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on June 11, 2001
Hell?s Angels is an amazing film. It is certainly the best WWI aviation film, although Wings runs it close, and it has flying sequences that are simply staggering, because they are so obviously real. There is a wonderful sequence depicting the attack on an enormous Zeppelin which shows how the giant airship actually operated and gives a sense of its size, slowness and vulnerability. Also worthy of note is a mass dogfight involving a captured German bomber, Baron Von Richthofen?s Flying Circus and what seems like most of the Royal Flying Corps. At times the sky is filled with bi-planes performing thrilling manoeuvres, but the film does not fail to show the individuals in this fight and to point out the horrific human cost of the fighting. Hell?s Angels is in fact surprisingly violent, showing men consumed in flames and screaming to their deaths. Actually it is remarkably frank in a number of ways. Jean Harlow gives a star-making performance which oozes sex. She never looked better especially when uttering her famous line ?Would you be shocked if I put on something more comfortable?? Here is a woman who knows what she wants and doesn?t allow conventions to get in her way. What?s more the film doesn?t attempt to tone-down this characterization. She frankly admits she wants nothing to do with marriage and family values and it is this frankness which must have seemed so shocking to contemporary audiences. Hell?s Angels is also not afraid to show flyers full of fear and questioning the point of the war. It?s most sympathetic character is a coward who just wants to live. The story is thus rather unusual, especially for a war film, for it does not contain the heroics and the heroes so familiar from the genre, but rather shows the grim determination of scared men to get the job done.
It is possible to find a few criticisms of this film. The two leading men are only adequate as actors and lack the charisma of more familiar thirties leading men. Furthermore they are not particularly convincing as Englishmen for they make little attempt to disguise their American accents. Also the German characters are a little too stereotypical and at times slightly ludicrous, especially in one scene where they show their Teutonic willingness to die for the Fatherland by jumping from a Zeppelin.
The print used for this MCA Universal video is first class. It has been restored so that it includes some tinted night and early morning scenes and includes a wonderful early Technicolor party scene. The sound is better than is often the case with early talkies; there is very little background noise, although there are some snatches of dialogue which are a little indistinct. This is a high quality video and essential viewing for fans of WWI aviation films.
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on December 15, 2004
Three reasons to watch this film:

- still-teenaged Jean Harlow, radiant in her only Technicolor footage, and giving a much better performance under the direction of (I assume) James Whale than she would in "Public Enemy" a year later;

- a riveting nighttime Zeppelin attack with an astounding payoff;

- aerial battle scenes unmatched for realism that truly convey the terror of fights-to-the-death in the skies (apparently three pilots died doing the remarkable stunts).

Ben Lyon is the only lead performer whose acting seems fairly modern and somewhat natural while the other male leads are still stuck in that strange, stilted early-talkie mode (the film was begun as a silent and morphed into a talkie over a two-year shoot spanning 1928-1930). The biggest flaw is the ridiculous stereotypical portrayal of the German commanders as sadistic Huns straight out of a WWI propaganda film; this is the most dated element in what remains, given the period in which it was produced, an amazingly entertaining film, beautifully restored in its current DVD incarnation by UCLA film restoration experts.
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on August 6, 1999
I happened to catch this film for the first time on the big screen on August 6th, at the classic Alex Theatre in Glendale, CA. What an experience! Yes, the dialogue was corny and somewhat dated, although, I feel that many reviewers tend to somewhat over-exaggerate this just a bit in their assessment of the film. The eight-minute two-color sequence is worth viewing in itself (especially seeing that this is the only existing color footage of the beautiful Jean Harlow) as an early example of the evolution of technicolor. The battle sequences had the audience on the edge of their seats, and the sultry Harlow had the audience in an uproar. All in All, this film is worth owning because of it's historical significance alone, and the non-aerial scenes are quite enjoyable and breath-taking. We must remember that films, like everything else, are products of the era in which they're made, and we must keep in mind that the political correctness which saturates today's films may seem "corny" as well, some fifty-sixty years from now.
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on December 10, 2004
I just purchased this video and watched it last night. By any standards it is a stunning work, and, considering when it was made, was a groundbreaking achievement for its time. As reported in other posts, the acting is only pedestrian. However, it was interesting to see Jean Harlow in her prime. One can see why she was viewed as the Marilyn Monroe of her era. This film is worth watching for a variety of reasons. First of all the ariel sequences are amazing, particularly the Zeppelin segment and the final dogfight (over California?). I doubt if any film has surpassed the conveyance of sheer terror in these sequences. Of interest was the pilot who was taking repeated swigs from a bottle hidden in his cockpit to maintain his courage during the dogfight. The sight of so many planes in the air at once rival (and surpass in many respects) similar scenes in the Blue Max. In fact, the films Blue Max and Zeppelin owe much to this film re: their ariel sequences. The other standout feature is the clever use of color. Some early morning sequences are in red tint, night in blue, and, an amazing ballroom scene in multicolor. Whether you are a fan of war films, vintage films or flying, this is a MUST SEE film. A review of it is easy. Watch it and share a bit of the thrill Howard Hughes had when he made his ultimate flying film!!
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"Hell's Angels", the first film directed by Howard Hughes, is one of the most remarkable unremarkable films you will likely ever see.

If you have seen "The Aviator", you know a little about the production of this film. Hughes, who suffered from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, was a rich man who moved to Hollywood, ready to conquer the industry. He labored over every frame, spending a lot of his own money and taking a lot of time to make sure every frame was just right. Just as the film was ready to be released, sound was introduced to movies with "The Jazz Singer". Hughes decided that he needed to reshoot the entire film in sound. Adding more money and time to his production schedule. The film was finally released in 1930 and caused a sensation. More on that later.

The story is about two brothers, Monty and Roy, and their German friend, Karl, all of whom are attending Oxford just before World War I begins. A few months earlier, on a trip to Germany, Roy is caught having an affair with the wife of Baron Von Kranz. Challenging him to a duel, the Baron expects to see Roy at sunrise. However, Roy flees back to Oxford. Monty decides to uphold the family values and fight in his place, getting wounded. They return to Oxford, where Monty begins romancing Helen (Harlow). As soon as war is declared, Karl is yanked back to Germany and all three become members of their respective country's air forces. You can probably guess what will happen throughout the remainder of the narrative. We have all seen variations of this narrative a hundred times since.

"Hell's Angels" is remarkable for two reasons. The first are the aerial battles. As documented in Scorcese's film, Hughes was obsessed with making these two scenes realistic, terrifying and memorable. He succeeds. The first involves a Hindenburg airship flying towards London. The RAF receives word of the ship approaching and the brothers fly off to destroy it. These scenes are remarkably realistic. Considering the film was made before 1930, it is difficult to tell which parts of the scenes were shot using real people and which, if any, were shot using special effects. We get the sense that we are actually on the flight deck on an airship as the German officers try to determine where to drop their bombs. The first shot of the airship coming out of a bank of clouds, tinted dark blue for night, will be an image that I remember for a long time.

The second scene involves two squadrons of flyers, one British, the other German, fighting it out in the air. This is the scene Hughes was making during the beginning of "The Aviator". If we are to believe that film, this was shot with real airplanes, actors, and cameras. And it is also amazing. It has a different sort of visual poetry to it, but it is no less effective than the previous scene. The planes flying around, fighting, dropping through clouds ("We need clouds." "There are clouds in Oakland."), are fantastic to watch. Again, both of these scenes are all the more amazing because they were shot before 1930.

The second remarkable thing about "Angels" is that it marked the first starring role for Jean Harlow. Harlow, 19 at the time, would become one of the biggest stars in Hollywood before she died at a young age. Hughes, always looking to provide the audience with the latest in technology, chose to use color tinting throughout the film, a fairly common practice in silent films. Filmmakers used a color to provide the scene with an overall feeling, to enhance the drama or action unfolding on the screen. Night scenes were frequently tinted dark blue. A suspenseful scene might be tinted purple. Hughes goes one step further. He uses early color techniques for one scene featuring Harlow. I believe this is the only color film of Jean Harlow to exist in a motion picture. The scene itself is unremarkable except that we get to see this icon, this future sex symbol, in as close to an approximation of real life as possible. Imagine if we had never seen Marilyn Monroe in color and you begin to get the idea of the importance of this small segment of the film.

Watching the film for the first time seventy-five years after it's initial release, I noticed something in the credits. James Whale, the director of "Frankenstein" and other films, is credited with directing the dialogue scenes in "Angels". This caused a number of things to click into place for me. In "The Aviator", Hughes is portrayed as being obsessed with getting the aerial scenes just right. He needs a twenty-fourth camera. He wants clouds in the background to give the planes a feeling of speed. He wants everything to be perfect. His other passion was creating fast airplanes. Both of these elements would seem to fit together, to make sense. It would be natural for someone like Hughes to be more than a little disinterested in worrying about something like dialogue or story. He left this part of the filmmaking process to Whale.

When I watch a film for the first time, I try to think about the film as it might have been perceived in its original release. This was nigh on impossible for me with "Angels". The three male leads all appear to be in a high school play, attempting bad British accents, speaking bad dialogue. Even the actor playing Karl, the German friend, appears to be "acting" British. They walk stiffly and everything is staged as it would be in a play. This was actually a lot more common in the early days of film, because they simply didn't know how to stage the action in a more interesting way. There are a number of films from this period that have much more engaging acting.

The plot is very predictable. I can't imagine that this story was fresh even in 1929 or 1930. It seems lifted straight out of a parlor drama or from the stage, from a play that may have been popular at the time, but which we have never heard of since. Rightfully so. If you think about the story I have outlined above for a few moments, you will be able to predict all of the turns in the story.

When a filmmaker goes to such great pains to create a part of their film in such vivid detail, you would expect the rest of the project to be of an equal caliber. A good modern example of this would be James Cameron's "Titanic". Cameron spent a lot of time and money recreating the ship and then sinking it. This happens close to two hours into the film. What keeps the audience watching until this point? It is the romance between Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio. Yes, the story is predictable, and we have seen it a million times, but it works. Cameron spent a lot of time on the special effects, but he also devotes a lot of time to the story and characters leading up to the event. If we don't care about the people on the boat, we won't care that the boat is sinking.

Hughes creates two great aerial sequences, which run about 20 minutes. Unfortunately, you have to sit through almost 110 minutes to get to them. And, ultimately, as good as these sequences are, we really aren't that concerned with the outcome, because we don't know or care enough about the people in the planes to care if they crash.

"Hell's Angels" was a huge hit, earning a profit for Hughes and leading him to direct "Scarface" starring Paul Muni. Audiences were no doubt awed by the aerial scenes and less critical of the rest of the story.
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on February 9, 2005
"Hell's Angels" will no doubt return to public attention for a time because of the success of Martin Scorsese's "The Aviator," and that attention is well deserved. Howard Hughes' World War I epic is notable on a number of levels, not the least of which is the fact that it introduced Jean Harlow. The flying/action sequences were clearly ahead of their time and still hold up quite well, and this alone puts this film in rare company. There have only been a few notable films about the air war in World War I ("Wings," "Dawn Patrol," "The Blue Max," and maybe "Darling Lili")and this is about as good as it gets. The zeppelin sequence is just simply outstanding. The story and individual acting...well, Huges should have delgated to James Whale who was a part of the production. Harlow does stand out, but that was not difficult. Her peformance was allowed to sizzle (and she did that), and the rest of the cast was not at all memorable. The making of the film is the stuff of legend and that story is becoming known via the hype surrounding "The Aviator" (also a good film). The restored film on DVD is something of a treasure. Rarely do we see films from this era in such good shape. The production evolved in that awkward period between silent film and "talkies" and it shows in places. The dialogue is stilted, and the musical score is only barely serviceable, but the sound effects, like the visuals, are at times unbelievable for the time. A great value at a low price, and well produced and packaged by Universal, this is a must for serious film buffs.
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on January 1, 2005
The first multi-million dollar production, this film is FINALLY released on DVD, and neatly coincides with the release of "The Aviator", the Scorcese biopic of Howard Hughes (who directed and produced "Hell's Angels").

The film is set during World War 1 and tells the story of two men, friends, who both enter the army. Jean Harlow (who at that time dated Hughes, and he gave her her first starring role) plays Helen, the love interest of both the men. The film is by no means AFI's ultimate classic but makes for adequate entertainment as far as the plot goes. The film, released finally in 1930 after over two years of production, was originally meant to be silent but during production sound came along and the film was hastily re-done to include sound. Not that it was necessarily a blessing - the "dialog" is often corny and the actors, products of the silent era, have very "silent" acting styles, unlike the more natural style that would come with the advent of sound.

However there are two things about this film that have made it important viewing: The amazing aerial dogfight sequence (those are real planes, not model airplanes!) and the first starring role of Jean Harlow.

The dogfight sequence was 100% real, with over 100 airplanes flown by over 100 pilots, doing amazing twists and turns in the sky whiles Hughes himself flew along in his own plane filming the action. Four pilots reportedly lost their lives during this sequence.

Also important is the first starring role of Jean Harlow. Harlow had been a bit actress for a few years by the time she was cast as a starring role in this film. Harlow was only 19 when production commenced and her acting lacked the nuance it would later take on but evident here is the effortless drama/comedy tranistion she would later become famous for. This film is essential for all Harlow fans as a reference point for her development as an actress.

Also notable is a 10-minute party sequence filmed in two-strip color technology. Though not the vibrant Technicolor that would later dominate films, this is remarkable for the early use of color as well as being the only color footage of Jean Harlow that exists.

However, the DVD itself is lacking in features. The film is significant as it was the first multi-million dollar production, the film with the famous dogfight sequence, etc etc yet there are no extras offered on the DVD, no is there even a little slip of paper with the titles included or a booklet. I expected when I bought this there would be some extras - commentary by film historians, footage of the famous 1930 Hollywood premiere, info on Howard Hughes and the stars, but nothing.

In all, 4 stars to the film itself but two stars to the DVD for lacking much-deserved bonus features.
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on July 23, 1999
Hell's Angles is the best flying movie ever made says almost anyone who has ever seen it. It, like Battle of Britain, has scenes that can never be filmed again.
Unfortunately, most of the non-flying scenes are as bad as the rest is great. However, the flying sequences must be seen to be believed. The two pilots who crashed their SPAD 13s head-on in mid air were paid $1000 extra each, according to Ceiling Zero, a book by the great stunt pilot Dick Grace, one of the stunt pilots who did the deed. Another stunt man was killed in the bomber crash, as was the driver of the ammo truck. I mention this to bring out the "real effects" nature of the picture. All pilots who flew in the sequences were WWI vets recruited by Hughes.
What really makes the picture is the amazing cloud-filled battle sequences filled with actual British Sopwith Camels, SE-5As, French Nieuports, and german Fokker D-VIIs. So what that they are painted wrong and that anyone can tell that they are filmed over California. This is, was, and shall ever remain the real thing.
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on October 28, 2001
The famous film which was produced and directed by Howard Hughes and introduced a sensational new platinum blonde siren by the name of Jean Harlow. The simple plot has two brothers leave their studies at Oxford to join the British Royal Flying Corps at the outbreak of WWI. In its day, the film garned fantastic reviews for the aerial sequences which are first rate. The air shots were considered awesome, thrilling and immensely impressive to the audiences of 1930. The acting was merely sufficient; even in pantomime, it would be hard to accept Jean Harlow as an English girl or Lyon & Hall as Oxford students. It would take Harlow more acting experience in the movies before her comedic gifts would be realised and appreciated by the public and critics alike. Critics had field day exposing the inept "acting" of Harlow in her early pictures; however beginning with RED HEADED WOMAN (1932) the critics and public alike were beginning to sit up and stare with utter amazement and delight at her metamorphasis as an actress. In the priorly named picture, the titian haired (it was dyed for her role) Harlow knocked the critics socks off with her uninhibited playing and in her next picture she would be teamed with none other than Gable. RED DUST was a sensational blockbuster in 1932.
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VINE VOICEon December 20, 2004
If you enjoyed Martin Scorsese's "Aviator," check out Howard Hughes' World War I epic HELL'S ANGELS.

This 1930's film about two Oxford brothers in the Royal Air Force includes tinted scenes and an early Technicolor sequence but the main highpoints -- besides a luminous teenage Jean Harlow -- are the incredible flying sequences.

In the first half, there's an eerie and exciting showdown between a gigantic German Zeppelin and British biplanes and in the second half, there's an extended, stupendous, dog fight between the R.A.F in Sopwith Camels and Germans in Fokkers.

There were three deaths in the eye-popping aerial action sequences that must be seen to be believed. When the story is grounded, things move slowly, but once in the air, the excitement is palpable as director Hughes conveys his passion for flying in the exquisitely composed, daring and extensive aerial combat recreations that have not been surpassed.
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