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      Howard Hughes presents Scarface The Outlaw Hells Angels Howard Hughes Howard Hughes



        Picture people cannot get enough of Howard Hughes—no matter the nagging suggestion from factual accounts that there was not a lot there. But the little is so primed for legend, it leaves one feeling that the doleful, suspicious Hughes had some hygienic plan for missing life altogether and going straight into myth.


      b. Humble, Texas, USA

      So his associates wrote books about him— Robert Maheu and Noah Dietrich. There has been a life by Charles Higham, and the docu- mented business history, Empire, by Donald Barlett and James Steele—to say nothing of Hughes's viruslike recurrence in so much contemporary political history.

      Then there is Jason Robards's shaggy vagrant story in the desert in Melvin and Howard (80, Jonathan Demme), Dean Stockwell's thoughtful cameo in Tucker (88, Francis Coppola), and the most complete screen portrait, brilliant and pathological, like an uncle for Gary Gilmore, by Tommy Lee Jones in The Amazing Howard Hushes (77, William A. Graham). Over all these hung the chance that Warren Beatty will one day play Howard Hughes. That prospect is itself legendary, or airborne even now in 2004, and it reminds us that Hughes came very close to contriving his own death in his favorite, infinite setting, the sky (Barlett and Steele establish that he was already a corpse when loaded on the plane at Acapuico). So he just missed Gregory Arkadin's sublime demise in Confidential Report (55, Orson Welles). But that reminds us that Hughes had surely affected movie romance since the time of Citizen Kane.

      My favorite piece of Hughes mythology is Joan Didion's 1967 essay, a tribute to a haunted house forsaken by its ghost, 7000 Romaine, Los Angeles 38 (the title refers to the Hughes office in Los Angeles—still there, still closed). Didion could see even then that Hughes—in his wondrous, if not lyrical, absence—had become chiefly a subject for stories, a living fiction:

        "That we have made a hero of Howard Hughes tells us something interesting about ourselves, something dimly remembered, tells us that the secret point of money and power in America is neither the things that money can buy nor power for powers sake . . . but absolute personal freedom, mobility, privacy."

      As a hopeless Hughes admirer, I can testify to the wings of Didion's soaring. And I think its plain why Hughes excites movie people: the daft wealth, the amazing fame, and the yearning to be nothing; the obsession with flying; the taste for hotels, Las Vegas, and bloodless food delivered in plastic bags—this is the little boy's kingdom; the foolish resort to movies, to running studios, to brunettes, blondes, and breasts. He is the fan who walked in off the street, who made movies and bossed a studio, and who was crazy and hopeful enough to think of having Jean Harlow, Jane Russell, Katharine Hepburn, Ida Lupino, Jean Simmons, Faith Domergue, even Jean Peters (the one he married) and so on, into the night. Hughes did what every shy, lonely moviegoer dreams of doing. And he went as mad as a hatter, leaving the legend to Clifford Irving and the rest of us.

      Some people mock his preoccupation with Jane Russell, as if sexual devotion were not a noble thing. Russell was a very amiable, amused woman; especially when young, she was extremely sexy in that same tongue-in-cheek manner, as if aware that there was only ' one way we were ever going to find out whether her breasts were real or not; the cinematography of breasts was thrust forward by The Outlaw, as was the medium's creative teasing of prudery and censorship; Hughes's record shows that he endorsed Russell's blatant and honest reckoning of sexual pleasure, ^ and at the same time looked on it as a joke; in that respect, as in others, Hughes's intermittent association with Hawks shows in their style and attitudes; but, most interesting, it was the drollery of Russell as any boys erection kit that looked forward to the lyrical gilding of the pin-up by American pop artists of the 1950s; and that anticipates the philosophically amused bisexual emphasis of Warhol's films—which, in turn, reminds us that that mistreated vagrant, The Outlaw, was the first American film to suggest that homosexuality might be pleasant.

      Hughes and cinema had two resounding confrontations. As a very young millionaire, he formed the Caddo Corporation and produced movies: Two Arabian Knights (27, Lewis Milestone); The Mating Call (28, James Cruze); The Racket (28, Milestone); and then spent two years over Hell's Angels (30), which he directed personally. Hell's Angels is dramatically commonplace, clumsily strung together, and without clear authorship, but the aerial photography is superb and the scenes with Jean Harlow are from another, much better picture. Hughes discovered Harlow when others had passed her by. She, too, had the slightly lazy sexual aggression that characterizes his discoveries. But, like a great romantic, he tired of her or found nothing that suited her. Instead he loaned her out to MGM at a colossal profit, and finally sold her altogether, reserving the right to produce one last picture with her, one of her very best, Bombshell (33, Victor Fleming). In the meantime, Hughes had produced the film of the Hecht-MacArthur play, The Front Page (31, Milestone), the fastest talking picture yet, and Scarface (32, Hawks), the most baroque of the early gangster pictures. After one more picture, Sky Devils (32, Edwald Sutherland) he withdrew, intent on flying himself.

      Several years before his second period, he discovered Jane Russell and put her in The Outlaw. Hawks began thleft when Hughes decided to ahoBft Jl Blight j is.e film in 1940, but left when Hughes decided to shoot at night. Thus he had to finish the film himself, the first indoor Western. But he waited six years before releasing it, time to stir up a storm of puritan protest that duly cliched the film's success. By 1946, be had a fresh interest in film: Faith Domeigue. He concocted a film called Vendetta for her, made that year with himself filling in as he fired Preston Sturges, Max Ophuls, and Stuart Heisler, and finally credited it (when it was released in 1950) to Mel Ferrer. In the same year, he produced Harold Lloyd in The Sin of Harold Diddlebock (46, Sturges). Neither film is a success, Vendetta is even bad, but stays in the memory for its bizarre manner of production.

      In 1947, Hughes began to buy himself into RKO, that ailing outsider, which eventually he tired of and sold into the hands of TV in 1955. Head of the studio, he was often unavailable, occasionally intently involved on a film or actress that took his fancy. But he was good to such talents as Nicholas Ray, Robert Ryan, and Don Siegel. At the least, he retained RKOs aversion to dullness; at best, he threw ^ out the broken pieces of some fascinating films. Research still needs to ascertain where his hand fell, but he seems to have known ij about at least these: The Big Steal (49), for which he hired Don Siegel; The Woman on Pier 13 (49, Robert Stevenson), which voiced ^ his rabid anti-Communism; The Racket (51, John Cromwell); Jet Pilot (51, Josef von Sternberg, with several impeding hands); Flying Leathernecks (51, Nicholas Ray); Second Chance (53, Rudolph Mate); seven films starring Jane Russell—the amusing His Kind of Woman (51, John Farrow); Double Dynamite (51, Irving Cummings); The Las Vegas Story (52, Stevenson); Macao (52, von Sternberg); Montana Belle (52, Allan Dwan); The French Line (53, Lloyd Bacon); Underwater (54, John Sturges); and Son of Sinbad (55, Ted Tetzlaff).

      He also consigned Jean Simmons to Angel Face (52, Otto Preminger) when she would not talk to him, and advised Robert Ryan on how to play the paranoid, vicious tycoon in Caught (49, Max Ophuls). It would be depressing to think that any of this will ever be sorted out as either fact or hokum. Hughes is one of those pioneers who saw how little difference there was between the two.



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