Divers(MGM, 1931) – Director: George Hill.
Writers: Harvey Gates & Malcolm Stuart Boylan (s/p). Frank Wead
(story). James Keven McGuinness & ralph Graves (add’l
dialogue). James Warner Bellah, Charles MacArthur & Edward Dean
Sullivan (cont. writers - uncredited). Stars: Wallace Beery, Clark
Gable, Conrad Nagel, Dorothy Jordan, Marjorie Rambeau, Marie Prevost,
Cliff Edwards, John Miljan, Landers Stevens, Reed Howes, Alan Roscoe
& Frank Conroy. B&W, 109 minutes.
cursory look at the title might end one to think this is a film about
deep sea divers or submariners. But it’s actually about those who
fly and maintain dive bombers.
dive bombers are Curtiss F8C-4 Helldivers, of which the film features
plenty of in footage of flight operations aboard the Navy’s second
aircraft carrier, the USS Saratoga, which accounts for
the dedication at the divining of the movie: the United States Navy.
to the plot, Chief Petty Officer “Windy” Riker (Beery), a veteran
aerial gunner aboard a Navy Helldiver dive bomber and the leading
chief of Fighting Squadron One, has just lost his five-year claim to
the title of “champion dog fighter” to a young upstart C.P.O.
named Steve Nelson (Gable), who has just joined the squadron. Later,
the local police come to arrest Windy for his role in wrecking a
Turkish bathhouses but Jack Griffin (Miljan), the unit’s commander,
tells the police that Windy is needed for important maneuvers on
and his second-in-command, Lieutenant "Duke" Johnson
(Nagel), agree that Nelson is the best candidate to replace Windy as
he ponders retirement.
friendly rivalry between Windy and Steve turns sour after the
squadron practices a new dive-bombing technique. When the release on
Steve’s plane fails to fully work he climbs out onto the wing and
holds the bomb in place until the plane can land on the carrier.
Windy gives Johnson a cock and bull story about the bombs not being
good enough, but Steve notices that the release is not in alignment
and points it out to Johnson. The fact that Nelson overrode Windy’s
explanation does not go down well with the older man and he decks
Nelson as they walk away. Johnson sees the entire incident and
dresses down Windy.
to get even, Windy pulls a practical joke on Nelson. When Steve's
sweetheart, Ann Mitchell (Jordan), visits him, he proposes marriage
to her. But Windy, unaware that Ann is Steve's fiancee and not simply
a girl he is trying to impress, has bribed an old acquaintance, Lulu
(Prevost), to pretend to be Steve's outraged lover. She starts an
argument with Ann, who leaves the base upset, refusing to listen to
now Johnson's gunner, makes a crucial mistake during a bombing
exercise off Panama. Thinking he has misplaced his code book, Windy
delays the takeoff of the squadron while he searches for it, only to
find it was in his back pocket all the while. As punishment, Johnson
assigns him to supervise a work party when the ship docks, causing
him to miss liberty and keeping him from seeing his girl, Mame Kelsey
(Rambeau), the woman in Panama he wants to settle down with after
who knows Mame, runs into her on the dock and shares her carriage
back into town. When Windy hears about it he sneaks into town to have
it out with Steve. Mame tries to convince Steve to patch up his
differences with Windy and promotes a peace between them when Windy
shows up at her hotel. But after having a drink together in the bar
Windy starts a brawl. Though Steve tries to help him avoid the
Panamanian police, they catch up to him and throw him in in jail.
the Saratoga passes through the Panama Canal, Mame
bails Windy out of jail and he catches up to the carrier by stealing
a boat. For his transgressions, the captain of the Saratoga (Roscoe)
reduces Windy in rank one rate from chief, reduced to Aviation
Machinist's Mate 1st Class for leaving his post without
authorization, absent without leave, and missing ship. A reluctant
Steve now becomes leading chief.
a war games manuever, Steve's aircraft crashes near a rocky island.
The pilot is killed and Steve suffers a broken leg. When Duke and
Windy land to rescue Steve, Duke suffers a head injury and Windy has
to save both, setting Steve's broken leg. Steve and Windy now become
friends while waiting in the fog to be found.
the fourth day, Duke's condition worsens and Steve develops blood
poisoning. With no sign of a rescue mission, Steve comes up with a
plan to leave the island by having Windy fly the plane according to
his navigation. Windy flies them out in Duke's dive bomber, with Duke
in the rear cockpit and, in order to lessen the danger of flying too
heavy, Steve insists on riding the wing. Despite the fog, they find
the aircraft carrier, but the plane aircraft crashes during the
landing, fatally trapping Windy in the burning wreckage. At his last
request, Windy is buried at sea as a missing man formation flies
overhead. Following Windy's burial at sea, Steve reads a letter that
Windy wrote to him before his death. In the letter, Windy confesses
to Ann that he used Lulu as a joke to frame Steve.
Hell Divers is
far more interesting today for its excellent naval-aviation action
footage than for its creaky plot and corny lines. Wallace Beery,
getting top billing, portrays his usual slow-talking, “aw shucks”
character, while Gable, who disliked the film, handles his role quite
well, researching his role by hanging out with Navy men. According to
Jeremy Arnold’s essay on the TCM Movie Database, when Gable learned
that the Navy fliers never took a lemon twist with their gin but
rather had a slice of lemon on the side, biting the lemon between
gulps, he picked up the habit himself for years after this film. It
wasn’t easy for Gable to buddy-buddy it up with his co-star on the
set. Off-screen he despised the older Beery, who gladly returned the
The film offers rare
glimpses of naval aviation in its infancy, as Curtiss F8C Helldiver
biplanes take off and land on the historic Saratoga in
breakneck fashion. We’re also treated to a shot of a deck-landing
by the rigid airship Los Angeles (ZR-3). Meanwhile,
the screenplay lurches between military-movie clichés to brawling
antics and finally ending in a hokey and manipulative melodramatic
It’s a loose
remake of the old chestnut What Price Glory? with
retired Naval Lt. Comdr. Frank Wead credited for the film's
story. (Wead himself was himself later portrayed by John Wayne
in John Ford’s biopic The Wings of Eagles. In the course of
the film, footage of Hell Divers appears. Ford
regular Jack Pennick has a small role in both, appearing uncredited
in Hell Divers as a recruit sailor.)
Charles A. Marshall shot the principal aerial photography in 1931 at
North Island Naval Air Station in San Diego, marking the first of a
series of naval epics filmed there.The
aircraft used in the film, the Curtiss F8C-4, was the first
production variant to bear the nickname “Helldiver.”While
a small number of miniatures stood in for the real aircraft, as well
in a mock battle by planes attacking the Saratoga, the
majority of the aerial scenes directed by Marshall featured the
actual Helldivers. Real events were woven into the film, such as the
footage of the historic 1928 landing of the USS Los
Angeles landing aboard the carrier.
Director George Hill
was married to screenwriter Frances Marion for three years.
After Hell Divers,he completed only one more
picture, Clear All Wires (1933), before committing
suicide at his beach house. Before his death he had begun
pre-production on The Good Earth. The project was
handed to director Sidney Franklin, and the film, starring Paul Muni
and Luise Reiner, became a classic.
Marie Prevost also came to a sad and gruesome end six years after
this film. A silent screen star who had appeared in three popular
Ernst Lubitsch comedies (including The Marriage Circle in
1924), she had trouble transitioning to talkies due to her strong
Canadian accent. She subsequently developed weight problems, and fell
into bit parts in the 1930s while turning to the bottle. Broke, she
died of alcoholism and malnutrition in her run-down Hollywood
apartment, Her body wasn't discovered for two days, during which time
her starving dog had nibbled on her corpse. (This according to
Kenneth Anger is his Hollywood Babylon.)
Dorothy Jordan, who
plays Ann, Gable’s love interest, retired in 1933 to marry producer
Merian C. Cooper. She made a brief comeback in the 1950s to play
small roles in three John Ford films – including the wife still in
love with John Wayne in The Searchers (1956). Cliff
Edwards, who plays Windy’s buddy "Baldy," would go on to
supply the voice of Jiminy Cricket in Pinocchio (1940)
and sing "When You Wish Upon a Star,” which won an Oscar. Also
look for Robert Young in a bit role as a sailor.
$821,000, Hell Divers grossed $1,244,000 in the U.S.
and Canada, and $917,000 elsewhere.