Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Hell Divers

Films in Focus

By Ed Garea

Hell 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.

A 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.

The 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.

As 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 base. 

Griffin and his second-in-command, Lieutenant "Duke" Johnson (Nagel), agree that Nelson is the best candidate to replace Windy as he ponders retirement.

The 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. 

Looking 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 Steve’s explanation. 

Windy, 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 retirement. 

Steve, 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. 

As 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. 

During 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.

By 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 favor. 

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 finale.

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.) 

Cinematographer 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. 

Supporting actress 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.

Budgeted at $821,000, Hell Divers grossed $1,244,000 in the U.S. and Canada, and $917,000 elsewhere.

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