Hells Angels directed by Howard Hughes (1930 and 1958. DVD Version from Universal)

If you’ve watched Leonardo Dicaprio’s depiction of billionaire Howard Hughes’ obsession to “get it right” regarding the British fighter pilots of the Great War, then you must watch this film. Why? Hells Angels is Hughes’ final product after $4 million dollars in production costs, years of filming, nearly 140 real WW I airplanes and a similar number of pilots, and the deaths of (reportedly) three stunt fliers who perished during the making of this fine film. Hughes himself was a pilot, a man of talent behind the stick of an airplane. He knew what he wanted when he leveraged his early fortune in the late 1920s to make this movie: He wanted real action, not models or spliced newsreel footage, to depict what it was like to fight dogfights in the Great War.

Mostly, the director succeeded. However, the best scenes aren’t those replicating plane on plane combat, but the exquisite details Hughes gave the rendering of a massive German Zeppelin during a night time bombing run on London. The models and mock-ups used in the Zeppelin sequence make the movie, in my humble view, far more so than the tepid acting that we are given by the film’s principle actors (with one notable exception).

The plot concerns two English brothers who go to war as pilots. The leads, played by Ben Lyon and James Hall, are adequate, not stellar. Hughes’ attempt to be ironic, to include a third wheel, if you will, into the brothers’ story, a German aristocrat-turned-officer, as a foil, fails. There is simply too much coincidence and not enough acting behind John Darrow’s portrayal of the German to make that character an interesting study.

But the saving grace of the picture in terms of acting, in my view, is the appearance of Jean Harlow in her first major film. She plays the vampy love interest to both brothers. Harlow’s portrayal of a seductress, seventy plus years after her death in 1937 due to kidney failure, still rings true. She plays to her attributes, both physical and intellectual, during this film in ways which made her portrayal believable and endearing despite her character’s lack of mainstream morality. One can only wonder what Harlow would have been like in middle and old age as an actress given the level of sophistication she brings to her role in this film.

In the end, the plot is a bit thin and forced, but there is enough action here, together with Harlow’s performance, to satisfy both the mind and the heart. A memorable film from a memorable man.

4 stars out of 5.

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