Hell Divers (1931): Pre-Code Navy Movie, Starring Wallace Beery and Clark Gable






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Hell Divers is a pre-Code film starring Wallace Beery and Clark Gable as a pair of competing officers in early naval aviation.

Made with the cooperation of the U.S. Navy, the movie features footage of flight operations on board the Navy’s second aircraft carrier, the USS Saratoga, including shots of takeoffs and landings filmed from the Curtiss F8C-4 Helldiver dive bombers (after which the movie was named).

Though Wallace Beery gets star billing, Hell Divers was Gable’s first “starring” role and filmed before he grew his trademark mustache.

Gable had appeared in minor supporting role in another Beery film, The Secret Six, earlier that year.  Four years later, Gable would be billed over Beery in the lavish epic China Seas, one of only four films in which Beery did not receive top billing.

Other actors include Conrad Nagel, Dorothy Jordan, Marjorie Rambeau, Marie Prevost, and Robert Young (uncredited) as the pilot Graham.

Hell Divers was officially Gable’s first “starring” role and filmed before he grew his trademark mustache.

Gable had appeared in a minor supporting role in another Beery film, The Secret Six, earlier the same year.

For Gable, Hell Divers was not a pleasant experience since he was again billed beneath Beery, an actor he disliked. Four years later, Gable would be billed over Beery in the epic China Seas, one of only 4 films in the sound era in which Beery did not get top billing.

An uncredited Robert Young appears near the end of the film in a speaking role as Graham, a pilot.

Leading Chief Petty Officer “Windy” Riker, a vet aerial gunner of a Navy Helldiver dive bomber and leading chief of Fighting Squadron One, is about to go to Panama aboard the USS Saratoga aircraft carrier.

He loses his five-year title of “champion machine gunner” after young C.P.O. Steve Nelson joins the squadron. Windy, known for using his fists, is charged by local police with wrecking a Turkish bath. Windy is saved from arrest, however, when Lieutenant Commander Jack Griffin, skipper of the squadron, intervenes. Griffin and second-in-command, Lieutenant “Duke” Johnson, consider Nelson to be the best candidate to replace Windy when he retires.

The chiefs engage in friendly rivalry until the squadron practices a new dive-bombing technique and Steve becomes a hero, saving the base from being bombed by climbing out on the wing of his dive bomber.

Feelings turn bitter when Steve contradicts Windy’s explanation of the accident.

When Steve’s sweetheart, Ann Mitchell, visits him, he proposes marriage to her, but Windy uses a practical joke to get even with Steve. Unaware that Ann is Steve’s fiancée and not simply a girl he is trying to impress, Windy bribes an old acquaintance, Lulu, to pretend to be Steve’s outraged lover. Ann leaves upset and will not listen to Steve’s denials.

Griffin loses an arm in a mid-air collision at night. The accident occurs when the aircraft are returning from delivering the admiral to his flagship the Saratoga before the squadron embarks. Griffin is retired and replaced in command of Fighting One by Duke Johnson.

Windy becomes Johnson’s gunner when the squadron flies to the ship. During a bombing exercise off Panama, Windy misplaces his code book and delays the takeoff. As punishment, he is assigned to supervise a work party when the ship docks, missing liberty and keeping him from seeing Mame Kelsey (Rambeau), with whom he wants to settle down after retirement.

Steve encounters Mame on the dock, but Windy hears about it and sneaks into town. Mame tries to convince Steve to patch up his differences with Windy, then promotes peace between them when Windy shows up at her hotel. Having a drink together in the bar, however, Windy starts a brawl. Steve tries to help him avoid the local police but Windy is thrown in jail.

As the Saratoga passes through the Panama Canal, Mame bails Windy out of jail and he catches up to it by stealing a boat. For his transgressions, the captain of the Saratoga reduces Windy one rate. Windy is disciplined at “Captain’s Mast” and reduced to Aviation Machinist’s Mate 1st Class for leaving his post without authorization, absent without leave, and missing ship. Steve reluctantly becomes leading chief.

During a mock battle, Steve’s aircraft crashes near a rocky island, killing the pilot and leaving Steve with a broken leg. Duke and Windy land to rescue Steve, but Duke suffers a head injury and Windy has to save both. They have only a radio receiver and cannot be found in the fog. Steve and Windy become friends while waiting for rescue. Windy writes Ann a note confessing what he did with Lulu.

After days, Duke’s condition worsens, Steve develops blood poisoning, and the Saratoga is leaving. Windy tries to save them by flying them out in Duke’s dive bomber, with Duke in the rear cockpit and Steve on the wing.

Despite the fog, they find the aircraft carrier, but crash on landing and Windy is fatally injured. Windy’s last request is to be buried at sea, while a missing man formation flies overhead.

The film had a sneak preview on October 29, 1931, but was not released until January 16, 1932.

Hell Divers was critically acclaimed, with reviewers singling out the exciting aerial sequences.

Commercial Hit

Hell Divers earned $1,244,000 in the U.S. and $917,000 elsewhere, resulting in a profit of $458,000.

Wallace Beery as C.P.O. H.W. “Windy” Riker
Clark Gable as C.P.O. Steve Nelson
Conrad Nagel as Lieutenant D.W. “Duke” Johnson
Dorothy Jordan as Ann Mitchell
Marjorie Rambeau as Mame Kelsey
Marie Prevost as Lulu Farnsworth
Cliff Edwards as “Baldy”
John Miljan as Lieutenant Commander Jack Griffin
Landers Stevens as Admiral
Reed Howes as Lieutenant Fisher
Alan Roscoe as Captain, U.S.S. Saratoga
Frank Conroy as Chaplain