Turner Classic Movies faithful who are enamored of the web’s classy presentation of old movies are likely to be particularly dismayed by this low-end, once over lightly treatment of Howard Hughes’ Hollywood career. Cheap production values, heaps of generic archival footage, a paucity of filmed material on Hughes himself, a preference for bland generalization over revealing detail and a watered-down National Enquirer mindset mark this filler designed to accompany the cabler’s season of Hughes productions.
For those completely unfamiliar with the eccentric tycoon’s life story, this director-less docu skips across the high points in perfunctory fashion, noting the boy’s mother-dominated upbringing in Houston, massive inheritance at 18 and subsequent move to Los Angeles, where any handsome, red-blooded millionaire might reasonably have gone if he wanted to pursue the twin obsessions identified by the pic’s subtitle.
Reams of anonymous “wild party” stock footage serves to illustrate Hughes’ social life, which we are repeatedly told was filled with hundreds of women. Supposedly having inherited the “cheating” gene from his father, however, he managed to drive away with his infidelities every woman he is said to have really loved — Billie Dove, Ginger Rogers, Katharine Hepburn — forcing him to turn once again to his endless reserve of available starlets. Poor guy.
Hughes’ film career is handled ever more cursorily than his private life. As a maverick outsider arriving at a time when the studios were consolidating their power, Hughes was viewed with deep resentment and hostility by the recently installed moguls, for whom the newcomer would never be part of the “club.” With such deep pockets, Hughes was able to establish himself quickly as the scrappiest independent producer in town, making artistic or commercial successes that included the Oscar-winning “Two Arabian Knights,” “Hell’s Angels,” “The Front Page” (a film not even mentioned here) and “Scarface.” But because Hughes pushed censorship boundaries at every turn, the studio heads, through the Hays Office, found a way to frustrate and roadblock him to such an extent that he left the business in disgust after only seven years.
The docu doesn’t get into any of this. Except for “Hell’s Angels,” for which there is lively aviation footage full of massive dogfights and spectacular crashes (as well as room for maybe-they-did, maybe-they-didn’t speculation about Hughes and star Jean Harlow), none of the Caddo productions from this period is explored in any detail. A wonderful montage could have been created out of the more risque moments from these late ’20s-early ’30s pictures, moments that would have pointed logically to the full-blown sexual preoccupations writ large when Hughes returned to filmmaking a decade later with “The Outlaw.”
The tycoon’s intervening aviation career, not an ostensible subject of the docu, provides visual opportunities too good to ignore here, and while his increasing physical impairments (deafness, reliance on drugs from flying injuries) and behavioral weirdnesses are noted, treatment remains on the most superficial level. Pic states that the new postwar owner of RKO never set foot on the studio lot, but doesn’t even hint that Hughes dealt with his acquisition the way Hitler dealt with Poland, decimating the studio roster, making mostly lousy movies, eliminating suspected leftists and bleeding it until there wasn’t much left.
In a nice tit-for-tat, actress and serious girlfriend Terry Moore brings to the show two brief illicit tape recordings she made of phone conversations with Hughes, who himself was notorious for tapping the lines of his paramours. But there’s nothing spicy on offer, in line with the film’s clear intentions of steering clear of the kinkier aspects of Hughes’ intimate life despite its desire to titillate with the constant allusions to its subject’s ongoing debauchery.
Docu makes no attempt to put Hughes in the larger contexts of Hollywood, American industry and politics, or 20th century folklore. Worst of all are the “re-creations,” which in their innocuous moments feature a Hughes-like figure striding onto a soundstage or watching a beautiful woman onscreen; in their inaccurate ones display the fanatical anti-smoker with a cigarette; and in their ludicrous ones attempt to inject drama into Hughes’ flying life with shots of a pair of hands struggling with plane controls.