Melvin and Howard (1980): A “Good” Samaritan and A Millionaire

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The opening sequence of Melvin and Howard takes on more and more meaning the longer the movie goes on. It’s very simple, really. We open up with some joyrider on his motorbike tearing through the desert, taking on every jump through the arid wasteland with reckless abandon.

As one might suspect, his foolhardy stunt bites him in the butt; he winds up in a spill, leaving him incapacitated in the middle of nowhere. It’s night and pitch dark now. Thankfully, there is a good samaritan who picks him up. As he gets closer and pulls the injured man into his car, we get a better look at him. He’s a scruffy-looking man well-advanced in years.

Here we have the inauspicious introduction of Melvin and Howard. Melvin (Paul Le Mat) is really a nobody, but he does have a sense of decency, picking up this old man without any pretense or sense of knowing who he is. Because Howard (Jason Robards), is Howard Hughes — the eccentric, aviating millionaire.

They talk and share something genuine between two people. Howard’s resistant at first. He doesn’t want to take part in Melvin’s friendly chatter nor does he go much for singing songs. Melvin nevertheless obliges with the tune he mailed into a music label for. They took his lyrics and supplied a tune. The outcome birthed a new Christmas classic, “Souped-Up Santa’s Sleigh.” Howard’s exterior cracks briefly as he relents and proceeds to hum a few bars of “Bye Bye Blackbird” in response.

The scene doesn’t look like much, but it plays extraordinarily well. Then, just like that, they part ways. At the request of Howard, Melvin drops him off out back of a hotel — the old man still hobbling and beat up. But he’s adamant this is where he wants to be, so Melvin relents.

We think this is just the beginning, and it is, yet we never see Hughes (or Robards) again (well, almost). But it’s this moment of initial connection and humanity that not only informs the rest of the story but sets the tone for Jonathan Demme’s free-flowing biography of a little guy.

If you want to think about it in such terms, it’s an off-center Howard Hughes biopic where the central character is a man named Melvin, who reflects a different cross-section of society. It’s the kind of story you wouldn’t think would get the Hollywood treatment and yet here it is, and the director gives it the kind of love and affection necessary to make it feel lived-in and sincere.

Here is a man who lives in a trailer. His wife Lynda (Mary Steenburgen) is a sweet woman and together they have a darling daughter who only sees the best in her folks even if their flaws are forever visible.

These are the flaws that keep the life of the Dummars in a constant state of disruption. Whether it’s money troubles, due to Melvin’s spendthrift philosophy, or Lynda’s working of the seedy nightclub circuit, there’s a great deal of dysfunction in their family life. But at their core is a near-oblivious simplicity and so even as their life is a bumpy ordeal, there’s something endearing them — making us wish the best for them.

He’s visibly repulsed by her work — he doesn’t want her flaunting herself in front of strangers. His home life is humble, but he gladly sits in front of the TV with his daughter feasting on pop tarts and bacon. Lynda never seems to dislike Melvin; she just knows it’s not possible to rely on him. So, over the course of the picture, they get divorced, then remarried, complete with one of those throw-em-together hotel wedding ceremonies for $39.

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If it’s not evident already, Melvin & Howard is a film that seems continually preoccupied with the desert backroads and small-towns of America. Where the country music is ubiquitous and people live simple, unadorned lives. Where Melvin’s chances to earn the mantle of milkman of the month get threatened or the car gets repossessed.

But there’s also an itinerant element — to pick up and go in search of new lives and new fortunes — and because the film chooses to stay with Melvin, the story itself takes on this antsy quality. Never being fully satisfied to dwell in one place. However, far from giving off a superficial impression, it winds up coloring a world with all sorts of genuine nooks and crannies.

It’s not a charmed life, but he meets it with continual candor. The reunited family gets by losing themselves in TV game show episodes of Easy Street, which become a kind of communal event for everyone. Lynda fulfills a dream by getting on the show as a contestant and feverishly tap-dancing her way through the Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction” to the prize of $10,000!

Still, the family splinters again. Melvin picks up and moves to Utah after marrying a Mormon girl. They set up shop in a gas station. The so-called focal point of Melvin’s life feels squeezed into the end of this movie, not that it’s shoehorned into the story by any means, but it shows how his life adds up to something more than the media frenzy that soon overtakes him.

Because he was the man who had the unsubstantiated will of the late Howard Hughes dropped on his gas station desk naming him as 1/16 beneficiaries of Hughes’s fortunes. That added up to approximately $156 million! In the aftermath, he found himself brought into court to testify as his story was heavily disputed. It does sound absolutely ludicrous. 

How this seemingly unextraordinary individual could find himself at the center of something so grand and earth-shattering is a real-life farce. However, what lingers is the import of the first scene. Demme does well to return there if only briefly, to remind us what this frenzy was about.

Lest we feel slighted that this movie wasn’t really about Melvin and Howard at all (or at least mostly Melvin), in some way it says as much about Howard Hughes’ life by leaving out all the trumped-up treatment. It’s the romantic in me, but I would like to believe that even our momentary interactions with one another can be blessed.

It is possible to touch someone else, adding even a little bit of goodness into their lives. It’s this kind of goodwill to strangers that can stay with them for a lifetime, whether or not they include us in their wills or not. Who knows, you might be entertaining angels unawares, or misanthropic millionaires, for that matter.

4/5 Stars

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