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.
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.)
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.
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