He was obsessive/compulsive, no doubt about it, but Howard Hughes was nobody’s fool—at least at the start. The great obsessions of his life were airplanes, women and movies.
When the young millionaire moved to Los Angeles, buying his way into the movie world as a producer, he was called a dilettante by Hollywood Old Guard. His first movie, Swell Hogan (1926), was so bad it was never released. More stinkers followed for three decades.
There were also the hits and a few classics—like The Front Page (’31), Scarface (’32), Stromboli (’50), Flying Leathernecks (’51) with John Wayne, The French Line (’54) and others.
Only twice in his storied career did Hughes step behind the camera to direct, and the results were spectacular for different reasons. Hell’s Angels (’30) marked the debut of Jean Harlow (the original platinum blonde) and featured some of the most astounding aerial battle footage ever filmed (still unmatched, some claim). The Outlaw (’43) starred Jane Russell (another Hughes discovery) in her first film, the notoriety of which, according to Hughes biographers Peter Harry Brown and Pat H. Broeske, “would ultimately have major repercussions on the movie censorship system in the United States.”
After seeing the silent masterpiece Wings (’27), Hughes was convinced he could make an even better movie about WWI in the air—and mostly with his own money instead of a major studio. Directing the movie and even flying one of the planes for better realism (he crashed and almost killed himself, the first of many such misadventures), Hughes had an impressive silent film just as the movies went to talkies.
Undaunted by the huge cost, he then reshot nearly all the footage that required talking. The opening credits attribute “dialogue” to Joseph Moncure March, “staged by James Whale,” but “directed by Howard Hughes.” Whale went on to direct Frankenstein the next year, and Bride of Frankenstein (’35) and Showboat (’36). Insiders knew he was responsible for just about everything on the screen except for the terrific action sequences.
However, as good a filmmaker as he would prove to be, Whale really couldn’t do much with the stilted script of Hell’s Angels, nor could the often-wooden actors. Monte and Roy (Ben Lyon, James Hall) are brothers: Monte, a wastrel; Roy, a straight arrow. Roy is “in love” with bombshell Helen (Harlow); Monte beds her, or rather she beds him.
“Would you be shocked if I put on something more comfortable?” she coos to Monte, before traipsing off to do just that, raising temperatures in the pre-code era and making Jean Harlow a star.
A huge hit, Hell’s Angels has yet to make the leap to HD video, but the DVD, a great restoration by the UCLA Film & Television Archive, is an able substitute. The first half, with an early color sequence, concludes with the best scene of the entire film—a spectacular zeppelin attack on London, the flames of the exploding dirigible highlighted in vibrant color.
While Wings is still a better film in nearly every way—story, cast (Clara Bow, Buddy Rogers, Richard Arlen, Gary Cooper), and director (William “Wild Bill” Wellman), Hell’s Angels does hold its own, primarily due to Hughes’ still impressive aerial scenes.
The Outlaw is a bad film, no two ways about it. The script’s ludicrous, the actors (including two Oscar winners, Thomas Mitchell and Walter Huston) mostly pitiable, and Hughes’ direction is sophomoric.
Billy the Kid (Jack Buetel) and Doc Holliday (Huston) are friends feuding over a horse and a girl (Jane Russell). Billy and the girl Rio (Russell) have a love-hate relationship, Billy rides off into the sunset and Doc Holliday dies.
Hughes deliberately set out to make a Western with sex. His leads were unknowns, 23-year-old Beutel (a Montgomery Clift clone) and 19-year-old Jane Russell.
Released in 1943 after three years of shooting and haggling with censors, The Outlaw was panned by critics but adored by fans.
On the film’s ’46 reissue, the censorship flap drew even more viewers. In Atlanta, the first week’s box-office exceeded that of Gone with the Wind over the same period of time. In Atlanta!
For modern viewers, The Outlaw is tame and kinda corny, the posters and ads far more provocative than what’s on screen. Still, the film is ensconced in movie lore.