Film studies: Two Howards, one history

It has always seemed to me material for a great American comedy. There is a moral that goes along with it, too: something to the effect that, while it's normal and forgivable for men to doodle over female anatomy, aircraft can really go to their heads.

The time is 1941. Pearl Harbor has just had its spectacular Sunday morning, and in some Los Angeles mansion, a barefoot stringbean is hurrying around getting nothing done. "Air power!" he keeps saying to himself, until his distraction is arrested by a glossy photograph on his cluttered desk. It shows a young, rather sulky woman, very sensual, her gaze a little lowered and - for balance's sake - her bosom one extra notch upthrust.

Call him Howard. He's a genius of a kind, and now that the US is in the war, he's calling the White House with plans for terrific new aircraft. He is tall, lanky, a little absent-minded, insistent yet withdrawn - he could be a nut. But the White House takes his calls, and soon he's sending blueprints for amazing planes back east. Air power, he reckons, is the US's tool for moral cleansing.

Howard Hawks takes his calls, too. Lugubrious, screwball calls.

"That you, Howard?"

"Hi, Howard, yeah, it's me."

"Look. On the Billy the Kid picture."

"Right, Howard."

"The girl. Remember the girl?"

"Kinda."

"I've got her. Some kid from Minnesota."

"Our type, Howard?"

"Howard, you gotta see her."

"I'm ready."

"A verified 38D."

And so it turns out that this Howard of ours - well, believe me, the US was glad to have him - is not only designing planes that will command the skies; he is also prepping a picture called The Outlaw. Howard Hawks will direct. Victor Young has the music in hand. The photography chore is going to Gregg Toland - Citizen Kane was his last job. Thomas Mitchell will play Sheriff Pat Garrett. Walter Huston will be Doc Holliday.

They are so pleased to have two such fine actors in their cast that they first overlook, then forget, the fact that Holliday and Garrett, apparently, omitted to meet each other in real life. Is this a problem, they wonder. Could have, sighs one Howard, and the other murmurs, Should have. All of this, late night, over the phone. So history is wiped and polished. And Jane Russell, from Bemidji, Minnesota, will be the girl - Rio - in love with Billy the Kid.

The point of all this is not just air power - still on our minds. But in a couple of weeks, Mark Cousins's Scene by Scene show has Jane herself as interviewee. Cousins worships his subjects, and they seldom question that. And Jane Russell, God knows, has things to get off her chest.

After all, The Outlaw went on three years. Set at $450,000, it cost $3m. Hawks was fired, and our Howard- Howard Hughes - decided to direct the film himself.

The unit came back from Arizona and filmed in LA at night - Howard was designing planes during the day. It turned out to be a terrible picture - as slow as syrup on a cold morning. But it was a sensation in those wartime years, because Hughes and his publicists went to work - long in advance of the movie itself - with brazen pin-ups of Russell and her 38 inches that aroused moral guardians everywhere. For two years, Cousins says - and Jane nods - Howard just took publicity pictures of her to go with the slogans, "Would you like to tussle with Russell?" and "There are two reasons for seeing The Outlaw." (It was a just war, fought for such freedoms and monuments.)

Well, Cousins spends equal time on the rest of her career - which is carrying generosity to a fault. He doesn't stick to those Hughes years. Maybe he was too polite. Maybe Jane told him, up front, that she wouldn't take questions about whether she ever slept with Howard - in her book she vows she didn't. That's not enough, Mark. I'll make up my own mind about the sex, and I doubt if Howard the driven man ever slept. But I want to know about the brassiere he designed for her, and how Jane instead adapted one of her own garments. I want to know what it was like for the kid to be stared at for two years by eyes that were helping win the war. And I want to know why, if it was all such a grotesque, dirty joke, Jane stayed loyal to Howard and under contract, for another 15 years or so. Howard had to have had something, some charm, even if it was more what you'd expect in an engineer than a lover.

Because, in my comedy, you see, Howard is so in awe of Jane's 38 inches, he never touches her - except in the professional cause of focus or framing. And she's the alluring fancy that keeps him up nights designing what will be the "Spruce Goose" - the vast seaplane that only ever flew a few hundred yards, but which in its hull and fuselage, its tanks, its turrets and fins, its protuberances, is the engineering extension of his supreme fantasy. It's guys like that who make the US no pushover when it comes to air power - and who leave a smoky, wistful look in the dark eyes of such women as Jane Russell.

'Scene by Scene': BBC2 15 May.

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