Monday, 30 May 2011

City of Angels: The Studios, Part 6: RKO

Considered one of the five major studios during Hollywood's golden age, RKO is mostly identified today as the studio that produced Orson Welles’ masterpiece Citizen Kane (1941), Merian C. Cooper’s and Ernest B. Schoedsack’s King Kong (1933) and the lavish Fred Astaire Ginger Rogers musicals, which struck a chord with Depression audiences.

RKO during its heyday

But RKO was also the studio of the young and zany Katherine Hepburn, and Lucille Ball, who would later buy the studio when it was on the skids. Besides its strong focus on black-and-white features, the most remarkable thing about RKO probably is the fact that during its brief, torn and torrid history (1928 – 1957), it went through more presidents and reshuffles than any other studio, inducing Andrew Sarris to quip that “Rko is the closest thing we have in Hollywood to a schizophrenic studio experiencing nervous breakdowns”. Although the founding of RKO was preceded by a merger of RCA(= Radio Corporation of America) and FBO(= Film Booking Office), its history officially starts in 1928, when the RKO/ FBO conglomeration fused with the Keith-Albee-Orpheum chain to form the Radio-Keith-Orpheum Corporation, or RKO.

With practically no stars or talent of note under contract to the studio, RKO was lucky to start at a time when proceeds were high, tapping the audience’s hunger for the newly invented sound pictures. Concentrating on musicals RKO did well, and in an act of folly took over the Pathé studio in 1930. With it came a modest roster of stars like Ann Harding and Constance Bennett. The same year the studio landed a critical hit with Cimarron (1930), which garnered a couple Oscars, among which the one for best picture. In 1931 David O. Selznick replaced William LeBaron as head of production, and with his go-getter temperament he was quick in changing things around by plundering the New York stages in order for RKO to sign up a line-up of promising stars and directors.
Joining the roster of stars inherited from Pathé were Katherine Hepburn and Mary Astor, enrolling in 1932, and 1930, respectively. RKO went the way of all film studios, when a - you guessed it! - reorganisation took place in 1932, and RKO’s president Hiram Brown was replaced by Aylesworth, who soon started breathing down Selznick’s neck, causing the latter to join MGM, where Louis B. Mayer was desperate to find a capable replacement to fill in for the missing prowess of Irving G. Thalberg, who had suffered a heart attack and was on an extended leave of absence.

Katherine Hepburn

Katherine Hepburn turned into the company’s most reliable actress, winning an Oscar (her first of four) for her performance in Morning Glory (1933). The studios had a reputation for keeping their stars busy - especially if they were new on the scene - and so the very same year Hepburn also starred in Christopher Strong and Little Women, which was directed by her friend and RKO colleague, George Cukor.

Weathering the storms of the Depression, the studio had a good year in 1935, releasing three films which all went on to become classics. Alice Adams won Hepburn yet another Oscar nod, the Fred Astaire/ Ginger Rogers musical Top Hat was nominated in four categories, while John Ford’s masterpiece The Informer ended up winning four, including one for its director and one for Victor McLaglen, who played the title role. The Atlas Corporation, headed by Floyd Odlum, bought a major stake in the studio, which led to yet another reshuffle, with Leo Spitz emerging as the new president.
But being RKO, this constellation was to last for a mere 3 years, before the next restructuring brought on the ousting of Spitz, who was succeeded by George Schaefer.

Amidst all this muddle at the top, the studio nevertheless managed to come up with a number of memorable pictures, among which one that led to Bette Davis’ (on loan out from Warners) breakthrough as an actress, Of Human Bondage (1935). Based on Somerset Maugham’s novel and directed by RKO’s John Cromwell, the part of the ferocious Mildred Rogers paved the way to turn her into Hollywood’s Grande Dame of Sturm and Drang. Gregory LaCava’s hilarious screwball comedy Stage Door (1937), which united in-house actresses Hepburn, Ball and Rogers in a hilarious romp about the travails of aspiring actresses, room-mating in New York. Stage Door, like many of RKO’s films, catered mainly to women. Having turned the studio’s chronical lack of male talent into a virtue, RKO churned out a string of films aimed at female audiences. The much underrated LaCava also directed the witty morale raiser Fifth Avenue Girl (1939), in which Ginger Rogers has this to say about the upper crust, “Rich people are just poor people with money”.

Bette Davis as the villainous Regina Giddens in The Little Foxes

To make up for the shortage of talent, studio boss Schaefer was adept at encouraging independent producers to work for RKO, thus being a trail-blazer in the Hollywood landscape, for independent productions would only start to become popular with the demise of the studio system in the early 1950s. He struck up deals with early independents like Samuel Goldwyn, Walt Disney and David Selznick’s Vanguard Company, thus limiting RKO’s risks as well as limiting its profits, while at the same time substantially adding to the studio’s cachet, as Goldwyn’s films like The Little Foxes (William Wyler, 1941) and The Best Years Of Our Lives (William Wyler, 1946) went on to be showered with praise, not to mention a multitude of Oscars and Oscar nods. His association with Orson Welles’ Mercury Productions, however, led to Schaefer’s downfall, as due to a smear campaign by the Hearst press in which Louella Parsons’ poison pen infamously panned Welles’ masterpiece Citizen Kane (1941), RKO suffered sizeable losses, which led to Schaefer’s resignation in 1942. Floyd Odlum became chairman of the board, with N. Peter Rathvon in the position of corporate president, as his helpmate.

Orson Welles in Citizen Kane

With the US entering the war in 1941, President Roosevelt encouraged the film studios to contribute to the war effort by producing morale-boosting, patriotic films. RKO’s offerings included Edward Dmytryk’s film Tender Comrade (1943), which in the end turned out to be part anti-Nazi, part women’s picture. In it Ginger Rogers had to utter the now famous line “share and share alike, that’s’ democracy”, which with Russia still an ally, went completely unnoticed. When, however, once the war was over the tides rapidly turned, Dmytryk’s patriotic effort backfired, and it was held against him when the House Committee on Un-American Activities investigated against Communist infiltration among the film community. Ginger Rogers’ mother, Lela, used those very lines against the film’s director, Edward Dmytryk, who subsequently was subpoenaed before the Committee on charges of being a Communist (which, as a matter of fact, he was, but that should never have been the point).

Dore Schary

Milking the high cinema attendance during the war years, reaching its peak in 1946, RKO did well, releasing now classic films like Fritz Lang’s The Woman In The Window (1945) and Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious (1946). By 1947, RKO was in trouble again, resulting in Dore Schary being hired as production chief. Schary, however, didn’t last long. Odlum’s decision to sell the studio to aviator-turned-tycoon Howard Hughes in 1948 spelled the end of Schary’s stint at RKO, and he left to come to MGM’s rescue, which, with the studio era coming to a close, had also fallen on hard times.
Schary’s departure was followed by a succession of production chiefs and presidents, none of whom managed to rise to the occasion of dealing with the whimsical and elusive Hughes. The difficulties of the incessant change of management notwithstanding, RKO released a string of memorable pictures during its last years, most significant among which are the films by Fritz Lang (Clash By Night, 1952, While The City Sleeps, 1956, Beyond A Reasonable Doubt, 1956), Howard Hawks(The Thing From Another World, 1951), Nicholas Ray (They Live By Night, 1948, On Dangerous Ground, 1952), Otto Preminger (Angel Face, 1952, Sudden Fear, 1953), and Robert Wise’s brilliant boxing-film-noir, The Set-Up(1949).

In 1952, with red baiting still rampant, Hughes, a notorious Communist hater, closed the studio, laid off over a thousand people, in order to implement a screening system with the aim to get rid of possible Communists on the lot. Having run the studio to the ground, Hughes sold RKO to the General Teleradio Corporation in 1955. But failing at injecting new life into the suffering studio, RKO was acquired by Lucille Ball and her husband Desi Arnaz in 1958. Renamed DeSiLu Productions, they went on to produce their highly successful and profitable I Love Lucy TV series, until a mere few years later they sold the studio to their next-door neighbour, Paramount, which has since restored the famous RKO globe to its former splendour.

The former RKO lot has become fully and un-distinguishably integrated in the Paramount grounds. However, when director Billy Wilder was told that Paramount had named a building after him, he was touched at first, until he found out that the building in question was on the RKO part of the property.

The RKO globe today