RKO Pictures

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RKO (Radio-Keith-Orpheum) Pictures is an American film production and distribution company. As Radio Pictures Inc. and then RKO Radio Pictures Inc., it was one of the so-called Big Five studios of Hollywood's Golden Age. The business was formed after the Keith-Albee-Orpheum (KAO) theater chains and Joseph P. Kennedy's Film Booking Offices of America (FBO) studio were brought together under the control of the Radio Corporation of America (RCA) in October 1928. RCA chief David Sarnoff engineered the merger in order to create a market for the company's sound-on-film technology, RCA Photophone. By the mid-1940s, the studio was under the control of investor Floyd Odlum.

RKO has long been celebrated for its cycle of musicals starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in the mid- to late 1930s. Katharine Hepburn and, later, Robert Mitchum had their first major successes at the studio. Cary Grant was a mainstay for years. The work of producer Val Lewton's low-budget horror unit and RKO's many ventures into the field now known as film noir have been acclaimed, largely after the fact, by film critics and historians. The studio left its deepest mark with two of the most famous films in motion picture history: King Kong and Citizen Kane.

In its later years, RKO was taken over by maverick industrialist Howard Hughes and finally by the General Tire and Rubber Company. The original RKO Pictures ceased production in 1957 and was effectively dissolved two years later. In 1981, broadcaster RKO General, the corporate heir, revived it as a production subsidiary, RKO Pictures Inc. In 1989, this business—with its few remaining assets, the trademarks and remake rights to many classic RKO films—was sold to new owners, who now operate the small independent company RKO Pictures LLC.

The birth of RKO

Radio Pictures logo from 1929Shut out of the profitable sound-film conversion business driven by the success of Warner Bros.' October 1927 release The Jazz Singer, RCA bought its way into the motion picture industry to gain an outlet for the optical sound-on-film system, Photophone, recently developed by General Electric, RCA's parent company. All of the major studios and their theater divisions were in the process of signing with ERPI, a subsidiary of AT&T's Western Electric division, to handle conversion. Hoping to join in the anticipated boom in sound movies, David Sarnoff, general manager of RCA, approached Joseph Kennedy in late 1927 about using the Photophone system for Kennedy's modest-sized studio, Film Booking Offices of America (FBO). Negotiations resulted in General Electric acquiring a substantial interest in FBO, the first step in a broader plan that appears to have been largely conceived by Sarnoff. Next on the agenda was securing a string of exhibition venues like those the leading Hollywood production companies owned. Around the same time that Kennedy began investigating the possibility of such a purchase, the large Keith-Albee-Orpheum (KAO) circuit of theaters, built around the now fading medium of live vaudeville, was attempting a transition to the movie business. In spring 1927, the filmmaking operations of Pathé (U.S.) and Cecil B. De Mille had united under the control of the theater group. Early in 1928, KAO general manager John J. Murdock, who had assumed the presidency of Pathé, turned to Kennedy as an advisor in consolidating the studio with De Mille's company, Producers Distributing Corporation (PDC). This was the relationship Sarnoff and Kennedy were looking for.

With Murdock's support, Kennedy led a syndicate that acquired KAO on May 10, 1928. De Mille was soon bought out and Pathé took over his production facilities in Culver City. After an aborted attempt by Kennedy to bring yet another studio that had turned to him for help, First National Pictures, into the Photophone fold, RCA was ready to step back in: the company acquired Kennedy's stock in both FBO and the KAO theater business. On October 23, 1928, RCA announced the creation of the Radio-Keith-Orpheum holding company, with Sarnoff as chairman of the board. Kennedy, who stepped aside from his executive positions in the merged companies, kept Pathé separate from RKO and under his personal control. RCA owned the governing stock interest in RKO, 22 percent; in the early 1930s, RCA's share of stock in the company would rise as high as 60 percent. The company's production and distribution arm, presided over by former FBO vice-president Joseph I. Schnitzer, was incorporated early in 1929 as Radio Pictures. Looking to get out of the film business the following year, Kennedy arranged in late 1930 for RKO to purchase Pathé from him. On January 29, 1931, Pathé, with its contract players, well-regarded newsreel operation, and Culver City studio and backlot, was merged into RKO as Kennedy sold off the last of his stock in the company he had been instrumental in creating.

Declaring that it would make only all-talking films, RKO began shooting at the former FBO facility in early 1929. In charge of production was William LeBaron, who had held the same position at FBO. The new studio's first two releases were musicals, the melodramatic Syncopation, which premiered March 3, and the comedic Street Girl (RKO's first "official" production, following the formal incorporation of Radio Pictures), which debuted July 30. For the lavish musical Rio Rita, RKO spared no expense, including a number of Technicolor sequences. Opening in September to rave reviews, it was the studio's first major hit and was named one of the ten best pictures of the year by Film Daily. Encouraged by its success, RKO produced several costly musicals incorporating Technicolor sequences in 1930, among them Dixiana and Hit the Deck, both scripted and directed, like Rio Rita, by Luther Reed. Following the example of the other major studios, RKO planned to create its own musical revue, Radio Revels. Promoted as the studio's most extravagant production to date, it was to be photographed entirely in Technicolor. A second all-color musical was also planned, the first screen version of Victor Herbert's operetta Babes in Toyland, to be directed by Reed. The projects were abandoned, however, as the public's taste for musicals temporarily subsided. From a total of more than sixty Hollywood musicals in 1929 and over eighty the following year, the number would drop to eleven in 1931. RKO was left in a bind: it still had a contract with Technicolor to produce two more features with its system. Complicating matters, audiences had come to associate color with the momentarily out-of-favor musical genre due to a glut of such productions from the major Hollywood studios. Fulfilling its obligations, RKO produced two all-Technicolor pictures, The Runaround and Fanny Foley Herself (both 1931), containing no musical sequences. Neither was a success.

Even as the U.S. economy foundered, RKO had gone on a spending spree, buying up theater after theater to add to its exhibition chain. By the early 1930s, RKO was producing over forty features a year, releasing them under the names "Radio Pictures" and, for a short time after the 1931 merger, "RKO Pathé." Cimarron (1931), produced by LeBaron himself, would become the only RKO production to win the Academy Award for Best Picture; nonetheless, having cost an astonishing $1.4 million to produce, Cimarron was a clear domestic money-loser on original release. The most popular RKO star of this pre-Code era was Irene Dunne, who made her debut as the lead in the 1930 musical Leathernecking and was a headliner at the studio for the entire decade. Other major performers included Joel McCrea, Ricardo Cortez, and Mary Astor. Richard Dix, Oscar-nominated for his lead performance in Cimarron, would serve as RKO's standby B-movie star through the early 1940s. The comedy team of Bert Wheeler and Robert Woolsey, often wrangling over sweetie pie Dorothy Lee, was a bankable mainstay for years. Constance Bennett, Ann Harding, and Helen Twelvetrees came over with Pathé, whose distribution deal with the Van Beuren cartoon studio was also picked up. The Pathé acquisition, though a defensible investment in the long term for its physical facilities, was yet another major expense borne by the fledgling RKO, particularly as Pathé's stock price had been artificially inflated by some prepurchase finagling. After little more than a year of semiautonomous operation within RKO, Pathé was dissolved as a feature production unit.

RKO Radio Pictures Inc.

The early years

Declaring that it would make only all-talking films, RKO began shooting at the former FBO facility in early 1929. In charge of production was William LeBaron, who had held the same position at FBO. The new studio's first two releases were musicals, the melodramatic Syncopation, which premiered March 3, and the comedic Street Girl (RKO's first "official" production, following the formal incorporation of Radio Pictures), which debuted July 30. For the lavish musical Rio Rita, RKO spared no expense, including a number of Technicolor sequences. Opening in September to rave reviews, it was the studio's first major hit and was named one of the ten best pictures of the year by Film Daily. Encouraged by its success, RKO produced several costly musicals incorporating Technicolor sequences in 1930, among them Dixiana and Hit the Deck, both scripted and directed, like Rio Rita, by Luther Reed. Following the example of the other major studios, RKO planned to create its own musical revue, Radio Revels. Promoted as the studio's most extravagant production to date, it was to be photographed entirely in Technicolor. A second all-color musical was also planned, the first screen version of Victor Herbert's operetta Babes in Toyland, to be directed by Reed. The projects were abandoned, however, as the public's taste for musicals temporarily subsided. From a total of more than sixty Hollywood musicals in 1929 and over eighty the following year, the number would drop to eleven in 1931. RKO was left in a bind: it still had a contract with Technicolor to produce two more features with its system. Complicating matters, audiences had come to associate color with the momentarily out-of-favor musical genre due to a glut of such productions from the major Hollywood studios. Fulfilling its obligations, RKO produced two all-Technicolor pictures, The Runaround and Fanny Foley Herself (both 1931), containing no musical sequences. Neither was a success.

Even as the U.S. economy foundered, RKO had gone on a spending spree, buying up theater after theater to add to its exhibition chain. By the early 1930s, RKO was producing over forty features a year, releasing them under the names "Radio Pictures" and, for a short time after the 1931 merger, "RKO Pathé." Cimarron (1931), produced by LeBaron himself, would become the only RKO production to win the Academy Award for Best Picture; nonetheless, having cost an astonishing $1.4 million to produce, Cimarron was a clear domestic money-loser on original release. The most popular RKO star of this pre-Code era was Irene Dunne, who made her debut as the lead in the 1930 musical Leathernecking and was a headliner at the studio for the entire decade. Other major performers included Joel McCrea, Ricardo Cortez, and Mary Astor. Richard Dix, Oscar-nominated for his lead performance in Cimarron, would serve as RKO's standby B-movie star through the early 1940s. The comedy team of Bert Wheeler and Robert Woolsey, often wrangling over sweetie pie Dorothy Lee, was a bankable mainstay for years. Constance Bennett, Ann Harding, and Helen Twelvetrees came over with Pathé, whose distribution deal with the Van Beuren cartoon studio was also picked up. The Pathé acquisition, though a defensible investment in the long term for its physical facilities, was yet another major expense borne by the fledgling RKO, particularly as Pathé's stock price had been artificially inflated by some prepurchase finagling. After little more than a year of semiautonomous operation within RKO, Pathé was dissolved as a feature production unit.

Success under Selznick

Exceptions like Cimarron and Rio Rita aside, RKO's product was largely regarded as mediocre, so in autumn 1931 Sarnoff hired 29-year-old David O. Selznick to replace LeBaron as production chief. In addition to implementing rigorous cost-control measures, Selznick was a champion of the so-called unit production system that gave the producers of individual movies much greater independence than they had under the prevailing central producer system. Instituting unit production at RKO, he predicted substantial benefits in both "cost and quality." To make films under the new system, Selznick recruited prize behind-the-camera personnel, such as director George Cukor and producer/director Merian C. Cooper, and gave whiz kid producer Pandro S. Berman increasingly important projects. Selznick discovered and signed a young actress who would quickly become one of the studio's biggest stars, Katharine Hepburn. John Barrymore was also enlisted for a few memorable performances. From September 1932 on, print advertising for the company's features displayed the revised name "RKO Radio Pictures"; the Pathé name was used only for newsreels and documentaries.


Poster for the original 1933 release of King Kong, one of the great spectacles in Hollywood history. Selznick spent a mere fifteen months as RKO production chief, resigning over a dispute with new corporate president Merlin Aylesworth concerning creative control. One of his last acts at RKO was to approve a screen test for an aging, balding Broadway song-and-dance man named Fred Astaire. Selznick's tenure was widely considered masterful: In 1931, before he arrived, the studio had produced forty-two features for $16 million in total budgets. In 1932, under Selznick, forty-one features were made for $10.2 million, with clear improvement in quality and popularity. He backed several major successes, including A Bill of Divorcement (1932), with Cukor directing Hepburn's debut, and the monumental King Kong (1933)—largely Merian Cooper's brainchild, brought to life by the astonishing special effects work of Willis O'Brien. Still, the shaky finances and excesses that marked the company's pre-Selznick days had not left RKO in shape to withstand the Depression; the company sank into receivership in early 1933, from which it would not emerge until 1940.

Cooper at the helm

Cooper took over as production head after Selznick's departure and oversaw the hits Little Women (1933), with Cukor again directing Hepburn, and Morning Glory (1933), for which the actress won her first Oscar. Ginger Rogers had already made several minor films for RKO when Cooper signed her to a seven-year contract and cast her in the big-budget musical Flying Down to Rio (1933). Rogers was paired with Astaire, making his movie debut. Billed fourth and fifth respectively, the picture turned them into major stars. Along with Columbia Pictures, RKO became one of the primary homes of the screwball comedy. As film historian James Harvey describes, compared to their richer competition, the two studios were "more receptive to experiment, more tolerant of chaos on the set. It was at these two lesser 'majors'...that nearly all the preeminent screwball directors did their important films—[Howard] Hawks and [Gregory] La Cava and [Leo] McCarey and [George] Stevens." The relatively unheralded William A. Seiter directed the studio's first significant contribution to the genre, The Richest Girl in the World (1934). Directors such as Stevens, John Cromwell, and John Ford made impressive films at the studio in this period: Cromwell's Of Human Bondage (1934) was Bette Davis's first great success. Stevens's Alice Adams and Ford's The Informer were each nominated for the 1935 Best Picture Oscar—the Best Director statuette won by Ford was the only one ever given for an RKO production. The Informer's star, Victor McLaglen, also took home an Academy Award; he would appear in thirteen movies for the studio over a span of two decades.

Lacking the financial resources of industry leaders MGM, Paramount, and Fox, RKO turned out many pictures during the era that made up for it with high style, exemplified by such Astaire–Rogers musicals as The Gay Divorcee (1934) and Top Hat (1935). One of the figures most responsible for that style was another Selznick recruit: Van Nest Polglase, chief of RKO's highly regarded design department for almost a decade. Indeed, the studio's craft divisions were among the best in the industry across the board. Costumer Walter Plunkett, who worked with the company from the close of the FBO era through the end of 1939, was known as the top period wardrobist in the business. Sidney Saunders, innovative head of the studio's paint department, was responsible for significant progress in rear projection quality. On June 13, 1935, RKO premiered the first feature film shot entirely in advanced three-strip Technicolor, Becky Sharp. The movie was coproduced with Pioneer Pictures, founded by Cooper—who departed RKO after two years helming production—and John Hay "Jock" Whitney, who brought in his cousin Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney; Cooper had successfully encouraged the Whitneys to purchase a major share of the Technicolor business as well. Though judged by critics a failure as drama, Becky Sharp was widely lauded for its visual brilliance and technical expertise. RKO also employed some of the industry's leading artists and craftsmen whose work was never seen. From the studio's earliest days through late 1935, Max Steiner, regarded by many historians as the most influential composer of the early years of sound cinema, made music for over 100 RKO films. Murray Spivak, head of the studio's audio special effects department, made important advances in the use of rerecording technology first heard in King Kong.

Briskin and Berman

In October 1935 the ownership team expanded, with financier Floyd Odlum leading a syndicate that bought 50 percent of RCA's stake in the company; the Rockefeller brothers, also major stockholders, increasingly became involved in the business. While the Astaire–Rogers team ran its course and RKO kept missing the mark in building Hepburn's career, major stars Cary Grant and Barbara Stanwyck joined the studio's roster—though Stanwyck would have little success during her few years there. Grant was a trendsetter, one of the first leading men of the sound era to work extensively as a freelancer, under nonexclusive studio deals, while his star was still on the rise. Ann Sothern starred in seven RKO films between 1935 and 1937, paired five times with Gene Raymond.

Soon after the appointment of a new production chief, Samuel Briskin, in late 1935, RKO dropped Van Beuren and entered into an important distribution deal with animator Walt Disney. From 1936 to 1954, the studio released his features and shorts; Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) was the highest grossing movie in the period between The Birth of a Nation (1915) and Gone with the Wind (1939). Following the change in print branding a few years earlier, the opening and closing logos on RKO movies, other than the Pathé nonfiction line, were changed to "RKO Radio Pictures" in 1936. In February 1937, Selznick, now a leading independent producer, took over RKO's Culver City studio and Forty Acres, as the backlot was known, under a long-term lease. Gone with the Wind, his coproduction with MGM, was largely shot there. In addition to its central Hollywood studio, RKO production now revolved around its Encino backlot. While the Disney association was beneficial, RKO's own product was widely seen as declining in quality and Briskin was gone by the end of the year.

Pandro Berman—who had filled in on three previous occasions—accepted the position of production chief on a noninterim basis. As it turned out, he would leave the job before the decade's turn, but his brief tenure resulted in some of the most notable films in studio history, including Gunga Din, with Grant and McLaglen; Love Affair, starring Dunne and Charles Boyer; and The Hunchback of Notre Dame (all 1939). Charles Laughton, who gave a now fabled performance as Quasimodo in the latter, returned periodically to the studio, headlining six more RKO features. For Maureen O'Hara, who made her American screen debut in the film, it was the first of ten pictures she would make for RKO through 1952.

The studio's B Western star of the period was George O'Brien, who made eighteen RKO pictures, sixteen between 1938 and 1940. The Saint in New York (1938) successfully launched a B detective series featuring the character Simon Templar that would run through 1943. The Wheeler and Woolsey comedy series ended in 1937 when Woolsey fell ill (he died the following year). RKO filled the void by releasing independently produced features such as the Dr. Christian series and the Laurel and Hardy comedy The Flying Deuces. The studio soon had its own new B comedy star in Lupe Vélez: The Girl from Mexico (1939) was followed by seven frantic installments of the Mexican Spitfire series, all featuring Leon Errol, between 1940 and 1943. The studio's technical departments maintained their reputation as industry leaders; Vernon Walker's special effects unit became famous for its sophisticated use of the optical printer and lifelike matte work, an art that would reach its apex with 1941's Citizen Kane.

Kane and Schaefer's troubles

Pan Berman had received his first screen credit in 1925 as a nineteen-year-old assistant director on FBO's Midnight Molly. He departed RKO in December 1939 after policy clashes with studio president George J. Schaefer, handpicked the previous year by the Rockefellers and backed by Sarnoff. With Berman gone, Schaefer became in effect production chief, though other men—including the former head of the industry censorship board, Joseph I. Breen—nominally filled the role. Schaefer, announcing his philosophy with a new studio slogan, "Quality Pictures at a Premium Price", was keen on signing up independent producers whose films RKO would distribute. In 1941, the studio landed one of the most prestigious independents in Hollywood when it arranged to handle Samuel Goldwyn's productions. The first two Goldwyn pictures released by the studio were highly successful: The Little Foxes, directed by William Wyler, is seen as one of Bette Davis' finest films, while the Howard Hawks–directed Ball Of Fire at last brought Barbara Stanwyck a hit under the RKO banner. However, Schaefer agreed to terms so favorable to Goldwyn that it was next to impossible for the studio to make money off his films. David O. Selznick loaned out his leading director under contract for two RKO pictures in 1941: Alfred Hitchcock's Mr. and Mrs. Smith was a modest success and Suspicion a more substantial one, with an Oscar-winning turn by Joan Fontaine.

That May, RKO released Citizen Kane, coproducing with director Orson Welles's Mercury Productions. While it opened to strong reviews and would go on to be hailed as one of the greatest movies ever made, it lost money at the time and brought down the wrath of the Hearst newspaper chain on RKO. The next year saw the commercial failure of Welles's The Magnificent Ambersons—like Kane, critically lauded and overbudget—and the expensive embarrassment of his aborted documentary It's All True. The three Mercury productions combined to drain $2 million from the RKO coffers, major money for a corporation that had reported an overall deficit of $1 million in 1940 and a profit (perhaps "creative") of a bit more than $500,000 in 1941. Many of RKO's other artistically ambitious pictures were also dying at the box office and it was losing its last exclusive deal with a major star as well. Rogers, after winning an Oscar in 1941 for her performance in the previous year's Kitty Foyle, held out for a freelance contract like Grant's; after 1943, she would appear in just one more RKO production, thirteen years later. On June 17, 1942, Schaefer tendered his resignation. He departed a weakened and troubled studio, but RKO was about to turn the corner. Propelled by the box-office boom of World War II and guided by new management, RKO would make a strong comeback over the next half-decade.


Rebound under Koerner

By the end of June 1942, Floyd Odlum had taken over a controlling interest in the company via his Atlas Corporation, edging aside the Rockefellers and Sarnoff. Charles Koerner, former head of the RKO theater chain and allied with Odlum, had assumed the title of production chief some time prior to Schaefer's departure. With Schaefer gone, Koerner could actually do the job; announcing a policy of "entertainment, not genius" (a snipe at Schaefer's artistic ambitions in general and his sponsorship of Welles in particular), he brought the studio much-needed stability until his death in February 1946. The change in RKO's fortunes was virtually immediate: corporate profits rose from $736,241 in 1942 (the theatrical division compensating for the studio's $2.34 million deficit) to $6.96 million the following year.The Rockefellers sold off their stock and, early in 1943, RCA dispensed with the last of its holdings in the company as well, cutting David Sarnoff's ties to the studio that was largely his conception.

With RKO on increasingly secure ground, Koerner sought to increase its output of handsomely budgeted, star-driven features. However, the studio's only remaining major star under anything like an extended contract was Grant, whose services were shared with Columbia Pictures. Lacking in-house stars, Koerner and his successors under Odlum made deals with the other studios to loan out their biggest names for top-drawer RKO productions. Thus RKO pictures of the mid- and late forties offered Bing Crosby, Henry Fonda, and others who were out of the studio's price range for extended contracts. John Wayne appeared in 1943's A Lady Takes a Chance on loan from Republic Pictures; he was soon working regularly with RKO, making nine more movies for the studio. Gary Cooper appeared in RKO releases produced by Goldwyn and, later, the startup International Pictures, and Claudette Colbert starred in a number of RKO coproductions. Ingrid Bergman appeared under a variety of hats for RKO—on loan out from Selznick in The Bells of St. Mary's (1945), in the coproductions Notorious (1946) and Stromboli (1950), and in the independently produced Joan of Arc (1948). Freelancing Randolph Scott appeared in one major RKO release annually from 1943 through 1948. In similar fashion, many leading directors made one or more films at RKO during this era—most notably, Alfred Hitchcock once more, with Notorious, and Jean Renoir, with This Land Is Mine (1943), reuniting Laughton and O'Hara, and The Woman on the Beach (1947). John Ford's The Fugitive (1947) and Fort Apache (1948), which appeared right before studio ownership changed hands again, were followed by She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949) and Wagon Master (1950); all four were co-productions between RKO and Argosy, the company run by Ford and RKO alumnus Merian C. Cooper. The best-known director under contract to RKO for much of the 1940s was Edward Dmytryk, who first came to notice with the remarkably profitable Hitler's Children (1943); shot on a budget placing it in the bottom 25 percent of Big Five studio productions, it was one of the ten biggest Hollywood hits of the year.

Focus on B movies

Film art at low budget: I Walked with a Zombie (1943), produced by Val Lewton and directed by Jacques Tourneur.Much more than the other Big Five studios, RKO relied on B pictures to fill up its schedule. Of the thirty-one features released by RKO in 1944, for instance, ten were budgeted below $200,000, twelve were in the $200,000 to $500,000 range, and only nine cost more. In contrast, a clear majority of the features put out by each of the other Big Five were budgeted at over a half a million dollars. A focus on B pictures limited the studio's financial risk; while it also limited the potential for reward (Dmytryk's extraordinary coup aside), RKO had a history of making better profits with its run-of-the-mill and low-cost product than with its A movies. The studio's low-budget films were also training opportunities for new directors, among them Jacques Tourneur, Robert Wise, Mark Robson, and Anthony Mann. A number of RKO B's are highly regarded today, notably the movies created by producer Val Lewton's horror unit, such as Cat People (1942), I Walked with a Zombie (1943), and The Body Snatcher (1945). Richard Dix concluded his lengthy RKO career with the 1943 Lewton production The Ghost Ship. Tim Holt was RKO's B Western star of the era, appearing in over fifty movies for the studio. In 1940, Chester Lauck and Norris Goff brought their famous comic characters Lum and Abner from radio to RKO for a six-film run. The Falcon detective series began in 1941; the Saint and the Falcon were so similar that Saint creator Leslie Charteris sued RKO. The Falcon was first played by George Sanders, who had appeared five times as the Saint. He bowed out after four Falcon films and was replaced by his brother, Tom Conway. Conway had a nine-film run in the part before the series ended in 1946. Johnny Weissmuller starred in six Tarzan pictures for RKO between 1943 and 1948.

Film noir, to which lower budgets lent themselves, became something of a house style at the studio; indeed, the RKO B Stranger on the Third Floor (1940) is widely seen as initiating noir's classic period. Its cinematographer, Nicholas Musuraca, who began at FBO in the 1920s and stayed with RKO through 1954, is a central figure in creating the look of classic noir. Albert D'Agostino—another long-termer who took over as head of the design department from Polglase in 1941—and his team, including art directors Jack Okey and Walter Keller and set decorator Darrell Silvera, are similarly credited. The studio's 1940s list of contract players reads like a noir who's-who: Robert Mitchum (who would graduate to major star status) and Robert Ryan each made no fewer than ten film noirs for RKO. Gloria Grahame, Jane Greer, Lawrence Tierney, and George Raft were also notable studio players in the genre. Tourneur, Musuraca, Mitchum, and Greer, along with D'Agostino's design group, would join to make Out of the Past (1947), now considered one of the greatest of all film noirs. Nicholas Ray began his directing career with the RKO noir They Live by Night (1948), the first of a number of well-received films he made for the studio.

HUAC and Howard Hughes

RKO (and the movie industry as a whole) had its most profitable year ever in 1946, and Floyd Odlum cashed in by selling off about 40 percent of his shares in the company to a group of investment firms. After Koerner's death, Radio-Keith-Orpheum president N. Peter Rathvon and RKO Radio Pictures president Ned Depinet had exchanged positions, with Depinet moving to the corporate offices in New York and Rathvon relocating to Hollywood and doubling as production chief while a permanent replacement was sought for Koerner. On the first day of 1947, the talented screenwriter/producer Dore Schary took over the role.

RKO appeared in good shape to build on its recent successes, but the year brought a number of unpleasant harbingers for all of Hollywood. The British government, followed by others, imposed limits on how much capital American movie companies could withdraw annually, curtailing one of the studios' primary sources of earnings. The postwar attendance boom peaked sooner than expected and television emerged as a competitor for audience interest. Across the board, profits fell—a 27 percent drop for the Hollywood studios from 1946 to 1947. The phenomenon that would become known as McCarthyism was building up steam, and in October, the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) began hearings into Communism in the motion picture industry. Two of RKO's top talents, Dmytryk and producer Adrian Scott, refused to cooperate; blacklisted as members of the so-called Hollywood Ten, they were fired by RKO per the terms of the Waldorf Statement, the industry's "antisubversive" declaration. Ironically, the studio's major success of the year was Crossfire, a Scott–Dmytryk film. Odlum concluded it was time to exit the film business, and he put his remaining RKO shares—approximately 25 percent of the outstanding stock—on the market. Before the turn of the year, the Pathé-branded newsreel was sold to Warner Bros. For her performance in The Farmer's Daughter (1947), a coproduction with Selznick's Vanguard Films, Loretta Young won the Best Actress Oscar the following March. It would turn out to be the last major Academy Award for an RKO picture.

In May 1948, eccentric multimillionaire and occasional movie producer Howard Hughes gained control of the company, beating out British film magnate J. Arthur Rank as the buyer of Odlum's interest. During Hughes's tenure, RKO suffered its worst years since the early 1930s, as his capricious management style took a heavy toll. Production chief Schary quit almost immediately due to his new boss's interference and Rathvon soon followed. Within weeks of taking over, Hughes had dismissed three-fourths of the work force; production was virtually shut down for six months as Hughes ordered investigations into the politics of all remaining studio employees. Completed pictures would be sent back for reshooting if the stars, especially female, weren't presented to his liking, or if a film's anticommunist sentiments weren't sufficiently blatant. All of the Big Five saw their profits dwindle in 1948—from Fox, down 11 percent, to Loew's/MGM, down 62 percent—but at RKO they virtually vanished: from $5.1 million in 1947 to $0.5 million, a drop of 90 percent. The production-distribution end of the RKO business, now deep in the red, would never make a profit again.

Offscreen, Robert Mitchum's arrest and conviction for marijuana possession—he would serve two months in jail—was widely assumed to mean career death for RKO's most promising young star, but Hughes surprised the industry by announcing that his contract was not endangered. Of much broader significance, Hughes decided to get the jump on his Big Five competitors by being the first to settle the federal government's antitrust suit against the major studios. Under the consent decree he signed, Hughes agreed to dissolve the old parent company, Radio-Keith-Orpheum Corp., and split RKO's production-distribution business and its exhibition chain into two entirely separate corporations—RKO Pictures Corp. and RKO Theatres Corp.—with the obligation to promptly sell off one or the other. While Hughes delayed the divorcement procedure until December 1950 and didn't actually sell his stock in the theater company until November 1953, his decision to acquiesce was one of the crucial steps in the collapse of classical Hollywood's studio system.

Hughes's mismanagement

Two of noir's finest, Robert Ryan and Ida Lupino, in Beware, My Lovely (1952), directed by Harry Horner and produced by Lupino's partner at The Filmakers, her soon-to-be-ex-husband Collier Young. While Hughes's time at RKO was marked by dwindling production and a slew of expensive flops (as well as further witch hunts for suspected Reds), the studio continued to turn out some good films under production chiefs Sid Rogell and Sam Bischoff, each of whom became fed up with Hughes's meddling and quit after less than two years. (Bischoff would be the last man to hold the job under Hughes.) There were B noirs such as The Set-Up and The Window (both 1949), whose reputation has only grown over the decades, and The Thing (1951), a science-fiction drama coproduced with Howard Hawks's Winchester Pictures. In 1952, RKO put out two films directed by Fritz Lang, Rancho Notorious and Clash by Night. The latter was a project of the renowned Jerry Wald–Norman Krasna production team, lured by Hughes from Warner Bros. with great fanfare in August 1950. The company also began a close working relationship with Ida Lupino. She would star in two memorable suspense films with Robert Ryan—Nicholas Ray's On Dangerous Ground (1952, though shooting had been completed two years earlier) and Beware, My Lovely (1952), a coproduction between RKO and Lupino's company, The Filmakers. Of more historic note, Lupino was Hollywood's only female director during the period; of the five pictures The Filmakers made with RKO, Lupino directed three, including her now celebrated The Hitch-Hiker (1953). Exposing many moviegoers to Asian cinema for the first time, RKO distributed Akira Kurosawa's epochal Rashomon in the United States, sixteen months after its original 1950 Japanese release.

In September 1952, Hughes and his corporate president, Ned E. Depinet, sold their RKO studio stock to a Chicago-based syndicate with no experience in the movie business; the syndicate's chaotic reign lasted until February 1953, when the stock and control were reacquired by Hughes. During the turmoil, Samuel Goldwyn ended his 11-year-long distribution deal with RKO. Wald and Krasna escaped their contracts and the studio as well. The deal that brought the team to RKO had called for them to produce sixty features over five years; in just shy of half that time, they succeeded in making four. Nineteen fifty-two had been disastrous for the studio financially, and production had again virtually ground to a halt over the winter. The Encino backlot shut down permanently in 1953 and the property was sold off. Hughes soon found himself the target of no less than five separate lawsuits filed by minority shareholders in RKO, accusing him of malfeasance in his dealings with the Chicago group and a wide array of acts of mismanagement. "RKO's contract list is down to three actors and 127 lawyers", quipped Dick Powell.

Looking to forestall the impending legal imbroglio, in early 1954 Hughes offered to buy out all of RKO's other stockholders. Convinced that the studio was sinking, Walt Disney ended his arrangement with RKO and set up his own distribution firm, Buena Vista Pictures. By the end of the year, at a cost of $23.5 million, Hughes had gained near-total control of RKO Pictures, becoming the first virtual sole owner of a studio since Hollywood's pioneer days. Virtual, but not quite actual. Floyd Odlum reemerged to block Hughes from acquiring the 95 percent ownership of RKO stock he needed to write off the company's losses against his earnings elsewhere. Hughes had reneged on his promise to give Odlum first option on buying the RKO theater chain when he divested it and was now paying the price. With negotiations between the two at a stalemate, in July 1955, Hughes turned around and sold RKO to the General Tire and Rubber Company for $25 million. Hughes retained the rights to pictures he had personally produced, including those made at RKO; he also kept the contract of his discovery Jane Russell. For Hughes, this was the effective end of a quarter-century's involvement in the movie business. Historian Betty Lasky describes Hughes's relationship with RKO as a "systematic seven-year rape."

General Tire and the end of RKO Pictures

In taking control of the studio, General Tire restored RKO's links to broadcasting. General Tire had bought the Yankee Network, a New England regional radio network based around WNAC (AM) in Boston, in 1943. In 1950, it purchased the West Coast regional Don Lee Broadcasting System, and two years later, the Bamberger Broadcasting Service, owner of the WOR TV and radio stations in New York City. General Tire then merged its broadcasting interests into a new division, General Teleradio. Thomas O'Neil, son of General Tire's founder William O'Neil and chairman of the broadcasting group, saw that the company's new television stations, indeed all TV outlets, were in need of programming. In 1953, O'Neil had approached Hughes about buying RKO's film library; with the 1955 purchase of the studio that library was his, and rights to the approximately 740 RKO films the studio retained clear title to were quickly put up for sale. C&C Television Corp., a subsidiary of beverage maker Cantrell & Cochrane, won the bidding and was soon offering the films to independent stations with the RKO trademarks replaced by "C&C Films" or "MovieTime USA" logos. RKO Teleradio Pictures—the new company created from the merger of General Teleradio and the RKO studio—retained the broadcast rights for the cities where it owned TV stations. By 1956, RKO's classic movies were playing widely on television, allowing many to see such films as Citizen Kane for the first time. The $15.2 million RKO made on the deal convinced the other major studios that their libraries held profit potential—a turning point in the way Hollywood did business.


Emblem of RKO's demise. Poster for Jet Pilot, a Hughes pet production launched in 1949, wrapped in May 1951, finally released in 1957 after Hughes's interminable tinkering. RKO was by then out of the distribution business. The movie was released by Universal-International.The new owners of RKO made a half-hearted effort to run the studio, hiring veteran producer William Dozier to head production. RKO Teleradio Pictures released Fritz Lang's final two American films, While the City Sleeps and Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (both 1956), but years of mismanagement had driven away many directors, producers, and stars. The studio was also saddled with the last of the lumbering, inflated B movies such as Pearl of the South Pacific (1955) and The Conqueror (1956) that enchanted Hughes. After a year and a half without a notable success, General Tire shut down production at RKO for good at the end of January 1957. The Hollywood and Culver City facilities were sold later that year for $6.15 million to Desilu Productions, owned by Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball, who had been an RKO contract player from 1935 to 1942. Desilu would be acquired by Gulf and Western Industries in 1967 and merged into G+W's other production company, Paramount Pictures; the former RKO Hollywood studio became home to Paramount Television (now CBS Paramount Television), which it remains to this day. The renovated Culver City studio is now owned and operated as an independent production facility. Forty Acres, the Culver City backlot, was razed in the mid-1970s.

With the closing down of production, RKO also shut its distribution exchanges; from 1957 forward, remaining pictures were released through other companies, primarily Universal-International. The final RKO film, Verboten!, a coproduction with director Samuel Fuller's Globe Enterprises, was released by Columbia Pictures in March 1959. That same year, "Pictures" was stripped from the corporate identity; the holding company for General Tire's broadcasting operation and the few remaining motion picture assets was renamed RKO General. In the words of scholar Richard B. Jewell, "The supreme irony of RKO's existence is that the studio earned a position of lasting importance in cinema history largely because of its extraordinarily unstable history. Since it was the weakling of Hollywood's 'majors,' RKO welcomed a diverse group of individualistic creators and provided them...with an extraordinary degree of freedom to express their artistic idiosyncrasies.... [I]t never became predictable and it never became a factory."


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