Film: Design & Architecture

Hell’s Angels (1930)

Even though this entire blog post is about the use of color in this film, I needed an introduction image.

Hell’s Angels is a 1930 American war film and one of the first sound blockbuster action films. Directed and produced by Howard Hughes and starring Jean Harlow, Ben Lyon, and James Hall, this film had been originally conceived as a silent film. But after completing the silent version, Hughes decided to scrap the film and reshoot most of it with sound. By 1930, the production had cost $4,000,000, an unrivaled amount until 1940, when the final cost of Gone With the Wind was tallied. The plot is less than stellar, but the visuals are mesmerizing, making this film a must-see.

The Lavender Sequence

This lavender sequence and the later Zeppelin sequence were both tinted. Because sound was added to the previously shot silent footage, the traditional tinting process of adding color to the black-and-white film, usually by means of soaking the film in dye and staining the film emulsion, was not going to work. So Howard Hughes opted to use Kodak’s pre-tinted stocks known as Sonochrome which did not interfere with the soundtrack.

The film alternates between black and white sequences and colored sequences. For the most part I will be skipping the black and white sections, because the best artistry occurs in the the colored frames with the exception of the final aerial combat scene.

Second Black and White Sequence

The reason I included these black and white frames is because of Jean Harlow. She’s all of eighteen and in her first starring role. This may be the only time that she was allowed to be filmed with her natural eyebrows.

The following stills may be the only surviving color footage of Jean Harlow.

Multicolor Sequence

Multicolor is a subtractive natural color process for motion pictures. The following sequence was filmed in Multicolor, but printed by Technicolor, as Multicolor could not yet supply as large a demand of printings in such a short amount of time.

This eight-minute two-strip Mulitcolor sequence remains the only surviving color footage of Jean Harlow.

Creating Multicolor

This explanation is from Timeline of Historical Film Colors: “In the Multicolor (two-color) subtractive process, two negative films are run simultaneously through any standard camera with their emulsion surfaces in contact. The front negative is orthochromatic, with the surface layer dyed orange-red to act as a filter for the image recorded on the rear panchromatic film. Double coated yellow dyed positive film is used for printing the pair of images in register on opposite sides of the film. The images are colored by a combined dye toning and chemical toning method and are varnished before projection to protect them from scratching.”

This explanation is from Wikipedia: “For a Multicolor film, a scene is shot with a normal camera capable of bipacking film. Two black-and-white 35 mm film negatives are threaded bipack in the camera. One records the color red (via a dyed panchromatic film), and the other, blue (orthochromatic). In printing, duplitized stock is exposed and processed with one record on each side. In a tank of toning solution, the film is floated upon the top of the solution with the appropriate chemical. The cyan record is toned a complementary red with a copper ferrocyanide solution, and the red being toned blue/cyan with ferric ferrocyanide solution. The effect is a duotone color system, lacking the primary color of green. However, to most, the lacking colors do not seem to leave unnatural color, largely due to optical illusion.”

Tinted and Toned

This sequence was mesmerizing, and the blue tinting made it doubly so. Add in the red-orange tone, it was visually the most powerful footage in the entire film. Toning is carried out by converting the black and white silver image to another, usually metallic, element to change the color. Iron gives blue; copper gives red to brown; vanadium gives green; uranium gives black to red; selenium gives red-brown; sulphide gives sepia. It can also be achieved by replacing the silver image by a dye image using a dye mordant. This gives an almost infinite range of colours and was used in many of the early color systems. From all my research, I am not sure which of these tone processes was used.

This is so effective that I can feel that intense heat.

Crashing a Zeppelin

How did Howard Hughes film this bit of wow without the aid of computers? Was it the real thing? He was wealthy enough to buy or build a Zeppelin. Thankfully there are enthusiastic researchers out there who are willing to dig up the answers and generously share their findings online. I found the following images on the Modern Mechanix website which, aside from the following images, looks to be very entertaining.

To increase the size of these images, just click on any of them and a large-scale slideshow will overlay the blog page. From there click on the left and right arrows.

4 thoughts on “Hell’s Angels (1930)”

  1. Margaret Downs-Gamble says:

    Fascinating information on the aerial effects, PA. Nice sleuthing.

    Jean Harlow looks so young – fragile as well as elegant. Thanks for the beautiful stills!

  2. Margaret Downs-Gamble says:

    Fascinating information on the aerial effects, PA. Nice sleuthing.

    Jean Harlow looks so young – fragile as well as elegant. Thanks for the beautiful stills!

  3. Dave says:

    Great info! I watched the movie after seeing the Aviator and was wondering how they did it!

    About the magazine: almost 100 years ago and the clickbait was still the same!

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