Required Viewing: TCM Celebrating 80 Years of RKO

Beauty may have killed the beast, but it did not silence “The Transmitter”. In fact, RKO Pictures became one of the most famous picture-makers during Hollywood’s Golden Age. RKO formed in 1928 after a successful merger was engineered in order to create a credible market for sound pictures. Warner Bros. might have been credited for pioneering sound technology, but the men at RKO were sure they could muster up some quality films. Little did they know they’d create two of the greatest films in cinematic history.

This year RKO Pictures is celebrating its 80th anniversary and every Wednesday in the month of October Turner Classic Movies will be showcasing the films made famous by the revered studio. Little known films like King Kong (1933) and Citizen Kane (1941) can be seen alongside 1939’s Gunga Din and Hitchcock’s classic 1946 thriller, Notorious (1946).

Movie lovers will also have the opportunity to catch five of the six “lost” pre-code RKO pictures TCM acquired the copyright to in 2006 – the uncensored version of Double Harness (1933), with William Powell and Ann Harding; Rafter Romance (1933),  a light comedy with Ginger Rogers; One Man’s Journey (1933), a brisk drama starring Lionel Barrymore and Joel McCrea; the William Wellman directed Stingaree (1934), a whimsical Western adventure musical with Irene Dunne (in her first major singing role) and the handsome Richard Dix; and A Man to Remember (1938), with Anne Shirley – and all films will be presented fully restored on new 35mm prints.

You can check TCM’s schedule here for more information and showtimes.

The RKO studio, concerned only with making talkies, quickly rivaled Warner Bros. with its production of memorable films, and watched as the Western epic Cimarron (1931) garnered an Academy Award for Best Picture. Under the watchful eyes of David O. Selznick, and then Merian Cooper, RKO churned out an impressive 40 films per year during the 1930s, showcasing the talents of Astaire and Rogers in musical films like The Gay Divorcee (1934), Top Hat (1935) and Swing Time (1936) and grooming the remarkable acting abilities of Katherine Hepburn and Cary Grant. It also helped that Cooper’s little film about a big ape secured RKO’s place in Hollywood.

The birth of film noir is usually credited to RKO, responsible for the release of the doom-laden Stranger on the Third Floor (1940), featuring Peter Lorre as the Stranger. Film noir was soon accepted as a cynical and brutal Hollywood art form: minimal lighting and perverse angles exploited worlds of corruption overwrought with fiery untrusting femme fatales, seedy two bit criminals and down on their luck heroes. RKO’s penchant for well told low-budget dramas fueled the studio’s ability to dish out unforgettable noir pieces like Hitchcock’s Suspicion (1941) and the 1947 Robert Mitchum vehicle Crossfire. A truly superb example of RKO’s trusted work can be seen in Out of the Past (1947), starring Mitchum, Jane Greer, and Kirk Douglas. In the film, Mitchum portrays Jeff, a gas-station owner whose mysterious past is slowly revealed through a series of misfortunate flashbacks. The studio emerged from the shadows with yet another high quality noir by releasing They Live by Night in 1949. Deemed film noir’s Romeo and Juliet story, They Live by Night was a wickedly sharp film, powered by director Nicholas Ray’s soulful depth and sincerity.

RKO assisted in making the name of Orson Welles both appreciated and despised by directors and actors with the over-the-top satirical offering Citizen Kane (1941) and 1942’s taut American drama The Magnificent Ambersons. Consequently, RKO faced near ruin, but with the onset of the Second World War, life at the studio was about to get somewhat better. The studio produced memorable films throughout the 1940s like My Favorite Wife and The Bells of St. Mary’s and the classic John Wayne western, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949), and also adopted the horror genre, employing the masterful Val Lewton. Through chilling works like Cat People (1942), I Walked with a Zombie, and The Body Snatcher (1945), Lewton struck fear in many unforgiving moviegoers, and his expert use of shadows and sound still continue to awe audiences and inspire directors today. In addition, successful film franchises like The Saint, The Falcon and Tarzan graced the screens. But RKO was floundering financially. In 1948, Howard Hughes, the famed maverick, purchased the majority of RKO’s stock. However, during Hughes’ reign as owner, the previously resurgent RKO suffered from Hughes’ meddling and red-hunting. Hughes would shut down production for weeks or months at a time for a variety of reasons. He ended his RKO association by selling the company to the General Tire and Rubber Company’s General Teleradio division in 1955 for $25 million.

RKO had a distinctive rebirth recently and continues to operate today, producing original entertainment as well as remakes of its classic films.

Author’s Note – To RKO’s credit, their films are what helped shape me as a film buff. I’ll admit, my first true acquaintance with black and white film as a youngster resulted from late morning Sunday viewings of Laurel and Hardy and The Three Stooges and later Sunday afternoon viewings of creature features on the local public access channel. But when I saw King Kong for the first time, I saw the unbelievable, yet captivating magic a film could radiate. The smart dialogue, ‘groundbreaking” special effects, the screams of Fay Wray and the tangled emotions of a misunderstood gorilla hypnotized me and I soon would become a celluloid junkie. However, it wasn’t until my high school showed a film as a candy bar selling reward that I fully appreciated the art of RKO. Yes, Bringing Up Baby (1939), a ‘little’ screwball comedy, starring the debonair Cary Grant and wily Katherine Hepburn enabled the dorky high schooler in me appreciate the films RKO generated, and to this day I’m still enamored by their eclectic catalogue: the Val Lewton production Cat People and the use of horror cast in shadows and ominous sounds yet hinged on visions unseen, or Bette Davis’s stinging performance in Of Human Bondage (1934) or the gritty film noir benchmark, Out of the Past, starring Robert Mitchum or… well, you the get the picture. 

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