Howard Hughes and the Picture Business


Today is the birthday of Howard Hughes (1905-1975).

Hughes was many things: heir to a fortune; airplane designer, manufacturer and test pilot; eccentric recluse; and conservative ideologue; but today we focus on the aspect of his multi-faceted life more germane to the usual themes of this blog: movie maker.

There is a certain dilettentish aspect to Hughes’s dabblings in the movie business.  Unlike the founding moguls of the teens, twenties and thirties who built the business from the ground up and understood it in their bones, Hughes (much like William Randolph Hearst) simply bought his way in. He was precocious, highly individualistic, and could afford to take big risks, resulting in several unusual ventures — some successes, but more failures.

The first phase of his film career as producer lasted from 1926 through 1932, embracing several silent films, and many early talkies. He often backed films without screen credit. His notable successes included Hell’s Angels (1930), a big budget paean to World War One flying aces, which he directed himself; and Scarface (1932), the violent fictionalization of the life of Al Capone. Both films generated controversy, thus publicity and box office. (Hell’s Angels didn’t do well at first but eventually made double its cost).

The 1930s were mostly devoted to Hughes’ aeronautical activities. In 1940, it is generally conceded, he was inspired to return to the movie business by Jane Russell’s legendary breasts. He signed Russell to a seven year contract, designed a special bra for her, then devised a movie for her to star in, The Outlaw, which he also directed. Ostensibly a western about Pat Garret and Billy the Kid, it’s really a vehicle for Russell’s cleavage, which the camera returns to again and again. The film is a mess, oddly shot and edited, full of the strange choices and instincts someone might make for whom film-making was an alien and foreign process. Various problem delayed its first release until 1943; it didn’t receive wide release until 1946.

Of more moment, in 1944 he created California Pictures with one of the 20th century’s finest comic auteurs Preston Sturges. Unfortunately, Hughes didn’t trust or respect Sturges’s genius. Their first production was a starring vehicle for Harold Lloyd called The Sin of Harold DiddlebockHughes interfered with the film, Initially given a limited released in 1947 it was withdrawn, reshot, re-edited and re-released by Hughes in 1950 as Mad Wednesday. It was not well received at the time. The men began collaboration on one more project called Vendetta but aborted it, dissolving the partnership.


Also of major interest here is Hughes’ disastrous stewardship of RKO Pictures. As we have written before, RKO was created by Joe Kennedy out of the pieces of the old Keith vaudeville circuit. But if Kennedy killed vaudeville, Hughes killed the company that killed vaudeville. Upon gaining control of the studio in 1948 he fired most of the staff and halted production for months. He continued to tinker with and cause problems at the studio for many years, running it into the ground and selling it to a tire company in 1955. RKO, the studio of Fred Astaire & Ginger Rogers, King Kong, Walt Disney, Orson Welles and Edgar Kennedy, ceased production at the beginning of 1957. Thank you, Howard Hughes!

But the industry has gotten its revenge of course with several Howard Hughes bio-pics. The best of these is undoubtedly Martin Scorsese‘s The Aviator (2004), with Leonard Di Caprio in the lead role, taking us all the way from Hell’s Angels to his loony, loony later days. Cate Blanchett is Katharine Hepburn, and the star-filled cast includes John C. Reilly, Kate Beckinsale, Alec Baldwin, Alan Alda, Ian Holm, Danny Huston, Gwen Stefani, Jude Law, Willem Defoe, Adam Scott, Frances Conroy, Brent Spiner, and Edward Herrmann. It’s not just one of the best bio-pics ever, but one of Scorsese’s best movies, one of a handful where I walked out of the theatre thinking the director had deserved an unqualified A+. I’ve only seen it once or twice, but many images linger: Hughes meeting the snobbish, old money Hepburns; Hughes and Hepburn romancing on a plane; Hughes’ test plane coming down and crashing over the Hollywood hills; and the final spiral into madness and isolation.

Interestingly, two Roger Corman acolytes did films about Hughes. Scorsese, of course.  The other was Jonathan Demme, whose Melvin and Howard (1980) was more about the hapless gas station Melvin Dummar, whom Hughes had left millions of dollars to in his will. Corman and Hughes — definitely on opposite sides of the Hollywood power and money scale!

Sam Shepard’s play Angel City (1976) also features a character clearly based on late-life Hughes. And I leave you with that image. One of the richest, most powerful men in the world, remembered by most people today as a Kook with Kleenex. Thus in the long run does art triumph even over wealth.

For more on film history don’t  miss my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from etc etc etc


For more on the vaudeville businessconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famousavailable at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold. 


One comment

  1. Howard Hughes’s first order after buying RKO: “Paint it!”

    Also, read Ben Hecht’s A CHILD OF THE CENTURY for a great anecdote when friends of Scarface visited BH during the production of SCARFACE: “Hey, who’s this guy Howard Hughes?” Hecht replied, “Him? He’s just the sucker with the money!”


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