With a slew of Oscar nominations and much critical acclaim, Martin Scorsese's "The Aviator" has renewed public interest in Howard Hughes, the billionaire industrialist, aviation trailblazer and daredevil who also spent significant time and money in the movie biz. Hughes' involvement with Hollywood was mainly as a moneyman and producer, and his greatest filmmaking legacy may be a negative one: mismanaging RKO from a major studio to an also-ran (though he still managed to sell the company at a profit).
But as "The Aviator" makes clear, Hughes had a passion for filmmaking if not the best creative impulses. He directed two films, including the extravagant World War I flying adventure, "Hell's Angels" (1930). Through the modern magic of digital imagery, Scorsese and company depict the daring nature of the production of "Hell's Angels" in some thrilling, if exaggerated aerial scenes. No exaggeration was needed for the impressive dogfight climax of the original film. It was shot with limited use of models and special effects, and the planes were, by and large, as close to each other as they appear to be on film. As the death of three pilots during filming proved, that was often far too close.
As a drama, "Hell's Angels" is pretty dated and more a soap opera than a hard-hitting war story. It concerns two brothers, one noble and one a womanizing coward, who become involved with the same floozy before joining the British Royal Air Force together. Leading men James Hall and Ben Lyon don't appear very English and neither does the supporting actress playing the bad girl, but Jean Harlow's brief career would have a far bigger impact than those of her co-stars.
The creaky, cornball story still holds your attention thanks to the skills of a talented stage director just making the transition to film. James Whale would go on to a brilliant directing career with the horror classics "Frankenstein," "The Bride of Frankenstein," "The Old Dark House" and "The Invisible Man," as well as the landmark musical "Show Boat." Whale, credited as dialogue director, apparently handled what Hughes did not have the patience or talent for: working with actors and making the plot tolerable.
Three other uncredited directors also labored on the project during the long production, which extended over three years after Hughes decided the movie, originally shot as a silent feature, had to be remade for sound. Much of the aerial footage from the silent version was kept, as well as some brief dramatic scenes, which are easily noticed from some awkward non-synchronous dialogue and the sped-up look that silent footage has when projected at sound speed.
But neither technical flaws nor narrative weakness can undo the film's reason for being: those amazing flying scenes. The first half of the film concludes with a German blimp's failed bombing mission over London. The film is tinted blue for this night scene (a common device for silent films) and the image of the blimp emerging from dark clouds is still stunning. When the blimp is brought down in flames, the tinting changes to red (preceded by some hand-colored bursts of flame). The overall effect is pretty dazzling, easily outdoing a brief party segment shot in early two-strip Technicolor in the mainly black-and-white feature.
As good as it is, the blimp crash pales next to that climactic dogfight, which goes on for nearly 20 minutes. Hughes had cameras mounted on the planes and the result is tremendous. Images like an enemy plane roaring right above a British gunner offer the kind of spectacle that has stood the test of time and countless technological improvements.
Universal's DVD of "Hell's Angels" comes from a print expertly restored by the UCLA Film and Television Archive. It includes all the original color tinting, the two-strip Technicolor scene, and even the intermission break and music (though this segment runs just three minutes, not the ten announced onscreen). There are no special features, though it's possible a future "special edition" may be on the way to capitalize on "The Aviator."
Though radically different in many respects, both "Hell's Angels" and "The Aviator" celebrate bold lives of rich adventure. Yet the best movie to date concerning Hughes may be the most modest. Jonathan Demme's funny, sweetly sad "Melvin and Howard" (1980) isn't really about Hughes at all, but rather about Melvin Dummar, a struggling milkman and gas station owner who claimed to have been left a copy of Hughes' will naming him as one of the major beneficiaries. Dummar said he assumed it was a reward for saving the reclusive magnate's life when he found him stranded in the desert after a motorcycle accident.
The authenticity of the will was challenged and Dummar, accused of fraud in court, never saw a dime of the Hughes fortune. But Demme portrays the man with affectionate goofiness as a sincere and likable dreamer and Paul Le Mat ("American Graffiti") brings those qualities to the role. Even Melvin's troubled marriage is shown with empathy and humor, thanks in no small part to the winning performance of Mary Steenburgen (she won an Oscar, as did screenwriter Bo Goldman).
As Hughes, Jason Robards only appears in the opening and closing scenes of the movie, but simply through his reactions to Le Mat's Melvin, he manages to convey the mixture of eccentricity, wariness and loneliness that insiders reported seeing during the man's strange final years.
Demme delights in adding colorful quirks to the details of Melvin's life but is never condescending toward the working class man with stars in his eyes. His vision here is one of gentle acceptance of life's absurdities. This wonderful little film deserves a much sharper image than what is on Anchor Bay's DVD release, but its easygoing charm survives intact. The disc includes an amiable commentary by Demme and production designer Toby Rafelson, which has the tone of old friends looking back on fond memories.
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