On July 18, 1930, Howard Hughes's Hell’s Angels has its first premiere outside of Hollywood at the Fox Theatre in Seattle. The film tells the story of two brothers, both British pilots, who are in love with the same woman at the onset of World War I. Hell’s Angels is considered one of the great early aviation films, along with Wings and The Dawn Patrol, mostly for its aerial combat scenes and Hughes's camerawork. The film will launch the career of actress Jean Harlow and further propel the reclusive Hughes into the public eye.
Years in the Making
Howard Hughes (1905-1976) began filming Hell’s Angels in 1927, when he was 21 years old. The young inventor/engineer/aviator had already produced two successful films -- Everybody's Acting (1926) and Two Arabian Knights (1927) – both of which were financed with the drill-bit fortune he inherited following the death of his father in 1924. Hughes wanted his next movie to feature aviation, one of his great passions.
Hell’s Angels was plagued with production problems from the start. The film went though several directors, and Hughes eventually took the reins after directing the aviation sequences. Filming continued throughout 1928 and 1929, by which time sound motion pictures had come into vogue. Hughes made the decision to convert Hell’s Angels – which had been conceived as a silent film -- into a talkie, which meant that most of the film had to be reshot.
Because Greta Nissen (1906-1988), who played the female lead, had a heavy Norwegian accent, Hughes had to recast the part. It went to 18-year-old Jean Harlow (1911-1937), in her first feature role. Hughes hired then-unknown James Whale (1889-1957) to direct the talking sequences, while Hughes continued to work on the flying sequences. By the time the film wrapped in 1930, production costs had reached close to $3 million, making it one of the most expensive movies of its time.
Hell’s Angels had its gala premiere at Grauman's Chinese Theatre in Los Angeles on May 27, 1930, with many of Hollywood's biggest names in attendance. Model biplanes were suspended above Hollywood Boulevard and people lined the street for a mile and a half to watch the limos drive by. Fifty planes flew in formation overhead. Tickets for the premiere at Grauman’s cost $11.
Hughes had spent weeks with Sid Grauman planning the spectacular event. Inside, the theater curtain had been painted with a picture of a fighter plane, and the movie was preceded by an array of comic skits and musical acts featuring dancers on the wings of airplanes. When the lights dimmed at its premiere the audience hushed as the film began. At first, there were embarrassed laughs as people responded to the mediocre acting and the maudlin storyline, but the tone shifted once the flight scenes began. Hughes arranged for the screen to open out during these moments, and the audience was transfixed at the aerial dogfights, bombing runs, plane crashes, and a Zeppelin raid. When the film ended, the audience gave it and Hughes a 20-minute standing ovation.
Hughes spent the next week tweaking certain scenes and tightening the ones that induced giggles. At one point he watched the film alone at Grauman's after buying out every seat in the house. After he was satisfied with his edits, he began planning the film's follow-up premiere – not in New York, like many Hollywood movies traveled to next – but up the coast in Seattle.
Setting the Stage
For the film's Northwest premiere, Hughes chose the Fox Theatre, which had opened in downtown Seattle the previous year. Although the theatre was new, Hughes paid the theatre owners to upgrade the venue, and sent an advance team of expert technicians, along with a boxcar of special equipment, including an enlarged screen, new projectors, and an improved sound system. A special box office was installed at the theatre to handle advanced sales. After opening night, the film would be shown only twice daily, at 2:15 p.m. and 8:15 p.m. with reserved seating. Matinee seating ranged from 35 cents to 75 cents, while nightly seats ranged from 50 cents to a dollar.
Meanwhile, Hughes's publicists were busy promoting the Seattle premiere. Two weeks before the event both the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and Seattle Times began printing almost daily articles about the film with production stories, Hollywood audience reactions, and gossip about some of the film's stars. Some of the information was studio ballyhoo. For example, Hughes kept claiming the film cost $4 million to make, a huge exaggeration over the actual cost.
Days before the event, Seattle filmgoers read the exciting news that Harlow would be attending the premiere, and that she would arrive in a squadron of planes piloted by men who flew the planes in the movie. After her arrival the planes would take to the air and perform aerial stunts over the city, joined by army, navy, and civilian aircraft. The publicists claimed that more than 50 planes would take part in this "spectacular air circus."
On July 18, a group of planes arrived at Boeing Field having made their way up the coast from California. After four large pieces of luggage were removed from the lead plane, Harlow stepped out to greet the crowds. Seattle Mayor Frank Edwards greeted her with a bouquet of flowers and a kiss. Edwards's wife later told the Los Angeles Times that the kiss "not only was alright, but particularly appropriate" (Los Angeles Times, July 20, 1930).
From Boeing Field, Harlow and her entourage were paraded to the Olympic Hotel for a reception. Whether or not the air show was Hollywood hype is hard to ascertain. No descriptions of it appear in the newspapers, and only The Seattle Times printed a single photo of a dozen aircraft doing a fly-by over downtown.
After the reception, Mayor Edwards accompanied Harlow to the Fox Theatre for the gala premiere. Spotlights pierced the night sky, giving Seattle film lovers a true taste of Hollywood, as did the traffic jam of cars leading up to the theatre, as well as the phalanx of radio announcers along the red carpet.
Inside, the theatre was overflowing with guests and Owen Sweeten’s band played sweet music as filmgoers made the way to their seats. Edwards appeared on stage and introduced the movie by reading congratulatory telegrams from the likes of Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, and other Hollywood stars. He then introduced Harlow to resounding cheers from the audience. Everyone went quiet once the film began.
Reactions to the film were not unlike those in Los Angeles. A film critic for The Seattle Times noted that the story was meager, but once the action started everyone was on the edge of their seats. The Zeppelin raid produced gasps, especially when the ship emerged from the clouds, but it was the dogfight sequence that got the largest response. Hughes filmed close to 50 aircraft in the sky, flying around in all directions. As a critic for The Seattle Post-Intelligencer noted, "It is not just a picture. It is an experience" (P-I, July 19, 1930).
Afterwards, Harlow attended another reception at the Olympic Hotel with Governor Roland Hartley in attendance. The next day she announced that by popular demand, as well as a special invitation from Mayor Edwards, she would delay her return to Hollywood and spend the next few days in Seattle. Her final appearance on stage at the Fox was on July 23.
Hell’s Angels had its Broadway premiere in New York in September and eventually earned $2.5 million at the box office nationwide. Although Hell’s Angels was one of the highest grossing films of its time, it still didn’t make enough to cover its production costs. Hughes continued to make movies, but eventually spent more time flying and developing aircraft.