It'd be near impossible to summarize Howard Hughes, the inventor, director, business mogul, ace pilot, etc., in a single sentence. Oh, wait, no, it's not: Howard Hughes was a colossally compulsive creep who coerced college coeds into consenting to cash cow contracts to control their careers and condemn them to become call girl concubines. In other words: he was a real c-word, and no one knew that better than Jane Greer.
Jane Greer could have been the biggest film noir femme fatale of her generation -- if she hadn't met Howard Hughes. The tycoon and movie mogul had spotted a teenage Greer in a magazine and decided to put the aspiring actor under a "personal contract" because those are easier to lug around L.A. than a casting couch. When Greer signed her so-called studio contract, Hughes immediately let her know that he didn't want her to ever get married. Or ever act, for that matter, as the asshole aviator didn't cast her in a single movie or even let her do a screen test.
But you don't trap a future femme fatale and except her not to strike back. The feisty Greer quickly sussed Hughes out, whom she called "like a child" in his pursuit of women. First, she defied him by marrying middle-aged crooner Rudy Vallee, then she sued Hughes for breach of contract. To avoid a drawn-out scandal, the jealous and embittered billionaire had no choice but to let Greer buy out her contract -- for the lump sum of $7,572. That was a steep amount for someone who had been technically unemployed for her short adult life. So Hughes allowed her to pay him back in installments of $25 a week, keeping his financial hooks in her for six grueling years.
That level of control clearly wasn't enough for Hughes, a man who couldn't bear to be turned down or outsmarted. Greer quickly managed to find a new studio to act for at RKO Pictures (the studio that gave us King Kong and Citizen Kane), and her film career was finally getting on track when she found out the studio had been bought by … Howard Hughes. When Greer met with her new boss, the exact same controlling megalomaniac as the old one, she later recounted:
Greer did go on to have one big breakthrough performance despite Hughes' meddling. When an actress dropped out of The Big Steal, one of the greatest film noirs of the decade, because her co-star Robert Mitchum was a dangerous reefer-head, Hughes needed a bankable RKO name last-minute -- and the only one whose schedule was wide open was, surprise, Jane Greer's.
That didn't mean Hughes wouldn't find other ways to tank her career. Since Greer was hiding a pregnancy at the time (a sad tradition for women in Hollywood), Hughes refused to pay for a new wardrobe, forcing her to get really creative with hiding her baby bump in crop tops originally meant for an 80-pound waif. But the talented Greer succeeded in keeping her pregnancy a secret even from her The Big Steal co-stars (who she got hooked on her pregnancy pills by pretending they helped against the diarrhea-inducing Mexican water) and delivered a career-defining performance.
Despite her obvious talent, a few key noir roles in movies like Out Of The Past, and a wonderful late-in-life career revival, Hughes' revenge stalking did cost Greer the best and most lucrative acting years of her life. After six years of barely any work at RKO, she did manage to pay off her original contract. And in a final show of bravado, to somewhat make up for all the hurt he put her through, Greer asked Hughes to let her off the hook for the last $50.
The billionaire refused.
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Top image: RKO Radio Pictures / Time Magazine