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RKO Radio Pictures: A Titan Is Born—book review

By Leonard Maltin | Leonard Maltin June 7, 2012 at 2:00AM

I can’t explain why I’ve always been attracted to the films of RKO. It can’t just be that arresting radio tower logo; there’s something unpredictable about the studio’s body of work during the 1930s and '40s. Now, thanks to longtime studio scholar Richard Jewell (who coauthored the coffee-table reference book 'The RKO Story' years ago) I understand a lot more about the workings—and undoing—of this once-promising organization.
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RKO-Radio-Pictures-Book-213

I can’t explain why I’ve always been attracted to the films of RKO. It can’t just be that arresting radio tower logo; there’s something unpredictable about the studio’s body of work during the 1930s and '40s. Now, thanks to longtime studio scholar Richard Jewell (who coauthored the coffee-table reference book The RKO Story years ago) I understand a lot more about the workings—and undoing—of this once-promising organization.

Born out of the remnants of Joseph P. Kennedy’s silent FBO studio, the powerful Keith-Albee-Orpheum vaudeville theater chain, with 700 houses across the country, and David Sarnoff’s imposing Radio Corporation of America, Radio Pictures (as it was first called) announced itself as the “titan” of the industry in 1929 and promised Big Things ahead. It seemed as if the marriage of a robust theater chain, a working film studio, and the country’s preeminent radio network was a natural. But the upstart medium of radio and the established movie business were not compatible bedfellows, and from the start, the company was dogged by weak management, warring factions, and an unclear executive mandate that made the job of studio chief a revolving door.

The RKO studio façade on Gower Street at the corner of Melrose Avenue, now part of Paramount Pictures.
The RKO studio façade on Gower Street at the corner of Melrose Avenue, now part of Paramount Pictures.

Decades ago, Jewell had access to corporate papers that, in some cases, are no longer housed in any archives. This gives him a unique insight into the day-to-day problems that plagued RKO. While this is strictly a corporate history, it is anything but dry: it is a compelling (and surprisingly relevant) study in hubris, misplaced egomania, and corporate jockeying for power. How a studio that had David O. Selznick, Merian C. Cooper, and Pandro S. Berman in charge of production still managed to fail, while shoving these talented men aside, is a big part of the RKO saga. The economics of the Depression didn’t help.

Contract player Anne Shirley poses in front of a studio soundstage. RKO never managed to build a roster of bankable stars, which made the studio vulnerable to the whims of someone like Katharine Hepburn.
Contract player Anne Shirley poses in front of a studio soundstage. RKO never managed to build a roster of bankable stars, which made the studio vulnerable to the whims of someone like Katharine Hepburn.

As we learn the strengths and weaknesses of each management team, we also learn the particulars of various financial disasters, including films that are cherished today (Bringing Up Baby, Gunga Din, and of course Citizen Kane) that lost substantial sums of money on their initial release. Profit-and-loss figures for both A and B pictures are among this book’s most interesting statistics. Of course, there were occasional hits like King Kong, which had such a strong buzz that MGM tried to purchase the negative before its release, and Top Hat. Even The Hunchback of Notre Dame, which cost nearly $2 million—unprecedented for RKO—wound up making a profit. Such personalities as Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, and Katharine Hepburn enter the picture. Jewell quotes inter-office memos and correspondence that may be unfamiliar to even the most well-read film buffs.

Perhaps the most interesting single individual in this business history is George Schaefer,who is best known today for having stood by Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane and kept it from being suppressed. While his hiring of the “boy wonder” is to his credit, it is also an example of this executive’s poor judgment and lack of comprehension about the way good films were made. (He actually expected Welles to bring his pictures in on a modest budget, and on time, and didn’t catch on even after Kane and the filming of The Magnificent Ambersons.)

The short-lived RKO Pathé logo after a merger in the early 1930s.
The short-lived RKO Pathé logo after a merger in the early 1930s.

It is rare for a scholar to have access to all the papers necessary to tell a story like this, from a corporation’s inception onwards. Jewell not only makes great use of this primary material, but presents a clear, fair-minded narrative that puts the facts into proper context. As icing on the cake, he has selected a number of rare behind-the-scenes photos from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences collection to sprinkle throughout the text.

Full disclosure: Rick Jewell is a colleague of mine at the USC School of Cinematic Arts. In fact, he is the man who hired me to teach there fifteen years ago. I assure you that my feelings for this book are genuine and not colored by our friendship…and I can’t wait to read the second part of this corporate history, when Howard Hughes enters the RKO story.

RKO Radio Pictures: A Titan Is Born by Richard B. Jewell (University of California Press)

This article is related to: Book Reviews, RKO Radio Pictures, Richard Jewell