hell's angels

Hell's Angels (film)

Hell's Angels is a 1930 American epic war film, directed by Howard Hughes and starring Jean Harlow, Ben Lyon, and James Hall. The film, which was produced by Hughes and was written by Harry Behn and Howard Estabrook, centers on the combat pilots of World War I. It was released on November 15, 1930 by United Artists.


Roy and Monte Rutledge are very different British brothers studying at Oxford together at the outset of World War I. Mild-mannered Roy is in love with and idealizes the wayward Helen, played by Jean Harlow. Monte, on the other hand, is a free-wheeling womanizer who can't refuse any woman's advances. A German student by the name of Karl is best friends to both. After the outbreak of World War I, Karl is recruited into the German Air Force and the two British brothers enlist in the Royal Flying Corps; Roy enthusiastically as a sense of duty and Monte doing so only to get a kiss from a girl at the recruiting station. After their training, Roy finally introduces Monte to Helen, who seduces Monte.

Meanwhile, Karl is serving aboard a zeppelin that is flying over London for an attack from high above the clouds. Karl is the bombardier as he is lowered below the cloud-line in a pod, but because of his love for England he directs the zeppelin over a pond on a farm and bombs that instead. Before his superiors find out, RFC fighters are summoned, including Roy and Monte, to shoot down the zeppelin. Unbeknownst to them, the airship commander decides to sacrifice Karl by cutting the cable that secures his pod in order to obtain more altitude and speed to escape the English fliers. The sacrifice is in vain, as is the suicide of several German personnel who jump ship "for Kaiser and fatherland" in a harrowing sequence. German machine gunners manage to shoot down Roy and Monte's plane, which has a deeply unsettling effect on the latter. After his machine guns jammed on him, the last English pilot aloft steers his fighter into the dirigible, killing all aboard in a blazing fireball.

Word gets around that Monte is developing a "yellow streak" and Roy is determined that his brother restore his reputation. In a fit of anger and under enormous pressure from Roy, the brothers both volunteer for a dangerous bombing mission over Germany.

In the night before the raid, Roy discovers Helen in the arms of another officer in a pub. When he tries to take her home, she causes a scene and publicly splits up with him, leaving him devastated.

After the successful raid on a German munitions dump an aerial dogfight ensues, the brothers are shot down and captured. Given the option of a firing squad or treason, Monte's yellow streak fires up again and he plans on giving the enemy any information they want when the Germans promise that his life will be spared. Roy is forced to act so as to protect the thousands of British troops that would be harmed should they squeal, so he kills Monte and then refuses to divulge any information to his captors and is killed by the firing squad.

The film ends with footage of British soldiers successfully attacking the German front lines.


  • "Would you be shocked if I put on something more comfortable?" — Jean Harlow as Helen


(in order of film credits)
Actor Role
Ben Lyon Monte Rutledge
James Hall Roy Rutledge
Jean Harlow (as Jean Harlowe) Helen
John Darrow Karl Armstedt
Lucien Prival Baron Von Kranz
Frank Clarke Lt. von Bruen
Roy Wilson Baldy Maloney
Douglas Gilmore Capt. Redfield
Jane Winton Baroness Von Kranz
Evelyn Hall Lady Randolph
William B. Davidson Staff Major
Wyndham Standing RFC squadron commander
Lena Melana (as Lena Malena) Gretchen, waitress
Marian Marsh (as Marilyn Morgan) Girl selling kisses
Carl von Haartman Zeppelin commander
Ferdinand Schumann-Heink (as F. Schumann-Heink) First Officer of zeppelin
Stephen Carr Elliott
Thomas Carr Pilot
Rupert Syme Macalister Pilot
J. Granville-Davis Pilot
Hans Joby Von Schlieben
Pat Somerset Marryat
Wilhelm von Brincken Von Richter


Originally, the film was to star James Hall and Ben Lyon as Roy and Monte Rutledge, and Norwegian silent film star Greta Nissen as Helen, the female lead, and was to be directed by Marshall Neilan. Before the picture even began filming, Hughes' overbearing production techniques forced Neilan to quit. Hughes took over the directing reins, assisted by Luther Reed. Midway through production, the advent of the sound motion picture came with the arrival of The Jazz Singer. Hughes incorporated the new technology into the half finished film, but the first casualty of the sound age became Greta Nissen due to her pronounced Norwegian accent. He paid her for her work and cooperation and replaced her, because her accent would make her role as a British aristocrat ludicrous. The role was soon filled with a teenage up-and-coming star found by Hughes himself, Jean Harlow.

The two color scenes provide the only color glimpse of Harlow on film. During the shoot, Hughes designed many aerial stunts for the dogfighting scenes. He hired actual World War I aces to fly the stunt planes, but they reportedly refused to fly for the final scene. The aviator in Hughes came out and he flew the scene, getting the shot. As the pilots predicted, however, he crashed the aircraft, escaping with only minor injuries.

One of the aviators was Rupert Syme Macalister, an Australian pilot. Three of the aviators were killed during production. Al Johnson crashed after hitting wires while landing at Caddo Field, near Van Nuys, California; C. K. Phillips crashed while delivering an S.E.5 fighter to the Oakland shooting location. Only mechanic Phil Jones died during filming; he failed to bail out before the crash of the German Gotha bomber.


Hell's Angels received its premiere at Grauman's Chinese Theatre in Hollywood on May 24, 1930. All the stars and makers of the film attended, as well as Buster Keaton, Dolores del Rio, Norma Talmadge, Mary Pickford, Billie Dove, Douglas Fairbanks, and Charlie Chaplin with his girlfriend Georgia Hale. While Harlow, Lyon, and Hall received mixed reviews for their acting, Hughes was praised for his hard work on the filming and aircraft sequences. The film went into general release on November 15, 1930 in the United States and did quite well at the box office, earning nearly $8 million, about double the production and advertising costs. After inflation, this is roughly equivalent to $90 million as of 2008.

Like many other classic films, Hell's Angels has been re-released on VHS and DVD formats by Universal Studios, who in later years acquired the rights to the film.

See also




  • Dolan Edward F. Jr. Hollywood Goes to War. London: Bison Books, 1985. ISBN 0-86124-229-7.
  • Hardwick, Jack and Schnepf, Ed. "A Viewer's Guide to Aviation Movies". The Making of the Great Aviation Films, General Aviation Series, Volume 2, 1989.
  • Oriss, Bruce. When Hollywood Ruled the Skies: The Aviation Film Classics of World War II. Hawthorne, California: Aero Associates Inc., 1984. ISBN 0-9613088-0-X.
  • "Production of 'Hell's Angels' Cost the Lives of Three Aviators," Syracuse Herald, Dec. 28, 1930, p. 59.
  • Robertson, Patrick. Film Facts. New York: Billboard Books, 2001. ISBN 0-82307-943-0.

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