Hollywood Renegades Archive

The Society of Independent Motion Picture Producers

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California Pictures: Howard Hughes & Preston Sturges

SIMPP Members (1946-1949)

Excerpt from Hollywood Renegades by J. A. Aberdeen

The independent Howard Hughes entered the film industry in a unique and enviable position: unwilling to be dictated to by any Hollywood studio, and in a position to bankroll himself. He was an influential figure in the Hollywood progression toward independent filmmaking, as well as a memorable participant in the Paramount antitrust case. California Pictures, formed in partnership with writer - producer - director Preston Sturges, was one of Hughes many independent stints in Hollywood, as well as his final independent production venture before he took over RKO in 1948. California Pictures was also one of the new postwar production companies that typified the rise and retrenchment of the independent producers in the late 1940s.

Howard Hughes

Howard Hughes, pictured around the time that he entered the film industry.

Howard Hughes started his film career in 1926 at the age of 20, two years after inheriting his deceased parents' tool fortune. Hughes formed Caddo Productions, and hired A-class talent like director Lewis Milestone, screenwriter Ben Hecht, and Pickford director Marshall Neilan. By 1928, he signed a distribution deal with United Artists, and moved from the Metropolitan (General Service) Studios to the United Artists lot, where he headquartered his film operation through the years, even after his RKO purchase.

Hughes produced three monumental films in the early 1930s—the ambitious aeronautical feature Hell's Angels (1930), the seminal newspaper film The Front Page (1931), and the potent gangster movie Scarface (1932). These features gained Hughes a reputation not only as a successful film producer, but as a rebel whose eccentric use of wealth and whose disregard for industry convention was despised by the studio moguls. In 1932 the 26 year old Hughes announced, to the relief of the Hollywood establishment, that he was retiring from the movie business to devote his time to aviation. He formed the Hughes Aircraft Company that same year, and became a popular media figure with several speed records and around-the-world flights.

Howard Hughes as aerospace adventurer.

Hughes reentered Hollywood in late 1939, finding his brand of prestige independent production in vogue. Motivated by the successful opening of Gone With the Wind, Hughes decided to make a Western feature to be called "Billy the Kid" which, after running into title-registration conflict with MGM, was eventually filmed as The Outlaw (1943). Hughes expected the film to become the quintessential Western, as his earlier films had in their respective genres. Instead the film is remembered for the prolonged censorship opposition from the Hays office, and the lingering advertising campaign that was far more lascivious than the movie itself.

During this return to independent production, Hughes reinvented his image. Although he kept his demanding disposition and his disrespect for the studio system, he shed the tuxedo-clad bachelor style of his youth in favor of the rumpled suits and vagabond look that would become his trademark. At the same time, his famous eccentricities gradually became more pronounced, especially after his 1946 near-fatal test flight in which Hughes crash-landed his experimental XF-11 in Beverly Hills, next door to the home of Joseph Schenck.

Preston Sturges in 1941.

Preston Sturges

During 1943 Howard Hughes and Preston Sturges began discussing the joint venture that would evolve into California Pictures. Continually finding himself sidetracked by his aircraft commitments, Hughes needed a capable filmmaker who could also shoulder the production responsibilities of the film company. Hughes was drawn to Sturges who shared a similar background with the wealthy renegade. Like Hughes, Sturges was a successful entrepreneur — operating his own engineering company and restaurant-nightclub — all on the side of a brilliant film career. Hughes frequented Sturges' restaurant called The Players, and established a friendship with Sturges during Hughes' early years in Hollywood. Hughes became the unofficial model for the hero in Preston Sturges' Sullivan's Travels (1942), featuring the exploits of a Hollywood playboy who goes slumming to experience the life of the common man.

Sturges rose to prominence as a screenwriter for the major studios in the 1930s. During a successful tenure at Paramount, he became a director, and then producer-director, who was also accustomed to contributing his own stories and screenplays. Acknowledged as one of the Hollywood studio-era artists with a recognizable body of work, Sturges decided to take his production unit independent. He left Paramount one month before the tremendously successful release of The Miracle of Morgan's Creek in January 1944. The film put Sturges in hot demand, but he turned down several generous studio contracts to become his own boss as an independent producer.

Sturges and Hughes Form California Pictures

In February 1944, Sturges agreed to join in partnership with Howard Hughes. Taking a hefty pay-cut to secure his creative autonomy, Sturges became one of the few independent writer-producer-directors in the postwar era. Though Sturges held a majority interest in California Pictures, the Hughes Tool Company financed the operation, and held an option to reclaim Sturges' stock should disagreement arise between the partners. In August 1944 contracts were signed, and the California Pictures Corporation was organized. Later that year they entered into a distribution deal with United Artists, and joined SIMPP.

For his first independent film The Sin of Harold Diddlebock (1947), Sturges coaxed comedian Harold Lloyd from retirement to star in a sequel of sorts to Lloyd's silent comedy masterpiece The Freshman (1925). With a lavish $2 million budget, Sturges suffered from the same extravagance that tainted other studio filmmakers who became independent. Hughes had pledged not to intercede during production, even as the film exceeded its budget and went way over schedule. However, Hughes was disappointed with the final movie, and stepped in after the film was poorly received in early previews. Hughes delayed the final release of the film so that it could be reedited and rereleased at a later date.

"I became an independent producer to get away from supervision," Sturges said of the incident, from which his career never fully recovered. "When Mr. Hughes made suggestions with which I disagreed, as he had a perfect right to do, I rejected them. When I rejected the last one, he remembered he had an option to take control of the company and he took over. So I left." Hughes assumed control of the California Picture Corporation, and forced the resignation of Sturges in October 1946, leaving behind a second unfinished film, Vendetta.

Howard Hughes complained about the large amounts of money consumed by the two independent prestige films. Even years after the end of California Pictures, during a visit the home of William Cagney, Hughes fussed over the expense—$5 million, he claimed, in a story humorously retold in the autobiography of Preston Sturges.

CLICK HERE to read the William Cagney account, as retold by Preston Sturges.

Hughes' Purchase of RKO

Howard Hughes as head of RKO.

Having been burned in his latest independent venture, Howard Hughes decided to broaden his film interests by taking over a major Hollywood studio. In early 1948 the trade papers reported that Hughes was in discussions with Floyd Odlum's Atlas Corporation, the holding company in charge of RKO. Back in the Depression, Odlum had helped reorganize Paramount, and purchased Paramount debentures at their basement price in 1933. He sold his Paramount holdings at a profit, and used the proceeds to acquire the troubled RKO studio from David Sarnoff and RCA. RKO emerged from receivership in January 1940, in part by maintaining profitable and prestigious relations with independent producers like Disney and Goldwyn. But following the film recession of the late 1940s, Odlum was apprehensive about divorcement and the looming television threat. As RKO profits and stock prices began to dip, Odlum became interested in selling out.

In May 1948 Hughes agreed to purchase the Atlas stock in RKO for $8.8 million. J. Arthur Rank had also been interest in RKO, but Odlum reportedly took no competing bids in order to preserve the relationship between the Atlas aircraft company and Hughes' TWA. The price for Hughes also seemed far less considerable compared to Hughes recent expenditures with California. Howard Hughes, one of Hollywood's most detested independent producers, became the dictator of a Big Five film company.

His stewardship of RKO was characterized by capricious management whimsy and an increasing amount of irrational behavior. I did not help to have this chaotic period of RKO take place during the blacklist time, feeding into Hughes anti-communist attitudes. In 1955 much to the relief of the Hollywood studio establishment, Hughes decided to get out of the film business in 1955 claiming "it represents 15 percent of my business and takes 85 percent of my time." The fortunes of RKO had diminished under the erratic leadership of Hughes, whose intolerable meddling drove many independent producers to other distributors while the studio incurred heavy liabilities. When the Disneys grew dissatisfied with their RKO distribution terms, Hughes offered to sell them the studio outright but the Disneys declined the offer.

In July 1955, Hughes sold his RKO holdings to the General Tire and Rubber Company, bringing to a close his sporadic but memorable run as recalcitrant independent producer and eccentric studio tycoon. General Tire, interested primarily in the RKO film library, decided to sell the studio lot in November 1957 to Desilu Productions. The sale reverberated throughout the industry as a symbol of the changing complexion of Hollywood brought by the independent filmmakers of the new television age.

CLICK HERE for more on Hughes' RKO, and how the maverick helped end the studio system



Howard Hughes, Preston Sturges, and California Pictures: Thomas, Howard Hughes In Hollywood; Barlett and Steele, Empire; Sturges, Preston Sturges; Curtis, Between Flops; Lasky, RKO, pp. 204-219.
"I became an independent": Curtis, p. 219.
Hughes complains to William Cagney: Sturges, pp. 304-305. Story available online.
"It represents 15 percent": French, The Movie Moguls, p. 102.
Hughes offers RKO to Disney: Thomas, Walt Disney, pp.238- 239.

See Bibliography.

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