“Dirty, Rotten, Sordid, and Cheap.”

#11 Golden Age of Hollywood Series

No one was going to tell Howard Hughes how to make movies.

Not the studios, and certainly not the Production Code.

Hughes was young and brash, and had made a fortune in his mid-twenties through various businesses and investments.  He decided to take his money to Hollywood and make films that would cause a stir.

With Hell’s Angels, he more than succeeded.

In the 1930’s, studios operated like movie factories with directors, stars, and producers as employees.  The studios ultimately controlled which films each director and star would work in.  The talent had few options if they didn’t want to do an assigned film.

No studio would have greenlit Hell’s Angels, so Hughes produced and directed it himself and released it through United Artists, a distribution company for independently made films.

His plight to make the movie is depicted in the 2004 film The Aviator, starring Leonardo DiCaprio as Hughes.  An early scene in The Aviator shows Hughes at the premier of Hell’s Angels with Jean Harlow (played by Gwen Stefani) on his arm, and hints at the madness that will eventually overtake him.

But back to Hell’s Angels, a surprisingly honest, clear-eyed, and cynical view of war.  

The movie tells the story of two very different British brothers.  Roy is honest, kind, always willing to step up and do his duty.  Monte is a cad, lazy and selfish, but really not a bad guy.  He’s just not as honorable as Roy, though few people are.

Both Roy and Monte are at Oxford with their best friend, a German named Karl, when World War I breaks out.

Karl is distraught when he is drafted by the German army, knowing he must fight against his friends and England, a country he has grown to love.  

But he has no choice but to comply with the call of his country in a futile war.

Dutiful Roy immediately enlists.  Monte has no intention of doing so until he is swept up in the moment at a recruitment drive where he is promised a kiss from a pretty girl if he joins the fight.

Jean Harlow makes her screen debut as Helen, square Roy’s unexpectedly gorgeous girlfriend who goes to France with the Royal Flying Corps and volunteers as a canteen girl.

She seduces Monte, inviting him back to her apartment and uttering the famous line, “Would you be shocked if I put on something more comfortable?”

Though Roy never finds out, Monte is ashamed of himself.  Helen is not, and continues to make a fool of the unsuspecting Roy by catting around while he is out flying dangerous military missions.

Meanwhile, Karl is living in hell.  As a member of the German Air Force, he is given the task of bombardier-observer on a German Zeppelin sent to bomb London, the city that he loves and thinks of as home.

Instead of bombing Trafalgar Square as ordered, he guides the Zeppelin over water so the bombs cause no damage.  He has to know this will cost him his life, but his fellow comrades kill him before they even discover his traitorous act—they cut Karl’s spy nest free and send him spiralling to his death to free up weight on the Zeppelin and allow it to speed away from pursuing British fighter planes. 

Back at the Royal Flying Corps, Monte is struggling.  Though a good pilot, he’s afraid of fighting, afraid of dying.  Roy tries to keep him going, but Monte’s desperation is palpable.  It’s clear he’s not cut out for military life, and it’s clear he’d quit if he could.  But it’s death by the Germans or court martial if he deserts the RFC, so he tries to hang on until the war ends.

In one chilling scene, Monte feigns illness to get out of a night mission.  Noting that he’s pulled this trick before, his fellow soldiers call him yellow and Monte—the only soldier in the scene not in uniform— explodes into a searing anti-war speech:

“That’s a lie, I’m not yellow!  I can see things as they are, that’s all, and I’m sick of this rotten business.  You fools, why do you let them kill you like this?  What are you fighting for?  Patriotism, duty, are you mad?  Can’t you see they’re just words, words coined by politicians and profiteers to trick you into fighting for them?  What’s a word compared with life, the only life you’ve got?  I’ll give ‘em a word:  murder!  That’s what this dirty, rotten politician’s war is, murder!  You know it as well as I do.  Yellow, am I?  You’re the ones that are yellow.  I’ve got guts to say what I think, you’re afraid to say it.  So afraid of being called yellow, you’d rather be killed first.  You fools!”

It has no impact on his fellow soldiers, but it sends chills up the viewer’s spine.  Unlike World War II, in which the Allies stopped a madman and saved the world, so much life was lost for so little gain in the quagmire of World War I.

A movie that so overtly questioned patriotism and challenged the legitimacy of war could not have been during the Production Code years of 1934-1954, certainly not during World War II, when the U.S. Government’s Office of War Information screened all Hollywood films and insisted only patriotic films be made.

It certainly could not have been made during World War I itself, when President Woodrow Wilson’s Sedition Act of 1918 made it a crime to criticize the U.S. government in an effort to maintain the country’s strong morale and war support. 

The film broke every rule set by the censors—Helen’s overt and unrepentant sexuality, violence, and a slew of bad language—including son a bitch, god damn, for Christ’s sake, hell, and ass.

The movie has several extended flying scenes that were universally praised as a technical achievement.

As for the rest of it?

As Lamar Trotti, a code reviewer, wrote to his boss Will Hays, “The difficulty, as you know, lies in the fact that the story of Hell’s Angels is stupid, rotten, sordid, and cheap.”

The regional censors cut an average of thirty minutes from the two-hour film.

It’s a good movie, though slow getting started.  I would’ve cut out thirty minutes too, but it would’ve been thirty minutes of opening exposition.  Unlike the censors, I would’ve left in the good parts.  The flying sequences are impressive even today, and the ending truly shocked me.  It’s depressing, and it lacks that glamour and star power (despite Harlow’s debut in a small part) that makes these old movies sing to modern audiences.

If you love war movies, you might want to give it a try.  But honestly, I’d recommend watching The Aviator instead.

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