January 27, 2005


Martin Scorsese deserves an Oscar--but not for his mendacious film The Aviator, which glorifies the odious Howard Hughes. Scorcese, of all people, ought to know better than to have done so.

A couple of years ago, in the Irwin Winkler movie portraying the tragic consequences of the Hollywood blacklist of the '40's and '50s, Guilt by Suspicion--which starred Scorsese's friend DeNiro as a blacklisted screenwriter--Scorsese had a cameo role as a charming Hollywood director who is a proud member of the Communist Party, and who flees to Europe rather than respond to a House UnAmerican Activities Committee (HUAC) subpoena.

How ironic, then, that Scorsese has forgotten to mention in The Aviator that Hughes was himself a major enforcer of the Hollywood blacklist, vindictive and rigid in his persecution of lefties in the industry. As the Las Vegas Mercury recalled two years ago:

"Paul Jarrico, a moderately successful screenwriter, was in his mid-30s when he signed a contract to write the screenplay for The Las Vegas Story in 1951. He had been hired by the film's studio, RKO, and that studio's world-famous, billionaire owner, Howard Hughes, who had been producing films since the late '20s. Movies were just one of Hughes' obsessions, and it seemed fitting to set one in the city he was becoming increasingly fond of (in the early '50s, Hughes even considered moving his aircraft research division to the city, but his subordinates balked; the idea of Hughes' impact on Vegas at that time offers a tantalizing what if').

"Jarrico was finishing up his treatment for the film when word came in April 1951 that he was to be called before the House Un-American Activities Committee, the organ of the infamous communist 'witch-hunt,' spearheaded by Sen. Joseph McCarthy, that had already ruined the careers of numerous Hollywood screenwriters who had refused to testify before it. Jarrico was no less adamant: 'If I have to choose between crawling in the mud...or going to jail like my courageous friends of the Hollywood Ten, I shall certainly choose the latter.'

"Unfortunately for Jarrico, Hughes' rabid anti-communism meant that it didn't have to come to that. As soon as Hughes heard of the committee's interest in Jarrico, he promptly fired him, and had him barred from the studio. Hughes ordered new writers brought in to remove all of Jarrico's contributions to the film, and removed his name from the credits.

"Of course, since Jarrico's contract with RKO stipulated that he could be terminated at any time, Hughes was in his legal right to fire him. But removing his credit was another matter. The Writers Guild of America, acting under its collective bargaining agreement with RKO, determined that Jarrico deserved a screen credit, and threatened Hughes with a strike. Hughes remained defiant, leaving Jarrico's name off the film in clear violation of his contract with the Guild. In fact, Hughes went on the offensive, preempting the Guild's legal action with a lawsuit of his own, claiming the novel argument that Jarrico had violated the morals clause of his contract by not revealing to the studio his involvement with the Communist Party.

"Hughes tenaciously defended his decision, going to court against Jarrico (who filed his own separate lawsuit) and the Guild and ultimately defeating both. Before the Guild could launch a strike, Hughes laid off 100 RKO employees, claiming he was curtailing production until 'the communist problem was solved.' In the climate of the Red Scare, the Guild and Jarrico were on the losing side, and Hughes' brazen dismissal of Guild arbitration had a chilling effect on Hollywood."

Not only that, Hughes helped to suppress the classic film Salt of the Earth -- made on a shoestring budget outside the Hollywood system by blacklisted artists to help union organizing (it was financed by the left-led Mine, Mill, and Smelter Workers Union), the film was the anti-racist portrayal of a strike by Mexican-American mine workers that used real workers as its cast (the making of Salt of the Earth is itself recounted in a recent movie, One of the Hollywood Ten, starring Jeff Goldblum as blacklisted director Herbert Biberman). In a letter to HUAC member Rep. Donald Jackson, Hughes explained that "the studios could effectively kill the picture if they denied the production access to the facilities they needed -- to edit, dub, score, and otherwise prepare the movie for theaters," as Steve Boisson recounted in American History magazine in February 2002. (It is, by the way, a great movie--you can order Salt of the Earth by clicking here.) As boss of RKO, Hughes also made a series of hysterically paranoid anti-Communist films, beginning with I Married a Communist in 1949--all of them designed to foster the myth of an imminent danger to the nation posed by domestic Communists (they're considered camp classics today).

Hughes, a corporate despot, was also a notorious anti-Semite (one  of the reasons that he surrounded himself with "pure" Mormons as his personal staff), as well as a briber of politicians--the infamous "Hughes loan" of $205,00 to Richard Nixon's brother Donald, a loan that was never repaid, almost sank the then-vice president's political career. And Hughes' exaggerated nationalism and anti-Communism turned him into a front-man for and help-mate of the Central Intelligence Agency for years. For example, Hughes' chief of staff, Robert Maheu--as the late investigative columnist Jack Anderson famously revealed--was the point man who, with the help of the Mafia, organized attempts to assassinate Fidel Castro on the CIA's behalf. Offshore islands that Hughes had leased were used as training bases for CIA raids into Cuba. And Hughes was a paranoid madman and a major drug addict.

But it is Hughes' role in the blacklist and the anti-Communist witch-hunt that is the most shameful--as is Scorsese's silence on the matter in his cinematic hagiography.

Posted by Direland at 08:41 AM | Permalink


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Journalist Doug Ireland calls The Aviator a mendacious film that "glorifies the odious Howard Hughes. Scorcese, of all people, ought to know better than to have done so." His objections are the non-treatment of Hughes' blacklisting of Hollywood writers... [Read More]

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