WEIRDLAND: Howard Huges: The Untold Story (Harlow, Crawford, Davis, Hepburn)

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Howard Huges: The Untold Story (Harlow, Crawford, Davis, Hepburn)

Howard Hughes approached sex in the same scientific manner he would utilize to conquer the skies. An elevator flight down was the Cocoanut Grove, where he shyly looked on at the starlets under the papier-mache palm trees-props left over from The Sheik. He would soon do more than look, courting former flapper Joan Crawford; Constance Bennett, who was looking to marry a millionaire; and Madge Bellamy, a fellow Texan whose most recent films were The Reckless Sex and Havoc.

Jack Mulhall and Greta Nissen in "The Butter and Egg Man" (1928)

Bringing sound to Hell's Angels meant bringing dialogue to its actors. That wasn't a problem for the two male leads. Ben Lyon and James I fall, playing brothers in the Royal Flying Corps, sounded stalwart. But statuesque Greta Nissen, playing the English hussy who comes between the brothers, had a thick Scandinavian accent. Because of the cost of the sound conversion, Hughes couldn't afford a star name as a replacement. So he launched a search for someone new-and sexy. The rush was on. Starlets and extras paraded past Hughes. He screened dozens of tests of up and comers, made by Metro-GoldwynMayer, Paramount, and Warner Brothers. Nubile young actresses June Collyer, Thelma Todd, and Marian Marsh were considered, as was future star Carole Lombard, who was even announced for the role, then rejected several weeks later.

Actually, the part might have gone to Lombard if a pushy young agent named Arthur Landau hadn't stumbled onto the Hell's Angels set one Friday afternoon. On his arm was a brassy blonde wearing a cheap organdy dress and a splash of Jungle Gardenia toilet water. Thick mascara and Betty Boop lips completed the portrait of a girl who had looked just perfect in her last picture, opposite Laurel and Hardy. "My God, she's got a shape like a dust pan!" said Joseph Moncure March, the Hell's Angels dialogue writer. "In my opinion, she's nix," Hughes told her agent. Landau pleaded with him: "She's a broad ready to put out for flyers. But she knows that after she's made them forget the war for a little while, they still have to take off and they might never come back. So her heart's breaking while she's screwing them." Hughes, who had grown bored with the casting dilemma, countered, "But can she deliver this?" "A cinch. She's just nervous now," Landau replied.

Hughes took a chance and cast Jean Harlow in her first major role. "I suppose Howard Hughes was just so sick of looking at blondes, he was in a mood to give up," said a philosophic Harlow, who received the Guild minimum of $1,500 for six weeks' work and, it turned out, stardom.

Just nineteen, Harlow was at first uneasy in the role of the Hell's Angels temptress who is supposed to ooze wanton bliss. At one point she desperately turned to James Whale, who was directing her scenes, and asked, "Tell me exactly how you want me to do it." Whale cruelly retorted, "I can tell you how to be an actress, but I cannot tell you how to be a woman." In what would become a peculiar Hughes trademark, he got involved in the design of Harlow's costumes, including a gown so skintight that there were gasps when she sauntered on the set in it. Backless, it had a low-cut bodice held up by only the wispiest of rhinestone-studded straps. Hughes finally booked the prestigious Grauman's Chinese Theater, the most expensive venue in America. Opening night was set for June 30, 1930.

The car ahead carried an uncertain Jean Harlow, almost buried in the cascade of white orchids and gardenias Hughes had showered upon her. Because of the crush of the limousines and the pushing, surging crowd of fans, it took the Hughes contingent more than an hour to reach the boulevard. When Hughes was a mile from Grauman's, he sent a message via radiophone, cueing an aerial pageant unequaled in Hollywood history. A squadron of vintage airplanes roared in from the San Fernando Valley, diving, zooming, and tumbling in mock warfare. Nine hundred gallons of liquid smoke left vivid ribbons of red, gray, and ocher in the foggy sky above the theater. The beams of the retreating sun glinted off the swirls so that, according to Jean Harlow, "they resembled streaks of oil paint."

For a few frantic years Howard dated girls by the score, as if sheer numbers could compensate for the intimacy he had lost when Billie Dove deserted him. From 1931 through 1933, Hughes's name was linked to more than fifty actresses, debutantes, party girls, and chorines on both coasts. In Hollywood, he was spotted in the company of actresses Dorothy Jordan (Ramon Novarro's frequent costar, she went on to marry King Kong director Merian C. Cooper), Lillian Bond (who was often cast as a marriage-wrecker), and starlet June Lang (who went on to marry gangster Johnny Rosselli). He once sent MGM musical queen Jeanette MacDonald a note across a Hollywood dance floor.

And he put the move on Joan Crawford, even though she was married, promising her "a very big present," if she would date him. Joan Crawford once said: "Howard Hughes would fuck a tree."

He dated actress Marian Marsh, who remained a platonic friend until the forties. She saw Howard undergo his transformation. "I saw him start to change," confessed Marsh, who attributed Hughes's growing girl-craziness to the company he kept. On his way to the Cocoanut Grove one evening in early 1932, Howard stopped by Dietrich's office to complain about an eternal subject, women. "I'm through with the actresses ... I need to find me a nice girl outside this business and marry her."

Despite what he said, however, the next woman to attract him would be up-and-coming star Ginger Rogers. Had she been less levelheaded, she might have become the next lady at Muirfield. But she kept him at a comfortable distance. A former vaudeville performer and former Broadway ingenue, Ginger was less than a year away from superstardom as Fred Astaire's partner in Flying Down to Rio. She was a Texan, given to wisecracks, with platinum hair and a sassy, brassy demeanor. Ginger Rogers blew a gust of reality into the jaded life of the young heir, told him what she thought, told him his wealth was nothing special, and intrigued him to such an extent that he would chase her, off and on, for seven years. With Ginger on his arm and his hat tipped cockily over his face, Hughes looked every inch the successful film producer at the Paramount Theater premiere, where a curious crowd gave the movie a standing ovation. Ginger would keep him at bay, however, and his endless hunt for fresh faces continued.

Bette Davis and Franchot Tone in "Dangerous" (1935)

Before Ginger's train even pulled into Union Station, Hughes leaped into an affair with Bette Davis, the least likely of his star lovers. They collided at the Tailwagger's Ball, a canine charity close to Davis's heart. Wearing a tightly bodiced pink dress and framed by waves of lace, Bette was the star attraction in a roomful of star attractions such as Mary Pickford, Lupe Velez, and Norma Shearer. Like Howard, Bette was on the rebound from an affair with "the love of her life," director William Wyler. Unlike Hughes, she was still very married to her childhood sweetheart, advertising man Harmon "Ham" Nelson.

"I expected Hughes to look at my breasts," she recalled. "Instead, he looked directly into my eyes. I won't say there was magic, but there was warmth." He bought "scads of raffle tickets" and arranged for the first of a series of rendezvous. Within days they were nestled in bed, listening to waves pounding outside Howard's rented Malibu hideaway. They slept together ten times during a brief but idyllic affair. "Howard brought out the maternal instinct in me, which no other man had ever done. He was such a quiet, shy man. But when we were alone, he evolved into a very romantic lover." She continued, "I used to cook for him at the beach, and as we sat by the fire, he would stroke my hair."

Hughes was once in the midst of a haircut at Muirfield when Hepburn stormed in and demanded they play golf. Off Hughes went, with only half his hair cut, leaving behind a befuddled barber. "She's brilliant, she's kind, perhaps the most totally magnetic woman in the entire world." Kate was equally overcome. "I admired his verve and his stamina. He was sort of the top of the available men in the world and I of the women. And we both had a wild desire to be famous." Like Hughes, Hepburn didn't use clothes to impress. Her shirts were sometimes frayed, her shoes scuffed, and she was one of the first notable women who dared to wear trousers in public. Hughes and Hepburn were also physically similar. Both were lean, with angular features. She was five-foot-seven-and-a-half, about 115 pounds, and seldom bothered to cover her copper-colored freckles with makeup. Hughes was six-foot-three, with darkly hypnotic eyes and a broad grin. Both had been freed of marriages of convenience. Hepburn was divorced from a family friend, stockbroker Ludlow Stevens.

Columnists had dubbed her "Katharine of Arrogance" only a month before her life collided with that of Howard Hughes. After a sensational film debut in A Bill of Divorcement (1931), which had earned her an Oscar nomination, she'd turned in a series of triumphant performances in films such as Alice Adams and Morning Glory, for which she won a Best Actress Oscar. But a series of pretentious commercial failures such as Mary of Scotland and Quality Street landed her on a list of stars who Harry Brandt, head of a powerful theater owners group, labeled "box office poison." Ever indefatigable and lofty, Hepburn shotback, "If I weren't laughing so hard, I might cry." -"Howard Hughes: The Untold Story" (2004) by Peter Harry Brown and Pat H. Broeske

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