Howard Hughes: The Man and the Madness (DVD)

We can’t wait for them to make Howard Hughes the Duck.

This 1993 documentary about Howard Hughes got dusted off and released on DVD right around the same time as Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator got its release. What an amazing coincidence!

All kidding aside, this is a good introduction to the wild world of Howard Hughes, who was on one hand a billionaire playboy and innovator of great technology, and a paranoid mysophobic shut-in on the other. All the basics are covered. We start by seeing how Hughes turned his early inheritance, a tool factory, into a massive cash cow. From there, Hughes took his fortune and made his way to Hollywood to produce his own films. Hughes’s airplane action epic Hell’s Angels was the big hit of the day, but some of his other films were not quite as successful. With airplanes an ongoing obsession for Hughes, he started his own airline and pushed a small army of employees to push technology as far as it could go, setting speed records and creating the world’s largest flying vehicle. Later in his life, he turned his attention to hotels and casinos, buying them up like crazy and making the most of their revenue power.

But Hughes’s story is more than just an American success story. It could also count as a Shakespearian tragedy. Beginning with the various women in his life, none of whom stayed around for long, Hughes eventually succumbed to paranoia, obsessive-compulsive behavior, and even drug use. Few people ever saw Hughes during his “long fingernail” years, which he spent holed up in one hotel room or another, with strictly limited contact with the outside, before dying a lonely death in 1976, with only the slightest hint of who he once was.

This “hit the high points” documentary covers all the basics of Hughes’s life. Some of the folks who worked with Hughes are interviewed, as are some historians who’ve studied the billionaire’s life. Each accomplishment, headline making act, and disturbing quirk are checked off the list one by one as the movie progresses. For those unfamiliar with Hughes’s life, this will surely be interesting viewing.

One of the documentary’s strengths is all of the archive footage on display. We get several looks at Hughes in his element during the Hollywood and aviation years. Hearing him speak on these topics is quite a revelation. His nasal voice goes against the traditional idea of a billionaire playboy. We also see original footage of Hughes standing up to the US Senate in a highly publicized media circus, and the moment when his massive “flying boat,” actually takes to the air.

For those seeking more detail beyond what is already fairly well-known about Hughes, however, there’s very little here. It’s almost a necessity—the filmmakers have so much ground to cover, there’s no way for them to elaborate on any one point about Hughes, such as the Beverly Hills plane crash, the senate hearings, or what the heck he ever planned to do with all those jars of urine.

With all of the information on display, there are also a lot of unanswered questions. Foremost are the many “aides” who assisted Hughes at all times, meeting his every request, no matter how odd. Almost no attempt is made to recognize who these people were and just what part they really played in the Hughes empire. Likewise is the strange anecdote about the doctor who, instead of treating Hughes, was caught shredding documents. Who was this doctor? Is there any validity to this story? If this is all just rumor and unconfirmed speculation, then the filmmakers should tell us so.

Then, in the final third of the film, there’s a grainy black and white shot of Hughes the recluse, sitting propped up in bed with his scraggly long hair and beard. I marveled, “Where did they find this footage?” And then I saw the words “dramatic recreation” on the bottom of the screen. This happens several times during the film, and it’s more of a distraction than a shocking glimpse as to what went on inside those holed up hotel rooms.

Visual quality on the disc is good in the present day footage, although the colors are a little flat. The archive footage shows its age, as is expected, with grain and haziness throughout. This is not a movie that jumps off the screen and slaps you in the face with its amazing cinematography, but that’s OK because it doesn’t have to be. Audio is decent, with mostly talking and narration, and occasional music. The extras consist of the complete newsreels from which the archive footage was taken. These are charming and nostalgic, but tend to get a little tired when watched in one sitting.

For all his contributions to society, Howard Hughes is found not guilty. The makers of Howard Hughes—the Man and the Madness are put on probation. They did a good job here, but it could have been better.

The Verdict


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