Thursday, December 24, 2020

Born Today December 24: Howard Hughes



Howard Hughes is remembered for a lot of things; including, but certainly not limited to, being one of the very first billionaires, his eccentric behavior later in life caused by OCD; he is even remembered as a pioneering aviationist before he is remembered for being what he was first in life: a movie mogul. Howard Robard Hughes, Jr. was born on Christmas Eve in Humble, Texas. Or so he stated. Conflicting records show while in one case he is listed as born on the 24th of December, his birth place is listed as Harris County...that is Houston.  A baptismal record further muddies the waters by stating that he was actually born on the 24th of September...and that record dates to a year later, 1906, and was located in Keokuk, Iowa. But Hughes himself preferred the information to be 24 December, 1905: Humble, Texas. So, we'll honor his wishes and go with that.  Wading into Hughes is complicated (heck, look at the questions about his birth above!), but suffice to say that his father was a successful inventor (Howard Hughes Sr.) and that young Howard had shown an interest in science and mechanical equipment as a very young child. He was also the the nephew actor and later producer Rupert Hughes, who was undoubtedly an early influence on him.  After the untimely deaths of both his parents (his mother in 1922 from an ectopic pregnancy, his father in 1925 from a massive heart attack) when he was just 19, the notion of getting into the film business (possibly inspired by his uncle's work) entered his head. At the time, the legal age of emancipation was 21; so he was able to have himself declared a legally emancipated minor and he and his new wife (of the famed Texas Rice family) headed west. He was completely flush with funds, after inheriting 75% of the family fortune upon his father's death.  Not wanting to be a director, he decided on producer and he had the funds for it. His first film effort Swell Hogan--directed, written & starring by Ralph Graves--was released in 1926 and landed with a huge thud!  He was after this, involved directly and indirectly through funding just a small handful of films for the rest of 1920's. He at least partially funded--though he gets no formal credit--the silent Famous Players-Lasky production Everybody's Acting in 1926.  He then got into the "presenter" side of the business officially and stayed on the Q.T. on the producer side of the affair (this despite that he was not affiated with any distribution company or the owner of any chains of theaters--as he would be later in life).  He founded the Caddo Company, and put the project that would become Two Arabian Nights into funded production; the film was released in September of 1926.  Directed by Lewis Milestone, the film was most definitely NOT a flop; in fact it won Milestone a Best Director Oscar (one of the very first) for Comedy that year. It starred William Boyd, the man who would become Hopalong Cassidy, in his leading man days. Hughes and Caddo were next involved in the production The Racket, an important "proto-noir" that was also directed by Milestone, released November of 1928 (and nominated for a Best Picture Academy Award). Caddo's last production of the decade was the fully silent the post World War I set melodrama that pits a veteran against the KKK (a sort of late retort to Griffith?) in The Mating Call. The film was directed by silent actor turned director James Cruze and released on the 21st of July in 1928.  Hughes then got wrapped up in his own directing project, a production that he self financed and took over three years of his time--this made The Mating Call the last completely silent film associated with the Hughes name and money.  Hughes was also already knee-deep in the main passion of his life--aviation. The result of this new project was an epic of a film: Hell's Angels, released on the 15th of November in 1930.  The film bears some detailed examination, not least of which is that is was originally set to be a silent film.  The project changed cast, crew and format from it's beginnings in 1927 to it's completion and release in 1930.  Not only originally intended to be a silent film, another actor turned director, Marshall Neilan (who directed Everybody's Acting) was set to direct, and Norwegian movie star Greta Nissen was hired as leading lady. The film featured a story revolving around the Royal Flying Corps and featured other aviation machines such as Zeppelins in the story. Actual bi-planes were flown during filming--not new to film, but the stunts and in-flight filming technology were. Neilan quit over clashes with Hughes' extreme interference in the production; so Hughes turned to other possibilities of working directors to replace him. Coming up short for various legal and differences of vision Hughes wound up getting the credit as director, though he did go through at least two more directors during the project (and in my opinion, they all deserve credit for their work on the film--James Whale-as a secondary director-and Edmund Goulding got some later "uncredited" credit--Neilan did not). There were a LOT of other shenanigans that took place as a result of the film taking so long to complete, edit and release (not enough time here in this post to enumerate here); but two important things do bear mentioning. One, this film marked the beginnings of James Whale's Hollywood career, though he wound up having earlier credits due to the length of time it took to release Angels. Two, the film contains the only surviving color film footage of ill-fated star Jean Harlow, who Hughes had hired personally to replace Nissen (whose thick Norwegian accent earned her a dismissal from the film when it was converted to sound). More than 70 pilots--including Hughes himself--were used during the production of this more than two hour long war epic. One scene designed by Hughes himself resulted in no other pilot willing to perform the stunt--so Hughes did it himself.  It was his first major plane crash and resulted in a serious head injury requiring surgery. It was a foreshadowing of what was to come.  The film though, was a success and was nominated for a Best Cinematography Oscar for the work of Tony Gaudio and Harry Perry.  His next film presentation, The Front Page (1931), a screwball crime comedy also directed by Milestone, was again nominated for the Oscars (Best Leading Man, Best Director and Best Picture). Caddo produced three more film in the early 1930's (two of the aviation related) before the production company came out with the other film for which Hughes is well-remembered: Scarface.  The early noir was completely Hughes' idea, and it was he that purchased the rights to the novel. Somehow, despite earlier legal isssues, Hughes and writer Ben Hecht convinced Howard Hawks to get involved in the project. The film was yet another Hughes production late to theatrical release--this time due to censorship issues--when it was finally widely released on the 9th of April in 1932 (the film would be famously remade with Al Pacino in the lead role in 1983).  It was his last film association for the decade. When he returned for just one film in the 1940's, Caddo was gone and Howard Hughes Productions was behind The Outlaw. Made in 1943, but again, with a significantly delayed release--coming out nationally in 1946--it was his only other film direction and he had begun to show signs of OCD openly on the set. He also got into the theater and radio owning business in the 1940's, with his company taking a huge stake in RKO Pictures. After he gained a controlling share of the company, his erratic behavior began to become more and more public. Hughes had been in yet another near fatal--and VERY spectacular--airplane crash in 1946 (this is depicted quite accurately in Martin Scorsese's 2004 The Aviator) and had suffered further head injuries. There is now enough credible information on traumatic brain injuries to suggest that a good deal of the mental problems that Hughes developed later in life--such as extreme obsessive compulsive disorder--were likely caused by the two brushes with death that he had crashing planes, and the injuries he suffered as a result (his first crash on the set of Hell's Angels required skull reconstruction surgeries). He had also been involved in at least one very serious auto-accident in 1936 in addition to his two plane crashes.  His last film association came at RKO with the 1957 action thriller titled fittingly Jet Pilot starring John Wayne.  But, significant injuries from his brushes with death also left him addicted to and reliant on narcotic pain relief--which further interfered with his public work life. Hughes inadvertently got into the hotel and casino business when he moved into the then famed Desert Inn Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas on Thanksgiving in 1966; he had to purchase the hotel after the owners could not get him to leave; the purchase prompted a number of purchases by his company of local hotels, restaurants and casinos. Contrary to popular belief Hughes did not spent the rest of his life in Sin City. He left the area for Nicaragua because he had become so paranoid over nuclear test fallout. He wound up living his last years in The Bahamas.  It is thought that Hughes expired on a flight transporting him on an medical flight from Acapulco, Mexico to Houston, Texas on the 5th of April in 1976. He was so emaciated, that at his autopsy, fingerprints were required to make sure that he was indeed THE Howard Hughes. He was described as looking "spectral"--weighing only 90 lbs (and he stood 6'4"), with long white wild hair and extremely long fingernails. It was determined that he had died of acute kidney failure. He was 70 years of age. He was buried in an elaborate family plot located at Houston's Glenwood Cemetery.  He most important lasting legacy without a doubt is the Howard Hughes Medical Institute



Hell's Angels Wikipedia page

Howard Hughes Corporation


Find A Grave entry 

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