September 27, 2010

The Hall of Forgotten Geniuses 1

(Hopefully the first of a regular feature.)

One of my favorite things about doing this blog has been coming across the amazing performers and artists of the time, many of whom are more or less forgotten these days. In many cases, I've found that good footage is available on Youtube or other internet video sites. So, I'm going to try to put together a more organized collection presenting some of these Forgotten Geniuses for your rediscovery. Our first Forgotten Genius is (drumroll) ... Howard Hughes.

Of course, Howard Hughes isn't exactly forgotten today, but I'd venture to guess that the vast majority of people know him mainly as a crazy billionaire. It's not as generally remembered that he was a great movie producer and director. One of his most remarkable efforts is the World War I aviation film Hell's Angels, which was released in Oct. 1930 after about three years of production at a cost of close to $4M (in 1930 dollars - the advertisements for the movie claim it's “The First Multi-Million Dollar Talking Film”, and some sources credit it as the highest-budget film until Gone With the Wind, though others say Fritz Lang's Metropolis was more costly).

In hindsight, it's tempting to say the production was an early indicator of Hughes' obsessive-compulsive tendencies. In any case, many factoids about the film's production are jaw-dropping even by today's squanderous Hollywood standards:

  • Hughes shot 560 hours of film, so 99.64% of the film shot wound up on the cutting room floor - an off-the-charts ratio for a dramatic (non-documentary) movie, this set a record that probably still stands.

  • The initial silent version of the film was previewed in March of 1929. However, in the interim sound technology had come along and Hughes eventually decided to redo the whole thing as a talkie. This involved not only scrapping much of the already shot film but paying off and dismissing the original female lead (Greta Nissen) because her strong Norwegian accent made her implausible in the part; Hughes instead settled on a 19-year old Jean Harlow, in what's generally considered her “big break.” (Strangely, the film contains the only surviving color footage of Harlow).

  • Hughes used about 90 planes, 130 pilots, and 20,000 extras on the film. He bought many authentic World War I fighter planes and hired World War pilots to fly in the aerial scenes. However, one of the scenes Hughes wanted to shoot was so dangerous that the pilots refused to do it, warning it would cause a crash. Hughes insisted on shooting the scene, wound up flying the plane himself, and did crash it as warned, though he escaped with only minor injuries. Unfortunately, three other pilots and a mechanic were not as lucky, losing their lives in three other accidents during the film's production.

  • Hughes appears to have gone through a number of directors early in production (various sources mention Marshall Neilan, Luther Reed, and Edmund Goulding). He then decided to direct much of the film himself, though he used James Whale for the talking scenes. (This was Whale's directorial debut, though the film took so long to complete that Whale's second movie - Journey's End - was released first; Whale, of course, went on to direct Frankenstein and other classics).

Curiously, I think it's the talking scenes in this movie that feel sort of awkward and stilted today (maybe partly due to the midstream change to sound). The aerial scenes, presumably directed by Hughes, still pack a wallop, and none more so than the beautiful and haunting sequence below in which a German Zeppelin tries to bomb London, and then is chased by British fighters.

Play "Hell's Angels Zeppelin scene" on Vimeo.

Just in case you think I'm kidding about the talking scenes, here's a surprisingly racy one in which Jean Harlow works her charms on a hapless Ben Lyon:

Play "Hell's Angels clip" on Youtube.

Here's a couple of fun clips from the stupendous movie premiere of Hell's Angels at Grauman's Chinese Theatre. In the first one, we see a parade of Hollywood luminaries on the red carpet with commentary from a slightly more masculine 1930 version of Joan Rivers. (When I compare the glamor of these stars with Lady Gaga or Colin Farrell ... it's enough to bring a tear to me eye ...)

Play "Hell's Angels premiere" on Youtube.

And in this one you get to hear a bit of what the stars were saying on the red carpet (including Dolores Del Rio and Buster Keaton), followed by the traditional guy-in-a-suit-reading-congratulatory-telegrams-the-morning-after.

Play "Hell's Angels trailer" on Youtube.

Finally, as one last bonus, the closing scene from one of Hughes' next productions, the original Scarface starring Paul Muni. It's not as gloriously over-the-top as the one in the 1980's Al Pacino “remake,” but it's close ...

Play "Scarface final scene" on Youtube.

(Note: These clips have a way of disappearing for one reason or another, so if you particularly like one I'd consider downloading it ...)

Sources for the above, aside from the 1930 Wall Street Journal:


  1. Wow... a mustache-less Charles Chaplin. And $11? Regular movie ticket prices have finally caught up to the 1930 price for a red carpet premier! Anyway, this all puts Avatar into perspective.

    You, sir, are a goldmine.

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