and falls in love, girl is not the good girl he thinks, girl plays around, girl seduces boys brother – but there is the little twist of the German friend also called up to fight. Not wanting to bomb his adopted home of England, he purposefully deceives his Zeppelin crew into sending bombs into a lake, rather than Trafalgar Square. This is probably my favourite scene of the movie. 

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Karl gets the bad news he’s been called up, and confirming that Trafalgar Square has been hit

Jean Harlow is surprisingly good as the bad girl, but most of her costumes are definitely more 1930 than WWI. 

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The second half of the movie (after the intermission, which I love) is really more a war movie, with little appearance by Harlow.  There is lots of flying, and scenes in the mess, and the brothers volunteer for a dangerous mission over Germany. Hundreds of lives depend on them, but will the cowardly Monte overcome his fears?  The night before the mission is spent in the company of loose women while consuming lots of alcohol, and Monte really wants to forget about the mission – but his brother, who  finds out Helen’s true nature when she sees him with another man, talks him into it.

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Helen tells Roy what she really thinks of him, and he drowns his sorrows

The film was directed and produced by Howard Hughes (yes that one) and written by Harry Behn and Howard Estabrook. Originally started as a silent film in 1927, with Norwegian silent film star Greta Nissen cast as Helen, Hughes took over directing mid way through and decided to use the new sound technology that had just been released. Due to her accent, Nissen was let go, and the role of Helen went to teenage up-and-coming star Harlow, who James Hall had seen in a review, and was just 18 at the time of shooting. One talking scene filmed in Multicolor but printed by Technicolor, provide the only colour film footage of Jean Harlow, and other scenes are in black and white and others in blue and pink tones.

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Hughes along with pilot Harry Parry, designed many of the aerial stunts for the dog-fighting scenes that were filmed by pioneering aerial cinematographer Elmer Dyer. The scenes really are quite amazing for the time,  and Hughes hired a team of actual World War I pilots to fly. Hughes  directed the aerial scenes from overhead, using radio control to coordinate the flying manoeuvres.

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Clarke and Roy Wilson flying airplanes in Hell's Angels.

One manoeuver that Paul Mantz, principal stunt pilot, thought to dangerous Hughes attempted himself – and crashed and was seriously injured with a skull fracture.  Three other aviators and a mechanic were killed during the film's production - Al Johnson crashed after hitting wires while landing at Caddo Field, California, C. K. Phillips crashed while delivering an S.E.5 fighter to the Oakland shooting location, Australian Rupert Syme Macalister, was also killed and Mechanic Phil Jones died during production after he failed to bail out before the crash of a German Gotha bomber, piloted by Al Wilson.

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Crashing to his death and shooting the enemy
With the majority of the film shot and in editing, Hughes realized a similar film, The Dawn Patrol starring Douglas Fairbanks Junior, would become a competitor at the box office.  Not only did Hughes attempt to lease all available period aircraft so his competitor could not, he brought a lawsuit that alleged that the screenplay of Hell's Angels was plagiarized. The lawsuit resulted in The Dawn Patrol being rushed through post-production in order to be in theatres before Hell's Angels. In late 1930 the distributers of Dawn Patrol, Warner Bros.won the suit, and The Dawn Patrol won the Academy Award for Best Story for John Monk Saunders in 1938.

Movie poster

Hell's Angels is now hailed as one of the first sound blockbuster action films. It was released by United Artists and, despite its initial poor performance at the box office, eventually earned its production costs twice over to a tune of $8 million dollars.


Enjoy, Deb xx

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