RKO -- that illustrious corpse--failed to survive as a Hollywood studio but certainly endures as a Hollywood heritage. Who would deny that the movies would be unimaginably poorer if certain opportunities had gone unexplored--the opportunity for Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers to become dancing partners, for example, or for Fay Wray to shriek at the devotions of a seemingly gigantic miniature ape, or for upstarts like Katharine Hepburn and Orson Welles to discover astonishing expressive tools in the movie camera and soundtrack?
It's not at all certain that such unique opportunities would have been realized in more secure Hollywood surroundings. Would MGM, circa 1933, have been receptive to Astaire and Rogers? Would any studio except a halfway desperate one have invited Welles, circa 1939, to stand the industry on its ear? No way, so let us now praise the fortunate emergence of RKO, the subject of an expansive revival series at the Biograph.
"The Films of RKO" was inspired by the recent publication of an illustrated encyclopedic history, "The RKO Story," by Richard B. Jewell. Currently represented by an irresistible Katharine Hepburn-Cary Grant double bill, "Alice Adams" and "Bringing Up Baby," the retrospective will continue through March 10 and include about three dozen titles extracted from the thousand or so released under the Radio and then RKO Radio Pictures logo during three decades of always embattled but frequently distinguished operation.
Although the selection hits a multitude of vintage high spots (and a smattering of the low ones) between 1932 and 1952, the bills rely almost exclusively on the output of the '30s and '40s. With good reason: These were the heroic decades of RKO's existence; they resulted in such enduring triumphs as the launching of Hepburn's movie career, the pairing of Astaire with Rogers, the development of a farfetched adventure premise that ultimately paid off in a thrilling novelty called "King Kong" and the recruitment of the brash young Welles, a theatrical phenom lured to Hollywood with a carte-blanche contract that was destined to end in box-office failure and acrimony for both parties--but not before enriching the medium with "Citizen Kane" and "The Magnificent Ambersons."
It's also easy to understand why the '50s are given a fleeting glance. Only two pictures in the series come from the '50s, and the early '50s at that: Howard Hawks' crisp science-fiction thriller "The Thing" (it shares a bill with another minor horror classic recently subjected to grotesque updating, "Cat People") and a Robert Mitchum-Jane Russell potboiler, "Macao," directed in part by Josef von Sternberg.
The beginning of the end for RKO Radio Pictures can be easily traced to Howard Hughes' purchase of the parent corporation in mid-1948. Hughes reneged on a promise of sustained film production almost immediately after taking over. When he slashed the payroll by 75 percent, the executive in charge of production, Dore Schary, departed for MGM, leaving enough product in the pipeline to keep RKO a sort of flickering major for another year or two.
Far from returning to full-fledged major status, the studio became a hostage to prolonged litigation involving Hughes, stockholders and a syndicate of aspiring new owners tainted by underworld connections. Dick Powell summed up the studio's infirmity with a witty exaggeration that became understandably famous: "RKO's contract list is down to three actors and 127 lawyers."
The Biograph selection is so rich in Hepburn and Grant credits--seven and nine, respectively--that the series can double as an entertaining refresher course on their careers.
While they jump around chronologically on the Biograph schedule, the Hepburn group traces the meteoric nature of her RKO career: the startling debut opposite John Barrymore in George Cukor's 1932 production of the Clemence Dane tearjerker "A Bill of Divorcement" (the earliest release in the series); the follow-up hits like "Morning Glory" (which brought her first Oscar) and "Christopher Strong" in 1933 and "Alice Adams" in 1935; two of the flops ("Sylvia Scarlett" and "Mary of Scotland") that turned 1936 into Her Worst Year in Hollywood; and finally, the inexplicable flop that terminated her association with the studio in 1938, "Bringing Up Baby," a screwball comedy classic that somehow failed to please the public and revitalize Hepburn's career.
At the time she bought out her RKO contract and began laying the groundwork for an eventual triumphant comeback in "The Philadelphia Story," Hepburn was still smarting from the "box-office poison" label slapped on her in an infamous trade ad of 1938 placed by New York exhibitor Harry Brandt. She was in good company: Fred Astaire, Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich, Mae West and Joan Crawford also made Brandt's list.
Moviegoers tend to look back on the '30s and '40s as a Golden Age of Hollywood studio production, but the Golden Age also subjected its most talented people to persistent doubt, struggle and compromise. For example, while enjoying Astaire and Rogers in the bill of "Swing Time" and "Follow the Fleet," both released in 1936, recall that the great partners themselves were itching to go separate ways and that the public that had doted on them for two years seemed to begin taking them for granted in 1937, when the delightful "Shall We Dance?" disappointed the studio by netting only $413,000. In 1935 "Top Hat" had earned rentals of $3.2 million and had given RKO, which remained in receivership from 1933 to the turn of the decade, a new lease on life. The swing time in movie fortunes has usually been alarmingly short and capricious. THE initials RKO stood for Radio-Keith-Orpheum. A late starter among the important Hollywood production-distribution-exhibition combines, RKO was incorporated in October 1928 as a conglomerate brainchild of David Sarnoff and Joseph P. Kennedy.
One of Kennedy's holdings was a minor Hollywood company, Film Booking Offices of America, that contented itself with westerns, animal adventures, farces and langorous romances. At the urging of Sarnoff, who sought a movie component for RCA's broadcasting activities,Kennedy contrived a new holding corporation whose $80 million in assets would include this studio, the 700 theaters of the Keith-Albee-Orpheum vaudeville circuit , the licensing rights to the Photophone sound-on-film system and a chain of film exchanges.
Trumpeted in trade ads as "A Titan . . . eclipsing in its staggering magnitude and far-reaching interests any enterprise in the history of show business," the new corporation loomed as an auspicious enterprise. But expectations were radically reduced after Wall Street did its famous swoon on RKO's first anniversary.
Radio Pictures, the film production subsidiary, did get off to a promising commercial start in 1929 with lavish movie adaptations of the Broadway musical hits "Rio Rita" and "Hit the Deck." The following year the fledgling company even won the Academy Award for best picture with "Cimarron," but this prestige spectacle lost $565,000 after the production costs mounted to $1.4 million (see, everything changes and remains the same in Hollywood history, too), and by the end of 1931, when the Depression was taking a heavy toll of movie revenues, RKO stock had declined from a high of 50 to a shade under 2.
At this juncture David O. Selznick was hired to supervise production over a cost-conscious, apprehensive operation. His brief tenure (about 18 months) set the groundwork for an eventual recovery, which occurred after Selznick left early in 1933, following a dispute over his authority, and took up reluctant residence at MGM, the domain of his father-in-law, Louis B. Mayer. At the urging of his friend Merian C. Cooper, Selznick signed both Hepburn and Astaire to contracts while he was running RKO. He also sponsored George Cukor's first successful directing efforts ("What Price Hollywood?" and "A Bill of Divorcement"), unloosed Max Steiner as a specialist in lush musical scores ("Symphony of Six Million" and "Bird of Paradise") and enabled Cooper to go ahead with his "gorilla picture."
RKO Pictures enjoyed only two brief periods of box-office stability: the mid-'30s when Astaire and Rogers were going strong and the years of World War II and its aftermath, a prosperous stretch for the entire industry. Earnings kept climbing steadily throughout the war years and then peaked in 1946 with net corporate profits of about $12 million, almost twice as high as the previous company record. The biggest hit for RKO that year--and its biggest ever--was Leo McCarey's "Bells of St. Mary's" with Bing Crosby and Ingrid Bergman. It's one of the period pieces missing from the Biograph series.
Missing also are many of the "staple" pictures that provided the company's exchanges and theaters with a broad, low-budget economic base. For example, after taking over FBO, RKO kept right on making "B" westerns, first with Tom Keene, who ultimately gave way to Tim Holt, who was briefly replaced by Robert Mitchum before resuming his status after the war.
Understandably, the Biograph deals in the company's more durable achievements. Still, it's a shame a bit of room wasn't found for the occasional off-the-wall insert, particularly one of the Lucille Ball programmers, since she ultimately transcended the studio that squandered her talents by buying the RKO lot for Desilu in 1953.
Remaining bills in the Biograph series:
Today & tomorrow: "Alice Adams" and "Bringing Up Baby." Jan. 25-27: "Kitty Foyle" and "It's a Wonderful Life." Jan. 28-30: "Gunga Din" and "Mary of Scotland." Jan. 31-Feb. 1: "Out of the Past" and "Macao." Feb. 2-3: "The Body Snatcher" and "The Hunchback of Notre Dame." Feb. 4-7: "Sylvia Scarlett" and "None But the Lonely Heart." Feb. 8-10: "Room Service" and "Mr. Lucky." Feb. 11-13: "My Favorite Wife" and "Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House." Feb. 14-15: "Cat People" and "The Thing." Feb. 16-17: "Fort Apache" and "She Wore a Yellow Ribbon." Feb. 18-21: "Citizen Kane" and "The Magnificent Ambersons." Feb. 22-24: "Morning Glory" and "Christopher Strong." Feb. 25-28: "Swing Time" and "Follow the Fleet." Mar. 1-3: "A Bill of Divorcement" and "The Great Man Votes." Mar. 4-6: "Suspicion" and "Notorious." Mar. 7-8: "King Kong" and "The Most Dangerous Game." Mar. 9-10: "The Informer" and "Journey into Fear."