Hell’s Angels is a 1930 American war film, directed by Howard Huges and starring Jean Harlow, Ben Lyon, and James Hall. The film, which was produced by Hughes and written by Harry Behn and Howard Estabrook, centers on the combat pilots of World War I. It was released by United Artists, earned back its costs twice and is now hailed as being the first blockbuster action film.
Hell’s Angels was originally conceived as a silent, with James Hall and Ben Lyon as Roy and Monte Rutledge, and Norwegian silent film star Greta Nissen cast as Helen, the female lead, and was to be directed by Marshall Neilan. A few weeks into production, however, Hughes’ overbearing production techniques forced Neilan to quit. Hughes then hired a more pliable director, Edmund Goulding, but took over the directing reins 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, but the first casualty of the sound age became Greta Nissen 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 Hughes himself, Jean Harlow.
When Hughes made the decision to turn Hell’s Angels into a talkie, he hired a then-unknown James Whale, who had just arrived in Hollywood following a successful turn directing the play Journey’s End in London and on Broadway, 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 of the film’s ending.
One talking scene filmed in Multicolor but printed by Technicolor, provide 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.) The inexperienced actress, just 18 years old at the time she was cast, required a great deal of attention from Whale, who shut down production for three days while he worked Harlow through her scenes.
During the shoot, Hughes designed many aerial stunts for the dogfighting scenes. Pioneering aerial cinematographer Elmer Dyer captured many of the actual aerial scenes. Hughes hired actual World War I pilots to fly the stunt planes, but they reportedly refused to fly for the final scene. The aviator in Hughes came out and he flew the scene, getting the shot. As the pilots predicted, however, he crashed the aircraft, escaping with only minor injuries. Three other aviators and a mechanic were not as lucky. Aviator Al Johnson crashed after hitting wires while landing at Caddo Field, near Van Nuys, California. C. K. Phillips crashed while delivering an S.E.r fighter to the Oakland shooting location. Rupert Syme Macalister, an Australian pilot, was also killed. Mechanic Phil Jones died during production after he failed to bail out before the crash of a German Gotha bomber, piloted by Al Wilson, which had been doubled by Igor Sikorsky’s Sikorsky S-29-A, his first biplane built after his arrival in the United States.
Due to the delay while Hughes tinkered with the flying scenes, Whale managed to entirely shoot his film adaptation of Journey’s End and have it come out a month before Hell’s Angels was released; the gap between completion of the dialogue scenes and completion of the aerial combat stunts allowed Whale to be paid, sail back to England, and begin work on the subsequent project, making Whale’s actual (albeit uncredited) cinema debut, his second film to be released.
There are many traits of pre-code Hollywood in this movie. In addition to some fairly frank sexuality, there is 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”.