Brilliantly innovative yet plagued by obsessive-compulsive tendencies and a reclusive bent, Howard Hughes epitomized unchecked ego at play in Hollywood during the first half of the twentieth century. Buying his way into the American film industry with his share of a family fortune, the 25-year-old struck gold after the advent of talking pictures by funding the successful "The Front Page" (1931) and "Scarface" (1932). Inspired by the heroics of World War I pilots, Hughes mounted "Hell's Angels" (1930) as a one-man show, writing, producing, directing and personally overseeing the extensive aerial photography; though the film was a critical success and a hit with moviegoers, Hughes lost millions due to overspending. He quit Hollywood in 1932 to spend the next decade testing experimental airplanes, breaking speed records and circumnavigating the globe by air. Surviving multiple plane crashes but plagued afterwards by an addiction to painkillers, he would direct one more film, "The Outlaw" (1943) starring Jane Russell, before buying controlling interest in RKO Pictures. Hughes' peculiarities and penchant for micro-management drove RKO to bankruptcy and the self-made billionaire retreated into a hermetic existence. Hughes lived the rest of his life in a series of hotel penthouses before dying aboard a private plane in April 1976. No less beguiling in death than he had been in life, Hughes retained a currency with the American public who remembered him as a mad genius brought down not by his most abject failures, but by his greatest achievements.
Howard Robard Hughes, Jr. was born on Christmas Eve 1905, near Houston, TX. His namesake father was an inventor, whose patent for an innovative rotary rock bit that allowed petroleum drilling in once inaccessible locations became the cornerstone of the Hughes Tool Company, founded in 1909. Naturally curious and scientifically adept at a young age, Hughes built Houston's first radio transmitter when he was only 11 years old, borrowed parts from a steam engine to motorize his bicycle at 12, and by age 14, was auditing engineering and aviation classes at the California Institute of Technology. The death of his mother in 1922 and his father two years later left the 18-year-old Hughes in charge of his father's company and the recipient of three-quarters of the Hughes family fortune. At 19, Hughes declared himself an emancipated minor and dropped out of Rice University. Married in 1925, he headed west with his new bride to invest in the burgeoning American film industry.
Hughes had made the acquaintance of Hollywood insiders through both his father and his uncle, Rupert Hughes, a novelist and film director. His first venture was to invest $60,000 into "Swell Hogan" (1926), starring Ralph Graves. The result was deemed so unsatisfactory that the feature was never released. Hughes had more luck with "Everybody's Acting" (1927), which turned a small profit for Paramount/Famous Players-Lasky, and the World War I comedy "Two Arabian Nights" (1928), directed by Lewis Milestone. The film was a success at the box office and netted Milestone a Best Director Oscar at the second Academy Awards presentation. Interested in aviation at an early age and a licensed pilot, Hughes began to outline a film that would honor the airmen of the First World War. Though he had stayed away from the sets of his first films, he became a hands-on producer with "Hell's Angels" (1930), his micro-managing ultimately driving away two prospective directors and leaving Hughes to helm the feature himself. He insisted on a high level of realism in the flight sequences, which he shot over the site of the future Los Angeles International Airport. His eccentricities, which would characterize his Hollywood career and color his personal life, were well in evidence in 1928. For a sequence involving a zeppelin attack, Hughes reshot one take 100 times. Later, claiming he did not care for clouds over Los Angeles, Hughes shifted cast and crew north to Oakland.
Hughes' obsessive devotion to his work destroyed his first marriage while industry gossip about the film's exorbitant $3.8 million budget left him branded a neophyte who was in over his head. Hughes met the gossip head-on, staging an exorbitant premiere at Grauman's Chinese Theatre, which he buzzed with airplanes while stuntmen parachuted onto Hollywood Boulevard. Though critics found fault with Hughes' handling of his actors - one of which, newcomer Jean Harlow, became an overnight star after her appearance in the film - all agreed that his staging of the flight sequences was stunning. "Hell's Angels" was a success - though not enough for Hughes to recoup the whole of his investment. At the age of 26, Hughes had established himself in Hollywood as a producer-director to be reckoned with. Socially awkward, he proved a shrewd businessman whose penchant for privacy afforded him an aura of mystery. Though several of the subsequent films Hughes produced were forgettable programmers, Hughes scored with "The Front Page" (1931), an adaptation of the successful stage play directed by Lewis Milestone, and "Scarface" (1932), the prototypal rise-and-fall saga of a Chicago gangster modeled on Al Capone. Directed by Howard Hawks, "Scarface" sparked considerable controversy at the time of its premiere for its unblinking depiction of gangland violence.
The owner of a small fleet of airplanes, Hughes' passion for aviation was at the back of his boldest business decision yet. Dropping further plans to produce films in Hollywood, he quit the industry and affected an alias to obtain a job as a junior pilot with American Airlines. As Charles Howard, Hughes flew just one cross-country flight between Los Angeles and New York City before his identity was discovered and he was obliged to resign. Using his experience as a commercial pilot to further his experiments in aviation, Hughes founded Hughes Aircraft and set himself to the task of breaking several aerial speed records. In 1938, he circumnavigated the globe in 91 hours, earning himself a Congressional Medal. The following year, Hughes purchased stock in Trans World Airlines, eventually obtaining a controlling interest in TWA in 1941.
When Hughes returned to Hollywood, he had been gone for nearly a decade. His first project after his return, "The Outlaw" (1943), remained Hughes' most notorious film, less on its own merits as a piece of cinematic drama than for his use of buxom newcomer Jane Russell in a prominent role. Hughes directed the film with an uncredited assist from Howard Hawks and heralded the result with billboards boasting the arresting image of the ample-chested Russell reclining seductively against a mound of hay, grasping a six shooter whose phallic barrel pointed between her legs. Undaunted by the Hollywood Production Code, Hughes sought to emphasize Russell's bust by designing a custom-made underwire brassiere - though Russell later claimed she never wore it. Again, Hughes encountered resistance from censors and "The Outlaw" was not widely seen until 1946, by which time the aggregate controversy resulted in an estimable box office hit. During this time, Hughes also designed a massive cargo plane for the U.S. military. Constructed entirely of wood, the Hughes H-4 Hercules was derisively nicknamed the Spruce Goose and did not undertake its maiden flight until 1947, long after the end of World War II. Though the craft was tested successfully, the Spruce Goose was remaindered to a private, climate-controlled hangar, where it was maintained for decades by steadily decreasing crew until it was sold first to the California Aero Club and later to the Walt Disney Company before being awarded to an aviation museum in Oregon. Meanwhile, Hughes, who was still experimenting with experimental aircraft, crashed a United States Air Force reconnaissance plane into a private residence in Beverly Hills, adjacent to the Los Angeles Country Club. To conceal scars sustained in the crash, Hughes grew a mustache, which would become another of his trademarks.
In 1948, Hughes obtained a controlling interest in RKO Radio Pictures. Setting himself up in an office above the Pantages Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard, he immediately fired the majority of his new employees while many more studio staffers quit out of frustration with his obsessive-compulsive personality and his investigations into their political affiliations. Apolitical but doggedly anti-Communist, Hughes shut down production at RKO for six months in 1949 to undertake his own investigation of un-American activities within the studio, winning praise from California junior senator Richard M. Nixon. On a purely creative front, his control of RKO was characteristically eccentric and counter-intuitive. By the time Hughes gained total control of RKO, the studio was $40,000,000 in debt. He later sold his interest to the General Tire and Rubber Tire Corporation, earning an undisclosed multi-million dollar profit.
No less notorious than his business dealings were Hughes' romantic/sexual dalliances with Hollywood actresses. Bette Davis, Olivia de Havilland, Ginger Rogers and Katharine Hepburn were all at one time linked to Hughes in the 30 years between his two marriages. Ava Gardner weathered a tempestuous liaison with Hughes, whom she reportedly clocked with a marble ashtray in Louis B. Mayer's office at MGM. Joan Fontaine claimed in her memoirs that Hughes proposed to her on several occasions, while Jane Russell averred that, though the self-made man had made an awkward pass at her during filming of "The Outlaw," they were able to maintain a successful working and platonic relationship. In 1957, Hughes married Jean Peters, a union that ended in divorce in 1971. Former Hollywood starlet Terry Moore also alleged that she had been secretly married to Hughes in 1949, a union that was never dissolved, and which resulted in an undisclosed financial settlement to Moore from the Hughes estate in 1984.
His tenure in Hollywood at an end, Hughes withdrew into seclusion, plagued increasingly by crippling phobias, mood swings and a reliance on codeine and other painkillers, due to injuries suffered in plane crashes. In 1960, he was forced out of his controlling position at TWA. That same year, Richard Nixon's unsuccessful bid for the presidency was tainted by the revelation that he had accepted a hefty loan from Hughes. So removed from the public eye was Hughes that rumors circulated that he was both terminally ill and actually dead. In 1966, he moved into the Desert Inn in Las Vegas, NV, purchasing the hotel the next year and occupying its penthouse. In 1972, a highly-publicized Hughes memoir was denounced as fraudulent before the book went to press. Howard Hughes died on April 5, 1976, of kidney failure aboard a plane bound for Houston. At the time of his death, Hughes was 70 years old and weighed only 90 pounds. Even before his death, Hughes was a compelling figure in American popular culture. Tony Stark, industrialist alter ego of the Marvel Comics superhero Spider-Man, was based on Hughes, as was the character of Willard Whyte in the James Bond film "Diamonds Are Forever" (1971). For the small screen, Hughes appeared as a character in such fact-based telefilms as "The Amazing Howard Hughes" (1977) and "Hughes and Harlow: Angles in Hell" (1978). Actor Jason Robards earned an Academy Award nomination for playing a decrepit Hughes in Jonathan Demme's "Melvin and Howard" (1980) while Dean Stockwell popped up in a cameo as Hughes in Francis Ford Coppola's "Tucker: A Man and His Dream" (1988). In Martin Scorsese's "The Aviator" (2004), Leonardo DiCaprio appeared as Hughes from his early years through to the failure of the Spruce Goose, while Milton Buras played the aged Hughes in Lasse Hallström's "The Hoax" (2006), a chronicle of the 1972 Hughes memoir scandal and criminal trial.
By Richard Harland Smith