Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Howard Hughes: From Hell’s Angels to Hercules

Howard Hughes started out with three goals in life. He wanted to be the world’s greatest golfer, the world’s greatest aviator, and the world’s greatest movie producer. Though he made his longest-lasting mark in Southern California as the founder of a major aerospace firm (one that employed my husband for several decades), he had a significant impact on Hollywood both as  a movie producer and as the one-time owner of RKO Studios.

Hughes, born in Texas, first entered Hollywood in 1925, at the tender age of 20. Because of his father’s early death he had money, and he also had plenty of chutzpah. He soon produced two silent movies that were financial successes. One, 1928’s Two Arabian Knights, won the first Academy Award for best director of a comedy.  In 1930, he spent lavishly ($3.8 million) to shoot a war film that capitalized on his keen interest in aviation. This was Hell’s Angels, starring Jean Harlow along with Ben Lyon and James Hall, who played two brothers enlisting in Britain’s Royal Flying Corps. Hell’s Angels  started out as a silent picture but was later converted into a talkie. In the course of a difficult production period, Hughes himself staged the film’s dramatic aerial dogfights. Hell’s Angels marked the first time a motion picture camera shot footage from inside an airplane cockpit. As a director, Hughes was also notorious for waiting for perfect clouds to form. (The film received an Oscar nomination for its striking cinematography.)

Other films produced by Hughes include Scarface (1932), with Paul Muni starring as an Al Capone-type gangster. Because of its level of violence, this film ran afoul of the Hollywood censors, as did the later The Outlaw (1943). The latter gained notoriety when Hughes designed a special metal brassiere for voluptuous star Jane Russell. 

Another Hughes exploit had nothing to do with movies. During World War II, the U.S. military had high hopes for the creation of a “flying boat,” an aircraft made out of wood rather than metal, with a large enough capacity to transport troops and equipment across the Atlantic. After much trial and error, Hughes produced what critics nicknamed “The Spruce Goose.” This massive plane—at one time the longest and heaviest aircraft ever built—was not ready until 1947, long after the war was over. It flew only once, and only briefly, with Hughes himself at the controls.

The construction of the Spruce Goose (which Hughes preferred calling the Hercules) required a cavernous hangar on the site of the Hughes industrial complex. The Culver City, California property has sat idle for many years, growing increasingly decrepit. Now, however, the hangar is the centerpiece of an evolving business park known as the Hercules Campus at Playa Vista. Its cavernous interior was used in the filming of Independence Day and Titanic. Recently it was leased by Google, and creative plans are afoot. The surrounding buildings also house high-tech tenants, like the video game firm Konami. The new headquarters of YouTube is also onsite: it boasts a huge outdoor screening facility as well as spectacular video-making equipment. If your YouTube channel has 10,000 subscribers, you too can come to Culver City, dress up in a crazy costume, and make a movie.

Somehow, I think Howard Hughes would be pleased.  (I wonder if he’d also be pleased to know that he himself was the star character in two major Hollywood films. In  The Aviator he was young, virile, and played by Di Caprio. In Melvin and Howard, he was impersonated by a scruffy Jason Robards as a crazy old coot in the desert. )

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