Directed and produced by Howard Hughes, Harlow’s debut in color also starred Ben Lyon and James Hall. Since Hughes was an avid flying enthusiast, owned airplanes and even an airplane factory, it made sense for him to do a film that centered on the combat pilots of World War I. Anything that Howard Hughes touched seemed to turn to gold, even though controversy during the the film’s production contributed to its notoriety, including the accidental deaths of several pilots, an inflated budget, a lawsuit against a competitor (The Dawn Patrol), and repeated postponements of the release date. Hell’s Angels is now hailed as one of the first sound blockbuster action films.
Production turns to sound and color:
The film was originally shot as a silent film, but Hughes saw how important that sound films were becoming and so he reworked it over a lengthy period. Most of the film is in black and white, but there is one color sequence – the only color footage of Harlow’s career.
The silent film star Greta Nissen was cast in the role of Helen, the female lead, and was to be directed by Marshall Neilan. Hughes’ overbearing production techniques forced his Nissen to quit and after two other directors, Hughes finally took over the directing reins himself when it came to the frenetic aerial battle scenes.
Midway through production, the advent of the sound motion picture came with the arrival of The Jazz Singer. Hughes incorporated the new technology into the half-finished film, his star, Greta Nissen became the first casualty of the sound age, due to her pronounced Norwegian accent. He paid her for her work and cooperation, and replaced her, because her accent would make her role as a British aristocrat ludicrous. The role was soon filled with a teenage up-and-coming star found by Hall in a review, and hired by Hughes himself, Jean Harlow.
When Hughes made the decision to turn Hell’s Angels into a talkie, he hired a then-unknown James Whale to direct the talking sequences; it was Whale’s film debut, and arguably prepared him for the later success he would have with the feature version of Journey’s End, Waterloo Bridge, and, most famously, the 1931 version of Frankenstein. Unhappy with the script, Whale brought in Joseph Moncure March to re-write it. Hughes later gave March the Luger pistol used in the famous execution scene near the film’s ending.
One talking scene was filmed in Multicolor but printed by Technicolor, provides the only color film footage of Jean Harlow. (Multicolor was not prepared to print the number of inserts needed for the wide release Hughes wanted.) Harlow was an inexperienced actress, just 18 years old at the time she was cast, and therefore, required a great deal of attention from Whale, who shut down production for three days while he worked Harlow through her scenes.
Grauman’s Chinese Theater Premiere
Hell’s Angels received its premiere at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre in Hollywood on May 24, 1930. All the stars and makers of the film attended, as well as Buster Keaton, Dolores del Río, Norma Talmadge, Mary Pickford, Billie Dove, Douglas Fairbanks, and Charlie Chaplin with his girlfriend Georgia Hale. A program with leather cover was designed for the premiere by famed aviation illustrator Clayton Knight. Reviews were universal in acclaim for the flying scenes but the mundane plot and maudlin characterizations were also noted. The Hell’s Angels screening revealed many traits of pre-code Hollywood. In addition to some fairly frank sexuality, there was a surprising amount of adult language (for the time) during the final dogfight sequence, e.g. “son of a bitch”, “goddamn it”, and “for Christ’s sake”, along with the words “ass”, “hell”, and a few uses of “God” in other scenes.
Raves, Awards and Mediocre Reviews
While Harlow, Lyon and Hall received mixed reviews for their acting, Hughes was praised for his hard work on the filming and aircraft sequences. Mourdant Hall, reviewer for The New York Times was especially critical about Harlow’s performance, saying, “his film is absorbing and exciting. But while she is the center of attraction, the picture is a most mediocre piece of work.”
Harlow had top billing on the posters but in the film itself, she was billed third under Lyon and Hall.
Hell’s Angels went into general release on November 15, 1930 in the United States and did quite well at the box office, earning nearly $8 million, about double the production and advertising costs.
Hell’s Angels received one Academy Award nomination, Best Cinematography (Tony Gaudio and Harry Perry).
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