The American Historian

20th Century American History

How did Howard Hughes get a Start in Cinema?

How did Howard Hughes become an entrepreneur?

A Teenage Howard Hughes. Credit:

Looking at entrepreneurship between 1900-1930 brought Howard Hughes (1905-1976) immediately to mind as a prominent entrepreneur involved in multiple business ventures throughout his lifetime resulting in a billion-dollar empire. Hughes inherited a fortune as a teenager and managed to live a successful, yet peculiar life in both in personal and business dealings. Often second-generation wealth ends in poverty, yet Howard Hughes was the exception to this rule enjoying success in the oil, cinema, and aviation industries throughout the mid-twentieth century. This naturally leads to the question of how did he get his start? Where did he find his first success? What qualities did he possess? All of these questions can be answered within the scope of any other entrepreneur that began chasing the American dream between 1900-1930.

Who was Howard Hughes?

Howard Hughes was the son of Howard Hughes Sr. who made his fortune in the oil industry manufacturing process giving his son an upper-class upbringing. Hughes’ childhood was filled with query about the world around as he explored science and technology including HAM radios and motorized bikes.  Yet his life would not play out to be just another rich kid living on his family money. While he did enjoy the best possible upbringing, which included going to the most prominent schools in Texas, his world was turned upside down when he turned 17 years old with the tragic loss of his mother. Complications from her pregnancy had caused her death, leaving him with only his father who worked long hours and  had even voiced his regret at his lack of participation with his family in pursuit of their wealth. Even more tragically, the senior Hughes would not be able to father his son into adulthood because just two years later he died of a heart attack at work. This meant that now 19-year-old Howard Hughes was an orphan, yet also rich overnight with his 75% share of the company that his father had passed down to him in his will. The rest of the shares were divided between the rest of his family. Hughes was also bequeathed their family fortune valued at $1 million in addition to their residence. In 1925 Hughes’ venture into entrepreneurship would not only blossom but explode because of his unwavering style and incredible attention to even the smallest details. Yet his initial success was not due to him, but more-so in his hiring of his soon to be executive assistant, Noah Dietrich.

The H.R. Hughes Drill Patent

Noah Dietrich was a former fighter who had reformed his life and looked for more meaningful and respectable work. Dietrich responded to the advertisement for an executive assistant and met with Hughes just after Howard had finished playing a round of golf. Their interview would be short, but he was hired and placed in charge of his million-dollar investment in the Tool Company because of his skills with mathematics. Dietrich handled all of the oil company business and made a huge profit, over $70 million in the coming years proving to be one of the best returns on investments Hughes made. More importantly for the 1920s, this meant that Hughes was free to live any lifestyle he wanted beacsue his business was booming. This was all fine by Hughes because he hated bookkeeping and the dirty oil industry all-together. Hughes’ eye was dead set on the emerging Hollywood cinema which he decided he would conquer thanks to his uncle who hooked him on movies as a child. His path to cinema is the beginning of his real journey of entrepreneurship.

Ralph Graves, 1930s. (Photo by Film Favorites/Getty Images)

Money was not an issue for him, but surprisingly money could not buy his way into Hollywood. Hughes needed on-screen talent, a production company, and many other logistical considerations that he was completely unprepared. This led to the meeting between Hughes and an mainstream actor, Ralph Graves, on one of many of Hughes’ golf outings. Graves wanted to become a director and move on from acting. Realizing his opportunity to secure a loan to chase his own dream, Graves spent the afternoon winning over Hughes to the idea of his screenplay and securing a loan from Hughes for about $40,000 for the films budget. Graves left that golf match with a check in his pocket. Ralph Graves probably did not know the extent of what he agreed to by using Howard Hughes as his bank. If so, he likely would have used anyone else first. Graves spent the entire time on set directing his first moving with Hughes floating around slowing down his production to a crawl. Hughes was relentless. Graves did not know, nor did he care, about Hughes’ aspirations in cinema, and surely just wanted his movie finished. However, this moment in Howard Hughes life was important because it fully encompassed the entrepreneurial spirit that he developed. Hughes would not leave the set until he understood or was taught every single lesson that could be learned in the production of a movie. He badgered the cameramen, the actors, the hands, or anyone else that he found performing some function. He kept notes and learned the trade to the best of his ability. The result forced the production to balloon in price, from $40,000 to $80,000 all because of Hughes’ forceful curiosity.  But for Hughes, it was an invaluable lesson in his new business venture.

Hughes spent the late 1920s producing movies under his newly formed studio, the Caddo Co. During this time, his infamous Hell’s Angels would go to market (and be ultimately successful over the long run) and he would win awards for his other productions. Hughes developed a business model that included buying out the biggest and best production companies he could get his hands on. He chased after top talent, spending much of his time building a roster that could be compared to any championship sports team today. He bought the rights to screenplays and anything else that stood between him and success. He took this so far that he even suffered serious injuries from a plane crash during the production of Hell’s Angels.

Hell’s Angels Poster Credit: Wikipedia

Howard Hughes had a unique upbringing that demonstrated money could not fix all of his lifes problems as seen with the death of his parents while he was just a teenager. There was likely some pyschological damage to the young Hughes as a result but he bounced back with his strong motiviation to pursue his own dreams in business. Hughes dumped an almost limitless amout of money into his cinema venture because of the initial sucess of his bookkeeper, Noah Dietrich. While Hughes might have accidently stumbled upon people such as Dietrich giving him the mechanism to pursue his goals in life, he also had the motivation and drive that any entrepreneur can certainly learn a valuable lesson today.


Howard R. Hughes. “H.R. Hughes Drill,” August 10, 1909.

Richard Hack. Hughes, the Private Diaries, Memos and Letters : The Definitive Biography of the First American Billionaire. Beverly Hills: New Millenium Press, 2001.

“BUYS COLOR FILM CONCERN.: HOWARD HUGHES PLANS $500,000 LABORATORY IN HOLLYWOOD.” New York Times  (1923-Current File). New York, N.Y., June 25, 1930.

“Hollywood Stars: Howard Hughes Recovering From Plane Crash — Alimony Twins Busy.” The Washington Post  (1923-1954). Washington, D.C., January 12, 1928.

“HOW MR. HUGHES SPENT FOUR MILLION ON ‘HELL’S ANGELS.’” The Washington Post  (1923-1954). Washington, D.C., May 25, 1930.

“HUGHES BUYS A STAGE HIT FOR MEIGHAN.” The Washington Post  (1923-1954). Washington, D.C., March 18, 1928.

“HUGHES IS GATHERING A1 TALENT.” The Washington Post  (1923-1954). Washington, D.C., May 6, 1928.

“New Prodigal Of Movies Wins Title: Howard Hughes, Who Has Spent $1,500,000 On One Film Thus Far, Brings Gasps Erich Von Stroheim’s Reputation As Spender Collapses Before Onslaught Of Newcomer.” The Sun (1837-1994). Baltimore, Md., July 1, 1928.

“THE BIGGEST OF ALL SOON TO BE SHOWN.” The Washington Post  (1923-1954). Washington, D.C., September 9, 1928.

“THREE YEARS AND AS MANY MILLION $$$.” The Washington Post  (1923-1954). Washington, D.C., December 1, 1929.

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