Farmington Museum lecture focuses on 'Howard Hughes in Hollywood'
Presentation is part of Curator's Choice Lecture Series
FARMINGTON — While the purpose of his presentation this weekend at the Farmington Museum at Gateway Park is to call attention to the mostly forgotten impact that Howard Hughes had on the motion picture business, museum curator Jeffrey Richardson is the first to acknowledge that those contributions didn't always make the industry better.
"Many of his contributions weren't necessarily positive," Richardson said earlier this week while preparing for his presentation "Howard Hughes in Hollywood," part of the museum's Curator's Choice Lecture Series.
Hughes operated in a way that made many people overlook his contributions to the business, but his approach as a producer and, later, studio owner had a lasting impact on filmmaking, Richardson argues.
"Much of what you see today (in Hollywood) is clearly indebted to Howard Hughes," he said. "That's not necessarily a positive thing, but it's a fact."
Richardson credits Hughes with — or assigns him blame for, depending on how you look at it — the emergence of such issues as the multi-million-dollar blockbuster, the rise of sex and violence onscreen, the use of personal scandal to promote projects and the end of the studio system.
Some of that ground was covered in "The Aviator," director Martin Scorsese's 2004 epic biopic of Hughes that drew 11 Academy Award nominations, including one for Best Picture, and earned more than $200 million at the box office. But that film focused more attention on Hughes' exploits as an aviator, playboy and recluse than it did on his role as a filmmaker, and it is the latter that Richardson hopes to shed some additional light on with his lecture this weekend.
"His life after he left the motion picture industry overshadowed everything else," Richardson said of the public's perception of Hughes, who died in 1976 and who is remembered largely as a fabulously wealthy but mentally unhinged hermit who never cut his hair or fingernails but collected his own urine.
Richardson doesn't disregard those more sensational aspects of Hughes' personality. But he said that portrait of a stinky, hairy, naked wingnut who prowled around his darkened Las Vegas penthouse apartment peeing into empty milk bottles doesn't begin to tell the whole story of who Hughes really was — especially as a filmmaker.
"The myth really took over," Richardson said. "The eccentricities really took over."
But the young Hughes, who had inherited from his late father an ultra-successful Texas company that produced drill bits, arrived in Hollywood in the late 1920s with his pockets flush with cash and some revolutionary notions about making movies. A handful of large studios dominated every aspect of the industry from production to distribution in those days, but the outsider Hughes quickly set about challenging them, Richardson said.
"He pushed the boundaries of the film industry in ways others would not or could not," he said.
As Scorsese documented in "The Aviatior," Hughes wasn't afraid to spend money — lots and lots of money — on his movies, most notably on his 1930 film "Hell's Angels." It originally was shot as a silent film, then many of its scenes were reshot with sound.
"He decided, 'I don't care how much it costs, I'm going to redo all the parts featuring actors,'" Richardson said.
"Hell's Angels" also features a segment shot in color, which was extremely rare for a film of that time. By the time he was done, Hughes reportedly had poured nearly $4 million into his project, an unprecedented budget for a film of that era.
Some accounts indicate Hughes nearly doubled that sum in box office receipts for the movie. But Richardson — citing financial documents he has examined at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas Hughes archives — seriously doubts the film was anything less than a financial catastrophe.
"He actually lost several million dollars on it," Richardson said. "Noah Dietrich (who oversaw Hughes' business empire for decades) once said, 'Gosh, I would hate to have to live for most of my life on the profits from 'Hell's Angels.' But that was part of the myth of Howard Hughes, that he had this Midas touch and that everything he touched made money."
"Hell's Angels" wasn't the only Hughes film that made Hollywood history. In 1932, he produced "Scarface," loosely based on the story of gangster Al Capone.
"It was one of the most violent films ever made up to that time, and it was marketed that way," Richardson said. "A few year later, he did the same thing with the marketing campaign for 'The Outlaw,' which centered on Jane Russell, or, more accurately, Jane Russell's breasts … This was at a time when you couldn't even show a married couple sleeping in the same bed. Any other studio would have caved (to the standards of the time)."
Richardson cites "Scarface" as Hughes' best film, even if its then-sensational violence barely registers these days. He also said that Hughes' primary contribution to that film — and to so many others that carried his name had to do with how it was marketed, not how it was made.
"Hughes really had very little to do with the actual production," Richardson said. "Some of the best films Howard Hughes is associated with, he had very little to do with the production."
While few, if any, of Hughes' films are well regarded for their artistry these days, Richardson said he believes "Pulp Fiction" director Quentin Tarantino has followed in his footsteps to a certain degree.
"He's someone who works within the studio system but who is in no way beholden to the typical conventions of the industry," Richardson said. "He's a really good example of someone who is in the system but not bound by it."
Mike Easterling is the night editor of The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4610.
If you go
What: Curator's Choice Lecture Series: "Howard Hughes in Hollywood" by Farmington Museum curator Jeffrey Richardson
When: 3 p.m. Saturday
Where: The Farmington Museum at Gateway Park, 3041 E. Main St.
For more information: Call 505-599-1174