As documented in Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator, Hell’s Angels was one of the most troubled productions in Hollywood history, thanks to producer/aviation pioneer Howard Hughes’ determination to give the World War I combat drama the best possible dogfight sequences. It took Hughes three years and $4 million (an unheard of sum in 1930 Hollywood) to realize his vision.
Three stunt pilots and one mechanic died in crashes on the set. Hughes himself was almost a casualty when he filled in for a stunt pilot who refused to fly in a particularly dangerous stunt. The stuntman’s warning proved all too accurate, as Hughes crashed and fractured his skull.
Hughes’ obsessiveness and deep pockets ultimately yielded some of the most thrilling aerial footage ever shot (and, according to pilots, some of the most lifelike). The dramatic scenes on the ground aren’t nearly as satisfying, despite offering the spectacle of Jean Harlow (in her first big break) in lingerie. The future sexpot wasn’t much of an actress yet, despite extensive direction and coaching from an uncredited James Whale (it was the future Frankenstein director’s first big break in Hollywood, too). She did, however, get to be the first movie actress to ask a man if she might slip into “something more comfortable.”