I think when Martin Scorsese made The Aviator, his bio-pic of eccentric billionaire Howard Hughes, he created the impression that Hughes's 1930 World War I adventure yarn Hell's Angels might be a good movie. It isn't. I coughed up nine bucks or so for the dvd, because I wanted to see Jean Harlow's debut and because Hell's Angels has a reputation of featuring some of the best aerial duels of movie history.
Well, I can tell you, Jean Harlow was beautiful, she gave us the line "Would you be shocked if I put on something more comfortable?" (changing from a humdinger of a backless evening gown to a loosely tied robe and nothing else), but she was as raw as a newborn foal struggling to find her legs beneath her, and what you're going to see is the work of a promising amateur offering up only the hint of what was to come after.
The aerial footage? Hughes was right that filming airplanes on a cloudy day gives you a better sense of how fast the planes are moving. And there is a scene with a German zeppelin that is both eerie and bizarre (wait until you see how the desperate Germans lighten their load to gain altitude—talk about taking one for the team!). But that's not the same as saying the dogfights are well staged or that the zeppelin scene makes a lick of sense. For an effective version of that sort of thing, track down 1927 best picture co-winner Wings.
As for the story, which unfort- unately takes up the other nine- tenths of the movie, it truly plays as if a schoolboy wrote it in the back of a notebook and then doodled pictures of airplanes in the margins. As the TV Guide online review so artfully puts it, "the story seems to have been written in crayon by Hughes." Which, trust me, is an insult to crayons everywhere. It's so bad it almost transcends itself and becomes campy fun.
I found it for around $9 and it's no doubt available through Netflix. But you've been warned.
Note: I spent all day yesterday in a legal seminar, which if you've ever attended one is a lot like sitting in an airport waiting for a plane that never arrives. But there's nothing like trashing a bad movie while posting a picture of Jean Harlow to get you back into the ballgame. So here we go and hopeful tomorrow or the next day, I'll have my choice for the best director of 1929-30 ...