When most people hear the name Howard Hughes, his career in motion pictures is probably not the first thing to spring to mind. The more likely image is that of an old man with long hair and fingernails, wearing Kleenex boxes for shoes, sitting in a sterilized environment atop a Las Vegas hotel and watching Ice Station Zebra over and over (an image reinforced by the Simpsons episode featuring Mr. Burns as a germ-phobic tycoon saving his urine in jars). But though his film work is little discussed, Hughes did make several important contributions to the movie industry in his capacity as producer and occasional director. And the business also afforded him the opportunity to meet and court many gorgeous starlets, thus providing Turner Classic Movies with the first half of the subtitle for their new documentary on the reclusive billionaire.
Hughes, the son of a wealthy inventor, had his first success in Hollywood with Two Arabian Nights in 1927, but it was 1930’s Hell’s Angels that cemented his reputation. Featuring the most accomplished aerial special effects achieved up to the time, the movie was years in the making, as production ceased when "talkies" came into vogue and Hughes replaced his original leading lady, German-accented Greta Niessan, with Jean Harlow. Thus Hughes launched both Harlow’s career and a longtime habit of romantically pursuing his leading ladies.
Hughes’ other notable contributions to film history include hiring Ida Lupino for her first directing gig and putting Howard Hawks at the helm of Scarface in 1932. This latter effort led to Hughes’ first battle with the Hays Office, the censorship board that certified all motion pictures before the MPAA ratings system came into being. The censors felt that the film glorified the gangsters who served as its central characters, in addition to being too violent for audiences. For a time, Hughes was forced to amend the film’s title to Scarface, Shame of a Nation, but he fought the Hays board on every cut and won most of the battles.
His biggest struggle with the Hays Office was yet to come. Hughes hired Hawks once again to direct 1942’s The Outlaw, starring Jane Russell (Hughes eventually took over the direction of the film himself). The onscreen display of Russell’s considerable cleavage proved too much for the censors, who banned the film. Hughes once again went toe-to-toe with the Hays board, reducing dozens of demanded cuts to a mere three. The publicity made The Outlaw a smash when it opened, but Hughes mysteriously pulled it from release after six weeks, and the film didn’t see the light of a theater for another three years.
While the documentary covers these events adequately, at times it seems more interested in emulating an E! True Hollywood Story, returning again and again to the litany of famous names romantically linked to Hughes over the years. Granted, the roster is a mind-boggling one: Ginger Rogers, Lana Turner, Ava Gardner, Rita Hayworth, Katherine Hepburn and Bette Davis. But it’s hardly headline news that rich men in positions of power get the opportunity to meet more than their share of famous and beautiful women.
Other noteworthy episodes from the Hughes legend, such as the ill-fated flight of the Spruce Goose, are mentioned only in passing. Of course, Howard Hughes: His Women and His Movies isn’t meant to be a comprehensive biography; its goals are clearly laid out in the title. Still, it is a bit disappointing that the last twenty years of the mogul’s life – the much speculated upon obsessive-compulsive years – are covered in just a few brief sentences here. Periodically reports surface in the entertainment press that a comprehensive big screen treatment of Hughes’ life is in the works, but so far none have materialized. Until one does, this solid if unremarkable documentary will have to suffice.