Jane Russell

A Billionaire’s Hollywood

Howard Hughes’ taste in film was stranger than fiction.

The business interests of Howard Hughes were vast and varied—real estate, airlines, casinos—but the movies may have been dearest to his heart. Hughes dabbled in producing before buying RKO Pictures but at RKO, film turned into fetishism on display. Hughes would write multipage memos about how a dress should fit around the leading lady’s breasts or exactly how the punches should land in a fight scene—boobs and brawls being the main staple of Hughes pictures. Projects would be stuck in reshoots for years as he recast actors—and directors—or rewrote scripts.

One of the first Hughes RKO releases was Vendetta, a vehicle for Faith Domergue, a teenage actress he had “discovered” and whom he hid in a Los Angeles apartment while she awaited her big break. (Hughes was known for keeping multiple young actresses all over town in similar situations.) The film took three years to release, and was called a “garrulous, slow and obvious period piece” by The New York Times.

The more talented Jane Russell (who refused to have anything to do with Hughes offscreen) starred in The Las Vegas Story as the point of a love triangle between ex-cop Victor Mature and gambler Vincent Price. Location shooting was at the Flamingo, with solid musical numbers from Hoagy Carmichael and an only-in-Vegas-fun chase scene at the old McCarran airport. Russell teamed up with Robert Mitchum for the convoluted exotica of Macao, as well as His Kind of Woman, which turned out wonderfully, almost in spite of itself. The film was in production for two years—Mitchum got so tired of being “beaten up” that one day, he snapped and destroyed the set. More benevolently, Vincent Price celebrated his first-year anniversary of shooting with a  party. The film was called “violent hokum” upon its release, but today its highly entertaining mix of violent noir, romantic comedy and absurdist parody feels modern, as do the gorgeous mid-century sets.

But there were more low points than high in RKO’s output. Underwater! and The French Line were basically just excuses for well-endowed women to turn toward the camera in 3-D. Jet Pilot was more tits, plus airplanes and commies in a sad coda to the career of legendary director Josef Von Sternberg. Hughes also did a few cheapie sword-and-sandal epics. Son of Sinbad turned the Forty Thieves into the Forty Thieves’ Daughters, the better to show off some of Hughes’ stashed starlets. The Conqueror starred John Wayne as Ghengis Khan—the film was disparaged for its awful casting and worse dialogue but its true impact came later, when many of the cast and crew died of cancer—the film was shot near a nuclear testing ground.

When Hughes purchased the studio, RKO was a critical and financial powerhouse; by the time he left, it was a money-losing ghost town. But Howard Hughes didn’t care: The movies were for him. When the billionaire locked himself in a screening room for days on end, RKO Pictures finally had the audience it intended.