RKO Radio Pictures
RKO Radio PicturesTHE FORMATION AND EARLY
DEVELOPMENT OF RKO
REWORKING THE UA MODEL
THE DECLINE AND FALL OF RKO
The history of RKO (aka Radio-Keith-Orpheum, aka RKO Radio Pictures) is utterly unique among the Hollywood studios, particularly the Big Five integrated majors. It was the last of the major studios to be created and the first (and only) studio to expire, with its corporate lifespan bracketed and defined by two epochal events, the coming of sound and the coming of television—events that circumscribed not only RKO's history but classical Hollywood's as well. Moreover, because it was created in October 1928, one year before the stock market crash that preceded the Depression, RKO was plagued by economic hardships early on, including bankruptcy in the early 1930s, from which it never fully recovered. Thus the studio lacked the resources, the stable production operations, and the consistent management and business practices that characterized the other majors. As RKO historian Richard Jewell writes: "RKO existed in a perpetual state of transition: from one regime to another, from one set of production policies to the next, from one group of filmmakers to an altogether different group. Being a less stable studio that its famous competitors, the company never 'settled down,' never discovered its real identity" (Jewell, p. 10).
This instability proved to be a mixed blessing, as RKO was rocked by a succession of financial and organizational crises yet took truly courageous risks and produced a number of historic films and canonized classics including King Kong (1933), Bringing Up Baby (1938), Citizen Kane (1941), and The Best Years of Our Lives (1946). RKO's financial distress sorely limited its pool of contract filmmaking talent, but it led to innovative and productive alliances with independent producers like Walt Disney (1901–1966) and Sam Goldwyn (1881–1974), freelance directors like John Ford (1894–1973) and George Stevens (1904–1975), and top stars like Cary Grant (1904–1986), Carole Lombard (1908–1942), and Irene Dunne (1898–1990). And although RKO lacked the corporate stability and creative identity necessary to establish a distinctive house style, it did create a number of "signature" film cycles and series, including a Depression-era run of Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers musicals, a wartime cycle of low-budget horror films, and a succession of film noir thrillers throughout the 1940s.
RKO also saw an astounding turnover in the executive ranks, which was another key factor in its failure to develop a "real identity." Here the talent proved remarkably uneven, ranging from David Selznick (1902–1965), who briefly ran the studio in the early 1930s, to the monomaniacal Howard Hughes (1905–1976), who purchased the company in 1948 and instigated its decade-long demise. From the moment he took control of RKO, Hughes made one disastrous business decision after another, and in 1955 he sold off the studio's assets—both its films and its production facilities—to the burgeoning television industry. Despite a troubled, turbulent history that led to its eventual collapse, however, and despite being the only major studio in Hollywood's history to cease production-distribution operations altogether, RKO's legacy survives in its films, available to new audiences on cable movie channels and DVD reissues, and also in the sporadic efforts to exploit the enduring value of its "brand" and the remake rights to its classic films.
Legend has it that RKO was created in a 1928 meeting between RCA president David Sarnoff (1891–1971) and Boston financier Joseph Kennedy (father of JFK) in the Oyster Bar in New York's Grand Central Station. While the meeting itself may have been apocryphal, Sarnoff and Kennedy did in fact control the elements that would merge to create RKO. Most of those elements had been in place for years, dating back to a 1921 alliance between Robertson-Cole, a British import-export firm, and a minor US distributor, Exhibitors Mutual, which launched a modest Hollywood production operation on a 13.5-acre site at the corner of Gower and Melrose. The company was reorganized in 1922 as the Film Booking Offices of America (FBO), and functioned primarily as a distributor of European and independent American films, along with the company's own output of decidedly second-rate genre pictures. FBO was bought in 1926 by Kennedy, who had little impact on operations beyond the installation, a year later, of William LeBaron (1883–1958) as studio chief.
Meanwhile, Sarnoff was looking for an entry into the movie business to demonstrate RCA's new "optical" (sound-on-film) system, Photophone, as an alternative to Western Electric's dominant sound-on-disk system. In early 1928, as Warner Bros.' The Jazz Singer (1927) ignited the "talkie boom," Sarnoff acquired substantial interest in FBO and, with Kennedy, began shopping for a theater chain. They finally settled on the Keith-Albee-Orpheum (K-A-O) circuit of some 700 vaudeville houses. The legendary Oyster Bar meeting in late 1928 purportedly closed the K-A-O deal, with RCA controlling the $300 million company—dubbed Radio-Keith-Orpheum—and Sarnoff taking command as board chairman.
Sarnoff installed a management team including former FBO executive Joseph I. Schnitzer (1887–1944) as president, B. B. Kahane as secretary-treasurer, and William LeBaron as production head. Schnitzer immediately signaled RKO's presence as a major studio power by paying hefty sums for the screen rights to several major Broadway hits, most notably the Florence Ziegfeld musical Rio Rita, which quickly went into production at the Gower Street facility and was released in September 1929, giving RKO its first hit. The Wall Street crash a few weeks later scarcely dimmed Sarnoff's hopes or undercut his effort to develop RKO-Radio and RCA's other media subsidiary, NBC (then a radio network, although television was in serious development as well), into America's first entertainment conglomerate. Sarnoff also expanded RKO's physical capabilities with the purchase in 1929 of a "ranch" in the San Fernando Valley for exterior sets and locations, and the 1930 acquisition of the US holdings of the French film giant Pathé, including production facilities, contract talent, a newsreel division, and an international distribution network.
These added resources became a serious burden when the Depression finally hit in 1931, as were RKO's inefficient production operations and its theater chain (roughly 160 of which were wholly owned, making RKO responsible for the entire mortgage and debt service). In an effort to enhance efficiency as well as the quality and consistency of the studio's output, Sarnoff aggressively pursued young David Selznick, the son of an industry pioneer who already, at age twenty-nine, had extensive experience as a production executive at both MGM and Paramount. Sarnoff hired Selznick in October 1931 as RKO's vice president in charge of production, and the results were swift and significant. Selznick consolidated production at RKO-Radio (the main studio at 780 Gower Street) and cut production costs substantially. He hired Merian C. Cooper (1893–1973) and Pandro S. (Pan) Berman (1905–1996) as his executive assistants, planning to give them their own production units, and he also recruited top filmmaking talent like director George Cukor (1899–1983) and ingénue Katharine Hepburn (1907–2003). Selznick's own tastes were evident as well, particularly in several "woman's pictures" and high-class adaptations that were resisted by the New York office but emerged as solid commercial hits. These included two Cukor-directed films in 1932, What Price Hollywood? and A Bill of Divorcement, the latter costarring John Barrymore (1882–1942) and Hepburn in her screen debut. Hepburn was top-billed in the Cukor-directed Little Women (1933), which secured her stardom.
Despite this success, Selznick's executive prowess was severely compromised when an executive shake-up at RCA in 1932 put NBC president Merlin ("Deac") Aylesworth in the chief executive role at RKO-Radio (parent company of RKO Pictures). Aylesworth tried to run the movie studio as well as the radio network, which led to increasing conflicts with Selznick, who left to supervise his own production unit at MGM in early 1933—only weeks before RKO fell into receivership (i.e., bankruptcy). Although it would take the studio nearly a decade to climb out of receivership—versus Fox, Paramount, and Universal, all of which recovered from bankruptcy in far less time—RKO continued to produce and release pictures, enjoying considerable success in the mid-1930s, due largely to decisions made by the outgoing Selznick. One was the approval and ongoing support of Cooper's pet project, King Kong (1933), which he coproduced, coscripted, and codirected with Ernest B. Schoedsack (1893–1979). King Kong was released some two months after Selznick's departure (he is credited as executive producer) and was a major critical and commercial success. Selznick also approved a screen test for Fred Astaire (1899–1987), which led to an RKO contract and a supporting role in a late-1933 release, Flying Down to Rio, in which he and Ginger Rogers (1911–1995) first teamed in a musical number.
Selznick also left behind two well-trained executives in Cooper and Pan Berman, each of whom served briefly as studio production head from 1933 to 1934. Cooper left to launch Pioneer Pictures and Berman soon returned to the producer ranks, where his main responsibility was the Astaire-Rogers musicals that were so vital to RKO's Depression-era fortunes. These included The Gay Divorcee in 1934, Roberta and Top Hat in 1935, Follow the Fleet and Swing Time in 1936, Shall We Dance in 1937, Carefree in 1938, and The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle in 1939. Five of the eight films were directed by Mark Sandrich (1900–1945), who along with Berman was the chief architect of a cycle that deftly blended the dance musical and romantic comedy genres, exploiting the two stars' considerable versatility as actors and musical performers. While the Astaire-Rogers films gave RKO a signature star-genre formula and reliable box-office commodity, the rest of its output was wildly eclectic and generally inconsistent. Berman supervised most of the studio's A-class productions, many of them directed by freelance filmmakers in short-term or nonexclusive deals—as with John Ford's The Informer (1935), a surprise hit that won its director an Oscar®, and Howard Hawks's (1896–1977) Bringing Up Baby (1938), the screwball comedy classic with Grant and Hepburn that was a major critical and box-office disappointment on its initial release.
The unevenness of RKO's output was due in large part to the rapid turnover of top executives and frequent shifts in ownership and control, as a half-dozen chief executives passed through the front office between 1933 and 1938. A crucial change in ownership occurred in 1935, when Floyd Odlum's Atlas Corporation purchased half interest in RKO from RCA. Despite RCA's diminished ownership, its association with broadcasting—and especially television, then in an active experimental mode—did attract major independent producer Walt Disney, who left United Artists (UA) in 1936 for a distribution deal with RKO. The war would postpone television's arrival for another decade, but the Disney deal did give RKO its biggest hit of the era, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, a late 1937 release that was Disney's first feature-length animated film and Hollywood's biggest box-office hit of the decade.
The success of Disney's Snow White was a harbinger of major changes in RKO's production policies and market strategy, which coalesced after the arrival of George Schaefer (1888–1981) as RKO president in late 1938. Schaefer was a former top executive at United Artists who was hired to adapt the UA model—i.e., the financing and distribution of independently produced A-class pictures—to RKO's resources. Schaefer took complete control of the studio, displacing Pan Berman, who had returned for a second stint as production chief and had provided the only real consistency in terms of management and creative vision at the studio since its founding. Berman clashed with Schaefer and soon accepted a position at MGM, although he did finish off the 1939 campaign, which was typically eclectic and also the strongest in studio history. RKO's 1939 slate included Gunga Din, a Kipling-inspired adventure fantasy directed by George Stevens and starring Cary Grant, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. (1909–2000), and Victor McLaglen (1883–1959); Love Affair, a romantic drama starring Irene Dunne (1898–1990) and Charles Boyer (1899–1978) that was written, produced, and directed by Leo McCarey; The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle, a musical biopic and the last of RKO's Astaire-Rogers teamings, directed by H. C. Potter (1904–1977); Bachelor Mother, a surprise comedy hit starring Ginger Rogers and directed by newcomer Garson Kanin (1912–1999); and The Hunchback of Notre Dame, an adaptation of Victor Hugo's novel starring Charles Laughton (1899–1962) and directed by William Dieterle (1893–1972).
Schaefer, meanwhile, signed or extended a wide range of independent deals with filmmakers like Hawks and McCarey and top stars like Grant and Dunne. In fact, by 1940 Ginger Rogers was the only major star under exclusive contract at RKO; then, after an Oscar®-winning performance in Kitty Foyle (1940), Rogers was awarded a limited, nonexclusive pact in 1941. Schaefer signed a distribution deal with Sam Goldwyn that year which was similar to Disney's in that Goldwyn had his own studio and line of credit, allowing him to independently finance and produce, with RKO providing distribution. Disney and Goldwyn supplied many of RKO's "prestige" releases and top star vehicles in the early 1940s, including Disney's Pinocchio (1940), Dumbo (1941), Fantasia, and Bambi (both 1942); and Goldwyn's The Little Foxes (1941), a quintessential Bette Davis (1908–1989) melodrama directed by William Wyler (1902–1981); Ball of Fire (1941), a Hawksdirected screwball comedy starring Gary Cooper (1901–1961) and Barbara Stanwyck; and The Pride of the Yankees (1942), a biopic starring Cooper as Babe Ruth, directed by Sam Wood (1883–1949). Schaefer also signed a two-picture deal in 1940 with David Selznick for Alfred Hitchcock's (1899–1980) services, resulting in an ill-advised romantic comedy Mr. and Mrs. Smith (1941), as well as a solid hit—and a return to directorial form—with the psychological thriller, Suspicion (1941), starring Cary Grant and Joan Fontaine (b. 1917) in an Oscar®-winning role.
b. George Orson Welles, Kenosha, Wisconsin, 6 May 6 1915, d. 10 October 1985
Orson Welles remains one of Hollywood's most legendary and paradoxical figures, thanks to his role in creating Citizen Kane (1941), widely regarded as Hollywood's signal achievement, and his continual battle with the studio system. Welles's historic entry into Hollywood was the result of both his own precocious talent and the particular industry conditions at the time.
Born to a well-to-do Midwestern family, Welles was a gifted child who developed early interests in theater and the arts, traveled extensively, and made his acting debut on Broadway and on radio by age twenty. He teamed with John Houseman to form the Mercury Theatre stage company in 1937, and landed his own CBS radio drama series a year later. A radio adaptation of H. G. Wells's The War of the Worlds on Halloween night in 1938 caused a national sensation and caught the attention of Hollywood—and particularly George Schaefer, who was looking for new talent to bolster RKO's output of A-class features as the United States pulled out of the Depression.
In July 1939, Schaefer signed Welles to an unprecedented two-year, two-picture contract as producer-director-writer-actor. Welles reserved complete control over all aspects of his productions, including "final cut," as long as he remained within the studio-approved schedule and budget. This historic pact generated considerable resentment in Hollywood but fundamentally transformed the individual authority, creative control, and trademark status of top filmmaking talent. Welles maintained artistic control over Kane, but the controversy surrounding its release and its modest box-office performance, along with Schaefer's own diminishing authority at RKO, caused Welles to lose control of his next project, an adaptation of Booth Tarkington's 1918 novel The Magnificent Ambersons. Welles was cutting Ambersons in December 1941 when the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7 dramatically changed the fate of both Welles and his production. At the behest of Nelson Rockefeller and in support of the wartime Good Neighbor Policy with Latin America, Welles set off to South America to work on "It's All True," an experimental amalgam of fiction and documentary that was destined to remain unfinished. Meanwhile, the RKO brass deemed Ambersons too long and too downbeat, and instructed editor Robert Wise to drastically cut the picture and to reshoot the somber ending, replacing it with a more upbeat resolution.
Thus ended Welles's relationship with RKO—and began a mutual love-hate relationship between Welles and the Hollywood studio powers that would persist for decades, eventually recasting the role of the victimized auteur in truly mythic proportions. Although he would have a successful career as an actor, most of Welles's subsequent films were compromised by inadequate funding, including those made outside of Hollywood.
As Actor: The Third Man (1949); As Actor and Director: Citizen Kane (1941), The Lady from Shanghai (1947), Mr. Arkadin (1955), Touch of Evil (1958), Campanadas a medianoche (Chimes at Midnight, 1966); As Director: The Magnificent Ambersons (1942)
Callow, Simon. Orson Welles: The Road to Xanadu. New York: J. Cape, 1995.
Kael, Pauline. The Citizen Kane Book: Raising Kane. Boston: Little, Brown, 1971
McBride, Joseph. Orson Welles. New York: Viking, 1972.
Mulvey, Laura. Citizen Kane. London: British Film Institute, 1992.
Perkins, V. F. The Magnificent Ambersons. London: British Film Institute, 1999.
Schaefer's most radical and significant independent deal involved Orson Welles (1915–1985), who was signed in July 1939 to a two-year contract that called for the twenty-four-year-old stage and radio prodigy (and Hollywood neophyte) to produce, write, direct, and act in two motion pictures. The deal included sizable salaries for Welles and his Mercury Theatre stage company, and also gave Welles profit participation and "final cut" on each film as long as he stayed within the allotted schedule
and budget. After two false starts, including an adaptation of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness that RKO nixed due to costs, Welles eventually teamed with screen-writing veteran Herman J. Mankiewicz (1897–1953) on a thinly veiled biopic of newspaper tycoon (and Hollywood producer) William Randolph Hearst (1863–1951). The result, of course, was Citizen Kane, certainly the most important film in RKO's history—and perhaps in Hollywood's as well. Welles followed with an adaptation of Booth Tarkington's novel, The Magnificent Ambersons, which was being edited by Welles and Robert Wise (1914–2005) in December 1941, when the US entry into World War II took Welles to South America for a documentary project. Meanwhile, Wise was instructed to cut the over-long (and by then well over-budget) Ambersons and to create a new upbeat ending that was distinctly at odds with Welles's vision. The Magnificent Ambersons was a critical and commercial failure on its release in July 1942—just weeks after Schaefer tendered his resignation and left the studio.
Schaefer's departure in mid-1942 signaled the deepening financial concerns at RKO, which had not returned to consistent profitability despite the waning Depression, the banner year in 1939 (which resulted in net losses for the studio), and the emergence from receivership in January 1940. By early 1942 it was clear that the "war boom" would be as momentous as the talkie boom that spawned RKO, yet the studio continued to show losses despite the favorable socioeconomic conditions while its major competitors did record business. Floyd Odlum (1892–1976) decided to take charge, sweeping out Schaefer and most of his executive corps in June 1942 (including the former Production Code Administration head Joe Breen, after a brief and disastrous run as production head), and hiring Charles Koerner to run the studio and oversee production. Koerner continued the house-cleaning begun by Odlum, including the termination of the Welles-Mercury contract, and the results were readily evident on the balance statement. RKO reversed its slide and eked out modest profits in 1942, and then surged to record income levels.
b. Vladimir Ivan Leventon, Yalta, Ukraine, Russia, 7 May 1904, d. 14 March 1951
Val Lewton was a significant figure in 1940s Hollywood, known primarily for producing a wartime cycle of innovative B-grade horror films for RKO. Lewton's production unit and his role as "hyphenate" writer-producer indicated other important industry trends, as did RKO's effort to upgrade B-picture production to exploit the overheated first-run market during the war boom.
Lewton migrated from Russia to the United States at age ten, and was raised by his mother and her sister, stage and screen star Alla Nazimova. After attending Columbia, he went to work at MGM, where he became producer David Selznick's story editor—a position he continued at Selznick International Pictures from 1935 to 1942, working on such films as Gone with the Wind (1939) and Rebecca (1940) before signing with RKO, where his task was to produce low-budget projects with A-class production values. He assembled a unit that enjoyed immediate success with its debut effort, Cat People (1942), a dark, intense thriller about a Serbian girl, recently arrived in New York, who becomes a deadly tigress when sexually aroused. A modest hit, Cat People rejuvenated the horror genre, introducing a psychosexual dimension and bringing it "closer to home" with its New York setting. The heavy use of shadow and night scenes also served both a practical and a stylistic function, disguising the film's limited resources.
After Cat People, Lewton produced a "female gothic" variation of the horror film with I Walked With a Zombie (1943), a reworking of Jane Eyre (à la Rebecca). Then in quick succession the unit turned out The Leopard Man, The Seventh Victim, The Ghost Ship (all 1943), and Curse of the Cat People (1944). All were low-cost, black-and-white pictures with short running times, and they scored with both critics and audiences. The key figures were director Jacques Tourneur, cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca, art director Albert D'Agostino, set designer Darrell Silvera, composer Roy Webb, and Lewton himself as producer and frequent cowriter, usually under the pseudonym "Carlos Keith." (Besides Tourneur, who directed Lewton's first three pictures, Mark Robson and Robert Wise also directed for Lewton.)
Lewton's success at RKO faded with three successive Boris Karloff vehicles: The Body Snatcher, Isle of the Dead (both 1945), and Bedlam (1946). All were period pieces set in foreign locales, reaffirming Lewton's ability to attain A-class quality on a B-grade budget, but they were throwbacks to classical horror and distinctly at odds both with Lewton's earlier pictures and with the postwar horrors of the atomic age. When Bedlam failed to return its production costs, RKO declined to renew Lewton's contract. Working freelance, he produced three routine features before his untimely death from a heart attack.
Cat People (1942), I Walked With a Zombie (1943), The Leopard Man (1943), The Seventh Victim (1943), Curse of the Cat People (1944), The Body Snatcher (1945)
McBride, Joseph. "Val Lewton, Director's Producer." Action 11 (January-February 1976): 11–16.
Newman, Kim. Cat People. London: British Film Institute, 1999.
Siegel, Joel E. Val Lewton: The Reality of Terror. London: Secker & Warburg/British Film Institute, 1972.
Telotte, J. P. Dreams of Darkness: Fantasy and the Films of Val Lewton. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1985.
The key to RKO's wartime reversal was Koerner's diminished reliance on outside independents and heavy concentration on cost-efficient genre production. This
included a return to B-westerns and other low-grade series featuring the Falcon (starring George Sanders [1906–1972]), Tarzan (Johnny Weismuller [1904–1984]), and the Mexican Spitfire (Lupe Velez [1908–1944]). While these ensured steady returns, RKO took greater risks and enjoyed greater returns on its output of stylish, imaginative "near-As"—pictures made on (or slightly above) B-movie budgets but of sufficient quality to compete in the lucrative first-run market. Key here were two contract filmmakers: producer Val Lewton (1904–1951) and director Edward Dmytryk (1908–1999). Lewton, who signed with RKO in 1942, developed a "horror unit" that produced such modest wartime hits as Cat People (1942), I Walked with a Zombie (1943), The Curse of the Cat People (1944), and The Body Snatcher (1945). Lewton's horror gems were heavy on atmosphere and menace but devoid of stars, spectacle, and special effects, and thusly complemented the dark thrillers directed by Dmytryk. A former film editor who became RKO's most prolific and imaginative filmmaker during the war, Dmytryk honed his directing skills on B-grade series pictures before hitting his stride in 1943 with two topical melodramas, Hitler's Children and Behind the Rising Sun, followed by two film noir classics, Murder My Sweet (1944) and Cornered (1945). Dmytryk also showed he could work with top stars with Tender Comrade (1944), a homefront melodrama starring Ginger Rogers.
RKO continued to handle occasional independent productions during the war, such as the 1945 noir masterwork Woman in the Window, directed by Fritz Lang (1890–1976) and produced by International Pictures. The trend resumed with a vengeance in 1945 and 1946, as the war wound down and the demand for B-movie product radically diminished. The most significant independent ventures were Leo McCarey's (1898–1969) Bells of St. Mary's (1945), a sequel to his 1944 Paramount hit, Going My Way; It's a Wonderful Life (1946) by Frank Capra (1897–1991), which was actually a commercial and critical disappointment upon its initial release; and the Goldwyn-produced, Wyler-directed postwar "rehabilitation" drama, The Best Years of Our Lives, which was RKO's biggest hit of the decade. RKO also signed an important and unusual deal with Selznick in 1945 for several prepackaged films including such major hits as Notorious (1946), The Farmer's Daughter and The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer (both 1947). The deal gave Selznick profit participation and also paid him for the services of contract talent "attached" to the films, which included producer Dore Schary (1905–1980), who became RKO's top in-house independent.
RKO's fortunes took a sudden turn in early 1946 with the death of Charles Koerner, resulting in another executive shakeup and Schary's eventual ascent to head of the studio. RKO flourished briefly under Schary, thanks to the Selznick packages as well as signature noir thrillers such as Crossfire and Out of the Past (both 1947). But Schary's regime proved short-lived due to Howard Hughes's purchase of RKO from Floyd Odlum in May 1948. Hughes promptly shut down the studio to reorganize production and to weed out Communists—a process that actually had begun in late 1947 when Dmytryk and producer Adrian Scott (1912–1973), two of the so-called Hollywood Ten, were cited for Contempt of Congress and fired by RKO shortly after the release of their successful collaboration, Crossfire. Studio departures accelerated under Hughes, including the firing of corporate president Peter Rathvon and the resignation of Dore Schary, who left for MGM in July 1948, just as RKO resumed production.
When the studio reopened, Hughes was supervising all aspects of administration and production, and the results were disastrous. RKO released a few notable films early in Hughes's regime—most of them initiated under Schary, including two noir classics, The Set-Up (1949), directed by Robert Wise, and They Live By Night (1948), directed by newcomer Nicholas Ray (1911–1979). Merian Cooper and his Argosy Pictures partner John Ford also made the first two of their famed cavalry trilogy at RKO: Fort Apache (1948) and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949). But there was little else of note in the late 1940s, as Hughes's RKO became the studio of last resort for the growing ranks of independent producers, directors, and stars.
RKO's troubles deepened in the early 1950s as Hughes became increasingly erratic, focusing more on litigation and deal-making than on film production. He sold and than repurchased a controlling interest in the company in 1952, as studio losses mounted, and in 1954 he attempted to buy all of the outstanding stock as an apparent tax write-off. This effort was thwarted by Floyd Odlum, who decided to repurchase RKO and battled Hughes for control of the company until mid-1955, when Hughes sold his interests to General Teleradio, a subsidiary of the conglomerate General Tire and Rubber Company. The new owner was more interested in RKO's film library as TV syndication fodder than in its production operation, whose output had fallen to barely a dozen pictures per annum, few of any real note. There were the Disney releases, including Treasure Island (1950) and Alice in Wonderland (1951), and the occasional quality noir thriller such as Ray's On Dangerous Ground (1952). Desperation for product also led to the 1952 US release of Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa's Rashomon (1950). The other major studios were producing blockbusters to compete with television, and Hughes tried in vain to keep pace with Son of Sinbad (1955) and The Conqueror (1956), the latter a $6 million flop starring John Wayne (1907–1979) as a Mongol ruler. The signal disaster of Hughes's regime was Jet Pilot, apet project initiated in 1949, finally completed in 1957, some two years after Hughes's departure, and distributed by another studio, Universal-International.
There was a brief surge in production activity immediately after General Teleradio bought RKO, but the studio's fate was already clear. Within weeks of the July 1955 purchase, the RKO library of roughly 750 titles went into television syndication—the first major studio vault to go,
which opened the proverbial floodgates in terms of top Hollywood films being sold or leased to the upstart TV medium. By 1957 RKO was all but defunct as a production-distribution entity, and its actual demise came that year with the purchase of the studio lot by Desilu, the successful TV series producer owned by Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, who had once been under contract to RKO.
At this time all of the company's assets were sold with the exception of its unproduced screenplays, the remake rights to its produced films, and of course the trademark itself. There have been efforts over the years to parlay one or more of these assets into a successful motion picture venture—a partnership in the early 1980s with Universal Pictures, for instance, which resulted in such coproductions as The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas (1982) and a remake of Cat People (1982). In 1989 actors Ted Hartley and his wife Dina Merrill, heir to the E. F. Hutton and Post cereal fortunes, bought RKO and attempted to reactivate the studio, cofinancing remakes of RKO classics like Mighty Joe Young (1998) and The Magnificent Ambersons (2002, for the A&E cable television network). Thus RKO endures, although its role as a full-fledged studio—i.e., an active producer-distributor—has long since expired.
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