Bright Lights Film Journal

“Nice town. I’ll take it.” Howard Hughes and Hollywood

A salute to the playboy entrepreneur of Tinseltown

Christmas 2004 saw the release of The Aviator, a Howard Hughes biopic directed by Martin Scorsese and with an all-star cast that includes Jude Law as Errol Flynn, Cate Blanchett as Katharine Hepburn, and Leonardo Dicaprio as the man himself. Some industry insiders are tipping the film to right an Academy wrong and earn Scorsese the Best Director Oscar that has infamously eluded him thus far. More importantly, it promises to redress the balance in Hughes’ own reputation: once revered as an American hero, these days he’s more likely to be caricatured as the crackpot recluse he sadly became in his twilight years. It’s about time a film came along to re-inject Howard with his once legendary virility. After all, Hollywood owes him a thing or two.

Scorsese recently told Sight and Sound, “I’m interested in Hughes’ relationship with Hollywood. But mainly what interests me is the man obsessed — obsessed with flying and being the fastest man in the world. A real, wonderful, obsessive madness. And the mythical aspect of his downfall: whom the Gods would destroy, first they make mad.” Despite commanding nowhere near the sort of death-inducing passion he displayed towards his first love of flying, Hughes’ film career was by no means a break from his compulsive nature.

Take the story of his entry into film. In 1925, Ralph Graves, an old acquaintance of Howard Hughes Sr., approached the young Howard to help finance a film he was making called Swell Hogan. Hughes volunteered $40,000, on the condition that he be allowed onto the set to get a first-hand look at how motion pictures were made. Once shooting began, he proved a constant irritation, incessantly questioning crew members and generally wasting so much time that costs soon doubled to $80,000. Hughes didn’t care; he could afford not to. On one occasion he was discovered by the night watchman surrounded by neat piles of bits and pieces of a film projector. When asked what he was doing, Hughes replied that if he were to be in the movie business he would need to know exactly how everything worked. By the next morning the projector was back in perfect working order.

Swell Hogan was not to provide a grand introduction to the movie business, though. In fact, it was so bad that Hughes buried the picture and vowed he was done with movies. This declaration drew a huge sigh of relief from the executives at Hughes Tool Company, the conglomerate responsible for bankrolling his various extracurricular activities. Hughes had inherited the company from his father, and to his credit had greatly increased revenue before the oil mining industry it specialized in ceased to hold his attention. Sadly for the suits, Hughes had also inherited from his father a habit of reckless spending, and Hollywood was the ideal playground for such a spendthrift. He would soon be ploughing the Tool Company coffers once more.

It was his uncle, Rupert Hughes, himself a thriving screenwriter, who inadvertently pushed Howard back into pictures. Having witnessed the calamity that was Swell Hogan, he took his nephew to one side and advised him to give it up or risk squandering his fortune. Despite the failure of his first production Howard had made a splash in Hollywood, a town always quick to pick up on the scent of money. But being a native Rupert knew what society was saying and had overheard fellow screenwriter Ben Hecht mock Howard as “the sucker with the money.” Never one to take advice kindly, especially not from a family he generally regarded as meddlesome, it was sheer bloody-mindedness as much as anything that relaunched Hughes’ movie career.

With newfound determination he haunted the sets of big studio productions, filling up notebook after notebook on the nuances of moviemaking. Hell-bent on proving the doubters wrong, he soon founded his own production house — the Caddo Company — and set about signing the talent to make him the toast of the town. Teaming up with Oscar-winning director Lewis Milestone, he proceeded to produce a series of successful comedy capers such as Two Arabian Knights and The Front Page, the latter based on a play by Ben Hecht of all people and later remade by Howard Hawks as His Girl Friday.


Hawks was evidently an admirer of Hughes, perhaps a little too ardent a one. In 1931, Hughes filed a lawsuit against the then up-and-coming director, claiming Hawks’ The Dawn Patrol plagiarized scenes from his own Hell’s Angels. The dispute came to a head one day at the Lakeside Country Club where, about to tee off, Hawks was interrupted by the resident golf pro with the message Hughes wished to join him.

“Tell him I don’t want to play golf with him,” came the retort.

“He says he’ll call the suit off.”

During the subsequent round of golf, Hughes shamelessly suggested that his erstwhile antagonist might like to make a film for him. Impressed at such nerve, Hawks agreed. The fruit of their collaboration was the landmark gangster opus Scarface.

In comparison to the drug-addled, cuss-infested version regurgitated by Brian De Palma and Oliver Stone, the two Howards’ Scarface appears almost comically tame, but in 1932 its gritty depiction of violence was groundbreaking. Ben Hecht, taking full advantage of the “sucker” paying his way, was assigned to write the script, which devised the archetypal rise-and-fall structure of the gangster genre. Revelling in the gloriously brutal ascension of Tony Camonte (Paul Muni), the finished film featured an unprecedented twenty-eight onscreen killings.

In an era in which the graphic portrayal of criminal activity was strictly prohibited, Scarface‘s no-holds-barred vehemence, heartily endorsed by its producer, inevitably incurred the wrath of the Hays Office. An early precursor to the age of Tarantino and Britain’s ‘video nasties,” it was the alleged glamorisation of violence that most concerned Hollywood’s self-appointed watchdog. That the fictional Camonte, mainstream cinema’s first anti-hero, was flagrantly modelled on the American public’s love-hate affair with the dangerously real Al Capone only inflamed the censors further.

Faced with the threat of being banned from public exhibition, Hughes didn’t do what any sensible producer would and reign in his director. On the contrary, he actively encouraged Hawks to pump up the action whilst fighting the Hays Office tooth and nail over every cut proposed. After almost two years of wrangling, a theatrical release was secured with just one excision from Hughes’ preferred edit. To compensate for their impotence in the face of Hughes’ doggedness, the Hays Office foolishly slapped on the salacious tagline “The Shame of a Nation,” which, along with the tabloid columns garnered from the censorship battle, had the public flocking to their local theaters.

Too shrewd for the conservatives that upheld Hollywood’s censorship laws, Hughes had long realized what a powerful promotional tool violence could be. He followed up Scarface by breaking another big taboo with 1943’s scandalously sexual offering, The Outlaw. Before either of his conflicts with the censors, though, Hughes got in practice by battling some of his own inner demons as he embarked on a personal folly that remains unrivalled in the annals of U.S. cinema.

Hughes was just twenty-four when he began work on Hell’s Angels. The tumultuous three years he spent on this true labour of love propelled him towards the psychosis that would grip him later in life, containing as it did the disintegration of his first marriage and a near fatal plane crash that left him with terminal brain damage.

Conceived as the ultimate war epic, a love story featuring the greatest aeronautical battle sequences ever committed to celluloid, the grandiose idea for Hell’s Angels allegedly came to Howard whilst viewing Wings, winner of the inaugural Best Picture Oscar. As he watched, a characteristically immodest thought ran through his mind: I could do better! Within weeks, the production was up and running, financed solely by Hughes, who opted to forego the security of studio backing, adamant that the glory would be all his own.

Whilst Hughes assembled an air force, purchasing vintage World War I fighters with the relish of a young boy collecting model planes, veteran director Marshall Neilan began shooting the interiors. When the producer arrived on set, though, dressed in the modish garb of a ’20s film director, Neilan knew he was out of a job. Sure enough, his decisions began being overruled and he walked. His replacement, Luther Reed, didn’t take long to snap either, and in an on-set altercation Reed challenged Hughes to direct the film himself since he knew so damn much: the sound of the gauntlet being thrown down, it was what Howard had been waiting to hear. To have headed a venture of such magnitude from the outset would have appeared terribly cocksure for a first-timer; seasoned Hollywood players would have seen to it he be shot down for exhibiting such audacity. Now he could cast himself as the cavalry hero riding into town to save the day.

Funnily enough, casting was one of the directorial crafts Hughes proved quite adept at. The star of Hell’s Angels would be the hitherto unknown Jean Harlow, the woman for whom one of Howard’s press agents coined the term “platinum blonde.” But with respect to Howard’s undoubted eye for talent — he was also responsible for the careers of Janes Russell and Greer among others — Harlow owed her big break more to the production debacles and spiralling expenses that precipitated her employment.


Hughes’ inexperience and experimental attitude had steadily combined to set production back both days and dollars. His pedantic insistence on waiting for the perfect cloud formations against which to shoot his carefully choreographed air shows didn’t endear him to a camera crew that already had to wait up to two hours just for the fleets of planes to get airborne. He wasn’t on the best of terms with his stunt crew either. thanks to his brash belief in his own flying ability. A relative novice alongside ace pilots Roscoe Turner and Paul Mantz, like the directors before them the vexed stunt pilots were desperate to see the young upstart fall flat on his face — which he did in disastrously dramatic fashion.

Mantz stood listening to his boss’ instructions, distinctly unimpressed. Hughes wanted a pilot to dive toward the ground and pull back up two hundred feet above the runway. To dive lower than a thousand feet was tantamount to suicide, and there was no way Mantz or any of his boys were going to try it. Any good flier could do it, raved Hughes, but no one rose to the bait. If he wanted it done, Howard would have to do it himself. Hopping into the cockpit, still in his directors’ costume, he started the engine and rocketed skywards. The entire crew gathered below to watch one of the world’s richest men risk his life for the sake of cinematic spectacle.

Given the signal that the cameras were positioned and rolling, Hughes began the plummet towards earth. Below the thousand feet altitude Mantz had warned of, he began to lose control. Still more concerned with capturing the stunt on camera than his own well-being, Hughes continued in free fall. At five hundred feet, the delicate aircraft began to crumble. Hughes frantically tried to pull back, but it was too late. The Scout-fighter came crashing onto the runway, the propellers digging up the gravel as it continued to tear along at breakneck pace. As crew members and medics rushed to the wreck, enveloped in a cloud of dust and smoke, they were amazed to see Hughes emerge, battered and bloodied but somehow in one piece. And with that, he collapsed.

With Hughes’ life hanging in the balance, Hell’s Angels at least was presumed dead. A shard of metal had lodged itself into his cracked skull and he slipped into a coma; doctors warned his brain had been irrevocably damaged. Upon awaking four days later Hughes contrarily declared himself to be in fine health. Having failed to learn his lesson, he again defied expert opinion, discharged himself and, inconceivably, was back on set the next day. It took until he was on his death-bed for Hughes to admit the gravity of the injury, probably the root cause of much of the irrational behaviour he displayed later in life. Still, he could count himself lucky to survive; three other daring pilots were less fortunate in his uncompromising quest for a hit picture.

As if the migraines debilitating him after the crash weren’t bad enough, Hughes suffered a further headache as the impact of The Jazz Singer reverberated around Hollywood. For all its aerial gymnastics, Hell’s Angels seemed destined to flop without being a “talkie.” Conversion to sound required extensive reshoots and added a further $1.7 million to an already excessive budget. To top things off, Greta Nissen, the leading lady to this point, possessed a thick Scandinavian accent that would have to be masked to appeal to patriotic U.S. audiences. Despite the best efforts of Nissen’s diction coach, Hughes took the unsolicited step of recasting the role.

As the pictures learnt to speak, many silent stars faded away. The time was nigh for a new breed of screen icon, so Hughes decided he’d mould one himself; it would be cheaper that way after all. Buxom blonde after buxom blonde paraded through the casting office, the talent hunt eventually leading to Harlow. What made her conspicuous from the other aspirants? Not a lot, but her timing was impeccable; Hughes had grown weary of the audition process and was itching to get on. She had blonde hair, ample cleavage, and spoke English as her first language — she’d do! The logic may have been crude, but Hughes knew what he wanted and it worked a dream. Variety would later fawn, “It doesn’t make much difference what degree of talent she possesses here, for the boys are apt to go in an uproar over this girl who is the most sensuous figure to get in front of a camera for some time… nobody ever starved possessing what she’s got.”

Hughes’ initial indifference also gave way to appreciation, and he duly inaugurated the tradition of romancing his leading ladies, although Harlow remained interchangeable: he also had a put-upon wife, socialite Ella Rice, and was in the throes of an affair with silent screen siren Billie Dove. The soft-hearted Ella was cruelly banished home to Houston throughout the protracted making of Hell’s Angels. Even when she was admitted to hospital with nervous exhaustion, Hughes refused to leave the set to be by her bedside. After five miserable years of marriage, she eventually began divorce proceedings in June 1929, and Howard lost one of the more calming influences on his life.

Hughes did return home briefly that summer when shooting finally wrapped, but Hell’s Angels remained a long way from the finish line. A staggering 560 hours worth of footage had been shot. Unsurprisingly, the final cut still holds the Guinness World Record for the most edited film in terms of total negative discarded: a paltry 0.36 per cent was used. Inevitably this process of condensation proved as tortuous as the shoot itself. Hughes was spending eighteen hours a day back in his L.A. editing suite and, seemingly getting nowhere, turned to drink to ease his frustrations. Alcohol being one of the few vices Hughes never really took to, the effects weren’t pretty — screenwriter Joseph Moncure March, still working frantically on dialogue to be dubbed onto the final soundtrack, recalls seeing an irate Hughes chase an editing assistant and hurl a metal ashtray, which, narrowly missing the distressed target, smashed a banister instead. It was becoming increasingly clear that the only thing capable of curing Hughes’ frayed disposition was the completion of Hell’s Angels.

On June 30, 1930, opening night finally arrived. Premiering at the prestigious Grauman’s Chinese Theatre (above), the moment of truth was further deferred by an airshow outside and an acrobatics display inside, the lavish prologue a teasing nod to the three long years everyone had waited for the main event. Whether Hughes enjoyed the joke is doubtful; expectation was meteoric and he stood to lose a fortune if the film bombed.

As the lights came up, Hughes’ fears were allayed by a voracious reception, but he was astute enough to know that that night alone wouldn’t dictate the true fate of himself or his masterpiece. Far from it; despite a good showing at the box office, Hell’s Angels took decades to recoup its astronomical budget. Reviews, meanwhile, were mixed, although Hughes found contentment in The Los Angeles Evening Herald, which vindicated his original objective via the declaration, “Beside this picture, Wings was but a feeble thing.”

The abrasive novice had survived, though the ordeal had taken its toll, a fact painstakingly visible in his prematurely aging countenance, not to mention the scars from the crash that now decorated his body. Thankfully it wasn’t in Howard’s makeup to take life easy. After Scarface in ’32, he ducked out of movies to concentrate on aviation exploits, but by the mid-‘40s he was firmly entrenched back in LA, ready to fight one last war with the status quo of the silver screen.

Hollywood had never encountered anyone quite like Howard Hughes before. The wish-fulfilling fantasies it manufactured may have pedalled the notions of fortune and power, but it had never had to actively compete against them. Studio execs grudgingly joined in the applause at the end of Hell’s Angels, but for much of that evening at Grauman’s they had been shifting uncomfortably in their seats; the establishment viewed Hughes as a renegade, a powerful outsider who couldn’t be tamed and didn’t want to be integrated into the system. His reckless way with money and blatant disregard for censorship and industry convention marked him as a mogul with a difference, and the bigwigs despised him for it. Moreover, they feared him, and their fears ultimately proved well grounded.

From the moment he formed the Caddo Company, Hughes had been fiercely independent. His comeback in 1943 was prominent for The Outlaw, another drawn-out directorial effort, the most celebrated feature of which was Jane Russell’s breasts. Needless to say, the public loved it; the censors and critics were less enthused. Behind the bombast that accompanied The Outlaw, though, more pertinent developments were taking place. Hughes had opened negotiations with writer-director Preston Sturges to form a production company together. Sturges, like Hughes, was something of a madcap entrepreneur, and predictably the pair of them had hit it off. Indeed, Sturges’ screwball comedy Sullivan’s Travels, about a playboy director who goes slumming to experience the life of the common man, was supposedly modelled on his new best friend. California Pictures was officially announced in August 1944.

Sturges entered the deal, again financed by the Hughes Tool Company, in order to secure creative autonomy. He ought to have done his homework. Upon viewing California Pictures’ debut feature, The Sin of Harold Diddlebock, Hughes decreed that a few alterations were in order. Sturges disagreed, so Hughes flexed his financial muscle by exercising his option to buy out his partner. In fairness, Hughes had kept his word not to interfere during production, even as Sturges eclipsed the generous $2 million budget, and early previews had been poorly received. The desired changes were made and the fleeting partnership duly disbanded.

The episode arguably demonstrated the true nature of Hughes’ independence, namely his inability to work with others, but then it was partly his intransigence that made him such a force in the harsh world of motion pictures. He took his sovereignty a giant step further a few years later when he made history by becoming the only ever person to own a major studio outright.


In May 1948, Hughes purchased a controlling interest in RKO Studios, one of the so-called Big Five. The heads at Paramount, MGM, Fox, and Warner Bros. were flustered at the prospect of competing against him on a level playing field, but their fears appeared inflated; RKO was on a downward spiral when Hughes bought it; under his management it fell into total disarray. Trade predictions that “given the past history of his dabblings in movies, the outlook for RKO is bleak” proved spot-on. Hughes’ haphazard working practices simply weren’t conducive to the running of a major studio. The extravagance of the Hell’s Angels premiere was dwarfed by the not wholly practical yet totally remarkable promotional methods adopted for his 1955 production Underwater in which he kitted out the press in diving apparatus and held the premiere underwater! Flicking through magazines, if he spotted a girl he liked the look of, he’d put her under contract, as often as not with copulation in mind. These glamour girls rarely made it onto film, earning RKO a reputation as Hughes’ personal whorehouse. Honouring their contracts was causing the studio to hemorrhage money.

Hughes’ deteriorating health didn’t help matters. Multiple plane crashes had not only affected his brain, they’d left him as good as deaf. Vanity made him intent on hiding his hearing disability, even if it meant he often had no idea what was being said to him, a predicament that led to him mistakenly green-lighting Pilate’s Wife. Hughes was sorely disappointed when he later discovered that he’d commissioned a biblical epic rather than the aviation romp that he’d been looking forward to. Yet in spite of his health and without ever publicly setting foot on the RKO lot, Hughes managed to interfere with and infuriate his employees, who found themselves drawn into the netherworld he had begun to inhabit in which impromptu meetings called in the middle of the night were the norm. Fed up with their work being mangled and/or shelved, scores of talent deserted RKO, leading to a number of angry shareholders suing Hughes for mismanagement. His unique solution was to buy their shares off them, thus making him the sole proprietor.

Hughes did make some friends during his tenure. When fellow maverick Robert Mitchum was busted for possession of marijuana, it was assumed his career was over. When arrested by police he even gave his profession as “former actor,” so he was as surprised as anyone when Hughes announced that his contract with RKO wouldn’t be cancelled. Unlike the rest of Hollywood, which was busy feigning shock, Hughes wasn’t a hypocrite, and he wasn’t prepared to see one man sacrificed to the baying moral majority simply for partaking in the hedonism inherent in the business.

With the exception of treating audiences to more Mitchum, though, the California Pictures debacle and the RKO dictatorship appear almost unmitigated disasters. The saving grace in each case is the behind-the-scenes alliance Hughes fostered with SIMPP, the Society of Independent Motion Picture Producers. Founded by such luminaries as Charlie Chaplin, Walt Disney, Samuel Goldwyn, and Orson Welles, SIMPP was an extension of United Artists, its objective to cultivate high-quality filmmaking outside the confines of the dominant studio system. Hughes was initially inducted to the fellowship when California Pictures signed a distribution deal with United Artists, but it was as head of RKO that he acquired real significance.

The major studios had been accused of anticompetitive practices ever since a 1921 Federal Trade Commission investigation, but they’d managed to cling onto their cosy monopoly thanks to some neat political side-stepping, particularly during the Great Depression and World War II when dodgy deals were more easily struck. By the close of the war the Big Five were running out of places to hide: if the post-war world was to be the fair-trade utopia the Truman administration promised, that would mean making room for the little guys, and the little guys were growing louder. The glut of star names that made up SIMPP supplied the clout that struggling independents throughout the ’20s and ’30s had lacked. The addition of the name Howard Hughes added momentum to the crusade, his residency at RKO the straw that finally broke the donkey’s back.

The crux of the dispute was the studios’ ownership of theatres and the custom of block booking, which made it easy for the majors to release whatever trash they chose whilst independent productions toiled to reach an audience. The campaigners sought the divorcement of studios from their theatre chains, and in 1948 their wish was granted. In the landmark case of the U.S. vs. Paramount Pictures et al, the Supreme Court ruled against the studios. Given that the courts first decreed that the studios relinquish ownership of theatres in 1930, the independents had learned not to celebrate too early. Sure enough, the majors vowed to contest the ruling, with one crucial exception: RKO. While other studio heads blustered about lost assets and searched desperately for legal loopholes, Hughes announced that RKO would comply immediately. As an outsider among the studio bosses, Hughes made the perfect insider for SIMPP. Demonstrating the inevitable, he divided RKO into two, maintaining control of the RKO Pictures Corporation for himself. On November 8, 1948, he signed a consent decree agreeing to sell the RKO Theatres Corporation, effectively signalling the end of the studio epoch.

Just for good measure, when selling the decrepit RKO Pictures in 1955, Hughes unwittingly managed to revolutionize the industry again. The buyer, the General Tyre and Rubber Company, sold the studio lot and established itself as the world’s first video store, leasing product from the RKO library to TV, which had previously been seen only as a rival by the film industry.

To eulogize Hughes as a political radical would, of course, be erroneous. On the contrary, his politics were often questionably retrograde. In the ’50s, he became regrettably embroiled in the feeding frenzy of the McCarthy witch-hunts and turned on many of the Communist sympathisers within SIMPP. He was also a firm fan of Richard Nixon, but decisively, back in 1948, a flame of insurgency (or madness?) flickered strong enough to burn away any reservations he may have had about being allied with the left-leaning SIMPP when his political allegiances lay largely to the right. Clearly, the quixotic Hughes could not be pigeonholed.

It is also true that RKO, given the state it was in, had the least to lose from a change in circumstance; nonetheless it remains a loss. Whether his intentions were altruistic or not, Hughes helped change the complexion of Hollywood. His co-operation in the demolition of a passé studio structure paved the way for a more open and democratic system. Without Hughes, Seven Arts might not have existed to co-finance Bonnie and Clyde. Nor might that film have passed certification without pioneering examples such as Scarface. Without Hughes, a present day mini-major such as Miramax might not exist to produce a picture of his life.

Producer, director, businessman, aviator, lover, adulterer, visionary, oddball … there are countless adjectives to describe a character with a life as replete as Hughes’. His sojourns into the movies are as difficult to catalogue as the rest of his extraordinary existence. As a director, his perfectionism/pedantry would have tested the patience of any producer. Yet as a producer, Scorsese could only have dreamed of landing one as liberal with their money as Howard could be. On the downside, he would probably have believed he could do a better job than the man often hailed as “America’s greatest living director,” and he could be a ball-buster capable of matching Harvey Weinstein for ruthlessness when the mood so took him. Nevertheless, when it came to the crunch, he principally sided with the artists — without being much of an artist himself it must be said — and let the powers that be feel the brunt of his formidable persona. Love him or loathe him, Howard Hughes added some much needed sparkle to Tinseltown.


Peter Harry Brown and Pat H. Broeske. Howard Hughes: The Untold Story. London: Warner, 1997.

Charles Higham.Howard Hughes: The Secret Life. London: Pan, 1996.

The first is an excellent overview of Hughes’ life, whilst the second provides a useful counterpoint and reportedly served as a template for John Logan’s screenplay.

Ian Christie. “Manhattan Asylum” in Sight and Sound, 13:1, January 2003. An interview with Scorsese that included an early discussion of his plans for The Aviator.

Much of the information regarding SIMPP and California Pictures was found at the cobbles.comsite. Several little-known facts and stories regarding Hell’s Angels were found An astonishly thorough production history of The Aviator, and indeed every film with Leonardo DiCaprio, appeared at