The 1930 Film That Killed 4 People While Filming

Howard Hughes was a multi-hyphenated billionaire. Aside from being a well-known pilot, he also dabbled in the entertainment industry and directed some films, one of which is the 1930 movie titled "Hell's Angels," a war film that featured actress Jean Harlow in her first major role. The film is about two brothers — played by James Hall and Ben Lyon — who join the British Royal Flying Corps to fight in World War I and become entangled in a love triangle with Harlow's character (via TV Tropes).

"Hell's Angels" was a big production, and it took three years to complete. Per the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum, Hughes had just earned his pilot's license before the film shoot started in 1927. Initially, "Hell's Angels" was supposed to be a silent film, but with the industry slowly transitioning to talkies, it was reshot more than a year into production. Hughes wanted the aerial footage as realistic as possible, so he acquired a fleet of vintage aircraft and hired pilots and mechanics to aid in filming. According to a newspaper article published in 1931, Hughes made use of 87 planes and about 20,000 people. "Shooting proceeded steadily for nearly three years, with 18 months alone devoted to aviation and Zeppelin sequences," the article read (via California Digital Newspaper Collection). In total, the film cost almost $4 million to make — a staggering amount at that time — which is about $65 million in today's money.

Several accidents happened while filming

With an ambitious war movie to create, Howard Hughes hired more than 100 pilots and mechanics to pull off aerial stunts. In fact, he himself got in on the action and flew a World War I airplane, which was an arduous task for a new pilot like himself. Pilots on set — who had more flying experience — fought against the idea, but Hughes was determined, according to the National Air and Space Museum. The crew successfully got the footage that Hughes wanted, but he crashed the plane. He came out of the wreck with a fractured skull and had to undergo surgery. Some of the professionals he hired weren't so lucky.

According to History Net, four people died while filming "Hell's Angels." C.K. Phillips was killed in a crash while piloting a British fighter plane on the way to the shooting location. Al Johnson ran into tension wires as he landed a plane and was severely burned; he died in a hospital a day after. Pilot Rupert Macalister also died, but there wasn't any explanation about how it happened. Mechanic Phil Jones died during filming when he neglected to get out of the way when a bomber crash scene was being shot. He was operating a smoke generator at the time.

"Hell's Angels" was released on May 27, 1930, and it earned $2.5 million at the box office — a sum less than the film's budget. The movie didn't earn profit in its first release, but the aerial scenes were highly praised by critics.