Howard Hughes The Film-Maker
Given the interest in Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator (2004) I thought it might be worthwhile to give the current moviegoer some perspective of “Howard Hughes The Film-Maker” by highlighting some of the movies he produced and/or directed. The first film the novice produced Swell Hogan (1926) was so bad he withdrew it from production. However the second film he produced was:
Two Arabian Knights (1927) – a terrific silent film which won its director Lewis Milestone (All Quiet on the Western Front (1930)) the one and only Best Director Comedy Picture Academy Award ever given. It starred William Boyd (“Hop-Along Cassidy”) and Louis Wolheim (also in All Quiet on the Western Front (1930)) as two American soldiers during WW I who rescue an Arabian princess (Mary Astor – The Great Lie (1941)) and also featured Boris Karloff (Frankenstein (1931)) however briefly.
The third film Hughes produced was The Mating Call (1928) directed by James Cruze. This silent was adapted from the Rex Beach novel by Herman Mankiewicz (Citizen Kane (1941)). It stars Thomas Meighan as war hero turned farmer Leslie Hatton and features a scandalous and extremely sexy performance by Evelyn Brent as well as a nude swimming scene (though brief and not as revealing as the one in Tarzan and His Mate (1934)) with Renee Adoree (The Big Parade (1925)).
That same year Hughes also produced The Racket (1928) a terrific silent film that was nominated for the first Best Picture Academy Award ever given losing to Wings (1927). It was also directed by Lewis Milestone and stars Thomas Meigham as police Captain McQuigg and Louis Wolheim (again) as mob leader Nick Scarsi.
Hughes is perhaps best known for his complete involvement in the “silent come talkie” Hell’s Angels (1930) an historical film which not only contains the only color footage of Jean Harlow in a movie and helped make her a star (“would you be shocked if I put on something more comfortable?”) but some of the best World War I airplane aerial sequences ever put on the screen (it was nominated for a Cinematography Oscar). Of course this is due to the fact that the aviator gazillionaire produced directed and even filmed part of it. It was initially going to be a silent with Greta Nissen in the Harlow role. But during the time it was being made the transformation from silent films to “talkies” was taking place. So given his wealth Hughes decided to reshoot most of it requiring that he replace the Norwegian actress with Harlow.
After Hell’s Angels (1930) Hughes produced The Front Page (1931) a classic which was later remade by Howard Hawks as His Girl Friday (1940) and Billy Wilder as The Front Page (1974). It was nominated for a Best Picture Oscar. Playing the lead Adolphe Menjou received his only Academy Award nomination (Best Actor) and its director Lewis Milestone was also nominated. It was co-written by the great Ben Hecht.
After several flops Hughes produced (and co-directed) the acclaimed controversial Scarface (1932) with Paul Muni in the title role as an Al Capone-like gangster; screenplay also by Hecht. It was added to the National Film Registry in 1994. This was perhaps the last great film in the Hughes portfolio.
Another film for which producer Hughes will always be remembered is the cult classic The Outlaw (1943) which is also the only other film (besides Hell’s Angels (1930)) for which he claimed a directing credit. The film is a complete mess marked by terrible pacing (excruciatingly slow) and lots of musical build-up for … nothing really. There are also some comic sprites of music which gives the film a TV sitcom feel. Of course it’s perhaps best known for its endless Jane Russell cleavage which even if you’re a guy (like me) is way too much. The dialogue is simply awful and Jack Beutel (as “Billy the Kid”) delivers his in such a “wooden” manner that it makes one wonder if he had any acting skills at all. A complete disappointment even though it includes two great veteran actors Walter Huston (The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948)) as Doc Holliday and Thomas Mitchell (Stagecoach (1939)) as Pat Garrett.