The most expensive movie ever made as of 1930 was an independent production. That's a weird thing on the face of it, except that in 1930, there was a fellow named Howard Hughes running loose in the world, and for all the wonderful advances made in the post-WWII world, we don't have madcap billionaires to gawk at any more. And if an aviation and movie enthusiast with hundreds of millions of dollars to throw around (in Depression-era dollars, no less) decided that he wanted to direct his very own movie about wartime flyers, and he wanted to spend more money making it than anyone had ever done, who was going to tell him no?

The result was Hell's Angels, by no means Hughes's first dabble in the world of cinema - he'd been producing movies since 1926 - but the first of only two that he'd direct himself (The Outlaw, shot in 1941 and released over the rest of the decade, is the other). And certain the first and only where he shot an entire gigantic epic, noticed that sound cinema was a cool new thing, and then shot it all over again to make it a talkie. Which goes a long way to explaining just why it was the most expensive motion picture in the history of motion pictures, but even conceding that, Hell's Angels is a movie dripping with production value. I don't really know what $4 million bought in 1930, so I can't say that it's a movie where you can see the whole budget onscreen, but you can sure see a lot of it.

The movie opens in Germany shortly before the outbreak of war, with three friends from Oxford on holiday: English brothers Roy (James Hall) and Monte Rutledge (Ben Lyon), and their German friend Karl Armstedt (John Darrow), whose hometown the young men are visiting. Oh the fun they have! Oh the women they objectify! (The movie has a kind of jolly misogyny that's alarming, even considering its vintage: all women are either dull bores or sluts; in particular, sluts who speak in high-octave gurgling shrieks that only a dog could probably hear properly). The womanising Monte gets himself into a bit of trouble on the latter count, getting a bit too cozy with the wife of one Baron Von Kranz (Lucien Prival), and fleeing for England when the baron offers the traditional solution of a duel. It falls to Roy to do his brother's dirty work for him, earning Von Kranz's ire; and we can assume that this is not the only time that he has been obliged to bail Monte out.

Term has barely started when World War I breaks out, sending Karl to the German air force and Roy to the Royal Flying Corps; Monte eventually joins the RFC too, but he has to be shamed into it and have his libido teased first. Before any combat can happen, Roy ends up helping to host a grand gala for the RFC, and it's here that he finally introduces his brother to his long-rumored paramour, Helen (Jean Harlow). Monte and Helen immediately start flirting, right in front of the astonishingly thick Roy. War rolls on, and Karl dies as part of an ill-fated zeppelin attack on Great Britain, while Roy and Monte end up in France, where Helen also goes to serve as hostess for all the poor, lonely flyboys. It still takes her saying to Roy in a freaked-out rant that she doesn't like him and wants to fuck literally everybody in the RFC but him for the message to finally sink in, at which point he and Monte go on the proverbial Vital but Dangerous Mission.

That, in ruthlessly truncated form, is the dramatic spine of one hell of a mixed bag. For all his money, Hughes couldn't buy enough talent to become a terribly good director, and his movie is a chaotic assemblage of mixed parts, both visually and in the script - no coincidence, I am sure, that the film boasts four writers and six cinematographers - with ideas that make an impact more for the obvious passion behind them than because anything about the way they're presented is compelling. Or, frequently, coherent. Hell's Angels is epically messy, with plot threads flailing around like over-pressured fire hoses: neither the multi-national friendship nor the promise of a romantic triangle actually ends up fueling much conflict or narrative momentum, and the episodic construction of the whole thing leaves it no chance to build up momentum.

Visually, it's even worse than messy: it's downright dull. Sound cinema in 1930 was still in a relatively primitive phase, and the earthbound phases of Hell's Angels do not challenge the broad limitations of Hollywood filmmaking technique in that rough transitional period. Scenes play out in flat blocking, cutting with leaden literalness on lines of dialogue; the frequent close-ups have the effect of being jabbed in the ribs with a cudgel, making sure that no emotional beat goes by unstressed. And the sound recording, is frequently just dire, especially in the scene with the three Oxfordians in Germany: wherever the microphone was set up, it favors Hall, and if Darrow inclines his head even a little, his voice drops out completely. These are basic mistakes. Things turn for the inexplicable when Hughes starts to pull out tricks that make no sense: for example, portions of the film are tinted blue, to signify night, a technique that was years outdated by 1930. But the really weird part is that those are night-for-night scenes, when the whole idea of tinting was the hide day-for-night shooting, so it ends up being so dark that it's often hard to tell what the hell is happening.

The worst of it, though, is the acting: Hughes handed off dialogue direction to an uncredited James Whale, who at that point had absolutely no experience in cinema, and under his hand the actors end up on different continents of physical emphasis and vocal stress. Hall comes out by far the best of the entire cast, with a certain dignity and stiff, clichéd English restraint that serves him reasonably well, even if the New Jersey native doesn't exactly sound like a well-educated military officer from the British Isles. He still comes closer than anyone else in the cast: Lyon, who overplays Monte's morally noble cowardice dreadfully, shrieks and babbles with a wholly generic American accent, while Darrow barely even sounds human: he recites lines with a glassy, slightly anxious look and an almost comic inability to understand where the stress ought to lie in his lines. Prival's outlandishly cartoon impression of a wicked German goes beyond "almost" into straight-up farce: he clenches and smirks so hard that one half-expects his skull to pop out of his flesh.

Sadly, Harlow comes off the worst: easily the best-known member of the cast today, she appeared her in her star-making role, later to become one of MGM's biggest stars of the 1930s, with her sarcastic, down-rent characters and emphatic sexuality. But above all things, she was always a middle American girl made good: the aura of a Kansas City, Missouri childhood never quite dispelled itself, no matter how many chic urban sexpots she played. And that was deep into her career: at the time of Hell's Angels she was just starting out, and no matter how attractive she was, it's hard to imagine a worse casting choice for a woman able to string along such a fussy traditionalist as Roy through her demure behavior and class. The character's sexual voracity is perfect, true; but in a film that constantly threatens to tip into camp from the accumulation of suspiciously American-like Europeans, Harlow still manages to stick out. And I say that as someone who generally adores Harlow.

So dramatically, it's a giant flop; and the wooden filmmaking technique only burdens it more. Still, it's hard not to see what wowed audiences in '30, because it's still there: at the tail end of an age when big-budget movies drew on resources that are hard to imagine today, even with all our digital wizardry, Hell's Angels is a standout for the sheer scope and ebullience of its excess. Anyone who saw the Martin Scorsese biopic of Hughes, The Aviator, knows the score: in order to get across the idea of vast sky battles involving dozens of planes whirling about in crazy patterns, Hughes basically staged just such a sky battle. This isn't, for the most part, effects work: it's real live planes with real live pilots by the fistful, engaged in mind-boggling stunt flying. It should be conceded that Hughes and his army of cameramen didn't capture these battles with any particularly elegant angles, nor does the editing really do a great job of creating a smooth narrative flow. Still, these things don't end up mattering much: put that much outright spectacle into the real world and point cameras at it, and some of it will show up onscreen. The flying action sequences in Hell's Angels are legitimately amazing, perhaps even more today than in '30; then, at least, ambitious practical effects were part of the landscape, but the obviousness that these are physical planes with physical people, some of whom died physical deaths, makes the intense, chaotic scope of it all even more impressive.

If the best parts of the film are the most spectacularly anti-subtle, that pretty much fits: Hell's Angels is a movie long on enthusiasm and very short on nuance. A worshipful adoration of planes and the men flying them permeates all the action, and other than giving the Germans shrill accents, the movie doesn't even really make a distinction between the two sides: the fixed, fascinated camera drinks in the nominal bad guys just as enthusiastically as the heroes. It is not, let us say, an anti-war film; Monte has a few anti-combat rants that neither he nor anyone else seems to be prepared to commit to as either good moral sense or dishonorable cowardice. The movie's opinion seems to be that war is, whatever, fine, as long as those amazing, beautiful planes get to glide and slash through the clouds, dancing around each other in complicated loops seen from the ground and sky. When the action scenes click, Hell's Angels achieves a sort of rapturous, unthinking joy at the idea of flight and combat that works, despite the lack of philosophical coherence, and makes it easy to see why the film was a giant hit at the time (though one that still couldn't turn a profit at first). What a deep pity that they don't click more often.

Elsewhere in American cinema in 1930
-The rather more serious-minded World War I drama All Quiet on the Western Front is the highest-grossing film of the year
-Josef von Sternberg brings his brilliant new discovery, Marlene Dietrich, over from Germany to star in Morocco
-Garbo Talks in Anna Christie

Elsewhere in world cinema in 1930
-René Clair's Under the Roofs of Paris is the first major sound film made in France
-The first films are produced by the newborn industry in Iran
-Robert Siodmak and several other future icons collaborate on the groundbreaking proto-realist People on Sunday in Germany