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.
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.
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
Sturges in 1941.
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
"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
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.
HERE for more on Hughes' RKO, and how the maverick helped end the studio
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.
Hughes offers RKO to Disney: Thomas, Walt Disney, pp.238- 239.