Howard Hughes

Active - 1926 - 2009  |   Born - Dec 24, 1905 in Houston, Texas, United States  |   Died - Apr 5, 1976   |   Genres - Comedy, Crime, Drama

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Biography by Hal Erickson

It's surprising that he wasn't born with the name The Amazing Howard Hughes. Since this essay deals only with Hughes' film work, we'll leave a survey of his aviation and industrial accomplishments, and his hermitlike final years, to his many biographers. Tenuously connected with the movie industry by virtue of the fact that his uncle was silent-film director Rupert Hughes, 20-year-old Howard began investing a few of his millions in motion picture production in 1926. Hughes' Caddo Productions made its bow with 1926's Everybody's Acting; his next film, Two Arabian Nights (1927), won an Academy Award for best comedy screenplay. Caddo's Hell's Angels, the first of Hughes' aviation-oriented films, began as a silent in 1929; upon putting Jean Harlow under contract, Hughes scrapped most of the silent footage, replaced original leading lady Greta Nissen with Harlow, and reshot the film as a talkie, directing several of the scenes himself (dialogue director James Whale handled most of the dramatic sequences, while Hughes concentrated on the aerial action highlights). Scarface (1930), Hughes' next production, is regarded as one of the greatest of all gangster films. Because of its violence and its unfavorable portrayal of certain ethnic types, Scarface was held back from release so that cuts and additional scenes could be effected. It was ready by 1931, but Hughes felt he could get more publicity value out of the picture by holding up release until 1932, keeping audience interest piqued with news releases concerning the "troubled" production. Hughes abruptly left Hollywood in 1932 to go back into the aviation business full-time (and break several flight records in the process). In 1940, so the story goes, Hughes spotted a buxom young receptionist named Jane Russell, whereupon he fashioned a film project which would show off her topography to its best advantage. The Outlaw was started by director Howard Hawks, who left after several heated arguments and was replaced by Hughes himself. The story of how Hughes designed a special cantilevered bra to best highlight Jane Russell's natural attributes has become Hollywood folklore; so too has the turbulent censorship battle which followed. As in the case of Scarface, Hughes withheld the release of The Outlaw for several years after his battle with the Hays Office had been settled; the film finally made its official debut in 1946. Hughes' next two independent film projects, the much-delayed Vendetta and Harold Lloyd's The Sin of Harold Diddlebock, ended up inducing headaches and hard feelings for everyone involved. Increasingly eccentric and reclusive after a near-fatal air accident and a joust with the House Un-American Activities Committee, Hughes kept his hand in the movie business by acquiring RKO Radio Studios in 1948. Alternating between being an absentee landlord and interfering with production to the point of obstruction, Hughes managed to force most of the RKO personnel to resign. As RKO's fortunes plummeted with one expensive flop after another, Hughes bought all outstanding RKO stock for twice what it was worth, then sold the studio for a $10 million profit; the last RKO film to carry the "Howard Hughes Production" label (or onus) was 1953's Affair with a Stranger. Thereafter, his only connection with Hollywood was his unorthodox long-distance marriage to actress Jean Peters. He later bought a TV station in Las Vegas, principally as his own private "VCR" to run his favorite movies. Hughes' total withdrawal from public view in 1966 added fuel to his already bizarre legend; his death in 1976 brought forth several questionable wills, one of which provided the basis for the 1980 film Melvin and Howard. While Howard Hughes has been portrayed on-screen by such actors as Jason Robards (in Melvin and Howard) and Tommy Lee Jones (in the 1976 TV miniseries The Amazing Howard Hughes), there are have been far more "ersatz" Hugheses in the movies. Perhaps the most blatant a clef Howard Hughes was Jonas Cord, the anti-hero of 1963's The Carpetbaggers.

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  • Showed an interest in engineering and aviation from an early age: developed Houston's first wireless broadcast set at age 11; and began taking flying lessons at 14.
  • As a teenager, was unable to walk for several months due to temporary paralysis, which had no obvious physical cause and was believed to be psychologically induced.
  • Inherited his father's lucrative Hughes Tool Company in 1923, making him a millionaire at age 18.
  • Was enthusiastic about movies and produced several Hollywood films, including Two Arabian Knights (1928), Hell's Angels (1930) and Scarface (1932).
  • Set a number of world records in aviation, using his own custom-made aircrafts. Highlights include a land-plane-airspeed record of 352 mph, set in 1935; a transcontinental-airspeed record in 1937; and a record-setting around-the-world flight in 1938.
  • In 1944, won a government contract to design the Spruce Goose, an aircraft designed to support the war effort by carrying people and supplies overseas. It was the largest plane ever constructed and was only flown once.
  • Survived a near-fatal aircraft crash in 1946 that resulted in significant injuries.
  • Displayed signs of mental illness, particularly obsessive-compulsive disorder and allodynia, a painful condition that caused him to neglect basic hygiene and grooming in his later years.
  • Began to withdraw from the public eye in the 1950s and eventually became a complete recluse.
  • Was the subject of a hoax in 1972, when author Clifford Irving claimed to have written an authorized biography of Hughes. However, the two men had never actually met, and Irving was eventually convicted of fraud.