June 16, 2009 § 5 Comments
Soon after I started production on my documentary “Under the Hollywood Sign” in 2006, news broke of a spectacular property by the Hollywood Sign that was going on the market. That a piece of Cahuenga Peak was for sale came as shock to almost everyone; even LA City Councilmembers assumed the entire Peak was part of Griffith Park. As it turned out, a 138-acre parcel to the west of the Sign–five lots–was private. The land had been part of Howard Hughes’s estate and was sold to Fox River Financial, a Chicago property developer, in 2002. Fox River, which paid $1,675,000 for it, put the parcel on the market for $22 million.
The City of Los Angeles, caught unawares, managed to raise less than $6 million of the purchase price. Horrified residents, freed to imagine a clutch of McMansions–or one enormous pimp palace–to the left of the letter H, wondered how this had come to pass.
What I wondered was this: who would want to buy property in the middle of a city park, with no access or utilities? Here’s what I found out from my research of the property’s history:
Howard Hughes bought the parcel in 1940, when he was engaged to Ginger Rogers. His intention, after their marriage, was to build a castle with sweeping views of Los Angeles and the San Fernando Valley. In order to do so, he would need a road as well as utilities–electricity, gas and water–where none existed. When the City tried to prevent him from building a road, Hughes sued–and won.
Meanwhile, Ginger Rogers was having second thoughts about the marriage. She no doubt had encountered Hughes’s “eccentricities”–his paranoia, which was exacerbated by his use of painkillers and by his deafness, which he refused to acknowledge or treat, and a severe case of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, which manifested itself in germ phobia and the compulsion to do things like sort and count the peas on his plate. She confided to friends that she feared he would hold her prisoner on their Cahuenga Peak estate.
The catalyst of their breakup, however, was Hughes’s usual pattern of wildly indiscreet infidelity. Rogers dropped the bomb on Hughes as he lay concussed in the hospital after crashing his car head-on into another car, returning all his gifts of jewelry in a basket before hurling her emerald engagement ring at his bandaged form.
After Rogers’s departure, Hughes abandoned the Cahuenga Peak project but not the property, probably because he had more pressing concerns. The 1940s were arguably his busiest decade: in addition to running Hughes Aircraft and developing new civil and military planes, he continued a parallel Hollywood career, producing movies with Preston Sturges (see below) and buying a studio, RKO, in 1948. He was awarded a Congressional Medal for his aviation work in 1941 and received a contract to produce his giant military transport plane, the Spruce Goose, in 1942.
He also had two nervous breakdowns, the first in 1944 and the second, in which he locked himself in a screening room for 4 months while subsisting on chocolate bars, milk and movies, in 1947. In addition to his emotional injuries, there were devastating physical ones. In 1946, Hughes suffered major trauma when the XF-11 reconnaisance plane he was test-piloting developed engine failure. His attempt to crash-land on the Los Angeles Country Club golf course failed, setting fire to and destroying two houses. It was his second near-fatal plane crash (the first occurred during the filming of “Hell’s Angels” in 1929) and would leave him in severe, permanent pain. Addicted to codeine and increasingly crippled by OCD, Hughes withdrew from public life in 1950, though he continued to run his businesses by telephone.
When he died of renal failure in 1976, Hughes’s 6’4″ frame was so wasted by malnutrition that he weighed 90 lbs. Coroners found pieces of hypodermic needles in his arms. He left a mismanaged estate whose value, once estimated at $2 billion, was pegged at $360 million. The parcel on Cahuenga Peak was a tiny part of a fortune that included Hughes Aerospace, the Howard Hughes Medical Center, four hotels and six casinos.
At this writing, Cahuenga Peak property is still on the market at $22 million. Interested buyers should contact Teles Properties in Beverly Hills.
June 10, 2009 § 3 Comments
Preston Sturges is revered in Hollywood as the writer and director of some of the wittiest comedies ever written; in an unparalleled winning streak between 1940 and 1943, he wrote and directed eight classics, including “The Great McGinty,” “The Lady Eve,” “The Palm Beach Story,” and “The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek.” Sturges was also Hollywood’s first writer-director (and later, writer-director-producer), commanding such princely sums that at his career peak he was the third-highest earner in the film industry. (More on this period, as well as his madcap European upbringing, in future installments.)
But by the late 1940s, Sturges was in a career slump. In 1944, he had left Paramount, the studio where he had all his hits, to team up with producer Howard Hughes in order to gain Chaplin-like filmmaking autonomy. The partnership–called Cal-Pix–instead deprived Sturges of both his stock company and the studio’s vertical integration. Instead of having access to Paramount’s expert crews, Sturges now how to hire every grip and makeup person–as well as favorite actors like William Demarest, who was under contract at Paramount and would have to be “borrowed” at huge cost.
Sturges’s volatile personality met its match–and not in a good way–with that of Howard Hughes. (More on him later, too.) Hughes, who had suffered repeated concussions in car and plane crashes, was already displaying the paranoia and obsessive-compulsive disorder that would characterize his tragic end as a Las Vegas recluse, while Sturges had a talent for alienating everyone around him–bosses, co-workers, friends, wives and lovers. By 1945, he needed a slump-buster. Enter Harold Lloyd.
Harold Lloyd didn’t need an acting job (see below), but the idea intrigued him. He was 52 and hadn’t been in front of the camera since “Professor Beware,” in 1938, though he stayed in the public eye via radio shows and the movies he produced for RKO. A man of considerable energies, Lloyd’s hobbies ranged from 3-D photography to chess to breeding Great Danes, but they couldn’t compare to his feat of making an average of 11 films a year between 1913 and 1929.
Preston Sturges was a huge admirer of Harold Lloyd, and Lloyd’s influence can be seen in the slapstick in his films. Sturges came up with an amusing story incorporating footage from Lloyd’s film “The Freshman,” that would trace the accidental football star’s life through thirty years of non-events, until forced unemployment leads him to take his first drink. Success and adventure, including the purchase of a circus, follow.
“The Sin of Harold Diddlebock” was plagued with cost overruns, hiring problems and creative differences between Lloyd and Sturges. Lloyd’s comedy style was physical and Sturges’s cerebral, with slapstick used mainly as a respite from copious dialogue. When the film finally wrapped, it was $600,000 over budget and 52 days late.
After releasing “The Sin of Harold Diddlebock” to mixed reviews in only a couple of theaters, Hughes pulled the film, cut it substantially and–after buying RKO–re-released it in 1950 as “Mad Wednesday.” That version didn’t work either; moreover, it provoked Lloyd into filing a $750,000 breach of contract lawsuit against RKO for removing his above-the-title credit. Lloyd settled the suit for $30,000 and never acted again.
Sturges directed three more films, including the underrated “Unfaithfully Yours,” but all were box office bombs. He spent what was left of his career writing scripts and died broke, at 62, in 1959. His passing was sudden and occurred in New York, where he was writing a new play and an autobiography called The Events Leading Up to My Death.