If you want a conscientious examination of Howard Hughes’ early adventures in Hollywood, read no further. This tawdry biopic, released to capitalize on public interest after Hughes’ death in 1976, transforms the making of Hughes’ notorious war epic Hell’s Angels (1930) into something out of Penthouse Letters. Once Hughes (Victor Holchak) gets an eyeful of buxom starlet Jean Harlow (Lindsay Bloom), he makes a bet that if he can transform her from a bit player to a movie star, she’ll sleep with him. What ensues is a feature-length flirtation driven by vulgar banter and sensationalistic events. (For example, Jean rubs ice on her nipples before shooting a scene in order to get a reaction from a lifeless costar.) As co-written and directed by B-movie guy Larry Buchanan, Hughes and Harlow offers caricatures instead of people, cheap gags instead of situations, and weak attempts at salt-of-the-earth wit instead of real dialogue. That the picture is mostly watchable can be attributed to the traffic-accident appeal of the real history being depicted, and also to Bloom’s zesty performance as a woman who’s seen it all but still wants to believe in something better.
The picture begins with the premiere of Hell’s Angels, during which Howard and Jean fret about the reactions of the audience and those of Hollywood censor Will Hays (Royal Dano). Then Hughes and Harlow flashes back to episodes from the making of Hell’s Angels. When Jean first meets Texas oil heir Howard, he’s already sunk $2 million into his movie and churned through directors. Once he assumes helming chores himself, Howard identifies Jean as a possible female lead, even though she moonlights as a hostess in a brothel. Naturally, Jean assumes the offer comes with strings, but instead Howard makes the salacious bet. Throughout a production cycle fraught with difficulty, the two run hot and cold with each other. They also share their deepest ambitions and fears. In a typically clunky line of dialogue, Howard opines: “We’re both just a couple of a country kids trying to make it in this hellhole of Hollywood.” Jean Harlow and Howard Hughes, avatars of morality in a cesspool? Whatever you say, Mr. Buchanan.
The film’s most entertaining scenes feel like renderings of apocryphal stories, as when Howard berates veteran filmmaker Howard Hawks (Adam Roarke) for poaching stunt performers. Other vignettes work simply because Bloom, who enjoyed an undistinguished career in B-movies and TV shows, channels cynicism so effectively. (As a curvy blonde in ’70s Hollywood, one imagines that Bloom had plenty of life experience to use as inspiration for her performance.) Holchak, who also worked extensively in TV, looks the part and has a few sincere moments, but let’s just say his portrayal of Hughes is not definitive. Ultimately, how palatable you’ll find this picture depends on your appetite for showbiz lore, because Hughes and Harlow: Angels in Hell is a tacky rendering of a compelling story.
Hughes and Harlow: Angels in Hell: FUNKY