Tuesday, March 15

RKO Radio Pictures

I will forever think of RKO as the home of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in the 1930s... the young Katharine Hepburn... King Kong.  In the 1940s it was film noir that captured my attention in general and in particular with this studio who made some of the best.  Because of RKO and its loyalty to film noir, I came to revere Robert Mitchum, Gloria Grahame, Robert Ryan and Jane Greer, some of the icons of the genre.  It was one of the top five studios of Hollywood's Golden Age and occupies a unique place in the history of film-making.

It all began in 1928 in an oyster bar in Manhattan when two  business giants, Film Booking Office's Joseph Kennedy (yes those Kennedys) and RCA's David Sarnoff, formed the studio by combining three entities.  Kennedy's firm handled movie distribution.  Sarnoff brought aboard RCA's Radio-Keith-Orpheum theater chain and then they added the fledgling Pathe Studios.  RKO, as it became known, was born. 

The men wanted to form their own studio in an effort to market the talkie.  They had no experience with silent films or in most ways with Hollywood history.  It had, of course, its New York offices but everyone realized all were serious about getting into the business when they bought a large parcel of land in Los Angeles' San Fernando Valley.  There was a slapdash quality to their start and they had money problems.  In fact, RKO, it seemed, would always have money problems.

In some ways it would be the most anomalous of all the big studios.
RKO often suffered because it never had any real mogul eminence.  MGM had Louis B. Mayer, Jack Warner headed Warner Bros., Darryl Zanuck at Fox, Carl Laemmle at Universal, Adolph Zukor at Paramount and Harry Cohn at Columbia.  This meant there was a style at each studio, an identity that for some time was largely unknown at RKO.  Those in its employ would say it was a chaotic place to work.

In short time Kennedy was out and Sarnoff put William LeBaron in charge of production.   Under his supervision the studio survived mainly on making B films and on distribution deals it made with independent producers, some notable ones being Sam Goldwyn, Frank Capra, John Ford and even Walt Disney.  LeBaron was replaced by David O. Selznick for a short while and a number of high-profile films were made at RKO during his tenure.  For awhile Merian Cooper headed the studio.  In rapid succession came Samuel Briskin, Pandro Berman, George Schaefer and Charles Koerner.  By the mid-40s Dore Schary took over the studio.  He was never a very popular guy at the studio but to his credit he recognized the allure of film noir.  In 1948 Howard Hughes took over.  He is surely the most famous of RKO's leaders but he's also the one who brought down the studio. 

Its first big film, in 1929, was a musical called Rio Rita.  In 1931 it managed to win a best picture Oscar for Cimarron and I think it's the one and only time that happened for a film actually made at the studio and not one simply distributed by RKO.  Its star, Irene Dunne, was one of RKO's earliest contract players.  Others were Ann Harding, Joel McCrea, Dolores Del Rio, Mary Astor and Constance Bennett.  Selznick also brought aboard Katharine Hepburn, a wild, opinionated young thing who totally fascinated him.  He would take credit for grooming her, if anyone could ever have done that.

The year 1933 was one RKO would always remember... and well it should.  Hepburn would win an Oscar for Morning Glory and much acclaim for playing Jo in Little Women.  At the same time, Selznick hired Fred Astaire and paired him for the first time with Ginger Rogers, who'd been hanging around the studio for awhile doing less-than-memorable films, in Flying Down to Rio.  Because the studio capitalized on so many B films, it started a horror unit, headed by Val Lewton, and out of that came King Kong.  Yes, 1933 at RKO was a good year.

Despite being known for B films, the studio certainly is responsible for more quality films in the 30s alone... Of Human Bondage (borrowing Bette Davis from Warners), The Informer (winning Victor McLagen an Oscar), Stage Door (Hepburn, Rogers and Lucille Ball), Bringing Up Baby (one day it will be the subject of its own posting) and Gunga Din.  The last two starred Cary Grant, who while not under contract to the studio, did manage to make quite a number of films there.

They brought in the bucks.

Hepburn and Rogers got along off screen about as well as they did onscreen.  Each felt she was queen of the lot and to some degree both were right.  Rogers was unquestionably RKOs top musical performer but Hepburn was the queen of drama... again both onscreen and off.  By the end of the 30s, however, Hepburn would be considered box office poison.  If Hollywood was turning its back on her, she could just as easily turn her back on them.  She flounced off to Broadway, had great success there and when she returned to Hollywood, she signed on with MGM and never had trouble with her popularity again.  Rogers sandwiched in as much drama as she could between musicals and by 1940 would win an Oscar for Kitty Foyle.

Hepburn wasn't the only one to leave RKO by 1940.  Much of the talent would turn over although it seemed more left than arrived.  The same could be said for producers, directors and the production chief.  The studio had been in receivership for a couple of years but was free of it by 1940.  Along with its heavy schedule of B films, including the ever-reliable horror films, The Saint series , Lupe Velez's Mexican Spitfire series and of course, Tarzan, RKO did manage some good A's as well.  Consider Abe Lincoln in Illinois, Suspicion, My Favorite Wife, Ball of Fire and of course, Citizen Kane.

Kane was a film that could easily make RKO proud, if for no other reason that it is the studio responsible for making what many consider to be the greatest film of all-time.  Wow, what an honor.  Good on them.  I, however, have not truly embraced the idea that it is the greatest film of all-time.  I do stand by the accolades for its technical accomplishments.  If one watched it with the sound turned down, the brilliance in lighting, shadows, angles, etc. is completely apparent.  When the sound is turned up, I found the story a bit unexceptional and monotonous.  I should probably close up my blog right now and never offer another opinion on movies.

I do pat RKO on the back for taking on the maverick Orson Welles.  There was some brilliance residing inside him, for sure, and doors were closed to him all over Hollywood.  RKO opened its door widely for him (and this is before the doors had to be opened widely) and for a spell they let Mr. W have his way.  He and that other outsider, Mr. Hughes, would one day not see eye to eye.

A year after Citizen Kane, RKO released Welles' The Magnificent Ambersons and the public didn't respond.  It was considered a flop for years.  In this case, I liked it.  Hmmm, I guess I was never going to be in the majority on Welles.  RKO stepped over Ambersons and felt a great deal of joy with Pride of the Yankees, The Big Street and even Cat People, a little horror piece that struck some gold. 

Dore Schary... the best they had

In the mid-40s Dore Schary was brought in as head of production.  His plan was to make good films for very little money.  He was also keen on originality and delivering powerful messages, particularly if they could be done with a liberal bent.  He brought aboard left-leaning directors, producers and writers.  When the Red Scare permeated Hollywood, it would not be unfair to say RKO, as studios go, was right in the middle of the fracas.

The talent pool was heating up as well.  Future mega-stars Robert Mitchum and Gregory Peck got their first lead roles at the studio. Robert Ryan came on board.  There was Maureen O'Hara, Jane Greer, Gloria Grahame, Barbara Hale.  By the time Jane Russell arrived, under Hughes' regime, she said there was family atmosphere.  She would go from one film to film and scarcely distinguish one from the other but there was always the same crew.  Since little of RKOs films were done on location, Russell said it was just like driving down the street to the office and there were her buddies.  

Schary and his pals became particularly fond of film noirs... they spread messages, they were dark and moody and they were cheap to make.  I have already written of two of the finest film noirs ever made, Murder, My Sweet and Crossfire and next up is Out of the Past, another of the very finest. There would be more to come.  Gee, I should probably release 20th Century Fox as my favorite studio and allow RKO the honor.  It certainly did push the envelope, that little non-conformist bastion of leftist talent.

The studio hit pay dirt with The Bells of St. Mary's, The Spiral Staircase, Notorious and Till the End of Time.  RKO was also in the distribution business, as mentioned above.  Essentially that means they will get a picture released but have little else to do with it.  More specifically it is made elsewhere and simply released by RKO.  In that regard are that holiday standby, It's a Wonderful Life, and the soldiers returning to civilian life drama, The Best Years of Our Lives.  RKO certainly reaped some of the rewards that came with the latter film becoming the highest-grossing film of the entire 1940s.

Howard Hughes... the worst they had

In 1948 Howard Hughes bought RKO and as they say, that was the end of that.  He was an exasperating, bombastic, unqualified, know-it-all (gee, why does this sound so familiar... hmmmm), given to temper tantrums who delayed most every project he touched (some for years).  His inattention, disorganization and lack of moviemaking acumen doomed the company.

In the first few months of his tenure, Hughes would fire 75% of the entire workforce.  If he had let some talent working for him do their jobs, more good films would have come out of the studio once he arrived.  He kept his hands off Fort Apache, Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House, I Remember Mama, Rachel and the Stranger, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon and My Foolish Heart and they all succeeded.  But his obsession with Jane Russell and her films made him the laughingstock of Hollywood.  Too bad.

Hughes would sell RKO in 1953 to one of its former employees, Lucille Ball.  She and her husband Desi Arnaz would rename it Desilu.

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