Fifty-three years ago this week, Howard Hughes found himself locked in a battle against powerful political forces he believed were bent on undermining the free-market system. The billionaire industrialist, airplane manufacturer, and filmmaker became so passionate about the fight that he summoned all his emotional and physical strength to overcome a crippling fear of the public so he could make his case for what he saw as truth, justice, and the American way.
Hughes’s candor stunned the country, especially Washington politicians, who thought he was finished. Americans coast-to-coast rallied to his side. The enemy Hughes was fighting, however, wasn’t Pan Am president Juan Trippe, Sen. Ralph Owen Brewster, or the issue of unfair monopoly of the skies– the climactic struggle at the heart of The Aviator, the Martin Scorsese film up for a best-picture Oscar on Sunday night. Instead, it was a defiant screenwriter named Paul Jarrico, the influential Screen Writers Guild, and Communism in Hollywood.
The Aviator ends in 1947, when Hughes confounded critics by flying the Hercules, a plane that wasn’t supposed to fly, and thwarting Pan Am and its powerful allies in Congress. While the picture gives moviegoers a sense of Howard Hughes’s relentless determination, it was his experience with Jarrico in 1952, now long-forgotten history, which was the watershed event in his life, transforming him philosophically. What Hughes did almost single-handedly was unprecedented for a Hollywood studio chief. By not resorting to red-baiting and instead standing up to Communism with honesty, Hughes became a voice in the wilderness and galvanized the public. It pulled him into a cauldron of political controversy and intrigue, and was his last hurrah. In time, it will stand as one of the most consequential parts of his legacy.
Hughes didn’t bother with politics for most of his life, but Communism on the RKO Studios lot served as his great awakening to what was happening on the world stage after World War II. The horrors of life in Stalin’s Russia were no longer secret, and the way loyal Soviet Communists made Pavel Morozov a cult hero in the 1930s for turning in his own father for disloyalty gave Hughes and others a sense of the implications of being an apologist for Communism, even if you lived far away from Moscow in Beverly Hills.
Hughes appreciated the movies as a powerful communication medium and insisted that RKO releases depict the military as peacekeepers and resist ideas being pushed by Communists. The party worked tirelessly to foil Hughes, so he came to believe he was protecting the industry–and serving a larger mission as well. He did his part to fight Stalin by green-lighting such pictures as 1949’s Woman on Pier 13, an anti-Communist drama starring Robert Ryan.
According to primary documents and archival news stories, when Paul Jarrico, a Communist-party member and screenwriter whom Hughes had been paying $2,000 a week, started publicly maligning congressional investigators and pled the Fifth Amendment when questioned under oath about the party in 1951, Hughes was incensed. For Jarrico, the party cause was more than ideological: If the U.S. were to go to war against the Soviet Union, Jarrico said he would find it impossible to support America. Hughes refused to put Jarrico’s name on any picture released by RKO, even when the Writers Guild threatened to strike RKO to support Jarrico. “My determination that I will not yield to Jarrico or anyone else guilty of this conduct is based on principle, belief, and conscience,” said Hughes. “These are forces which are not subject to arbitration. My conscience cannot be changed by a committee of arbitrators.”
Initially, Jarrico wanted either screen credit or $5,000 for Las Vegas Story, a script from which he had been fired because his work was unsatisfactory. Hughes took Jarrico to court, asking for relief from Jarrico’s private demands and arguing that Jarrico’s allegiance to the Soviet Union had violated the morals clause of his contract, especially when American troops were fighting the Communists in Korea. Reportedly, this was the first time a studio had taken legal action against a Communist party member. Sensing how a fight with Howard Hughes could be exploited, Jarrico upped the ante by filing his own suit against RKO, asking for $350,000 in damages. Hughes could have easily settled the case with Jarrico and avoided a protracted legal war. But the issues involved symbolized too much for him. “As long as I am an officer or director of RKO, this company will never temporize, conciliate with, or yield to Paul Jarrico or anyone guilty of similar conduct,” he said.
During the trial, Jarrico asserted that it was Hughes’s conduct that ought to be questioned. His lawyers quoted a 1948 Time story– “Howard Hughes will never die in an airplane, he’ll die at the hands of a woman with a .38″–and Hughes’s creative publicity for the provocative Jane Russell picture The Outlaw, the title of which was written in smoke over Pasadena with “two large circles with a dot in each” beneath it. That was supposedly evidence that Hughes was the immoral one. (Curiously, Hughes did die in an airplane, in 1976, en route from Mexico to Houston seeking medical treatment.)
Hughes, however, was interested in more weighty matters. “Do you think if they asked a man if he was a Democrat or a Republican that he would refuse to answer on the grounds that his answer might incriminate him?” said Hughes. “The very fact that this man pleaded his constitutional privilege–that is his admission that he is not talking about politics. If you believe that the Communist party is in the same category as the Democrat party or Republican party, then I think I can answer you in this way: We are not fighting Democrats or Republicans in Korea.”
Eventually, through three years of appeals, all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, Hughes was vindicated: Jarrico wasn’t entitled to damages, and Hughes and RKO were well within their rights by keeping his name off the picture. Despite the verdict, Jarrico’s reputation has been rehabilitated and today he is celebrated in Hollywood and film schools as a heroic figure. However, the facts of the case, coupled with the evidence that has emerged since the end of the Cold War showing the enormous depth of Soviet influence in the American Communist party, are increasingly difficult to deal with for those who want to dismiss Hughes’s anti-Communism as the ravings of a madman or assert that Communists were denied their day in court.
In the fog of the so-called blacklist era, Hughes seems to have taken a clear, almost high-minded approach in a time that has been characterized as hysterical. In the Jarrico lawsuit, Hughes explained that Hollywood was risking its popularity with the general public by catering to Communists. Many industry liberals who supported filmmakers called before the Congressional investigators in 1947 felt betrayed after it later became evident that the witnesses were committed party members who used free speech as a ruse. Hughes himself reportedly offered up one of his airplanes for use by Humphrey Bogart, Sterling Hayden, John Huston, and other industry figures who traveled to Washington that fall to rally to the witnesses’ sides. By 1952, Hughes seemed to regret that courtesy and said the “civil libertarian” act put on by party members was wearing thin. “The public attitude has turned very strongly against Communism,” he said. “It is easy to look back and see some of the causes for that change. Examples are the disclosures of the atomic-bomb espionage, and the war in Korea.”
As a businessman, Hughes didn’t want to jeopardize box-office receipts. He believed that having party members employed at studios was a financial risk. By the time of the Jarrico case, however, he was beginning to find the idea of having someone supportive of the Soviet regime working for him disturbing on a more fundamental level that had nothing to do with money. “The public has begun to dislike– I should say, detest– not only Communism but Communists. It is beginning to recognize that they are traitors to our country, and to feel that they should be discouraged in every way,” said Hughes during the trial. “The public is beginning to ask all who assist the Communists, in any way, why they are doing so, and to transfer some of its resentment to [those who help].”
Nevertheless, Hughes was far from vindictive. He and Screen Actors Guild president Ronald Reagan shared the position that Communism had seduced well-intentioned liberals, and that the party couldn’t care less for the public viability of artists after they had been used to promote Stalinist agendas in the film colony. “There are many ‘reds’ who are not reds at all,” said Hughes.
I watched The Aviator with Roy M. Brewer, who, as a liberal Democrat labor chief in the 1940s and ’50s, helped lead anti-Communism in the film business. As one of the remaining few who knew Hughes during those tumultuous days, Brewer found Scorsese’s picture especially sublime. Sitting in a theater on Sunset Boulevard, just a few blocks from Hughes’s old office, Brewer told me that the film brought back memories of a man whose reputation for obsession has overshadowed the real essence that made him a unique American character. Brewer, who started in the business as a projectionist, said theirs was an era when, in the blink of an eye, events unfolded that meant a larger purpose–and unavoidable duty. “Howard Hughes loved the movies, and his country,” he said. “What happened to us back then was tremendous.”
–John Meroney is at work on American Destiny, a book about Ronald Reagan’s Hollywood career.