In the fall of 1976 I was working for Echo Film Service, a post production company that had its offices in the editorial building of the General Service Studio at 1040 N. Las Palmas in Hollywood. Howard Hughes had once been a partner in the studio in the early 1930s when it had been known as the Metropolitan Sound Studio, and it was here that he made Hell's Angels, Scarface, The Front Page, and Cock of the Air. What? Never heard of Cock of the Air? I’m not surprised. In the language of the picture busines, it wasn’t released it escaped! That was in 1932, and except for some 16mm non-thatrical rental prints struck in the 1940s, the film has been virtually unseen since.
It was about six months after the world heard the news of Howard Hughes's death, and one day an old editor (I wish I could remember his name) came into our place to rent a Moviola. We weren't in the rental business, but he was insistent that he didn't want to rent from a regular rental house. We were to deliver the Moviola, an editing bench, a splicer, film bin, some reels and the necessary expendibles--splicing tape, grease pencils, and all to the old Multicolor building on Romaine Street--Multicolor having been the process in which Hughes shot the color sequences for Hell's Angels. The art-deco building, which had been built in 1931, was a place where Howard Hughes had maintained one of his hideawawy offices through the years.
The old editor was in his late seventies or early eighties, and had been around since the 1930s. He was officially retired, but my boss, Russ Tinsley, knew him from the Editors Guild, and mentioned that he had worked at RKO when Howard Hughes owned that studio. The reason he wanted the equipment was that had been hired to re-edit Cock of the Air.
The film had a troubled production history. Lewis Milestone directed it, and then Hughes fired him and took over direction himself, though the final screen credit went to Thomas Buckingham. Billie Dove, Chester Morris, Matt Moore--there were no big stars in Cock of the Air by 1976 standards, and no one remembered the film. I came to the (perhaps romantic) conclusion that Howard Hughes had to still be alive. Who else could want to re-edit this film?
We delivered the quipment to the Multicolor Building. Security was tight for what was essentially a boarded up building, though it was said to have a lot of Hughes's stuff stored in it. We needed special clearance to enter the building and were accompanied by a guard as we took the equipment to a room in the basement.
I never saw Howard, of course, and several weeks later the equipment came back.
I later saw a bootleg tape of Cock of the Air (the original release edit), and what a mess it was. It felt as if every scene was in the film twice, first in a version directed by Milestone with his distinctive moving camera and quick editing, followed by a different version of essentially the same action directed by Hughes with his signature clunky stlye so evident in The Outlaw.
I told this story to a friend in Texas, and she said, “I’ve lived around Houston for quite some time, and there are many who believe that Howard Hughes might have lingered longer than is generally believed. One rumor had a plane waiting for him when his flight from Mexico arrived in Houston and that it was bound for Phoenix, or California, or Canada, depending on the ‘source.’”
So when did Howard Hughes really die? The news said it was April 5, 1976 in Houston Texas, but I'm conviced it was sometime later in Hollywood, California.