- The Washington Times - Friday, December 10, 2004

In anticipation of the Christmas Day release of “The Aviator,” Martin Scorsese’s biographical drama about Howard Hughes, Turner Classic Movies pays tribute this week to both the ongoing movie career of the former and the bygone movie career of the latter.

A career chronicle produced for TCM, “Scorsese on Scorsese,” premieres Tuesday night. Organized more or less chronologically, it concludes with the director discussing his new picture with phantom interviewer Richard Schickel. Mr. Scorsese is such a voluble and confident interview subject that he seems to require no off-screen prompting.

Presumably, viewers will be stirred to see “The Aviator,” which stars Leonardo DiCaprio as Mr. Hughes from about 1927 to 1947, when he was a mercurial Hollywood producer and celebrity as well as a dashing flier and aircraft industry visionary. Mr. Scorsese even may help clarify some of the movie’s unanswered questions. For example, he attributes Howard Hughes’ recurrent mental instability to both severe injuries (four plane crashes, two vividly depicted in the film) and what we now regard as obsessive-compulsive disorders.

TCM’s interview feature will be supplemented by just three Scorsese movies. Only one of these — “Raging Bull” — is recalled in detail in “Scorsese on Scorsese,” while the other two — “The Last Waltz” and “New York, New York” — are bypassed. It might have made more sense to program movies that are emphasized: “Mean Streets,” “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore,” “Taxi Driver,” “The King of Comedy,” “GoodFellas,” “Cape Fear,” “Gangs of New York.”

Nevertheless, Mr. Scorsese’s progression from Little Italy to a Howard Hughes biopic — one of the projects that took the director far from his volatile home turf — is fascinating. It’s always intriguing when he evaluates his work or the movies in general.

Viewers can get a head start on Howard Hughes lore tonight by catching a revival of Edward Dmytryk’s 1964 movie version of the Harold Robbins best-seller “The Carpetbaggers,” which exploited the eminently exploitable life and legend of Mr. Hughes. The movie, booked for 10:15 p.m. on TCM, co-stars George Peppard as a facsimile of Mr. Hughes and Carroll Baker as a facsimile of Jean Harlow. It was one of the major shameless hits of its year.

TCM’s three-part tribute to Mr. Hughes’ fitful movie career runs Wednesday through Friday. The legendary eccentric’s flirtation with the movie business involved liaisons with famous actresses. “The Aviator” calls attention to affairs with Jean Harlow, Katharine Hepburn, Faith Domergue and Ava Gardner. All but Miss Domergue, who never transcended starlet status, will be represented Friday when TCM, focusing on the subtopic “His Women,” revives “Bringing Up Baby” with Miss Hepburn, “Bombshell” with Miss Harlow and “My Forbidden Past” with Miss Gardner.

The initial stage of Mr. Hughes’ producing career will be illustrated Wednesday. TCM is reviving half the movies Mr. Hughes produced during his opening round as an upstart in Hollywood, from 1927 through 1932. Born in 1905, Mr. Hughes inherited his late father’s oil-drilling-equipment fortune at age 20. The movies became his first professional hobby.

Despite being an unwelcome profligate, Mr. Hughes enjoyed substantial success and notoriety as an independently wealthy producer. Three early talkies were his standout productions: the aerial combat saga “Hell’s Angels” (avidly followed in the early sequences of “The Aviator”), the first movie version of “The Front Page” and the gangster classic “Scarface.”The first two will be shown Wednesday along with a trio of recent restorations, entrusted to the University of Nevada at Las Vegas by Hughes Corp.

Out of circulation for decades, these three are the genuine novelties of the TCM series. They were Mr. Hughes’ second, third and fourth silent pictures: “Two Arabian Knights,” a service comedy co-starring William Boyd and Louis Wolheim; “The Racket,” a crime melodrama based on a popular play by Bartlett McCormack; and “The Mating Call,” an untenable blend of romantic comedy and menacing topicality.

Lewis Milestone was the house director for Mr. Hughes at that time — a few years before he directed “All Quiet on the Western Front” at Universal. He was credited on “The Front Page,” “Knights” (for which he won an inexplicable Academy Award in the since-abandoned category of “comedy direction”) and “The Racket.” Mr. Milestone was an uncredited collaborator on “Hell’s Angels” after Mr. Hughes dismissed two predecessors and became obsessed with supervising the aerial footage himself.

“Knights” begins as a blatant imitation of “What Price Glory?” and can boast some amusing teamwork between Mr. Boyd and Mr. Wolheim before things get dodgy. Once the location shifts from a prison camp in snowy Germany to a boat headed for Constantinople, the humor grows both tedious and hapless. One gets a foretaste of what “Road to Morocco” might have been like without Bing Crosby and Bob Hope as sidekicks.

Thomas Meighan, the star of both “The Racket” and “Mating Call,” had been a heroic stalwart since 1913, but he seems to be manfully enduring defective material in these pictures. “Mating Call” is much closer to being a rediscovered keeper because it showcases the slim and provocative Evelyn Brent in her prime. Her unscrupulous Rose has jilted Mr. Meighan’s Len during World War I. She gets second thoughts when he returns home as a proud though lovelorn veteran. The most entertaining scenes deal with her efforts to seduce an abandoned beau despite the impediment of a disgraceful husband, also active in a caped vigilante organization called the Order.

Herman J. Mankiewicz of “Citizen Kane” renown is credited with the titles, suitably knowing and snappy when Rose is on the prowl. Still, “Mating Call’s” juxtaposition of playful sex farce and Ku Klux Klan allusions is not a happy one, and nothing less than a complete plot overhaul would have saved this film from wrongheaded folly.

PROGRAMS: “Scorsese on Scorsese” and “A Tribute to Howard Hughes”

WHERE: Turner Classic Movies cable television channel

WHEN: Tuesday starting at 8 p.m. for “Scorsese on Scorsese”; Wednesday starting at 8 p.m. for “Howard Hughes,” which continues with programs on Thursday and Friday evenings

SCHEDULE OF SHOWINGS: Tuesday: “The Last Waltz,” 8 p.m.; “Scorsese on Scorsese,” 10 p.m.; “Raging Bull,” 11:30 p.m.; repeat of “Scorsese on Scorsese,” 2 a.m. Wednesday; “New York, New York,” 3:30 a.m. Wednesday: “Two Arabian Knights,” 8 p.m.; “The Racket,” 9:30 p.m.; “The Mating Call,” 11 p.m.; “Hell’s Angels,” 12:30 a.m. Thursday; “The Front Page,” 2:45 a.m. Thursday: “The Outlaw,” 8 p.m.; “His Kind of Woman,” 10 p.m.; “Two Tickets to Broadway,” 12:15 a.m. Friday; “Affair With a Stranger,” 2:15 a.m.; “One Minute to Zero,” 4 a.m. Friday: “Howard Hughes: His Women and His Movies,” 8 p.m.; “Bringing Up Baby,” 9 p.m.; “Bombshell,” 10:45 p.m.; “My Forbidden Past,” 12:30 a.m.

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