Sunday, September 20, 2009

Hell's Angels (Howard Hughes) ***1/2

Director: Howard Hughes

Cast: Ben Lyon, James Hall, Jean Harlow, John Darrow, Lucien Prival

Background: Howard Hughes was ready to spent a lot of money (eventually $4 million) on a big budget action picture, hoping to outdo the enormously successful Wings. He alienated his first choice for director, so took over the directing reins himself. Halfway through the film, Hughes made the decision to switch the film from silent to talkie, as that's what audiences now wanted in the wake of The Jazz Singer. This forced him to replace Norwegian actress Greta Nissen (due to her accent) with a young Jean Harlow. Hughes brought in director James Whale to help direct the dialogue sequences.

Story: It is the start of World War 1, and two brothers, Monte (Lyon) and Roy (Hall) enlist in the Royal Flying Corps and fly dangerous combat missions against the Germans. Both are in love with the beautiful seductress Helen (Harlow).

Thoughts: What a film! This is certainly not without flaws, chiefly among them the mostly pedestrian dialogue, but what this film gets right, it really gets right! There is a stunning sequence depicting a zeppelin raid, which is by far the most impressive action scene filmed up to this point and still holds up today. The third act shows a large scale aerial dogfight involving over 30 planes that goes far beyond where Wings took us, including shots of a plane heading right at the camera and some spectacular crashes. But it's not only action scenes that are impressive. Jean Harlow makes her major film debut playing a fascinating woman that has a stunning sexual freedom that was very rare even in the pre-code days of cinema. See the scene where she seduces her man by asking if he would be shocked if she "put on something more comfortable". An impressive achievement despite its many flaws, this one will certainly stay with me for a long time.

Postscript: The expensive film would prove to be a hit and make back $8 million at the box office (equivalent to over $100 million today). The making of the film was detailed in Martin Scorsese's Howard Hughes biopic The Aviator.

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