Classic Film Guide

Hell's Angels (1930)

This is truly an historical film which not only contains the only color footage of Jean Harlow in a movie, and helped make her a star ("would you be shocked if I put on something more comfortable?"), but some of the best WW I airplane aerial sequences ever put on the screen (it was nominated for a Cinematography Oscar). Of course, this is due to the fact that aviator gazillionaire Howard Hughes produced, directed, and even filmed part of it. In fact, this film was initially going to be a silent with Greta Nissen in the Harlow role. But, during the time it was being made, the transformation from silent films to "talkies" was taking place. So, having more money than God, Hughes decided to reshoot most of it, requiring that he replace the Norwegian actress with Harlow.

The story begins with three Oxford classmates, brothers Monte (Ben Lyon) & Roy (James Hall) Rutledge and their German friend Karl Armstedt (John Darrow), sharing a flat in pre-war Germany and fully enjoying the perks. Roy has a girl, Helen (Harlow), back home who he's constantly referring to, while Monte plays the field to excess. In fact, he's even gotten mixed up with a Baroness (Jane Winton), the wife of a German officer Baron Von Kranz (Lucien Prival, a recognizable character actor). When the Baron returns home prematurely, he catches Monte with his wife and challenges him to a duel. Since Monte is a man of little character, he flees back home to school at Oxford. His noble brother, Roy, pretends to be Monte, accepting the challenge to protect his name from disgrace. Though he is wounded, he returns to school and never mentions it to his brother.

War breaks out and classmate Karl is summoned to return to Germany to serve. Roy enlists, but of course Monte does not. However, while wanting to kiss the pretty girl at a recruitment station, he accidentally signs up too. Before they go off to war, Roy wants to introduce his brother to his girl, whom Monte assumes must be a "dog". When they meet, both are pleasantly surprised (with Harlow winning the "look ‘em over" staring contest;-) and we learn that Helen isn't as faithful to Roy as he thinks she is. This leads to a first "date" affair (and Harlow's signature line, above) but when Roy regrets his infidelity, perhaps for the first time in his life, it causes a rift between the two illicit lovers before he and his brother head off to war.

One spectacular visual sequence involves Karl as the bombardier on a German Zeppelin that infiltrates London. Unbeknownst to the ship's commander, he guides it through the fog in order to drop its bombs harmlessly into a lake on the outskirts of the city. Alerted to the Zeppelin's presence, the Allies send several planes to intercept it and the chase is on. When the ship's commander needs more height to avoid their pursuit, and after throwing all non-essential equipment overboard doesn't work, he has the bombardier's pod's cable cut, dropping Karl to his death. He then orders all unnecessary personnel to jump overboard. The commander's ruthlessness almost succeeds, as his gunners shoot down all but one of the planes. However, the last plane utilizes a kamikaze maneuver, sacrificing himself and plane into the heart of the "big balloon".

Roy & Monte are both trained as pilots and must fly nightly patrols. Since nearly every night means the end of at least one of the pilots, Monte does his best to avoid the duty. However, when Roy finally learns Helen doesn't love him (serving as a waitress on the war front, he catches her with a ranking officer) and signs up for a risky mission of great importance, his brother's bravery convinces Monte to also volunteer for the effort. The film's most spectacular visual scenes follow and dominate the rest of the film, but there is also a rather clever plot device used to end the drama between the brothers and involving Von Kranz.

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