Hell’s Angels

Planes dogfighting in the sky

Howard Hughes had almost finished his action-packed, stunt-driven epic Hell’s Angels, at vast expense, in 1928 when silent movies were suddenly made obsolete by the vast success of The Jazz Singer. So he did what any mega-rich tycoon who just happened to own a film studio would do – he remade it.

Out went his female star in the process. Greta Nissen was Norwegian and had a heavy accent, and so she became one of the first casualties of the talkies, which destroyed many an established career (which is what the plot of Singin’ in the Rain is all about, after all). In came unknown 18-year-old Jean Harlow to fill the gap, while Hughes also brought in the rookie James Whale to help direct the new talking sequences.

Hughes kept as much of the old silent film as he could. Which is why there are three directors named on the IMDb entry for this film (though only Hughes’s name is on the screen credits). It breaks down like this: Edmund Goulding shot the silent sequences set on the ground (sound has been added afterwards but you can easily make them out, not least because the frame speed is all wrong). Hughes shot all the aerial sequences; and Whale did all the new dialogue sequences.

The film is designed as a vast Hollywood entertainment, with all the major food groups – action, comedy, romance, drama – and tells the story of a Cain and Abel-alike pair of brothers, one a solid plodder, the other a dashing gadabout. The story kicks off in pre-First World War Germany, where dull Roy (James Hall) and feckless Monte (Ben Lyon) are carousing with their German friend Karl (John Darrow), a fellow Oxford student who’s going to find himself on the other side of the great divide when the lights start going out all over Europe.

Ben Lyon and Jean Harlow
Monte tries not to peer down Helen’s top

The story only half-heartedly follows Karl, who has mixed feelings about fighting against a country he knows and loves, and is much more interested in Helen, a va-va-voom temptress of almost biblical scale, played with all sirens wailing by Jean Harlow. Harlow clearly cannot act – James Whale shut down production for days to bring her up to speed – but she has all the wanton sexiness a true star needs. Who needs acting? Helen is boring Roy’s squeeze but the moment the rascally Monte claps eyes on her, and her on him, the sparks are flying.

Again, Hughes sets this up but he isn’t as full-throated in following the Roy-Helen-Monte threeway as you might expect, though there are enough scenes of Harlow’s tight young breasts loose under her sheer pre-Code dresses that we get the idea. Hughes was a tit man, let’s not forget.

What Hughes is really interested in is the aerial stunts. And once the story has engineered both brothers into signing up for the Royal Flying Corps (the forerunner of the RAF), he has all the pretext he needs.

Really, Harlow apart, these are the reason why the film still flies today. They are properly spectacular. An early taster, of a vast German airship heading to bomb London with Karl on board, is impressive enough – the way the Zeppelin moves like a whale between vast billowing clouds, the on-board sequences on sets that are marvels of art nouveau design and technical sophistication. But it’s the climactic aerial combat sequences that are what the film is really all about. Featuring First World War biplanes flown to showcase their manoeuvrability, they’re masterpieces of aerial choreography, cinematography and editing. Apart from an aerial bombardment sequence, which uses models, it’s nearly all done for real. And when you’re after realism, real wins every time.

Three pilots and one mechanic died in the making of this film and Hughes himself ended up in hospital after crashing a plane while trying to impress the ex First World War hotshots he’d hired as stunt fliers. They’d warned him the plane he was taking out was hard to handle but he went and did it anyway.

It’s a good-looking film and much of it was hand-tinted, not much of which has survived the intervening decades, though the early duel scene – Roy stepping up to trade swords with a cuckolded husband after the cowardly Monte flees Germany –  in a vibrant blue gives an indication of how vivid the film must once have looked (incidentally, the composition of this scene seems also to have impressed Ridley Scott, who borrowed its silhouette looks for The Duellists). For lovers of very early colour films there’s also a two-strip colour sequences set at the ball where Helen first meets Monte, which is the only non-monochrome footage of Harlow.

Monte, incidentally, is not the hero. The sexy guy may get all the girls but he doesn’t get any kudos. It’s the dullard we’re meant to root for. Hollywood would tweak this equation down the line. As for the bad, sexy blonde bombshell who could have any man, Harlow made the mould that’s still in use.

Hell’s Angels – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

© Steve Morrissey 2022

Nightmare Alley

Zeena and Stanton in a carnival truck

1947’s Nightmare Alley is lavish, melodramatic, contains a hint of the supernatural and is a touch too long – you can see why Guillermo Del Toro wanted to remake it. It’s also a great role for a matinee idol trying to shrug off a pretty-boy tag (Tyrone Power even more so than Bradley Cooper in the remake).

In a tale about a carnival worker tasting the heights and then plunging into the depths, Jules Furthman’s adaptation of William Lindsay Gresham’s best-seller plays the hubris card early on, in a little speech in which carnie Stanton Carlisle (Power) explains himself. “You see those yokels out there,” he says to mindreader Zeena (Joan Blondell), laying out what it means to him to be a carnie. “It gives you sort of a superior feeling… as if you were in the know and they were on the outside looking in.”

By the end, Stanton has ridden to the top, also as a mentalist, having stolen big-hearted Zeena’s act, then married naive bimbo Molly (Coleen Gray) and finally met his match in tough-as-nails femme fatale Dr Lilith Ritter (Helen Walker). And he’s touched bottom, in outro scenes where he’s now back in the carnival “starring” as The Geek, a half-man, half-beast who’s kept alive on hooch and biscuits. How the mighty have fallen. “How can a guy get so low?” one carnie asks the carnival owner. “He reached too high,” is the answer.

Furthman clearly wants us to see Stanton as an Icarus “reaching too high” and being scorched by success. But in fact Stanton’s trajectory is much more obviously exactly what you’d expect from a Hollywood story of the era about a heel straightforwardly getting his just deserts. “The sympathy of the audience should never be thrown to the side of crime,” as the studio code (the Hays Code) put it.

Dr Ritter and Stanton
The doctor and the huckster

You can see why Power wanted to do Nightmare Alley. As a character, Power’s fine matinee looks to one side, Stanton is a man with few positives, a schemer and charmer ascending the slippery pole mainly by deceiving women. This was his favourite film and he puts on a fine, intense performance that’s a world away from the swashbuckling roles that made his name. It allowed him to act rather than just stand about in postures vaguely reminiscent of Douglas Fairbanks.

Having Power in the role is probably why the film is longer than your average noir – this film has a budget, too, and is beautifully shot by DP Lee Garmes, whose bizarre focusing decisions early on (the back of Molly’s head rather than Stanton’s face – that’s just wrong) cannot detract from the fact that this is a gorgeous looking film. The cast is good too – Blondell, Gray and Walker standouts as the three very different women in Stanton’s life might fit neatly into the Freudian id/ego/superego paradigm, and the fact that Walker is playing a shrink (a carnival huckster in finer threads, the film suggests) lends the idea some weight. Hollywood screenwriters at the time were obsessed with psychoanalyis.

Edmund Goulding directs with invisible pazzazz, upping the rhythm of the actors’ line delivery and the movements of his camera as the drama wends towards its pitiless climax. Music is notably absent up front and Cyril Mockridge only starts to add punctuating melodramatic stabs as matters come to a head, particularly as Stanton over-reaches himself and unwittingly engineers his own downfall.

By the end, there is an echo of the finale of Tod Browning’s Freaks as Stanton gets his comeuppance at the hands of the carnival crowd, having taken a swig of gin ten minutes before the end and then – in fine melodramatic style – become almost instantly an alcoholic who can’t find the bottom of a bottle fast enough.

The original ending was bleak as hell, and so studio boss Darryl F Zanuck tacked on that happyish end, which is easily ignored. It didn’t fool the public, which wasn’t ready to see the swaggering star of many an adventure on the high seas dressed in a T shirt (an early sighting) and behaving like an utter bastard. Nightmare Alley bombed. Not so Del Toro’s remake.

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© Steve Morrissey 2022