Beyond the Wealth and Weirdness

Besides his material excesses and eccentricities, Howard Hughes was a pioneer -- pushing the limits of what was acceptable in film and aviation

December 27, 2004|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

Howard Hughes was rich. Howard Hughes was weird.

That may be as much as most Americans know about Hughes, who entered adult life as one of the richest men in America and died in 1976 an emaciated recluse.

But there was far more to the man than that. Hughes was an American original - brash, phobic, visionary, flawed, pioneering, obsessive, charismatic, womanizing. Having inherited millions thanks to a drill bit invented by his father, he spent huge chunks of money on his passions: flying and making movies. While he succeeded famously at both, he also failed miserably, leaving a legacy as idiosyncratic as the man.

As Martin Scorsese's The Aviator, shows, Hughes was a reckless, hell-bent pilot who designed and flew planes faster than his contemporaries thought possible. But he also spent millions in government money on an airship that never proved viable, a wartime extravagance that threatened to land him in jail.

As a moviemaker, Hughes proved even more of an enigma. His most famous films, the only two that list him as director, were more sideshow than cinema, commercial successes that owed more to their notoriety than their quality. Hell's Angels, released in 1930, took three years to make and cost nearly $4 million at the height of the Depression. Later, he was so concerned with displaying Jane Russell's cleavage in The Outlaw (1943) that he designed a special bra, engineered to show off Russell's physique to maximum effect.

"He left his mark on Hollywood in two ways," says Robert Dalrymple, producer of the documentary Howard Hughes: His Women and His Movies, made in 2000 for Turner Classic Movies. "One was creating the big blockbuster, which was Hell's Angels, still the biggest movie premiere ever staged. When it opened at Grauman's Chinese Theater, 500,000 people were on the streets of Hollywood.

"The other was pushing the limits of what was acceptable in the movies. Certainly, there was The Outlaw, with Jane Russell, where he basically defeated the censors at the Hays Office."

But Hughes' Hollywood career proved more enduring than those two movies suggest. His greatest films were the ones he produced, leaving the actual moviemaking to others.

Two Arabian Knights (1927), a silent film directed by Lewis Milestone (who would achieve screen immortality for 1930's All Quiet on the Western Front), stars Louis Wolheim and William Boyd as a pair of squabbling U.S. Army soldiers during World War I who spend as much time battling each other as the enemy. Perfectly matched as POWs who don Arab disguises in an attempt to escape, Wolheim and Boyd exuded considerable charm, and Milestone's direction kept the madcap antics from getting out of hand. The film won an Oscar for Best Comedy Direction at the first Academy Awards ceremony in 1929 (the category was soon dropped).

When talking pictures arrived, Hughes continued to produce films. His first was the bombastic Hell's Angels, which may seem tedious to modern audiences (in The Aviator, Scorsese makes it seem a lot more exciting than it really is), but was a commercial success and also introduced Jean Harlow.

Other movies, produced by Hughes and released with far less pomp, have come to be regarded as classics. That would especially include The Front Page (1931), with Adolphe Menjou and Pat O'Brien as newsroom antagonists, and Scarface (1932), with Paul Muni as a crazed Chicago gangster obviously patterned on Al Capone.

Hughes even made cinematic history with films he didn't produce; it was he who persuaded Katharine Hepburn to purchase the film rights to Philip Barry's play, The Philadelphia Story, and insist that she be cast in the lead. The 1940 film would prove one of the biggest hits of Hepburn's career and, after a fallow period in which her films underperformed at the box office, put her back in Hollywood's good graces.

Hughes "instinctively knew what would be popular throughout his career," says Jeff Masino, founder of Los Angeles-based Flicker Alley, a film distribution company that recently restored Two Arabian Knights and two other Hughes-produced silents. Hughes took a break from moviemaking during much of World War II, concentrating instead on his dream of creating a giant airborne troop carrier for the war effort (the result was the giant Spruce Goose, which flew only once and, because of cost overruns, landed Hughes before a Senate committee).

When the war ended, Hughes once again turned his attention to Hollywood, but with less success than before. His 1947 collaboration with director Preston Sturgess and star Harold Lloyd for The Sin of Harold Diddlebock did none of the three any favors.

The following year, he took over RKO studios, but the magic that once seemed to surround Hughes was gone. Few of the films released during his tenure there earned much at the box office, and even fewer proved popular with critics. The Conqueror, released in 1956 and starring John Wayne as Genghis Khan, proved the nadir of both Hughes' and Wayne's careers. It was, however, a Hughes favorite. He reportedly watched it incessantly during the last years of his life.

The RKO years proved a disappointing ending for Hughes' Hollywood career, but don't negate his accomplishments.

"He wanted to be a pro golfer, he wanted to learn to fly and he wanted to make movies," says Masino. "He overachieved at two of those goals."

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