No. 127 | June 28, 2010
Howard Robard Hughes Jr. was born in Houston on December 24, 1905. There’s some dispute about the date and place. Hughes claimed he was born on Christmas Eve, but he might not have been the most reliable source. Other accounts have the location as Humble, Texas, a detail that sounds suspiciously like something from a Hollywood publicity department. In any case, he was born with the monogram H.R.H., and perhaps some wishful thinking, if not destiny, was involved in that.
Hughes inherited a fortune at an early age, then headed west to make movies. He made himself into one of the more fascinating figures in Hollywood history. He was a mogul, a director, an aviator, an entrepreneur, a tycoon, a philanthropist, a recluse, and a headcase. He was the type of eccentric that makes today’s tabloid fodder seem like mere poseurs. He was a billionaire at a time when being a millionaire was still a big deal. He had a one-of-a-kind life.
Hughes has been the subject of many books and films over the years. In her 1967 essay “7000 Romaine, Los Angeles 38″ (the title is the address of Hughes’s office), Joan Didion reflected on Hughes’s appeal and found something distinctly American:
That we have made a hero of Howard Hughes tells us something interesting about ourselves, something dimly remembered, tells us that the secret point of money and power in America is neither the things that money can buy nor power for power’s sake (Americans are uneasy with their possessions, guilty about power, all of which is difficult for Europeans to perceive because they are themselves so truly materialistic, so versed in the uses of power), but absolute personal freedom, mobility, privacy. It is the instinct which drove America to the Pacific, all through the nineteenth century, the desire to be able to find a restaurant open in case you want a sandwich, to be a free agent, live by one’s own rules.
David Thomson, in The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, had this to say about Hughes’s time in Hollywood:
I think it’s plain why Hughes excites movie people: the daft wealth, the amazing fame, and the yearning to be nothing; the obsession with flying; the taste for hotels, Las Vegas, and bloodless food delivered in plastic bags—this is the little boy’s kingdom; the foolish resort to movies, to running studios, to brunettes, blondes, and breasts. He is the fan who walked in off the street, who made movies and bossed a studio, and who was crazy and hopeful enough to think of having Jean Harlow, Jane Russell, Katharine Hepburn, Ida Lupino, Jean Simmons, Janet Leigh, Faith Domergue, even Jean Peters (the one he married) and so on, into the night. Hughes did what every shy, lonely moviegoer dreams of doing. And he went mad as a hatter, leaving the legend to Clifford Irving and the rest of us.
When it comes to Hughes, it’s no easy task telling fact from fiction. Stories of his life, more than most, are a liberal blend of the two. I won’t aim to settle what’s what, but this week we’ll take a look at part of his legacy—Howard Hughes and the movies. We’ll start today with Hughes the moviemaker, then turn the rest of the week to Hughes the man of myth, in his various incarnations as a character onscreen.
Our theme this week
Howard Hughes and the movies
Howard Hughes took his new bride and his fortune to Los Angeles in 1925, where he began making movies in the last days of silents. A couple of films that Hughes produced earned recognition in the first year of the Oscars. A silent called Two Arabian Knights (1927) was a success at the box office and earned Lewis Milestone the Academy Award for directing a comedy (there were two directing prizes that year). Another silent, a crime drama called The Racket (1928), also directed by Milestone, was nominated for Outstanding Picture.
Hell’s Angels (1930) cost nearly $4 million to make. Hughes not only put up the money, but after hiring and firing a couple of directors, he took the reins himself. A talkie about air combat in World War I, the film was a smash and launched the career of its teenaged star, Jean Harlow.
As producer, Hughes had some notable successes during the 1930s. The Front Page (1931) was the first of several film adaptations of the play by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur. A smart comedy about the newspaper biz, it was nominated for three Oscars. Scarface (1932), loosely based on the life of Al Capone, was a seminal gangster film. Before turning his energies full-time to real-life aviation, Hughes made one more flying picture, a comedy called Sky Devils (1932), starring Spencer Tracy.
Hughes returned to moviemaking in the 1940s, as director (with Howard Hawks in the wings) and producer of The Outlaw, a western about Billy the Kid. The film starred Hughes’s new discovery, Jane Russell. The film is famous for its years-long delay in getting released (it had a brief run in 1943, two years after it was completed, then a longer release in 1946), as Hughes obsessed about his leading lady’s bra and fought with censors about shots of her breasts.
In 1948, Hughes won control of RKO, and he ran the struggling film studio until 1955. Some of his later films include Vendetta (1950), His Kind of Woman (1951), and Macao (1952). Near the end of his movie career he produced another aviation flick, Jet Pilot (completed in 1953, released in 1957), with John Wayne heading the cast.
Hughes left Hollywood and the rest of the world behind, becoming a hermit in his later years. He died on April 5, 1976, on a plane en route to Houston. That’s the official story, though some reports say otherwise.