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Hell’s Angels: Hughes' Big Crash & Harlow's Big Break

Posted on Wed, April 19 2017
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Hell’s Angels
Caddo Company, 1930
Directed by Howard Hughes
Starring Ben Lyon, James Hall, and Jean Harlow

Hell’s Angels, along with Wings and The Dawn Patrol, is considered one of the three great early aviation films that defined the genre. The movie featured authentic aerial combat scenes, innovative camera work, and incredible miniature effects. Upwards of 50 aircraft, nearly half actual World War I airplanes, were assembled for the production, and some 75 pilots were employed to fly the aerial sequences and pilot the camera planes. 

Howard Hughes would gain great acclaim as an aviator himself in the 1930s with several record-breaking flights, but he had just recently received his pilot’s license when production on Hell’s Angels began in late 1927. Determined to show the stunt pilots working on the film what a hot-shot pilot he was, Hughes took off in one of the actual WWI airplanes, an airplane that would be a challenge for any new pilot. Ignoring advice from the experienced pilots, Hughes crashed and was pulled from the wreckage dazed and bleeding. Having dodged serious injury, everyone was relieved Hughes survived, allowing the film, and their paychecks, to continue.

Originally intended to be a silent film, Hughes reshot much of it as production extended into the dawning of the sound era. This was a break for the film’s female lead, Jean Harlow. Originally cast in the role was silent film star Greta Nissen, but when the movie transitioned into a talkie, Nissen’s heavy Norwegian accent bounced her from the film and made way for the relatively unknown Harlow. Hughes spent three years and nearly $4 million to create his aviation classic. The most expensive production of the era, Hell’s Angels was one of the first blockbuster action films and made Jean Harlow a box office sensation. With gripping aerial sequences as a backdrop, Hell’s Angels is an engrossing tale of wartime intrigue and personal courage.

Request Free Tickets
Hell’s Angels will be shown at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC, and at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia, on April 21, 2017. Request free tickets for the screenings. Hollywood Goes to War: World War I on the Big Screen is a year-long film series showing Hollywood’s finest feature films on World War I, and is part of the National Air and Space Museum’s observance of the hundredth anniversary of the First World War. 

Before the screening in Washington, DC, join me, Chief Curator Peter Jakab, for a tour of the new exhibition, Artist Soldiers: Artistic Expression in the First World War, which offers a very human perspective on the war through never-before-seen artwork created by soldiers in WWI.