Howard Hughes: Tales of a priapic producer

GIVEN THE SURREAL TIMES, I decided last week to delve into the life of Hollywood’s most surreal mogul, Howard Hughes.

Richard Hack’s thorough and witty new biography from New Millennium reminds me why Hughes endures as the ultimate Hollywood legend. Who else could have taken on the censors, the Mafia, the studio power elite and virtually every nubile star and starlet and still survive? Well, almost.

Wedging movies between his other careers as aviator, inventor and corporate titan, Hughes managed to foster projects as bold as “Hell’s Angels” and as bad as “The Outlaw,” to throw the gaudiest premieres yet fire the best filmmakers, to defend Robert Mitchum when he was jailed for smoking pot yet betray a vulnerable and pregnant Ingrid Bergman when she needed help on “Stromboli,” to defend free speech when “Scarface” faced censorship yet all but shut down RKO Pictures because he employed one alleged Communist.

In short, Howard Hughes was so weird that he makes today’s outrageous figures pale by comparison.

In deciding which movies to nurture with his vast wealth, he seemed motivated by testosterone, not taste. Indeed, his only guiding precept seemed to be a desperate need to flaunt his goofy vulgarity.

Who else would spend millions to decorate America with billboards proclaiming that there were “two good reasons” to see “The Outlaw,” starring the aggressively buxom Jane Russell?

Yet even in his mid-20s, Howard Hughes was sickly, partially deaf and marginally impotent, Hack tells us.

That did not inhibit his frenzied pursuit of Billie Dove, Jean Harlow, Ava Gardner, Faith Domergue, Ginger Rogers, Kathryn Grayson, Terry Moore and even Katharine Hepburn — affairs that usually ended in operatic betrayals and a blizzard of column items.

He seemed reclusive, yet desperate for attention.

In June 1930, having risked $4 million of his own money on “Hell’s Angels,” he orchestrated a mind-bendingly lavish premiere that even Charlie Chaplin called “the greatest night in show business.”

With 15,000 people jamming Hollywood Boulevard, Hughes triggered Hollywood’s greatest traffic jam — the premiere scheduled for 8:30 started at 11. Hughes later said it was the best day of his life.

He was 24 at the time, and in a moment of hubris he planted column items declaring that he was simultaneously negotiating to buy Universal, Paramount, Fox and Warner Bros.

In the end, he bought none of them, finally settling in 1948 for an ailing RKO. Like most outsiders, he never found a way of making money in the movie business.

Along the way, almost inadvertently, he helped foster some fine films, such as “The Philadelphia Story” and “Bringing Up Baby.”

WHEN THE DREADED WILL HAYS, the chief censor, tried to water down “Scarface,” demanding a patriotic ending and a change in title to “Scarface: The Shame of the Nation,” Hughes told Hays to get lost — and actually won.

Yet Hughes never seemed to find his sense of direction in Hollywood. He tried to make a venomous satire of the industry called “Queer People” that was criticized as blatantly anti-Semitic.

Not daunted by the outrage that greeted “The Outlaw,” he mounted yet another Jane Russell movie, this time in 3-D, called “The French Line,” with a campaign heralding: “It’ll knock both your eyes out.”

At any given time, his development list included Westerns, gambling stories with Las Vegas settings (to Hughes, Vegas was paradise) and off-the-wall comedies like “The Cock of the Air.”

No one with any talent would work for him more than once.

When he acquired RKO, Dore Schary was its production chief, and while Hughes promised non-interference, he quickly canceled a Van Johnson movie called “Battleground.” Schary quit and took the film with him when he became the studio boss at MGM. A big moneymaker, “Battleground” was nominated for five Oscars.

To be sure, Hughes’ self-destruct mechanism ultimately took over and he became the reclusive Dracula of Las Vegas, paranoid about germs and nuclear tests, stuffing his face with codeine and drifting into incoherence.

Surrendering his chance to contribute to the welfare of his peers, he instead created a legacy of suspicion. He had the gifts to be a great man but ended up a creep.

While he was great for Hollywood, a town that loves myths and mythmakers, there were no stars at his funeral. Indeed, there was hardly any family, and no displays of emotion, for he was a stranger to them as well.

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