Howard Hughes- The Movies and the Image

Alastair Lyon

Talking Pictures alias






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The Forthcoming release of Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator is bound to generate a renewed interest in the life and loves of Howard Hughes. The fact that Hughes was most famous for his millionaire status, his exploits as an aviator and his various dalliances with the elite of 1930s and 40s female Hollywood only reinforces Hughes image as the quintessential character of the twentieth century. Hughes of course was also a film director/producer and  part of his life’s aim was to become not only the greatest aviator, but also the greatest of film makers. 

Hughes moved to Hollywood in 1924 where he set himself up as an independent producer/director of several of the most controversial box office successes of the 1930’s and 40’s.  He was involved in a number of silent productions until 1930 when he produced and directed Hell’s Angels, a First World War aviation epic where a “good” and a “bad brother” compete for the attention of “blonde bombshell”, Jean Harlow. Reminiscent of William Wellman’s earlier Wings (1927), it is similar in theme -  the film contains several spectacular dogfight sequences. The film outdid what had come before in terms of visceral realism and scale of production - Hughes amassed a fleet of period aircraft that were brought back to flying condition. The film cost $3.8 million to make and the money to make it came from The Hughes Tool Company, his family company. It ultimately made a $1.5 million loss as Hughes had obsessively spent so much time and resources on completing the image that he desired. The film reads just as it is, as a big budget blockbuster, a kind of opera of the air with melodramatic undertones while on the ground.

In the thirties Hughes went on to produce The Front Page (1931) and Scarface (1932) which were both pre- Hayes Code films that would have been outlawed later due to their innuendo and violent content. The Hughes formula was beginning to emerge, though. With the release of The Outlaw in 1943 certain preferences emerged that would continue to appear in works that he produced and presented through RKO - the Hollywood studio that he bought in 1948.

"Aviation, brunettes, breasts and disenchanted heroes" is how the Time Out Film Guide describes the average obsessions and content of a Hughes movie. 

Both in life and his films Hughes associated himself with these subjects. A Hughes film is most obviously aimed at a young male audience where lifestyle, particularly a supposed heroic reflection of Hughes’ would be represented. Later themes included gambling and an ambiguous approach to criminality; Las Vegas Story (1952) and Second Chance (1953)). The films were also almost always laced with a unique exotic adventure-romanticism; Macao (1952), The Outlaw (1943) and Las Vegas Story. They were high-gloss products where he would sometimes spend years obsessively tinkering over them until finally being released.

The first signs of this aspect of Hughes professional personality came in the production of The Outlaw. Initially it was to be directed by Howard Hawks who became frustrated with Hughes interference; Hawks walked off the set and Hughes took over as director. Shooting took place in 1941 but it wasn’t released until 1943 with a final release in 1946. The Outlaw caused consternation with the censor. The problem was Jane Russell's cleavage, with a brassiere that Hughes had specially designed himself. This film, and the earlier Hell’s Angels presaged Hughes obsession with the sex symbol a notion that he practically invented. He championed highly sexualised representations of his main female character to the point where they were primitively realised. The characters played by Jane Russell and Jean Harlow were the finest examples of this tendency.

The female character’s sexuality in these films would also cause enormous disruption to the goals and objectives of the hero and to the overall harmony of the narrative - often the hero would never recover from his first meeting with the female character and would even lead to undertones of homosexuality.

Flying sequences were also important to Hughes who was directly involved in the aero-industry in Southern California, a centre for aviation as well as filmmaking. From the early epic Hell’s Angels and the later The Flying Leathernecks (1951) and Jet Pilot (1957), Hughes has been credited with the creation of the classic aviation picture, part of a sub-genre of the adventure/action movie.

Hughes also seems to be have been influenced by the politics of the region - a supporter of Joseph McCarthy, he became a virulent anti communist, and several of his films especially The Whip Hand (1951) vent this trait. Hughes promoted individualism and the “American Dream” i.e. individual achievement, accumulating personal wealth and personal liberty - all early precedents for the Reagan neo-conservativism of the late 20th century.

The notion of Individualism is striking in Hughes film’s in two ways: first in his choice of preferred subject matter, but secondly in the way that the emotions in the films exposed quirks and abnormalities that would have been ironed out in other productions. The febrile nature of Billy the Kid and his relationship with Doc Holliday suggest that the male hero of Hughes films was less than secure - this is mostly presented as a joke. Innuendo and transgression were common in Hughes’ heroes especially when played by Robert Mitchum in films like Macao and His Kind of Woman (1951). 

There were more conventional heroes though, the John Wayne characters in his Ghengis Khan epic The Conqueror (1956), The Flying Leathernecks (1951) and Jet Pilot (1957) could be compared with the classic hero of Hollywood - men of courage , selflessness and strength - all-American heroes. But even these characters are at the mercy of their emotions and have to modify their approach in the face of a cold hard realism.

The films often had an arresting visual style with rich and evocative camera work often shot by top line directors of photography. They were finished products, not unlike the High Concept movies of the late twentieth century. Stylistic intervention was not uncommon in the films that Hughes directed himself such as the extreme close up of Rio kissing the camera in The Outlaw and close ups in the aviation movies, but also to degrees in the films that he produced and presented; he would leave the often auteurist directors like von Sternberg and Cameron Menzies freedom to manipulate the narratives through techniques to heighten tension or to create greater thrills but always to maintain a flavour of the Hughes preference.

Hughes, thus, exerted control over narrative elements having stories concerning fashionable subjects (or at least of personal interest to him at the time) like aviation or gambling, male interest stories with primitive female characters who would disrupt the hero’s quest. These characters and subject matter created their own hype and scandalised in equal measure generating publicity for the films - but also for him. Hughes as man of action, hero, shrewd investor and ladies man - to the impressionable predominantly young audience who were his consumers; Hughes’ cinema was total lifestyle product and the image that Hughes cultivated was important in selling the films.

Hughes aviation films were forerunners of the type of formulaic blockbusters that exist today. The 'High Concept' film such as Top Gun (1986) and Crimson Tide (1994) show that today’s Hollywood owes a debt to Hughes. Designed visuals that pay homage to other more “artistic” films, the hero battling against the odds and the romance sub-plot are all part of the high concept and they appear in the Hughes formula as well - except it was based on himself.

Howard Hughes' life was one which could be described as a twentieth century American life, it was in some ways in keeping with the notion of the American dream, but in the end Hughes disappeared into seclusion at his own behest, ill and paranoid but it for his lifestyle that he is remembered. Hughes maybe created the greatest public persona of the century - he was involved in two of its greatest technologies that laid the foundations for today’s globalised, postmodern, celebrity obsessed world. This is where the greatness of Hughes lies: in imagining the future.

Alastair Lyon, copyright Dec. 2004.

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