Favorites List --- His Kind Of Woman
Next time someone asks why noirs can’t be more fun, show them His Kind Of Woman, the only big laugh feel-good picture in the genre’s entire output. Howard Hughes put his inimitable, break-the-bank creative stamp on what was initially a workmanlike John Farrow action thriller that had been finished nearly a year before. Robert Mitchum once said that after they’d wrapped it the first time, Hughes had everyone come back and do it "twice more", till there was finally enough movie for at least three more trips to the theatre. Hughes then tinkered with those miles of film for his customarily obsessive, to-hell-with-the-costs eternity before releasing 120 minutes of his unique vision just before Labor Day weekend in 1951. Howard had learned a lot from his abortive relationships with better filmmakers than himself. He was said to have been a slow learner at some things, but he was patient, if not dogmatic. From Howard Hawks, he picked up the combination of relaxed patter, some songs, and memorable set-pieces to flesh out otherwise uneventful stories. Preston Sturges taught him the application of zany and unexpected comedy into situations a less imaginative producer/director would have done by rote. After years of frustrated attempts at collaboration with these two (on The Outlaw and The Sin Of Harold Diddlebock, respectively), Hughes was ready to take the wheel and dictate every aspect of his remade His Kind Of Woman. That control would extend to the selling campaign as well, but for now it was enough to direct the director, compose random dialogue, and do his usual obsessive thing with women’s wardrobe. If you have any inclination to go deep inside the skull of Howard Hughes, this is the movie to do it with. Did I mention that His Kind Of Woman is one of my absolute all-time favorites? It may well be the one movie I’d pack for lifelong solitary confinement if indeed they made me choose (Yikes! --- could be I'm headed for Hughes-style madness myself having made a declaration like that).
Bob Mitchum always winds up at a Mexican hellhole in his RKO thrillers. This time it’s an elegant soundstage resort, supposedly just over (or under) the border, but hey, it’s got the flavor of Mexico just the same, and there’s a lot more joy to be had here than in Bob’s last trip south, Where Danger Lives. That’s the very unpleasant one with Faith Domergue where Mitchum got conked on the head early in the picture and spends the rest of the show passing out and/or writhing in pain. Could it have been a blueprint for the initial completed version of His Kind Of Woman? If so, I’m really glad Hughes took over, because that old Farrow model really needed lightening up. So what about all the shipboard beatings Bob sustains this time, you ask, or that nasty business with the hypo needle poking into his skin? Well, somehow that never bothered me. In fact, it just plays like a morbid extension of the black comedy antics back on the beach with Vincent Price as he shoots up Charles McGraw and company before sailing out to rescue hapless Bob. Hughes was really hung up with that needle business, for reasons best left to a therapist I suppose, but the number of close-ups detailing the progress of that pincer toward Mitchum’s pulsing vein does reveal, if nothing else, a truly disturbed mind at work. They say Bob absolutely refused to let them jab him, and indeed, his nerves became so frazzled that he ultimately went on a set leveling rampage after near-endless retakes on a particularly bruising scene with blows to his solar plexus and a lashing with the buckle end of a leather belt. How do you say no to the crazy producer when he has all the money? That seems to have been the essential problem with Hughes. Nobody could yell Screw You, Howard, You’re Nuts, because, after all, he signed the payroll checks.
Boss from hell, indeed.
Among the myriad of pleasures to be had in His Kind Of Woman, there is Jim Backus as a lecherous Wall Street type out to compromise a member of the supporting cast during her honeymoon in a riff on a Casablanca sidetrip that Hughes (or somebody) must have remembered (you said it first in your excellent review, DVD Savant!). Backus combines a smarmy approach with that Magoo voice and the result is screen magic. Had the picture centered on his character, you could call it Thurston Howell --- The Early Years. I hadn’t mentioned Jane Russell, but she’s here alright, and all that fuss about specially designed dresses and/or cantilevers to best present her daunting assets seems odd in retrospect, for most of it’s modestly camouflaged with floral arrangements judiciously placed at the portal of joy (just as MGM would do two years later when Ava Gardner showed up a little too low cut for Knights Of The Round Table). For a more direct approach to salacious audience yearnings, I might point out this 1951 Got Milk? variation devised by RKO on behalf of the American Dairy Association. Not that Jane wouldn’t make an ideal spokesman for that venerable group, but was this some publicity staffer’s real-life adaptation of a cartoon from the back pages of Wink magazine, or mayhaps Mr. Hughes developed the idea of tying Miss Russell in with the beverage she evoked best.
It pains me to report that His Kind Of Woman lost money, but Hughes probably knew it would. He just didn’t care. The man put his dream on celluloid and I respect him for it. Negative costs could have been worse, considering what they all went through to finish it. $1.8 million is high for an RKO, but Metro would have signed off without complaint. Problem is the Mitchum shows weren’t doing all that well as a group. Holiday Affair, Where Danger Lives, My Forbidden Past --- each had lost money. His Kind Of Woman would roll up $1.7 in domestic rentals, $750,000 foreign, with a worldwide finish of $2.4 million. The loss was $825,000 (the grim revenue reaper would strike again the next year with a $700,000 deficit on Macao --- could this be why "the screen’s hottest combination" only did two together?). See that poster art of them lying horizontal like? It was used on all the posters. An artist named Mario Zamparelli designed it, under the very close supervision of Howard Hughes. Upon completion, Mario was instructed to drop the neckline on Jane half an inch. For the sake of children wandering past theatre fronts, H.H. was constrained from taking that décolletage even further, but the essential promise was conveyed, and the painting was blown up for a giant billboard on Wilshire Blvd. augmented with gas jets spewing twenty to thirty foot flames into the night air. Hughes’ own aesthetic reservations compelled him to take it down after one night --- more waste disposal in his eternal quest for perfection. The campaign madness continued when he leased three L.A. theatres in order to insure his Labor Day opening. The customary RKO showcase houses were tied up with Disney’s Alice In Wonderland, so Hughes simply took over the venues he needed --- "precedential direct action", industry observers called it. The happy group gathered here at the premiere includes Tim Holt, Vincent Price, Marjorie Reynolds, Mitchum, and exhibitor hosts. Holt was always a welcome presence in "A" pics --- he only made a few (including The Magnificent Ambersons and Treasure Of the Sierra Madre), while his day-job revolved around a crackerjack series of RKO westerns in which he’d outlasted almost all his cowboy rivals. The scene of Mitchum with uniformed police is not present in the final cut --- no doubt some of the discarded footage from earlier incarnations of His Kind Of Woman. This great, super, and terrific movie has just been released on DVD, with four other top noirs. You’ll have to buy the whole pack to get His Kind Of Woman, but it’s worth the total price by itself, as would be each of the others --- like all Warner DVD collections, it’s the bargain of the century (till their next box comes along!).