Hell's Angels

And hell's memorable belle, here and there among the aerial sequences. The film looks dated and the story seems to have been written in crayon by Hughes; it's a testimony to his two great loves--wings and breasts, about good brother and bad brother, and the blonde who comes between them. Beside Hughes, it was directed by Marshall Neilan, Luther Reed, and...read more

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And hell's memorable belle, here and there among the aerial sequences. The film looks dated and the story seems to have been written in crayon by Hughes; it's a testimony to his two great loves--wings and breasts, about good brother and bad brother, and the blonde who comes between them. Beside Hughes, it was directed by Marshall Neilan, Luther Reed, and sometimes James Whale (credited as dialogue director, but he also wrote much of the script). There is a bang-up aerial dogfight and a solid zeppelin sequence; many believe these moments have never been surpassed. Hughes worked them out on blackboards and with model planes before he shot. When the zeppelin moves through the clouds and we see London below, we feel inside the camera.

The plot was corn in 1930--it feels very much like a silent picture--and eighteen year-old Harlow hasn't the foggiest notion what she's supposed to do. Her take on the British Helen is undeniably piggy, but clad in a velvet evening gown with beaded straps, she's like no one the camera had ever photographed when she turns her bare back to us. And audiences stopped laughing when she inquired, "Would you be shocked if I put on something more comfortable?"

Launched in 1927 as the first major effort of Hughes's Caddo Productions, the ANGELS was so long in the making that sound came into being, and much of the film, which had been shot as a silent, had to be redone. Both Lyon and Hall had good "sound" voices, but the female lead, Greta Nissen, had a pronounced Norwegian accent, and, though Hughes had paid her handsomely, he scrapped her performance completely and began searching for a new actress who could handle the role's vocal chores. Among the candidates was Harlow, then an 18-year-old, blue-eyed platinum blonde with a voluptuous shape. Although Hughes was unimpressed with her screen test, Harlow's agent, Arthur Landau, talked the millionaire playboy into letting his client play the part. Her debut caused Hughes endless arguments with the censors. After the film, Hughes inexplicably ignored the new star he had created, though he had the presence of mind to put her under permanent contract. Nevertheless, he sold her contract for a mere $60,000 to MGM, for whom she would make millions as the reigning sex queen of the cinema until her death in 1937.

The film's staggering $3.8 million budget made HELL'S ANGELS the cinema's most expensive film to date, and Hughes, determined to get his money back, employed the kind of hoopla for which he later became notorious, arranging for a squadron of planes to buzz Grauman's Chinese Theater at the film's premiere while parachutists descended on Hollywood Boulevard. Trying to orchestrate a similarly flashy stunt in New York, Hughes offered the owners of the dirigible Graf Zeppelin $100,000 to sail over Broadway and 42nd Street, where two theaters were premiering the film, but the owners refused. Despite his best efforts, Hughes took a bath on the film, losing more than $1.5 million, although, at first, he claimed to have made $2 million. It is said that he later admitted that the film would have been better and cost less had he allowed someone else to direct it.

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