It’s become trendy in academic circles these days to view the big studio bosses — Adolph Zukor, Louis B. Mayer, the fractious Warner brothers, Darryl F. Zanuck, Harry Cohn — as tough-as-nails egomaniacs and ruthlessly strong-willed dictators, necessary if you wanted to get the job done.
The moguls, goes this view, may not have been even remotely likable as individuals. But boy, they ran their respective dream factories with iron-grip efficiency. They may have been personally nasty, bestial to those who worked for them and renowned casting couch enthusiasts. But, they were the tough, competent chiefs the Hollywood dream factories demanded.
Hello, everybody. Joe Morella and Frank Segers, your classic movie guys, here today to discuss the one mogul who definitely doesn’t qualify for this revisionist, forgiving academic assessment.
We are talking about Howard Hughes. (That’s a flattering photo of young Howard above.)
Of all the moguls, he most resembled today’s all-to-common financial and business executive who profits in incompetence, who screws up whole enterprises and then departs with a huge benefit package. When Hughes was through with RKO, the studio was in ruins while Howard was millions richer.
“While a profusion of books, articles, movies and television programs about Howard Hughes are biblical in scope, his ownership of RKO Studios has often been little more than a footnote compared to some of his more notable exploits,” writes Alan K. Rode, author of the excellent Charles McGraw: Biography of a Film Noir Tough Guy published by McFarland & Company. (McGraw, a superb all-around supporting actor for decades, starred in some of RKO’s finest noir titles ever made during his two-year tenure at the studio, begun in January 1950.)
Rode argues that the famed builder of the “Spruce Goose” heavy transport aircraft never had the makeup of a studio mogul. “The balanced temperament and specialized skill sets required to run a delicately complex operation like a movie studio were noticeably absent from his personal repertoire.” That’s putting it mildly.
Hughes was far more interested in machinery than movies. In his 1978 memoir, director Edward Dmytryk wrote of his Hughes fascination. He recalled what Lewis Milestone (who directed two of Hughes’ early movie ventures, 1927’s Two Arabian Knights and the 1931 version of The Front Page) had told him. When Milestone planned to screen film footage, he was flatly told one day his usual projection room was not available.
“On his way past the booth, (Milestone) stuck in his head to see what was wrong. There, on the floor, was a spread-out sheet, and on the sheet sat Howard Hughes, surrounded by the hundreds of parts of a completely stripped-down projection machine.
“Just wanted to see how it worked,” Hughes explained.
His work habits were strange, to put it mildly. He often didn’t show up at the studio’s Gower and Melrose Streets headquarters. Robert Mitchum, a huge RKO star, dubbed him “The Phantom.” Hughes was a micro-manager, who hounded, alienated and finally drove out his cadre of expensive managers including producers Dore Schary and Jerry Wald, among many others.
Hughes obsessively reviewed final cuts, ordering extensive re-shooting at whim — expense and distribution dates be damned. He was infamous for delaying the release of finished pictures for years. And, he ripped through employee ranks, ordering wholesale firings.
Hughes bought RKO on May 11, 1948 for $8.8 million; that’s about $82.5 million in today’s dollars. At the time there were 2,000 employees working at the studio. By 1953, there were about 450 left. By then, Hughes was bored with being a studio boss.
Hughes managed to reach an agreement to sell RKO to a syndicate of Chicago investors with Mafia ties. That deal collapsed after the press got wind of some of the unsavory personalities involved (Hughes was suspected of leaking the information.)
In July 1955, the studio was finally sold to a unit of General Tire at a profit to Hughes of at least $6 million — which works out to the equivalent of $50 million in today’s dollars. (The Gower and Melrose lot was bought two years later by Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, becoming their Desilu TV production colossus.)
“Hughes walked away with millions and (RKO) ceased to exist,” Rode notes. Gone was the studio that gave us Citizen Kane, King Kong, Top Hat, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Journey Into Fear, The Magnificent Ambersons, the Val Lewton-produced titles and perhaps the best film noir ever made, Out of the Past.
Why did Hughes insist on trying to be a studio head? We explore the answer to that in tomorrow’s blog. Hint — it had much to do with a three-letter word beginning with “s” and ending with an “x.”