Monday, January 7, 2013

Reeling Backward: "Hell's Angels" (1930)

"Hell's Angels" may just be the first action-movie spectacular in cinematic history. Produced and directed by Howard Hughes, it was a big-budget extravaganza featuring amazing special effects for the aerial dogfights, a star-making turn by Jean Harlow and an epic war story backdrop.

Also like a lot of action movies, it's less successful when the explosions stop and the characters have to talk to each other. Often, it's downright embarassing.

But the action scenes more than compensate. They're just amazing for their time, combining live-action shots of multiple World War I fighter planes tearing about the sky, models seamlessly blended into the fray and even some early progenitors of the modern green screen effects.

If I were grading this movie in its parts, it would be four stars for the aerial sequences and one-and-a-half stars for everything else.

 I first learned about "Hell's Angels" from the Howard Hughes biopic "The Aviator," which features a long sequence about Hughes' feverish devotion to making the film. Production started in 1927 as a silent picture with another actress in the female lead role. Hughes switched it over to a sound film on the fly, and found 18-year-old Harlow to take over the role of vamp vixen Helen (reputedly because the original actress had a heavy accent).

The talkie sequences still are hampered by technological restrictions of the era, though not as bad as some other early sound films where the dialogue fades in and out. Hughes also uses some irises that turn the frame into a circle, which is an antiquated look associated with silent films. The scenes with Germans feature the actors actually speaking German, cutting away to title cards for the important dialogue, just as you might see in a silent movie.

A word on those Germans -- the truly bad ones are invariably depicted as physically ugly or disfigured in some way, with scars and mustachios they practically twirl. Nonetheless, the "enemy" gets a fairly evenhanded portrayal all around, with one of the German lads who had been friends with the two main characters shown as decent and kind. After he is conscripted by his homeland for the war, he intentionally drops the bombs from his zeppelin harmlessly into a lake. In that same sequence, when the airship must be lightened in order to escape altitude and escape, most of the crew volunteers to jump out of the bomb bay doors and sacrifice themselves -- though a few have to be pushed.

The cinematography by Tony Gaudio and Harry Perry is simply a revelation, and even contains a couple of colorized sequences. Their work garnered the movie's sole Academy Award nomination.

The story's fairly straightforward. Brothers Monte (Ben Lyon) and Roy Rutledge (James Hall) are young college rascals who sign up for the Royal Flying Corp when the war breaks out. Roy is upstanding and idealistic, and believes that his girl Helen (Harlow) is true and virtuous. She's anything but, seducing Monte before they ship out. Monte is a cad and a serial womanizer, but he still can't stand to see Roy misled so, and feels crushing shame for the part he played.

Before the war, Monte is caught canoodling with a German baron's wife, and he demands the satisfaction of a duel with pistols. Monte, who has a long yellow streak in him, flees for England, but the righteous Roy takes his place and is wounded in the arm. (Since the duel took place before daybreak, the baron never even knew he was firing at the wrong man.)

Once the war starts, Roy unsurprisingly distinguishes himself, while Monte gains a reputation as a malingerer and coward. This despite the fact he fought bravely during the zeppelin battle, the action centerpiece of the film. The shots of gunners stationed atop the dirigible firing at planes as they whiz by is still thrilling even today -- one wonders how Hughes got them.

Eventually Roy learns what a cheating tramp Helen is, which inspires him to volunteer for a near-suicidal mission to pilot a captured German bomber on a sneak attack right before a major offensive on the ground. Monte goes along out of loyalty to his brother. Their mission is a success, but then they're shot down by the Red Baron himself.

In the final sequence, the captured brothers encounter the same German baron they tangled with before, who offers them a cushy POW existence if they'll give up the details of the offensive. Roy refuses, but Monte's cowardly streak reasserts itself. To save the lives of thousands of their comrades, Roy shoots his brother in the back with a pistol supplied by the baron.

The weapon was given under a ruse to attempt escape, but the German is too clever and only supplies one bullet. In his dying throes, Monte thanks Roy for preventing him from giving up the battle plan, and saving the honor of both of them in the process. Roy is then marched out and executed as the artillery barrage of the Allied offensive is heard in the distance.

It's pretty hokey stuff, and the transparency of Helen is such that we start to lower our regard for Roy since he's so obtuse about it. Harlow is a terrific screen presence, though, sexy and playful with a nasty bite of steel underneath. Her career was intense but brief, dying suddenly of renal failure at age 26.

What makes "Hell's Angels" a memorable cinematic experience is those amazing dogfight scenes. I can only imagine what audiences of the time thought of them -- they might have even been too intense for folks back then.

Perhaps that's why the film was only modestly successful at the box office. Howard Hughes was soon on to other obsessions involving aircraft and other things, and the man who might have been the George Lucas of his era only dabbled in filmmaking thereafter.

3 stars out of four

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