In the story of ‘studio Hollywood’, RKO Radio Pictures has the most tragic role. It’s possibly my favourite studio, but I do find that it is often the most misrepresented of the five majors. Why should that be?
In 1930, often quoted as the year which marked the emergence of the so-called ‘studio system’, RKO was the most recently confirmed major studio and arguably the one with the least prestigious background. Paramount (1912) and MGM (1924) were two of the most established studios, along with Universal (1912) and Columbia (1918). These latter two were ‘mini-majors’ because they were not fully vertically integrated – they lacked cinemas. All the major studios were formed by amalgamating production companies with distribution companies and theatre chains. Warner Bros had taken control of another studio, First National, and the Skouras Brothers Theatre chain in 1929. The fourth major saw Fox (formed in 1915) merging with 20th Century in 1935 to form the major studio that was familiar to cinemagoers for the next 50 years before the sale to Rupert Murdoch and then to Disney. Each of the six companies mentioned in this paragraph had their origins in a film production company established in the 1910s. RKO was a different kind of company.
In 1928 an agreement between the head of RCA (Radio Corporation of America), David Sarnoff, and Joseph Kennedy (father of JFK) of the production/distribution company Film Booking Offices (FBO) established an integrated studio. Kennedy had already assumed control of the Keith-Albee-Orpheum chain of theatres as well as two other small producers, the independent American company Pathé and the Producers Distribution Company headed by Cecil B. DeMille. The overall result of these various mergers and acquisitions was the creation of ‘Radio-Keith-Orpheum’ or RKO Radio Pictures, the fifth major studio.
Everything should have gone well. As the switch to ‘talking pictures’ was taking place, RKO had its own new ‘sound on film’ technology, Photophone, and FBO had some experience of working with sound. The three small production companies each contributed some studio space and facilities in Hollywood and in New York. But there were problems. The other four majors had better production facilities and more experience of making ‘A’ features. Even Universal and Columbia had better production facilities and United Artists, the distribution company founded by Mary Pickford, Charles Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks and D. W. Griffith in 1919 had the star power and relationships with major independent producers. FBO and the other smaller companies in the newly-created RKO had focused on smaller features and the 1920s equivalent of ‘B’ Westerns. The KAO theatre chain had been developed for vaudeville and now had to be switched over to focus on cinema business. The new studio also lacked a strong studio head with a real feel for the business. Investment decisions and production strategies needed to be sorted out. In October 1931 a series of events saw production come under the control of David O. Selznick who was appointed ‘Vice-President in charge of production’. Selznick was already yearning for his own studio but the challenge at RKO was one he relished and during 1932 he transformed the economics of RKO’s output, making more pictures for less outlay and and also cutting the studio’s overheads. He brought in new talent, including director George Cukor and the young Katherine Hepburn. But the Great Depression was already hitting the studios’ chances of maintaining the profits that the boom years of the introduction of sound had brought. Selznick left in 1933 to return to MGM, the studio with the strongest foundations. He would revisit to RKO to lease facilities on the Culver City studio lot to set up his own Selznick International Pictures in 1935. By 1937 Selznick had taken over the whole of the old RKO-Pathe studio lot. His only interest in RKO would then be as an outlet for his contracted directors and players such as Alfred Hitchcock and Joan Fontaine who in the 1940s would be rented out to RKO for films like Suspicion (1941).
The tragedy is that RKO’s basic flaws were never properly resolved and its potential synergy of radio and film never amounted to much. The studio made some great films and developed some of my favourite stars – Fred and Ginger, Cary Grant, Katherine Hepburn and Robert Mitchum. It invited in Orson Welles and his Mercury Theatre Company but couldn’t handle him and the losses his productions cost them. It distributed Disney’s pictures and allowed Val Lewton to flourish for a few years. It was the starting point for Nick Ray and a (somewhat difficult) partner for Ida Lupino’s small film company. These latter two relationships were both developed after Howard Hughes took over the company. Hughes had control of the company from 1948 to 1955. In the latter stages of his control, Disney pulled out of its distribution deal and set up its own distribution through a wholly-owned subsidiary Buena Vista. Disney is today the biggest Hollywood brand. Other independent producers also pulled out and Hughes sold his controlling stake to General Tire and Rubber which had been buying radio networks in the US. The sale ironically took RKO back to its roots and the new company became known as RKO Teleradio Pictures. The film business lasted another four years before the studio was finally broken up in 1959. The final crucial act of RKO in film industry terms was the sale of its film library to independent TV stations which meant that by 1956 RKO films were on TV sets across the US at a time when the other studios were still, in public at least, not sharing product with television. In practice they were setting up their own TV production units alongside independents such as Desilu which were buying RKO facilities.
Silver Screen Classics
In 2020, following the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, BBC programmers placed a group of RKO films on iPlayer in the UK under the group title of ‘Silver Screen Classics’. Recently they added a second tranche and now there are 38 features from the ‘studio period’ of Hollywood history. Unusually, these films are available for “over a year” – how come? The BBC will usually acquire rights for a set period and/or a specific number of broadcasts, but in this case it appears that these are just some of the titles which the BBC acquired for broadcast ‘in perpetuity’ from the ailing RKO studio in the 1950s. In 1987 the BBC produced a six part documentary series on the history of the studio. I’ve already included some of the BBC titles on this blog and more will follow, time permitting. If you are in the UK you can browse the 38 Silver Screen Classics titles on iPlayer here.
Here is an interesting visual history of RKO from TCM Cinéma, in French but with some wonderful photographs: