Melvin and Howard (1980) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski) and Tuna

Tuna's comments in white:

In April of 1976, I was working for Hughes Aircraft when we received word that Howard Hughes was dead. There was a tribute over the loudspeaker. Those who had worked there during the days that Howard himself showed up at the factory started remembering, and told some fascinating stories. Howard would show up in jeans and a dirty shirt with an entourage of three piece suits behind him. They would talk to the "clipboard people" also known as middle managers, while Howard would talk to the rank and file workers. Evidently, Howard would listen attentively to the workers, and was known to have replaced managers that he got complaints about.

During one such visit, he bummed a dime from someone I knew for a cup of coffee (Hughes never carried money with him), then talked him out of one of his two meat loaf sandwiches, sat down next to him, and they had lunch together. Several weeks later, he received a handwritten thank you letter from Hughes with a dime taped to it. He didn't think to save it. Hughes parlayed a small company left to him by his father called Hughes Tool Company into his enormous wealth and empire with the help of a group of talented and loyal people. He promised them a job for life, and these people were known as untouchables.

There was still one of them at the facility I worked for, who chose to work second shift, and had offices in a double-wide trailer inside the facility. To avoid his salary depleting anyone's budget, they would transfer administrative responsibility for him from department to department. An eager young manager in one such department looked at his staff, decided this man was not producing anything for him, and handed him a layoff notice on Friday. When the manager got home, his wife was in the driveway waving madly. It seems the president of Summa Corporation, the non-profit that managed Hughes Aircraft and Hughes Tool, was holding to speak with him. The message was simple. "I want to acquaint you with a fact of life at Hughes Aircraft. If we suffer massive setbacks, and there are two people left in Space Systems, you and this gentleman, kindly lay yourself off."

One night at the Culver City facility, a man in paint splattered trousers and a sweat shirt and sneakers tried to walk into the facility, and wouldn't stop to show a badge until the security guard pointed a gun at him. The guard called his sergeant, saying that he was holding some jerk claiming to be Howard Hughes at gunpoint, after the man had tried to break into the plant with no ID. The sergeant asked him how the man was dressed. When he heard the answer, knowing that Hughes often came to the facility and raced cars on his private airstrip, then toured the plant, and always dressed that way, he rushed over to rescue Hughes from the young guard.

Shortly after Hughes death, a so called "Mormon will" surfaced, awarding much of his fortune to 16 people, including a simple milkman named Melvin Dummar. Melvin told a story that he picked up a ragged old man nearly unconscious near the side of the road, drove him to Vegas, and loaned him a quarter. That man claimed to be Howard Hughes. This film is Melvin's story, or at least his side of it, and starts with the road incident. Melvin was working a factory job at the time, and lived in a trailer with his wife, played brilliantly by Mary Steenburgen, and his daughter. The next morning, his motorcycle is repossessed, and his wife leaves him. The nudity, breasts and buns, come from Steenburgen, when he serves her divorce papers at a strip club, where we also see some anonymous strippers. When she finds herself very pregnant, they remarry. She wins big in a TV game show, and they buy a house, possibly finally getting their piece of the American dream, but the wastrel Dummar brings home a Cadillac convertible and boat, so Steenburgen leaves for good.

He eventually marries a Mormon woman who works in the milk plant where he is now working, and they move to Utah to run a filling station/tire store. This is where he received the Mormon will. This will, of course, was a serious setback for Summa Corporation, and had direct bearing on important defense plants. You conspiracy theorists can make of that what you will. The will was thrown out of Clark County Superior Court in June 1978. No court-recognized will was ever found.  


see the main commentary

This Jonathan Demme (Silence of the Lambs) film was highly acclaimed, and elevated the factual story of the Mormon will to something more, by showing people who live on the cusp of the American dream, never quite reaching it. The real Melvin Dummar played a small role in the film. According to Rotten Tomatoes, the critics were 100% positive. I found it a little slow, but then I knew the story well before I ever saw the film, and, other than the Hughes incident, Melvin lived a rather depressing and ordinary life. IMDB readers have this at 7.1 of 10. I have no opinion as to whether the Mormon will was genuine, but, as you can see from the anecdotes at the beginning of this review, it was rather "Hughes-like."

Scoop's comments in yellow:

This is a surprisingly engaging movie, a true story (well, one version of it, anyway) about a lower class guy who ends up in one of Howard Hughes' wills because he once gave Hughes a charitable ride into Vegas without knowing who it was. (Hughes looked like an old bum out in the desert).

Melvin Dummar was one of life's losers, and this movie tells us that. He was a nice guy, and he had some charm, but he never succeeded at anything until he found himself the inheritor of $160 million in the Hughes will, and became the subject of national scrutiny and attention. Although it is based on an actual incident, it is fundamentally Dummar's version of the incident. It's a pretty good yarn though. At one point, Dummar forces Hughes to sing (or walk home!), and their time together is quite touching. Jason Robards really hit all the right notes in his few minutes as Howard Hughes.

DVD info from Amazon.

  • Widescreen anamorphic 1.85:1. Disappointing transfer.

  • It has the usual theatrical trailer and talent bios, but more important, it has an audio commentary by Jonathan Demme.

Mary Steenburgen's nude scene is one of my favorites, although it's in funky strip-club lighting. She quits her job as a stripper by tearing off her costume completely, and walking out of the club stark naked.  Unfortunately, Steenburgen's full-frontal nudity, which was visible in the full-screen VHS version of the film, could not be seen in the widescreen DVD, which shows breasts and buns only.

The Critics Vote

  • BC 4/5

  • Mary Steenburgen received a best supporting actress Oscar for this performance, and the film also won one for the screenplay. Jason Robards, who played Hughes, was nominated. Steenburgen received a host of other awards for her performance.

The People Vote ...

  • It grossed only four million


The meaning of the IMDb score: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence equivalent to about three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, comparable to approximately two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, equivalent to about a two star rating from the critics. Films rated below five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film - this score is roughly equivalent to one and a half stars from the critics or even less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. (C+ means it has no crossover appeal, but will be considered excellent by genre fans, while C- indicates that it we found it to be a poor movie although genre addicts find it watchable). D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well.

Any film rated C- or better is recommended for fans of that type of film. Any film rated B- or better is recommended for just about anyone. We don't score films below C- that often, because we like movies and we think that most of them have at least a solid niche audience. Now that you know that, you should have serious reservations about any movie below C-.

Based on this description, this film is a B- (both reviewers). Tuna says, "This film is clearly a B-, elevating what is essentially a biopic about a boring person into something more."

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