This Week in Texas History: A column
by BARTEE HAILE
After two years of battling censors and teasing the public with a titillating ad campaign, Howard Hughes premiered his much-anticipated western “The Outlaw” at a San Francisco theater on Feb. 4, 1943.
The Houston millionaire was barely 20 years old, when he went to Hollywood in 1925 to make a name for himself in motion pictures. Advised by his father to trust an old family friend, the novice invested $40,000 in a movie that never sold a ticket.
Actor Ralph Graves assured young Howard that “Swell Hogan,” a dull tale about a heart-of-gold derelict, would knock ’em in the aisles. But the bad script was even worse on celluloid, and Hughes hid the only print to keep the fiasco from ever being shown.
“Swell Hogan” did teach the would-be mogul that the film industry was no different than any other business. If he wanted the job done right, he had to do it himself.
Mastering every detail of production, Hughes soon completed his first feature entitled “Everybody’s Acting.” The 1926 silent comedy netted enough to cover his “Swell Hogan” losses and gave his confidence a timely boost.
Hughes’ next project was “Two Arabian Knights,” a comic adventure about a couple of American soldiers in the First World War. The co-star was William Boyd, most remembered today as Hopalong Cassidy. “Two Arabian Knights” earned high marks from critics and audiences alike.
By the time his third and fourth flicks, “The Racket” and “The Mating Call,” reached the screen in 1928, Hughes was already at work on the aviation epic “Hell’s Angels.” Vowing not to let costs stand in the way of making a true-to-life flight film, he spared no expense to assemble the largest private air force in the world for the breathtaking combat scenes.
Hughes not only called the shots as director but also insisted on demonstrating the desired aerial acrobatics. His crack-up during a particularly tricky maneuver nearly caused collective heart failure on the set. Before he walked away from the crash, a crew member recalled quipping, “I thought for a moment that we had all lost our meal ticket.”
The stunt pilots were not so fortunate. One burned to death, when he struck power lines, another ran out of gas in mid-air and a third perished in a simulated crash drive that wound up being the real thing.
“Hell’s Angels” established Hughes as a first-rate producer/director and transformed an unknown platinum blonde named Jean Harlow into a 1930’s superstar. Starting out as a silent movie, two and a half years and four million dollars later it broke the sound barrier for the Texan with the deep pockets.
Hughes hurriedly cranked out several more box-office hits, though none matched “Hell’s Angels” which he always considered his masterpiece. At the peak of his cinematic career, the unpredictable tycoon suddenly gave up moviemaking for his new obsession — flying.
In 1939 Hughes decided to mount a movie comeback with a western loosely based on the life of Billy the Kid. Remembering the gold mine he had discovered in Harlow, he gambled on casting complete unknowns for the parts of Billy and his girlfriend Rio.
Gummo, the Marx brother who never appeared in his siblings’ comedies, introduced Hughes to Jack Buetel, a 23 year old nobody from Dallas and he signed the fellow Texan on the spot.
Hughes personally picked the female lead from a pile of publicity pictures. At 19 Earnestine Jane Geraldine Russell did not have a single second of acting experience, but Hughes could have cared less about her thespian credentials.
Jane Russell soon learned why she won the intense competition for the coveted role. When she complained the promotional photos always stressed her 38-inch bust-line, Hughes explained, “That’s the way to sell a picture.”
The Hays Office, official guardian of movie morality, went over the script with a fine-tooth comb. The watchdogs advised Hughes to tone down the dialogue and warned “care must be taken to avoid sexual suggestiveness.”
A private viewing of “The Outlaw” in early 1941 sent the skittish censors through the roof. The chief inspector complained in a letter to Hughes, “I have never seen anything quite so unacceptable as the shots of the breasts of the character Rio. Throughout almost half the picture the girl’s breasts, which are large and prominent, are shockingly uncovered.”
The most objectionable frames ended up on the cutting room floor, and “The Outlaw” received the mandatory Seal of Approval. Then to spite the censors Hughes plastered a larger-than-life image of his leading lady on thousands of billboards with the caption, “How’d you like to tussle with Russell?”
After two years of hype and hysteria, “The Outlaw” was finally released. It turned out to be just another western and not a very good one at that.
San Marcos Mercury columnist BARTEE HAILE welcomes your comments, questions and suggestions at P.O. Box 152, Friendswood, Texas 77549 or by email here.
COVER: Howard Hughes with his H-1 Racer in 1937. PUBLIC DOMAIN