Two bright facets light up Hell’s Angels, a 1930s aviation melodrama. One is the extraordinary footage re-creating World War I air battles; the other is 18-year-old Jean Harlow. Both are enough to offset the cornball story and stilted dialogue, the latter added late in production, with the advent of motion-picture sound. The movie, almost three years in the making, with a budget of nearly $4 million–very high for its day–was the obsession of eccentric millionaire director Howard Hughes. Apparently, the authenticity of the dogfight scenes was so important to Hughes that he piloted a plane himself, and ended up breaking a few bones in the process. More shocking, it’s said that three pilots lost their lives making the movie. The sequence depicting an epic encounter between the British Royal Flying Corps and a German zeppelin is especially stunning, thanks to the eye-popping use of hand tinting. A bombing raid on a German munitions depot is also remarkably convincing.
The movie’s other bombshell, Jean Harlow, fairly jumps off the screen as an upper-class floozy who plays fast and loose with the two leading men, RFC pilots Monte and Roy Rutledge (Ben Lyon and James Hall), one a scoundrel and one a saint. Harlow glows in the film–it’s immediately obvious why her appearance here put her on the fast track to Hollywood stardom. Beauty, sex appeal, vulnerability, audacity–whatever the intangible something is that makes a movie star, it’s clear Harlow had it, even as a teenager.