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Hell's Angels

September 26th, 2005 (12:00 am)

© 2005 D. Gordon.

Not that one...

From Amazon.com

...that one.

From Amazon.com

One good thing about blockbusters is that they encourage the release of otherwise unavailable related movies. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon's success played a role in the release of the Shaw Brother’s entire catalog on DVD. Van Helsing tied into a Dracula revival, including the original Spanish version, filmed simultaneously with the 1931 version. If there were justice in the world, Chicago (2002) would have meant Chicago (1927), even if only as a DVD extra. And, following in the tradition, The Aviator has produced a bumper crop – of both older Scorsese (especially on the big screen) and several long-missing Howard Hughes productions.

Turner Classic Movies recently televised several of the Hughes films, including Aviator plot point Hell’s Angels. This is the first of only two Hughes-directed movies, made fairly early in his Hollywood career. Maybe that's the problem, but the movie is a mixed bag: Hell’s Angels has some stultifyingly bad stretches sprinkled with some astoundingly good action sequences. First, the bad bits: there’s no other way to say it – the story sucks and the dialog only makes it worse. Two brothers goof around life; Monte, the gullible one, falls for Jean Harlow (uh-oh) and Roy, the wiser one, doesn’t stop him. Then comes WWI. They go off to war, become pilots, volunteer for a suicide mission; Mr. Gullible finds out how "faithful" Jean is just in time to make the mission. The brothers fly off and end up captured behind enemy lines, then end up dying in a murder-suicide pact rather than give up the secrets of their mission. (And the whole thing looks better in print than it plays onscreen.) The Monte character, a playboy/pacifist/coward who can’t decide what he really is, throws a fit about the futility of war that puts Jerry Lewis’ Buddy Love transformation to shame. He and his brother (and why are they serving in the same squadron, much less on the same suicide mission?) sacrifice themselves for the greater good; however, when the Germans do that, they’re barbarians. Jean Harlow – well, she’s very blond, scantily clad, and could have been worse, I suppose. The random French is Americanized, and the main characters become Brits by modulating their American accidents, throwing in a couple of "old chaps," and calling it a day. (God knows about the German.) The women in general are shrill caricatures by a borderline misogynist, and the bad guys don’t even make it to one-dimensional. It’s just baaaad (cue Leonard Pinth-Garnell).

On the other hand, Hell’s Angels also has some of the most realistic and imaginative flying sequences of their day, and there wasn't much that matched them for a good 50 years afterward. This isn’t about storyline but pure action: Hughes poured all of his genius into what he understood and went beyond A+. Hell’s Angels wasn’t the first movie to take the camera up in the air; the phenomenally successful Wings (which is a good picture) had just won a Best Picture Oscar for doing just that, and the rule-of-two’s The Flying Fleet had somewhat successfully hopped on the bandwagon as well. But Hughes was more than up to bypassing the earlier movies, staging an aerial ballet featuring a good twenty planes manouvering through skilled acrobatics in a very small space. (Well, maybe skill is relative – three pilots died during filming.) The good guys fly white planes and the bad guys fly black, but with the close-ups and dives and crackups at eye level several thousand feet up, there’s something really exciting going on.

I suppose I could cut Hughes some slack for the bad stuff. The original film was shot as a silent, but The Jazz Singer rocked the industry and changed the rules just as he was preparing for release. Hughes saw where the future lay and, as producer (and most likely funding source), decided to add sound. This meant canning the thick-accented Norwegian female lead for the 18-yr old Harlow and reshooting most of the film. The big problem was that this was early days for sound; no one really knew how to use the new medium, and Hughes’s genius lay with airplanes, not handling the new technology (see Lubitsch for that). Even The Jazz Singer only has a few minutes of sound sequences, so doesn't provide much of an example. So the heroes patter on during the aerial fight scenes, and the dialog comes from the Sarah Bernhardt school.

One interesting glimpse of the movie's evolution: the nighttime zeppelin chase scene is probably least changed from the original silent version. The dialog is exclusively German, as the Kaiser’s soldiers pursue their mission to bomb Trafalgar Square (I don’t know why; maybe they don’t like pigeons). Hughes doesn’t translate most of it, but when he does he uses beautifully wrought intertitles which, combined with the visuals, pretty efficiently convey the gist of what’s going on. This got me to thinking... with the sound turned down and a few more intertitles, a good number of the blemishes start fading away and the story fills out. A modern audience used to simultaneous translation might feel frustrated, but the audience Hughes was targeting probably would have been very comfortable with the economy of text. And again, when it gets away from that newfangled mike, the film clearly improves.

Whether sound or silent though, the story itself was just... painful. But maybe it’s best to see Hell’s Angels as documentation of a transition point in film history and a major milestone in the life of a notable American. 'Cause otherwise there's just no excuse.