Hell’s Angels (1930) was the most expensive film of its time ($3.8 million) and an event picture like no other. Howard Hughes — in typically obsessive fashion — was determined that this would be the last word in aviation spectacle, and indeed the last word in spectacle, period. Naturally, this meant he took so long making his originally silent epic that he ended up having to redo all the dialogue scenes as a talkie. (For this, he called in stage director James Whale, who was cooling his heels in Hollywood waiting for the studio to be ready to shoot his film version of his stage success Journey’s End.) What Hughes ended up with — apart from the picture that gave the world the line, “Pardon me while I slip into something more comfortable” — was indeed a spectacle. In fact, the film’s epic scenes are as astonishing today as they were 82 years ago. And the rest of the film is every bit as clunky and dumb as it ever was. (Don’t look for any of the trademark cinematic flourishes you might expect from James Whale in the dialogue scenes.) The story is little more than a string of hoary clichés about a good brother (James Hall), a morally weak one (Ben Lyon), the good brother’s trampy fiancee (Jean Harlow) and everything that suggests. Even a (really rather pointless) Technicolor sequence doesn’t do much to perk up the straight scenes — though it does provide us with Harlow’s only color film and the only time Whale ever worked with color. The action scenes, on the other hand, are breathtaking — especially the section of the film involving a zeppelin raid on England. That part of the film is better than the best of today’s CGI-driven effects. There’s no doubt that this is — for all its lumpiness and dodgy theatrics — an essential movie, but it’s best approached with a little caution.
The Hendersonville Film Society will show Hell’s Angels Sunday, Oct. 14 at 2 p.m. in the Smoky Mountain Theater at Lake Pointe Landing Retirement Community (behind Epic Cinemas), 333 Thompson St., Hendersonville.