Once a part of the acclaimed “Big Five” Golden Age Hollywood studios, RKO once rivaled MGM, Paramount, Fox and Warner Bros, contracting the best of the best actors and actresses of the era to star in the newly invented sound films, and distributing shorts, cartoons, and films from smaller studios. Known for producing Screwball1 films, distributing low-budget horror, and creating the art design behind some of the best film noir2 films at the time, RKO was fierce competition against the other four “Big Five” studios, but struggled to keep up under new management. While the other four main studios have become household names over the past century, RKO has become mainly forgotten to history- leading to most of the filmography rights to be sold to Warner Bros. Discovery, gone into the public domain, or became lost media. So, without further ado, let’s turn back the clock to a simpler time, when radio could rival film, WW1 was becoming a distant nightmare, and the Great Depression was just around the corner…
In October 1928, the Radio Corporation of America merged the Keith-Albee-Orpheum theater chain and Joseph P. Kennedy’s Film Booking Offices of America studio; RCA had just invented the RCA phonograph, a sound-on film technology, and the merger could give RCA the market and talent to create films. Sound films- known as “talkies”- were hitting theaters like hotcakes, with the first full-length film with the new technology being Warner Bros’ The Jazz Singer in 1927. It’s also important to note Keith-Albee-Orpheum theater’s involvement in the merger; silent film actors and actresses were not trained for sound performances, and needed extra training in order to adapt to the new microphones and technologies. Keith-Albee-Orpheum theater had been built on live vaudeville3 performances, had an established lively cast of actors and actresses who were already stage trained for sound. Not only could the theater provide the production company with new performers, but they provided numerous theaters to show the movies at. During the Golden Age of Hollywood, studios would sign contracts with theaters to play their films, and their films only. The studios who could afford to be shown at as many theaters as possible had a higher probably of bringing in a profit. The new sound-on film technology took a while for studios to get used to, inspiring realistic material for this humorous scene in Singin’ in the Rain (1952), so RCA’s history with being a radio producer first proved to be an advantage over the other studios. By spring 1929, the merger branded itself as RKO Radio Pictures (an abbreviation of Radio-Keith-Orpheum), copyrighting as Radio Pictures, and, on March 29th their first film, the musical Syncopation hit theaters. Their first big hit- and the most expensive to produce- was the musical Rio Rita, released in theaters in September of 1929, featuring a finale filmed in technicolor.
In the first two years of production, RKO Radio Pictures released a total of 41 films, but none could achieve the same numbers as Rio Rita. RKO produced several films during this time, but due to the public interest in musicals started to wane, musicals were expensive to produce, and the Great Depression was taking a hit on America’s economy, the musicals just couldn’t make back the costs. In 1931, RKO executives focused their wallets on expansion, adding more theaters, and merging with silent-film production and distribution company Pathé, and buying a 50% stake in the New York Van Beuren studio which had produced cartoons and live shorts. The merger with Pathé was profitable for RKO for two things; one, RKO inherited DeMille’s old Culver City studio and backlot, creating more available space for filming, and the complete accessibility of Pathé’s extensive list of popular actors and actresses, who were now working under RKO’s contracts. In Spring 1931, RKO released Cimarron, a financial flop which earned RKO’s only Academy Awards; for Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Production Design. By November 1931, Pathé’s merge with RKO had been completed, and a new production chief, David O. Selznick, was hired to help the studio produce better films for cheaper. Selznick was only twenty-nine at the time, and quickly hired up-and-coming directors for the newest films, most of which were also in their twenties. He signed Katharine Hepburn, John Barrymore, and approved a screentest for Fred Astaire, who would go on to revolutionize how dancers were filmed in movies. Selznick was also behind RKO’s iconic 1933 classic, King Kong, with special effects done by Willis O’Brien. But RKO’s financial difficulties were starting to catch up to the studio, and Merian Cooper replaced Selznick as production head in January 1933.
Under Cooper, RKO produced successful musicals with Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire pairing together, competed against Columbia Pictures with their line-up of Screwball films, and distributed Louis de Rochemont’s long-running documentary series The March of Time (1935-1951). This era in RKO’s history was marked with successes after successes, able to produce films on tighter budgets, and visually leaned more into the Art Deco style popularized in the 1920s. RKO’s main art direction supervisor, Van Nest Polglase, can be contributed to creating some of the more iconic sets in RKO Picture’s filmography; he was nominated for six Academy Awards for Best Art Direction from 1934-1941. In 1935, Cary Grant joined the cast of stars employed by RKO, loaned out from Paramount, and became one of RKO’s biggest stars. By 1935, RKO Radio Pictures had a distinguished style, the best period wardrobist in Hollywood working behind scenes, and had released the first full-feature film processed in the brand new and highly advanced three-strip Technicolor- Becky Sharp. The studio continued to peak when Walt Disney Studios approached RKO to distribute their shorts and features, including Snow White and the Seven Dwarves (1937); this new partnership, which lasted almost two decades, caused the death of Van Beuren’s cartooning branch. King Kong‘s special effects was just the diving board for what films could accomplish with matt paintings and optical printers, their special effects team continued to engineer the best ways to stun and amaze an audience. RKO’s biggest cultural hit was about to make it’s debut…
Join us next week as we cover the last 17 years of RKO Radio Pictures’ history and filmography in Part II!
Disclaimer: Some of the films created in this era may depict outdated and harmful stereotypes, messages, and storylines.
RKO Films Available at WPPL
Syncopation (1929) – Available to watch for free on Youtube
Rio Rita (1929) – Technicolor scene available to watch for free on Youtube
Cimarron (1931) – Available on DVD
A Bill of Divorcement (1932)- Available to watch for free on Youtube
King Kong (1933) – Available on Blu-ray and DVD
Becky Sharp (1935)- Available to watch for free on Youtube
Other Films Referenced in This Article
The Jazz Singer (1927) – Available to watch for free on Youtube
Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarves (1937) – Available on DVD
Singin’ in the Rain (1952) – Available on DVD
Britannica: “RKO Radio Pictures, Inc.“
Encyclopedia.com: “RKO Radio Pictures”
- Screwball comedies, as defined by encyclopedia.com, is a film genre originating in the mid-1930s, “…Based upon the old “boy-meets-girl” formula turned topsy-turvy, it generally presented the eccentric, female-dominated courtship of an upper-class couple.” These films were marked by a strong female antiheroic lead often making fun of the male, or creating social commentary on classism, in the heteronormative relationships seen in media at the time. They started to wane in popularity during the 1940s due to the strict censorship rules enforced by Hollywood’s Production Code (1934); a modern example of a film in this subgenre of film is Garry Marshall’s Runaway Bride (1999) ↩︎
- Film Noir is an artistic style used in film and television, noted by harsh, dramatic lighting, realistic, grungy big-city settings, and often used in romance or detective stories, peaking in popularity in black-and-white films of the 1940s. ↩︎
- Vaudeville, as defined by Britannica, is “… a light entertainment popular from the mid-1890s until the early 1930s that consisted of 10 to 15 individual unrelated acts, featuring magicians, acrobats, comedians, trained animals, jugglers, singers, and dancers.” Often these variety shows would travel from theater to theater, and might involve more mature, and inappropriate performances, like minstrel shows. The Abbott and Costello Show (1952-1957) is an example of the cleaner vaudeville acts translated to the silver screen, with witty variety performances sliced into the main storyline of each episode. This style of entertainment would virtually disappear by World War II. ↩︎