Hell’s Angels, Howard Hughes’s 1930 film, was praised for its aerial photography and derided for its story. “War Brings Out What People Really Are” surveys critical films Hollywood produced about the First World War during the years 1925-1930 – The Big Parade (1925), What Price Glory (1926), Two Arabian Knights (1927), Wings (1927), All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) – and concludes that despite its troubled creation, Hell’s Angels succeeded in capturing the American film-going public’s disillusionment with that war.
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With the possible exception of Ed Wood Jr.’s legendary Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959), few Hollywood films depicting flying objects have been so roundly panned as Hell’s Angels. Yet despite its frequently derided acting, choppy narrative, and uneven pacing, Howard Hughes’s 1930 production illustrates its era’s generally negative reassessment of the glories of American participation in the First World War.
When Ed Wood made his film he had an excuse for the mess he made: With virtually no budget for special effects, pie tins tied to poles with fishing line had to make do for UFOs winging through California’s night sky. Howard Hughes had no excuse. In 1924, he inherited a fortune his father had made by inventing and leasing a drill bit used throughout America’s oil fields. Hughes then dropped out of Rice University without a degree, and married. A year later he headed for Hollywood, free to pursue his twin obsessions: aviation and motion pictures. He was twenty years old.1
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In the years immediately following the conflict, theater exhibitors looked upon movies about the Great War as box-office poison. But in September 1924, the Broadway production of What Price Glory revived popular interest in dramatizations of the war. A sardonic take on military life, the play leavened the horrors of combat with large comic doses of barracks-room slang and shenanigans such as had never before been seen onstage. Written by two New York journalists – Maxwell Anderson, a pacifist, and Laurence Stallings, a Marine Corps veteran who had lost a leg after being wounded at Belleau Wood – What Price Glory captured public readiness to laugh derisively at delusions of glory that had led the nation into a war whose aims were left unfulfilled when it was over. Critics declared Glory the season’s must-see play, audiences flocked to it, and it ran for a year.
Hughes arrived in Hollywood just as the studios, always scouting hot properties, took notice. Fox won the film rights after MGM’s Irving Thalberg passed, wary of running into censorship even if the play’s salty dialogue could be adapted to the silent screen. But he made an end-run around Fox by engaging Stallings to write an original story about the war. Borrowing the title of a piece he had previously published in The New Republic, Stallings called his movie treatment “The Big Parade.”
MGM initially slated The Big Parade as a “programmer” to be paired on a double bill. But an early rough-cut convinced the studio to turn it into a two-hour, single-bill spectacular. A rewrite retained already filmed comic episodes about basic training, bivouacking, an outdoor shower, and a doughboy (John Gilbert) who romances a French peasant maiden (Renée Adorée). But the homecoming scene, in which the doughboy hero returns with an amputated leg, and the lovers’ reunion in France were enlarged and reshot. What started as a throwaway opened at New York’s Astor Theatre in November 1925 and stayed for ninety-six weeks, playing at premium, reserved-seat prices. The Big Parade won Photoplay’s gold medal for best picture of the year, made stars of Gilbert and Adorée, and became Hollywood’s highest-grossing film until Gone With the Wind.
The Big Parade’s combination of comedy and combat prepared audiences for Fox’s screen version of What Price Glory, which arrived in theaters in November 1926. Director Raoul Walsh downplayed Glory’s antiwar themes and let leads Victor McLaglen and Edmund Lowe mug and mouth Marine Corps obscenities the movies had not yet learned to vocalize. (Lip-reading viewers reportedly had a field day.)
With war movies back in Hollywood’s good graces, Hughes offered Two Arabian Nights, a comedy about two doughboy POWs (William Boyd and Louis Wolheim) who escape their German captors, stow away to Istanbul, and vie for an emir’s daughter (Mary Astor). Boyd and Wolheim had originated What Price Glory’s leads on Broadway, and Knights gave them a chance to reprise similar roles in the play as conniving rough-house rivals in war and romance. Knights rode Fox’s success in making films about the Great War palatable by emphasizing comedy, a strategy confirmed when its director, Lewis Milestone, won the Motion Picture Academy’s award for the best comedy of 1927-28.
Two Arabian Knights was Howard Hughes’s second film.2 At the age of twenty-two he appeared to be following the footsteps of MGM’s Irving Thalberg, Hollywood’s “boy genius.”
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With MGM, Fox, and Hughes’s Caddo Company having proven combat and comedy were a winning formula for films about the Great War, Paramount decided to schedule Wings, which focused on the U.S. Army Air Corps. Filming started in mid-January 1927 and wrapped almost three months later, in early April.
Hughes, an avid civilian flyer, also planned a film about wartime flying. To distinguish his entry from Paramount’s, he started with a story about two brothers in Britain’s Royal Flying Corps. Another producer and studio might have canceled or put production of a similar film on hold, but Hughes’s oil- drilling fortune freed him from such concerns. Caddo began filming Hell’s Angels on the last day of October 1927 – and didn’t finish until late April 1930, two and a half years later.3
In an industry that prized tight schedules and lean budgets, Hughes’s profligate ways were extraordinary. When Hell’s Angels finally premiered in Los Angeles on May 27, 1930, Hughes had shot some 2.27 million feet of film, and replaced two directors and a leading lady.4 His publicity campaign ballyhooed Hell’s Angels’ aerial combat scenes, actress Jean Harlow’s cleavage, and trumpeted $3.8 million spent to bring it all to the screen. It was a successful strategy, since it set the terms by which film historians continue to discuss the movie.
But few, then or now, seem to have noticed that the plot of Hell’s Angels is essentially Wings viewed in a fun-house mirror. Where Wings presents the Great War through the lens of bravery, gallantry, romance, and tragedy, Hell’s Angels unfalteringly inverts those themes: romance morphs into lust, cowardice into realism, and idealism into nihilism. Wings’ Great War is glory tempered by tragedy; Hell’s Angels’ Great War simply wastes the lives of people whom few in the audience feel compelled to mourn.
Mary (Clara Bow) loves Jack (Charles Rogers) who loves Sylvia (Jobyna Ralston) who doesn’t love Jack but loves David (Richard Arlen), which causes Jack to look upon David as a rival. The war comes, and Jack and David enlist as aviators, go through flight school together, then ship off to France. Meanwhile, Mary joins the Women’s Transport Motor Corps and is also sent to France. On the eve of a major offensive, she finds Jack in Paris, at the Folies Bergère, drunk on Champagne and about to be seduced by a coquette. Attempting to get him sober so that he can report for duty and avoid a court martial, Mary dons a Folies dancer’s glittery dress, attracts his attention, then takes him to a hotel room, where he is too intoxicated to recognize her. As she changes into her motor corps uniform, MPs burst in, haul Jack to his unit, and send Mary home for violating the Army’s morals code (for women).
Sober and back on base, Jack joins David in a mission to destroy German observation balloons. Jack succeeds, but David is shot down and crashes. Jack, seeking revenge, goes aloft again and blasts every German he can find. Then he notices a lone enemy plane headed toward the American lines. Jack fails to recognize the flyer: David, who has escaped and commandeered the plane to get back to Allied lines. Jack shoots him down. As Jack lands, a young mother, almost killed when David crashed, begs Jack to comfort the dying pilot. Jack discovers he has mortally wounded his friend. A French doctor offers no hope: “C’est la guerre.” Jack cradles David in his arms as David dies.
The war ends. Jack returns a hero. David’s grieving mother forgives Jack: “It wasn’t your fault. It was – war!” At home, Jack finds Mary waiting next door. They talk. Evening falls, and they are still deep in conversation. Jack starts to confess about his night in Paris: “There was this girl – and I forgot myself – I don’t know who she was….” Mary listens, not letting on that she knows all about it. When Jack bows his head in remorse, she looks heavenward with a smile, then tells him: “Remember – I saw the war, too, Jack! And I can’t blame – anyone – for anything! What happens from now on is all that matters, isn’t it, dear?” A shooting star crosses the night sky. Jack says, “Do you know what you do when you see a shooting star?” Mary replies: “You can kiss the girl you love.” They embrace. The End.
Wings’ depiction of David’s death by “friendly fire” and his mother’s absolution of Jack made a nod toward “the tragedy of war,” the only discordant element in a film that, in movie exhibitor parlance of the day, was “hokum”: a sentimental tale of virtuous heroes and heroines, in which true love prevails in the closing reel. Audiences loved it, and Wings won the Motion Picture Academy’s first award for best picture.
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It is hard to know whether Hell’s Angels was intended from the start as a caricature of Wings. The original script was radically altered during the two and a half years Hell’s Angels was in production. The main reason for its long gestation was Warner Brothers’ successful introduction, in October 1927, of synchronized sound for The Jazz Singer. Hughes decided that his production, originally conceived as a silent film, had to have spoken dialogue. This led to replacement of the lead actress, Greta Nissen, whose Norwegian-accented English made it difficult for her to portray an English socialite.5 Jean Harlow, then eighteen years old, was hired to take over Nissen’s role, and her lack of dramatic acting experience caused further delays. Hughes’s dissatisfaction with the aviation scenes, which he insisted be more spectacular than those in Wings, added further delays and caused two directors to leave the project. Hughes took over as director, concentrating on the aerial sequences, and brought in James Whale to “stage” the dialogue portions. Whale declared the existing story awful and demanded a new one.6 Hughes agreed and hired Joseph Moncure March, who had written a screen adaptation for Journey’s End (1930), a British war film Whale had directed.7 Then, lead actors Ben Lyon and James Hall were called back to reshoot their roles in sound and dub their flying scenes, salvaged from the silent footage.
When released in May 1930, the new script recast Wings’s two-guys-and-a-girl triangle with two brothers of different temperaments, Roy and Monte Rutledge (James Hall and Ben Lyon), who enlist in Britain’s Royal Flying Corps and become entangled with the sexually liberated and predatory Helen (Jean Harlow). Wings’ triangle is resolved when Jack discovers he was mistaken about Sylvia and has been blind to Mary; Hell’s Angels’ triangle is very different, far uglier, and dissolves in acrimony all around.
Roy’s romantic idealization of Helen is shown to be delusional when, at a charity ball to which he dragoons Monte, Helen makes her entrance with a soldier in tow. As the soldier straightens his uniform and smoothes his mussed hair, it is clear that they had been engaged in some form of intimacy. Roy, oblivious to the obvious, introduces his brother to Helen, who fixes her gaze on Monte, like a cobra mesmerizing its prey. Later that evening, Helen asks Monte to take her home, where she proceeds to seduce him. Momentarily hesitant, Monte protests that Roy idolizes her. Helen replies, “He wouldn’t approve of me … if he knew what I’m really like,” and acknowledges she doesn’t love Roy “the way Roy wants me to love him. I can’t. Roy’s love means marriage and children and loving no one but Roy. I really couldn’t bear that. I want to be free. I want to be gay and have fun. Life’s short and I want to live while I’m alive.”
After succumbing, Monte expresses remorse, telling Helen he feels “rotten” for betraying his brother. When she dismisses his expression of guilt, Monte explodes: “And Roy worships you. You! … Don’t you make yourself sick? You and Roy. God, that’s funny!” He leaves in disgust as Helen shouts after him, “Get out! And stay out!”
Later, the brothers are stationed in France. Roy, unaware of Monte’s betrayal, encounters Helen serving coffee in an officers’ canteen and flirting with Captain Redfield (Douglas Gilmore). Roy exchanges sharp words with Redfield, and the captain leaves. Roy then asks Helen who that “bag of wind” is. “Would you mind not talking about my friends like that?” she retorts.
The brothers then volunteer for a dangerous flying mission. They are granted a few hours’ leave, and they go to a bar. As they enter, Roy spies Helen in a private booth, where she is embracing Redfield. Confronting them, he tells the officer, “Keep your filthy hands off my girl!” Helen, clinging to Redfield, screams: “You fool! I wouldn’t belong to you if you were the last man on earth… I don’t love you – I never have! I never had any fun with you anyway. You and your high ideals. You’re too good to live. You’re just a stupid prig, if you ask me. You make me sick! You hear? Sick! You get out of here! I hate the sight of you!”
Monte drags Roy to another bar and tries to cheer his dispirited brother: “You just don’t know about women,” Monte tells him.. “They’re all the same. I’ve been telling you that for years – maybe you’ll believe me now.” Roy protests that Helen is “not that sort,” that the war has “changed” her, Monte scoffs: “War doesn’t change people. It’s like getting drunk – it brings out what people really are.”
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Helen’s rejection of romantic love and the story’s lack of retribution for her promiscuity were startling in American cinema at the time. Hollywood’s blockbuster war dramas – The Big Parade, Wings, even What Price Glory – employed love stories to leaven the horrors of war that filmmakers strove painstakingly to recreate. Survival was always recompensed with love – at least until Hell’s Angels.
Hollywood convention, especially in the decades between the two world wars, also demanded war stories with a hero, preferably one who returns home to bear witness or goes on to fight other battles. Hell’s Angels dispensed with that rule too.
There is little heroic about Roy or Monte. Neither is illustrious as a warrior, nor are they particularly noble. Roy is dutiful and idealistic but lacks critical judgment, and Monte is too self-centered to think beyond momentary gratification.
As in Wings, Hell’s Angels’ climax involves the commandeering of a German plane – in this case, a bomber. The dangerous mission for which Roy and Monte are granted an evening’s leave entails flying the bomber behind German lines to destroy a munitions depot in advance of a British offensive. The brothers volunteer after Monte has a fit of hysteria when ordered to fly a dawn patrol. This leads another flier to accuse him of cowardice. Monte denies the charge, ranting:
That’s a lie! I’m not yellow! I can see things as they are, that’s all – and I’m sick of this rotten business! You fools! Why do you let them kill you like this? What are you fighting for? Patriotism. Duty. Are you mad? Can’t you see they’re just words? Words coined by politicians and privateers to trick you into fighting for them! … I’ll give you a word: murder! That’s what this dirty, rotten politicians’ war is! Murder! … Yellow, am I? I’ve got the guts to say what I think! You’re afraid to say it! So afraid of being called yellow you’d rather be killed for it! You fools! You poor, stupid fools!
The squadron leader sends Monte to his quarters; Roy follows, hoping to keep his brother out of another scrape. Monte asks if Roy thinks he’s “yellow”; Roy, incapable of comprehending Monte as he really is, says soothingly: “Why, of course not. You’re just more sensitive than the rest of them.”
When a colonel warns them that capture will mean being shot as spies. Monte, now calm and anxious to demonstrate he is not a coward, volunteers; Roy joins him.
The next morning German infantrymen cheer as, overhead, Roy and Monte fly the bomber behind enemy lines. Their bombing run is successful, but a German air squadron, realizing that one of their own bombers is attacking their position, goes in for the kill. The bomber’s flight controls and engine are disabled. The brothers crash and are captured.
Taken to German field headquarters, they are interrogated by General Baron von Kranz (Lucien Prival). When neither will talk about British military positions, von Kranz gives them a choice: talk or face a firing squad. He gives them fifteen minutes to decide. Back in their holding cell overlooking a courtyard, they witness the execution of a British soldier. Monte decides he’ll talk:
Monte: Roy, I can’t face it. I’m going to tell.
Roy: Don’t be a fool, Monte. Do you realize what it would be if we told?
Monte: It would mean being alive when this bloody war is over!
Roy: But Monte – you cannot!
Monte: Oh, the hell with all your heroic stuff! I want to live! I’m not going to be shot down like that! I’m going to tell!
Thinking quickly, Roy convinces Monte to let him deal with von Kranz. Roy tells von Kranz he will talk – but if he does, Monte will know and denounce him as a traitor after the war. Roy asks for a pistol with which to kill Monte. Surprised, von Kranz replies, “I do not understand – one does not kill a friend.” “Friend?” answers Roy, feigning anger; “He’s not my friend. He stole the girl I love and I hate him.” Von Kranz hands him a weapon and one bullet.
Returned to the cell, Roy tries one last time to convince his brother to face a firing squad together rather than tell von Kranz what they know. Monte says he can’t do that; Roy pleads:
Roy: Listen, Monte. If we tell, the whole [British] brigade will be wiped out. Three thousand men. They all want to live, too. You wouldn’t spoil their chances, would you?
Monte: Well, that’s not my business. I didn’t start this war. I didn’t get ’em into this mess. Let ’em take care of themselves. They’ll get wiped out sooner or later anyway. I want to live! Live! You won’t tell – I’ll tell!
Monte rushes to the cell’s door; Roy takes the pistol and shoots him in the back. As Monte falls, Roy catches him, lowers him to the floor, and cradles him in his arms. As Monte dies he tells his brother not to cry: “It was the only thing you could do. The brigade, Roy – they’ll be all right now, won’t they?” Von Kranz, hearing the pistol shot, enters the cell. Roy turns to von Kranz: “You heard what my brother said.” “Brother?” the baron replies, incredulous. Declaring he will tell the Germans nothing, Roy is marched off-screen to a firing squad. As the din of artillery builds in the background, Roy’s voice is heard: “I’ll be with you in just a minute, Monte.” Shots ring out.
Dissolve to a battlefield: British infantrymen storm and overrun a trench manned by German soldiers. Fade out. The End.
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Playwright Robert E. Sherwood, writing in Life magazine, skewered Hell’s Angels. Howard Hughes, “with his four million dollars,” Sherwood computed, “acquired about five cents’ worth of plot, approximately thirty-eight cents’ worth of acting, and a huge amount of dialogue, the total value of which may be estimated by the following specimen. Boy: ‘What do you think of my new uniform?’ Girl: ‘Oh, it’s ripping!’ Boy: (nervously) ‘Where?’”8
H. L. Mencken, an acerbic observer of American popular culture, was plainspoken and blunt: “In 1930 I unfortunately only saw one film – ‘Hell’s Angels.’ I thought the fighting scenes were well made, but the love story was exceptionally banal and idiotic, and most of the acting was poor.”9
Mordaunt Hall, The New York Times’ middling first-string film reviewer, had high praise for the flying scenes, but faulted Jean Harlow as Helen: “while she is the centre of attention the picture is a most mediocre piece of work.” (Hall demonstrated wild lack of judgment in singling out Lucien Prival, who, playing von Kranz, chewed the scenery with a poor man’s impersonation of Erich von Stroheim at his Hunnish best. Prival, wrote Hall, gave an “outstanding performance,” adding “his work is unusually fine.”)10
James R. Quirk, editor of Photoplay, was harshest when he damned Hell’s Angels in a defense of his magazine’s refusal to honor the film as one of August 1930’s six best pictures of the month: “This picture is guilty of the highest of all motion picture crimes – bad taste. The character played by Miss Jean Harlow is one of which the motion picture cannot be proud. It is sex in its most disgusting phase, naked, vulgar, unnecessary.”11
It would take another studio, MGM, devoted to developing its stars, and several years until screenwriters and directors figured out how to harness and channel the joyful carnality Jean Harlow projected with the right script and leading man. And though her talent was not for heavy drama, a closer look at Hell’s Angels confirms that it is her presence alone that adds life to the scenes she shares with her male leads, James Hall and Ben Lyon, who were, at best, bland screen personalities.
And James Quirk was dead wrong about Harlow’s character, Helen, being “unnecessary.” Helen is crucial. Her lustful pursuit of men in uniform captured the postwar flapper’s dismissal of Victorian notions about idealized romance and the era’s rejection of romanticized military glory and sacrifice. Without Harlow’s ability to project the special variety of carnality she came to embody on screen, Hell’s Angels would have been only the overblown aerial sensation that captivated contemporary reviewers.
Critics also erred in characterizing Monte Rutledge simply as a “womanizer.” They made no note of Monte’s resistance to the lure of military service, an attitude at odds with the way major films of the 1920s depicted soldiers as brave and gallant in the face of death. Monte wants none of that, and faced with flying another dawn patrol, he cracks up. Rarely in American war films has a “coward” been a principal character.
Reviewers left this aspect of the film unmentioned because the ideas, if not the cowardice, Monte expresses in his dawn-patrol rant were conventional wisdom among many of the film’s viewers in postwar America. Trade with and travel to Europe had been threatened by Germany’s policy of sinking ships registered to neutral nations like the United States. But the American mainland had not been attacked when President Woodrow Wilson secured a declaration of war against Germany; nor would it be during the conflict. That meant public support for war had to be rallied and sustained by appeals to abstractions: “freedom of the seas,” “making the world safe for democracy,” “a war to end all war.” In the economic slump that followed the war, it occurred to many Americans that those who had benefitted most from defending freedom of the seas were shippers who supplied munitions makers’ armaments paid for by bankers who reaped huge interest payments for the money lent to Europe to pay for their part in the war; that “democracy” had become a hollow word with the suppression of dissent and repression of dissenters; and that Wilson’s failure to gain a non-vengeful peace agreement at Versailles meant that the shadow of another war continued to hover over Europe. Monte Rutledge may well have been “yellow,” but his riff on patriotism, duty, politicians, and privateers resonated with ideas many viewers brought to movie theaters.
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Hell’s Angels was not the only Great War movie of 1930. While Howard Hughes was still struggling with his creation, Universal Pictures was filming an adaptation of Erich Maria Remarque’s novel All Quiet on the Western Front. Conceived from the start as a sound film, All Quiet on the Western Front brought director Lewis Milestone, who had earned an Academy Award for Hughes’s Two Arabian Knights, none of the problems that dogged his former employer. A year later, his direction of the film earned him another Academy Award.
All Quiet is considered by many critics and viewers Hollywood’s best film about the First World War. It is certainly better, cinematically, than Hell’s Angels, mainly because its story flows consistently. Paul Bäumer (Lew Ayres), a conscience-stricken German soldier, becomes steadily disillusioned with war. When he dies in the final scene, postwar American audiences registered shock and regret. Such responses in 1930, twelve years after having fought a major war with Germany, were yet another indicator of retrospective ambivalence about why America had entered the war and what had been gained in victory.
As documentary evidence of the era’s reassessment of the war, Hell’s Angels deserves greater consideration than film critics have given it. True, its characters are uniformly incapable of eliciting much sympathy. And that is precisely the point: Hell’s Angels is American cinema’s most caustic and uncompromising inversion of the platitudes with which Hollywood usually douses its war stories: honor, duty, morality, glory, and, yes, even romance.
- Howard Hughes’s life through the completion and promotion of Hell’s Angels is covered in the first two chapters of Donald L. Bartlett and James B. Steele, Empire: The Life, Legend, and Madness of Howard Hughes (New York: W. W. Norton & Company), 26-74. [↩]
- Hughes’s first film production was Everybody’s Acting (1926). No copies are known to exist, and it is now considered a lost film. [↩]
- Hughes was not idle during this two-and-a-half-year period. Caddo produced and released The Racket, about bootlegging and political corruption, and The Mating Call, about the Ku Klux Klan, in 1928. [↩]
- Hell’s Angels’ difficult gestation was reported in both Hollywood’s trade press as well as the general press. A good summary of many of the problems encountered and changes made during production is Bogart Rogers, “4 Million Dollars and 4 Men’s Lives,” Photoplay XXXVII, 5 (April 1930), 30 ff; Rogers also provides details of expenses for negative costs, salaries, and airplanes. The Film Daily, a trade newspaper for motion picture theater exhibitors, noted Luther Reed’s replacement as director (25 October 1927), 5; Louis Wolheim’s signing for the role of Bozo (8 November 1927), 3, and his replacement by George Cooper (25 December 1927), 10. Neither actor nor the role appeared in the film when finally released. Also reported in The Film Daily were forecasts of release dates: 20 July 1929, 3; 1 October 1929, 2; 28 May 1929, 2. The New York Times (25 October 1929), 28, reported on a production delay resulting from a fire at a film laboratory that destroyed part of the negative, at an estimated loss of $60,000. [↩]
- One of the anomalies of Hell’s Angels’s conversion to sound is that while all of the principal characters speak American-accented English, close scrutiny of the storyline indicates that they are supposed to be British. Except for a few Britishisms occasionally thrown into the dialogue, such as referring to other men as “chaps,” or exclaiming “right-o!” it is entirely possible to watch the entire film and believe that the story is about two Americans who enlist in the Royal Flying Corps and become involved with a young American expatriate woman living in London. [↩]
- See “British Director’s Views,” New York Times, 13 April 1930, 128. [↩]
- Bartlett and Steele, Empire, 66, citing March in an article in Look (18 March 1954), 14. These changes explain why the film’s creative credits in the opening titles both testify to the switchover from silent to sound and give the impression that no one – and everyone – was in charge. In order of appearance in the titles: Story by Marshall Neilan and Joseph Moncure March; adaptation and continuity by Howard Estabrook and Harry Behn; dialogue written by Joseph Moncure March; dialogue staged by James Whale; directed by Howard Hughes. [↩]
- Robert E. Sherwood, as quoted in Scott Eyman, The Speed of Sound: Hollywood and the Talkie Revolution, 1926-1930 (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1997), 351. This bit of linguistic byplay occurs in a scene in which Roy (James Hall) – Sherwood’s “Boy” – shows off his new uniform to a gathering of young women. The repartee works only because Roy does not understand that “ripping” is a British-ism equivalent for the Americanism “sharp.” Roy’s response, plus James Hall’s American accent, gives the impression, as noted in footnote 3, above, that Roy (and by extension, his brother, Monte) are Americans who have enlisted in the Royal Flying Corps. [↩]
- C. Hooper Trask, “German Film Notes,” New York Times, 22 February 1931, 99. [↩]
- Mordaunt Hall, “The Screen: Sky Battles,” New York Times, 16 August 1930, 13. [↩]
- James R. Quirk, “Close-Ups and Long-Shots,” Photoplay XXXVII, 5 (October 1930), 29. The magazine’s only review of the film appeared in its August 1930 issue and stated, in its entirety: “‘Hell’s Angels,’ which took three years and several lives to make, is sorely handicapped. Only in spots is it great, notably in the immensity and daring of its flying stuff. Ben Lyon and James Hall, as the brothers, are splendid. Jean Harlow, newcomer, tries hard with an unsympathetic role. The rest of the cast is fine. Now, don’t mistake. ‘Hell’s Angels’ is worth seeing. But $4,000,000 worth?” Photoplay XXXVIII, 3 (August 1930), 56. In the next month’s issue, Quirk referred to the film as “that four-million-dollar flop.” Photoplay XXXVIII, 4 (September 1930), 27. The Film Daily, a trade paper for movie exhibitors focused on the commercial potential of new films, gave Hell’s Angels an enthusiastic, if mildly mixed, assessment. Under the subheading “Mighty Spectacle of Aerial Side of War Affords Tremendous Box-Office Entertainment,” its reviewer wrote: “Superlatives which are ordinarily extravagant may be justly used in describing this picture, particularly the sequences made in the air… The love theme, which ends early in the story, is not missed because the events transpiring are so awe-inspiring that they minimize a conventional treatment of the subject… The older [brother] is excellently played by James Hall. Ben Lyon, doing the weaker brother is superb. Jean Harlow, as a fickle lady, has plenty of s. a. [sex appeal] and looks.” The Film Daily, 24 August 1930, 10. [↩]