As you may now, even though I live in New Zealand, my passport is a British one. My home town started out as a tiny countryside village in Essex. But then the Second World War happened, and in particular the blitz, and there was suddenly a severe lack of liveable accommodation in London. Built in the fifties to house those bombed out Londoners, it was one of a halo of ‘New Towns’ on the outskirts of London. Harlow is its’ name and it was designed around the concept of neighbourhoods, each area had its own shopping precinct, parks and, of course, a pub. As the years went by, the fifties concrete structures started to crumble and the descendants of those original migrant Londoners stunk up the place.
There was a town centre drinking establishment frequented by a large contingent of these scumbag descendants that was named partly after the town but also named after a 30’s screen starlet. I dared to enter on a few occasions and was once offered the chance to buy a gun for £20. I demurred. Why am I telling you all this? This pub was called the ‘Jean Harlow’. Her picture hung on a swinging sign outside the front door. As a youngster I asked my Dad the question, ‘Who’s Jean Harlow?’ ‘Just an old actress’ he said ‘Sad story really. She was big news, made lots of films and then died at the age of 26’. And that was all I knew about her. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a film with her in it…..until today.
‘Hells Angels’ (1930) is a Howard Hughes film and is considered one of the first blockbusters of the sound era. With production starting in 1927 it was originally planned as a silent. Indeed, sections of the film were shot silent and had sound and speech added afterwards. Hughes, a flyer himself and aircraft buff by all accounts was as difficult to work with as ever and made his way through several senior production personnel during the course of filming. There was another film, The Dawn Patrol (1930) covering similar ground in production at the same time and what with Hughes famously slow editing there ended up being all sorts of litigation going on.
The basic plot is that we have two brothers, very different characters, who sign up to the Royal Flying Corp. One is a carouser and womaniser the other a thoughtful, romantic. There is some push and pull with our female love interest. It’s worthy of note here that the usually 2-dimensional, watery eyed and benign female is played in full technicolor warts and all glory by Jean Harlow who manages to make her character a pre-code, partially clothed good time girl whilst giving her something else, slightly sad, slightly menacing. I can’t quite put my finger on it but it’s good.
The film comes in at two hours ten or so and there’s plenty going on. Most of it follows the standards of the day and I yawn a little as I again recite some of the motifs on display. We have a love triangle (Wings, The Big Parade), there’s friends from different countries fighting against each other (Four Sons, The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse) and the class war between the pilots and their staff (Aces High, The Blue Max). There’s also a whiff of Theatre Production about most of the scene staging which I think is most likely due to a young James Whale being used to direct the dialogue scenes with Hughes focussing on the action stuff.
But there’s lots of cool stuff for Great War buffs as well. This is only the second Great War Film I’ve watched with a significant Zeppelin storyline, the other being ‘Zeppelin‘ funnily enough. This is great and the fact it was produced so soon after the war means (hopefully) there’s an element of accuracy to it all. There’s a horned ‘Listening Machine’ used by the erstwhile Brits to catch the Zepps and a good bit where the German friend of our English heroes is dropped in a spy basket from the Zeppelin. From a film history perspective this is also the earliest film I’ve seen with a bit of proper colour in it. It’s actually the only colour footage of Jean Harlow as well, which is cool.
As I said, there were several sections of the film already in the can before the advent of sound on film. Rather than ditching it and starting afresh Hughes decided to keep the silent sections and add Foley sound effects and (badly) lip-synced dialogue. Even so these bits are obviously ‘Silent’. There are intertitles, over the top, hammy, facial acting, there’s blue tinting of the film stock to signify night-time. It’s not a problem to the overall flow of the film but it does stick out like a sore thumb and if I didn’t know the reason behind it I’d have probably wondered what was going on.
There are two rounds of action scenes. The first involves our heroes battling the Zeppelin in their biplanes. These are clearly models but it’s well done for the time, by which I mean you can’t see the string. Towards the end there’s a massive Allied vs Flying Circus aerial battle. I paused the film and counted easily thirty planes in the shot. This was brilliantly shot, choreographed and edited into possibly the most coherent aerial battle scene I’ve viewed.
So all in all it’s a success. The early sound era scritchy sound and poor acting are things I’ve come to expect from films in the early 30’s. Hughes genius is visible and runs through the veins of this film. It’s a bit disjointed which I think is mostly due to the silent era stuff being edited with the sound and Technicolor stock but the story holds together and has a good mix of action, character development and emotions. The acting isn’t up to much but that and all the other slightly crappy bits don’t come anywhere near overbalancing the excellent closing large scale battle scene. In a nutshell, it’s a good’un. Clicky Clicky if you want to own a copy. Let me know what you think.