Hell's Angels (1930)
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This action movie was directed by Howard Hughes, and it stars Ben Lyon, James Hall, and Jean Harlow. Monte Rutledge (Lyon) and Roy Rutledge (Hall) are brothers attending Oxford. If I have them straight, Roy is straitlaced and Monte is a womanizer and coward. Helen (Harlow) is Roy's girlfriend, and he thinks she's swell. However, she's a woman of easy virtue who sets herself up to be pursued by every man that's attractive to her, including Monte who doesn't say no.
NOTE: THERE ARE SPOILERS IN THE FOLLOWING REVIEW
There's a long, not very interesting beginning to this two-hour epic in which we're set up with the back story. We are shown that Monte is a cowardly womanizer and that Roy stands up for his brother to save the family name. We learn that Helen lets Roy think she's a moral, upstanding girl, but she seduces every man she wants, and Roy is so moral he can't see what's really going on. Okay, enough of that. We learn that Jean Harlow can't do an English accent at all and that Messrs. Lyon and Hall aren't too good at it.
Finally, World War I breaks out, and Roy and Monte join the Royal Flying Corps, Helen is a volunteer for the canteens, and they all end up in or around Paris. Monte starts claiming he's sick and can't fly all his missions, so others are being sent instead, getting shot down in his place. The squadron resents him, and he volunteers for a dangerous mission to prove he's not yellow. Roy volunteers to fly it with him. Finally, the action starts.
Lyon is quite good as the yellow coward, and I actually felt sympathy for him in several scenes. Hughes was not as his best as director here, and the script and dialogue were not the greatest. "It's getting dark," Monte says, as he lays dying (or lies dying -- who knows these days which is which -- maybe he dies lying). "Roy! Where are you?" even though Roy is holding him in his arms. Several of the scenes were unintentionally hilarious, a mix of the Three Stooges and Monte Python's Flying Circus, which is ironic since the brothers are being chased by someone else's Flying Circus of World War I.
The best scenes are the bombing of the ammo depot and the dog fight. I can't imagine how they choreographed and arranged the dog fight scenes, with one mid-air collision between planes -- real planes, really colliding. There were camera planes filming the action and cameras mounted on the planes showing the pilots, sky, and earth in all the chaos of rolls, spins, and dives.
I felt bad for Monte in the bomber. The German fighters are faster, and he can see them catching up. There's nothing to be done -- they can't dodge them in the bomber, they can't fly faster; all Monte can do is plead for Roy (who's piloting the aircraft) to do something. He's a coward who can see his death approaching, and he can't run away this time, he can't leave it to Roy to get him out of it.
But eventually the real drama ends, and we're back in the staged dialogue and campy acting. I'm not sure I recommend this movie for casual watching. It's interesting to see the blonde bombshell at the age of 18 or 19 -- she was quite a good actress, much more natural than Lyon and Hall. This movie was her big break after a few years of bit parts, often uncredited. Her costumes here are revealing, and the version of "Hell's Angels" I saw on DVD had some scenes in color, showing off her costumes and her to great effect. (She died of an infection at the age of 26, so her career was quite short.)
And it's interesting to watch a movie directed by Howard Hughes. But it turns out Mr. Hughes wasn't all that good with actors. Like Cecil B. DeMille, he needed action and spectacle. But the action and spectacle are great. There are scenes with a Zeppelin bombing London that are breathtaking, and when Hughes has actors in action, he was quite good with them. Unfortunately, too much of this movie was outside Howard Hughes's area of greatest competence.