RKO Pictures

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RKO (Radio-Keith-Orpheum) Pictures Inc. (also: RKO Radio Pictures ) was an American film production , film rental, and cinema company . In Hollywood's studio days , RKO was - alongside MGM , 20th Century Fox , Paramount and Warner - the smallest of the major studios then known as the “Big Five” . The company, which existed from 1929 to 1955, produced around 1,500 films. In its distribution RKO not only supervised its own productions, but also more than 900 others that came from other manufacturers, including many from Walt Disney and Samuel Goldwyn .



Joseph P. Kennedy, founded the RKO in 1929

RKO emerged in 1929 from the film production and distribution company FBO , whose previous boss, Joseph P. Kennedy , wanted to create a company that could play a leading role in the sound film market that was just emerging . FBO had a large studio area in Hollywood, but did not have its own sound film technology. Kennedy sold the majority shares he owned in FBO to the Radio Corporation of America (RCA), which had developed a sound film process called RCA Photophone ; on behalf of RCA, Kennedy then negotiated a merger between FBO and the powerful theater chain Keith-Albee-Orpheum (KAO). After the merger finally came about, RCA equipped both the new cinemas and the production facilities with sound technology.

William LeBaron , who began his career as a Broadway composer but had worked as a producer for Adolph Zukor since 1926 , was the first head of production at the new company, which now had production facilities, a distributor and its own cinemas . Some of the first RKO contract actors (e.g. Richard Dix ) and directors (Merian Cooper) also came with LeBaron from Paramount Pictures.

Betty Compson starred in the first RKO film

Right from the start, RKO produced pure sound films and, in line with the trend, initially focused on the popular genre of music films. The first film the new studio produced -  Syncopation  - has not yet been announced as an RKO, but as a LeBaron film. RKO made his official debut with Street Girl with Betty Compson in the lead role. The studio's greatest financial success was the film adaptation of the Ziegfeld show Rio Rita . The film was produced at great expense and could even be made with a color scene in Technicolor Process No. 2 wait. The studio was able to generate a profit of over $ 1.6 million by the end of the year, which almost doubled in the following year. In late 1930, Kennedy arranged for RKO to acquire the American branch of the French film maker Pathé . The purchase took effect on January 29, 1931 and brought RKO not only a film studio and site in Culver City and the well-established Pathé newsreel , but also a number of new contract actors and directors such as Gregory La Cava , Constance Bennett , Ann Harding , Bill Boyd and Helen Twelvetrees . LeBaron also took talents such as Irene Dunne , Mary Astor and Joel McCrea under exclusive contracts. In the course of the year, RKO acquired its own cinema chain with 175 branches for over 33 million dollars in order to also grow in the distribution business.

With the Western Pioneers of the Wild West directed by Wesley Ruggles , RKO won an Oscar for the best film for the first time .

Financial problems and new successes under production manager David Selznick

In October 1931 LeBaron was replaced by David O. Selznick , who was only 29 years old, but had already produced some successful films such as Street of Chance and Sarah and Son at Paramount . LeBaron had failed to protect RKO from the effects of the spreading economic crisis, which led to a drop in audience numbers from 130 million in 1929 to just under 55 million in 1933. At the same time, the studio was forced to make high expenditures due to the high investments in its own cinema chain, which were not covered by corresponding income. After the losses had risen to over 10 million dollars in 1932, RKO applied for an orderly bankruptcy (so-called equity receipt) in mid-1933. This forced administration was only ended in 1940.

Selznick's declared goal was to increase the quality of RKO productions. Paramount he had the director George Cukor brought in whose film drama A divorce in addition to John Barrymore and Billie Burke first time Katharine Hepburn occurred. Hepburn stayed with RKO until 1938 and appeared in films such as Four Sisters , Stage Entrance and Leopard Doesn't Kisses . Cukor staged for RKO a. a. some films with Constance Bennett, including Rockabye , What Price Hollywood? and Our Betters . The most successful films that RKO produced under Selznick were Merian Coopers and Ernest Schoedsack's horror film King Kong and the white woman with Fay Wray and Bruce Cabot and the literary adaptation Four Sisters . King Kong , first performed at New York's Radio City Music Hall on March 7, 1933 , grossed $ 1,761,000 at the height of the Depression.

Selznick left RKO in February 1933 and went to MGM. His successor was Merian Cooper , who not only directed King Kong for RKO , but had also produced several films. In the same year Mark Sandrich directed the musical fun game So This is Harris for RKO ! , which won an Oscar for best short film .

Head of Production Merian Cooper

In 1933, Cooper signed the film-inexperienced revue star Fred Astaire and brought him together with Ginger Rogers , who had been in the film business for several years. Astaire and Rogers had their first joint appearance as supporting actors in the film Flying Down to Rio , which made Dolores del Río a star. The audience liked the duo Astaire / Rogers and RKO built the two actors specifically as a screen couple . The films dance with me! and Swing Time each won an Oscar for best song ; I'll dance my way into your heart and Swing Time was later added to the National Film Registry . Top Hat became the most successful RKO production of the entire decade in 1935, with grossing $ 3,202,000. Occasionally Rogers and Astaire also appeared separately, for example in the films Miss Kitty , which won Rogers an Oscar for best actress, and A Miss in Need , in which Astaire appeared solo. The choreographer, Hermes Pan , received an Oscar for the latter film .

Another actress who became a star on RKO was Lucille Ball . Ball initially only appeared in extras and supporting roles - often in films with Astaire / Rogers - until the studio used her for the first time in a title role in the comedy The Affairs of Annabel in 1938 . Twelve other leading roles followed by 1942, when Ball switched to MGM.

Cooper was also able to win some other popular actors for RKO, most of whom worked for the studio on the basis of non-exclusive contracts. Barbara Stanwyck celebrated a comeback in Annie Oakley in 1935 and later had further successes with The Bride Walks Out and The Plow and the Stars, among others . Cary Grant acted in 15 RKO films from 1935 to 1948. The most important directors Cooper was able to sign were George Stevens and John Ford. George Stevens worked exclusively for RKO from 1933 to 1939 and gained experience in a wide range of genres. John Ford directed the 1935 film The Traitor for RKO , a drama about the Irish War of Independence , which earned him his first Oscar for best director . Two other films that Ford made for the studio were Mary of Scotland and The Plow and the Stars .

In 1935, Cooper signed an important contract with the Disney studios, which from then on had their films marketed by the RKO distributor. Films like Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs , Pinocchio , Fantasia , Dumbo and Bambi became prestige products for both Disney and RKO. Due to the unfavorable contract conditions for the studio, RKO was only able to profit from this business to a limited extent.

Success under changing heads of production

At the end of 1935, Samuel Briskin became RKO's head of production. Briskin continued the previous studio policy without major innovations. In 1937 Pandro S. Berman , who had been working for RKO since 1931, replaced Briskin as head of the studio. The most important film the company produced under his direction was the adventure film Riot in Sidi Hakim, directed by George Stevens based on a template by Rudyard Kipling , in which Cary Grant, Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and Victor McLaglen play three British officers who are in India had to defend against murderous locals during colonial times. Other films that Berman oversaw beyond his tenure as RKO studio boss were Restless Love , a melodrama with Irene Dunne and Charles Boyer that received a number of Academy Award nominations, and The Hunchback of Notre Dame with Charles Laughton .

At the end of 1938, Berman was followed by George Schaefer , who had previously worked for United Artists and transferred a central element of the company's business model - the financing and marketing of independently produced A-Movies  - to RKO. Unlike MGM, for example, at the end of the 1930s, RKO hardly had any first-class directors or stars under permanent contracts; the last major contract actress - Ginger Rogers - left the company in 1941, although Schaefer ended up offering her an annual fee of $ 390,000 for another three-year exclusive contract. Schaefer was forced to continue what had already been the practice at RKO before: the " loan " of artists or the conclusion of non-exclusive contracts for a certain number of films. Sun joined Carole Lombard since 1939 in several RKO films, including In Name Only . Even Maureen O'Hara was seen from 1939 four times in RKO productions, including Dorothy Arzners Revue film Dance, Girl, Dance .

Orson Welles (1937), whose Citizen Kane was produced by RKO

In 1941 Schaefer succeeded in signing a contract with the independent producer Samuel Goldwyn, who, dissatisfied with the previous collaboration with United Artists, had his films distributed through RKO. The prestigious films that RKO released for Goldwyn in the following years include The Little Foxes , The Strange Taming of the Gangster Bride Sugarpuss , The Big Throw and The Best Years Of Our Lives . Schaefer concluded another with David Selznick, who now had his own company and produced two films for RKO directed by Alfred Hitchcock: the screwball comedy Mr. and Mrs. Smith and the thriller Suspicion . Unlike in large studios such as B. MGM, which were efficiently run by authoritarian managers like Louis B. Mayer , the organization at RKO was changeable and flexible and offered the employees comparatively great opportunities to realize their artistic ideas. In terms of film history, the most significant example of the freedom that directors occasionally found at RKO are the early directorial work of Orson Welles: Citizen Kane , The Shine of the House of Amberson . However, during the post-production for the latter film, Schaefer got into an argument with his superiors, which eventually cost him his position as head of the studio.

The director Jacques Tourneur also found RKO in 1942 and directed a total of eight films there, including his masterpiece, the Film Noir Goldenes Gift , but also a number of popular horror films such as Cat People and I Followed a Zombie , which the legal successors of RKO later used as the basis for remakes used. RKO also employs top people in the technical field, such as For example, the sound engineer Stephen Dunn , who received an Oscar for his work on the film This is my country . RKO also produced documentaries. A film historically important example is that of Frederic Ullman Jr. produced short film victories over the German invasion of Warsaw . The film was nominated for an Oscar and entered the National Film Registry in 2006.

After Schaefer's resignation, Charles Koerner , who had previously run the RKO theater chain, took over the management of the production business. During the war years, the cinema industry boomed to the same extent as it did with the introduction of talkies. All film companies recorded significant increases in sales and RKO's profits also grew exponentially compared to previous years. Light comedies and musicals as well as war dramas were particularly popular with the audience. RKO 's biggest financial hits of the period included Hitler's Children , an early Edward Dmytryk film that went for less than $ 750,000 without major stars and grossed over $ 3.5 million at the box office. Behind the Rising Sun , a film about a group of prisoners in a Japanese penal camp, Bombardier , who portrayed the heroic work of bomber pilots, and Tender Comrades , who portrayed Ginger Rogers' experiences on the home front, also made six-figure profits for the studio . Young Robert Ryan was featured in all three films, and the studio had high hopes of making him a star, but his military service prevented the hopeful development. In contrast, it was possible to build Robert Mitchum into a household name. In 1945 the studio brought The Bell's of St Mary’s to rental, which showed Bing Crosby and Ingrid Bergman as priests and nuns fighting to save an orphanage. The film, a co-production with Leo McCarey's company Rainbow Production , became the studio's biggest financial success ever, bringing in over $ 3.5 million in net income for RKO.

After Koerner died in February 1946, Dore Schary , who had previously worked for David Selznick, became the new head of production at RKO. Under his leadership, the company brought several very successful films to distribution, which were produced together with Selznick's company Vanguard Pictures : The Spiral Staircase , Notorious and Love Is Not That Simple .

Decline and demise after Hughes took over

In May 1948, Howard Hughes acquired the majority of shares in RKO. Hughes was the very rich heir of the Hughes Tool Company and, among other hobbies, had been producing films since the 1920s. After Koerner left RKO in July 1948, he also became the company's head of production. Hughes brought Jane Russell to RKO, with whom he had directed the film Outlaw in 1940 and who had a personal contract with Hughes. The quality of RKO productions fell continuously with the arrival of Hughes. The sometimes eccentric billionaire invested a lot of money in productions with actresses whom he wanted to build stars like Russell, such as Faith Domergue and Alida Valli . The film Jet Pilot, starring John Wayne and Janet Leigh , directed by Josef von Sternberg, was another of Hughes' personal projects and he was continuously involved in its production. The film went into production in early 1949, but it wasn't until 1956 for national distribution. Hughes also signed the young Jean Simmons for three films and used her in Angel Face , among others, directed by Otto Preminger .

With the exception of Ice Cold Vengeance , a film noir with Joan Crawford from 1952, and The Conqueror in which John Wayne appeared as Genghis Khan , hardly any RKO production managed to win nominations for film awards or bring in significant amounts at the box office . Some of the better-known films of the 1950s include some early Nicholas Ray films such as Born to Be Bad and On Dangerous Ground , both starring Robert Ryan, and several films by Fritz Lang : Rancho Notorious , in which Marlene Dietrich played a criminal saloon owner, and Clash by Night ( Before the new day ) with Barbara Stanwyck and Marilyn Monroe , both from 1952 and Beyond a Reasonable Doubt , the last American film director. In addition, RKO was able to acquire the US rights for Akira Kurosawa's Rashomon - Das Lustwäldchen , the only artistically outstanding film that the studio brought to cinemas under the aegis of Hughes.

In 1955, RKO came to an end, and Hughes split the company into two completely separate areas: the production and distribution company RKO Pictures and the cinema company RKO Theaters . The studio area no longer started any new projects, but only completed what had already started and still seemed worthwhile. One of the last films to be released by RKO was the Jules Verne adaptation From the Earth to the Moon (1958) directed by Byron Haskin with Joseph Cotten .

Dissolution and legal succession

The whereabouts of the RKO holdings and rights after the company was dissolved in 1955.
Green arrows = production facilities
Blue arrows = "film library" and exploitation rights
Violet arrows = copyright (logos, scripts, etc.)

Production facilities

The RKO Pictures acquired in 1955 the conglomerate General Tire , the company with its broadcast branch General Teleradio together laid. The resulting company, RKO Teleradio, produced two short documentaries and a feature film until 1957, then the company, which was called RKO General from 1959 , switched itself entirely to the broadcasting business.

RKO's studio facilities in Hollywood and Culver City were acquired by Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball in 1957 , who paid $ 6.15 million for them and used them for their Desilu production company until 1967 . The Hollywood facilities were subsequently owned by Paramount and are now home to the studios of CBS Television . The facilities in Culver City have changed hands several times and are now known as PCCP Studio City Los Angeles as an independent rental studio . Forty Acres , the studio site in Culver City, was demolished and repurposed in the mid-1970s.

Film stocks and exploitation rights

The holdings that Hughes sold to General Tire in 1955 also included the RKO “film library”: the exploitation rights to 740 feature films produced by RKO. General Tire and RKO Teleradio did not need these rights and sold the majority of them in December 1955 for 15 million dollars to the Cantrell & Cochrane subsidiary C&C Television Corp. C&C began doing business with broadcasting companies who used the RKO films in their television programs - a practice that was also followed by other large film studios. When the legal successor to C&C Television, TransBeacon , went bankrupt in 1971, the exploitation rights (cinema, television, video) were auctioned. The Paris-based company Atlantic Arts became the new owner for the exploitation rights abroad . United Artists bought part of the domestic rights, which MGM bought back in 1986; the other part was acquired by Marian B. Inc. (MBI), which in 1984 transferred these rights to its subsidiary Marian Pictures Inc. (MBP). 1986 RKO General MBP bought the rights again.

RKO Teleradio / RKO General had sold their exploitation rights in 1955, but still owned the rights to the material and scripts of the RKO films and thus also the rights for the production of remakes , sequels , prequels and the like. Until the 1950s, RKO had topped up its revenues frequently by selling all rights to the film to studios that were planning the remake of an RKO film. In this way, e.g. B. MGM came into possession of a number of RKO films that were no longer part of the sales package in 1955. Because MGM made security negatives of these films back in the 1960s, they have survived better than many others.

In September 1986, Ted Turner bought MGM and United Artists for the TBS subsidiary Turner Entertainment from Kirk Kerkorian , thereby also acquiring the television rights for 800 RKO films. Since the merger of TBS with Time Warner (1996), the exploitation rights for the RKO films have been with the latter company.

RKO General sold the rights to the trademarks and logos of RKO Pictures, as well as all rights to the scripts, screenplays, remakes and the like to the investment company Wesray Capital , which it merged with its amusement park chain Six Flags . RKO / Six Flags Entertainment was broken up again in 1989. Dina Merrill and Ted Hartley acquired the rights to the RKO logos, scripts, etc. and founded the film production company RKO Pictures LLC . A large part of the exploitation rights to the RKO films, which had never been sold to C&C or which had been bought back by MBP in 1986, was acquired by Ted Turner.


Torsion bars

RKO employed u. a. the directors John Cromwell , George Cukor, William Dieterle , John Ford, Howard Hawks , Howard Hughes, Gregory La Cava, Leo McCarey, Mark Robson , George Stevens, Jacques Tourneur, Orson Welles and Robert Wise . A special effects expert at RKO was Vernon Walker (1932-1948). From 1929 to 1935, the film composer Max Steiner , the "father of film music", was employed by RKO. The company's producers included u. a. Val Lewton (1942-1946).


The actors who have worked for RKO include:

Artists marked with an asterisk * did not have a studio contract with RKO , but only signed contracts for individual films.


RKO is mentioned on The Rocky Horror Show in the title track Science Fiction / Double Feature . "... to the late night double feature picture show, by RKO, oh-oh, ..."


  • Richard B. Jewell: RKO Story . Random House, 1985, ISBN 0-517-54656-6
  • Betty Lasky: RKO: The Biggest Little Major of Them All . Roundtable, 1989, ISBN 0-915677-41-5
  • James L. Neibaur: The RKO Features: A Complete Filmography of the Feature Films Released or Produced by RKO Radio . McFarland & Company, 2005, ISBN 0-7864-2166-5
  • James Robert Parish: The RKO Girls . Arlington House, 1974

Web links

Individual evidence

  1. ^ A b Roy Pickard: The Hollywood Studios . Frederick Muller, London 1978, ISBN 0-584-10445-6 , p. 409
  2. Pickard, p. 411
  3. ^ The Formation and Early Development of RKO
  4. a b c d Reworking the UA Model
  5. Pickard, p. 394
  6. The Magnificent Ambersons
  7. RKO and General Teleradio ( Memento of the original from May 15, 2010 in the Internet Archive ) Info: The archive link was inserted automatically and has not yet been checked. Please check the original and archive link according to the instructions and then remove this notice. @1@ 2Template: Webachiv / IABot / ketupa.net
  8. The Culver Studios ( Memento of the original from October 31, 2012 in the Internet Archive ) Info: The archive link was automatically inserted and has not yet been checked. Please check the original and archive link according to the instructions and then remove this notice. @1@ 2Template: Webachiv / IABot / www.theculverstudios.com
  9. ^ Initial Plans for Movie Studio Backlot Approved . In: Los Angeles Times , May 1, 1975
  10. ^ William Boddy: Fifties Television: The Industry and It's Critics , 138
  11. 1950's & 60's - The Peak & Television
  12. US 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals: Saltzman v. Cir ; C&C RKO 16mm Prints ( Memento of the original dated November 1, 2006 in the Internet Archive ) Info: The archive link was inserted automatically and has not yet been checked. Please check the original and archive link according to the instructions and then remove this notice. @1@ 2Template: Webachiv / IABot / www.film-center.com
  13. C&C RKO 16mm Prints ( Memento of the original dated November 1, 2006 in the Internet Archive ) Info: The archive link was inserted automatically and has not yet been checked. Please check the original and archive link according to the instructions and then remove this notice. ; MGM belonged u. a. the films The Age of Innocence (1935), Roberta (1935), Rio Rita (1942), Anchor in Frisco ( Hit the Deck , 1955), Pioneers of the Wild West (1960) @1@ 2Template: Webachiv / IABot / www.film-center.com
  14. ^ A President For MGM / UA . In: New York Times , October 28, 1986; RKO Deal Spurs Speculation: Colorful Home Vid Co. From Turner? Billboard; C&C RKO 16mm Prints ( Memento of the original dated November 1, 2006 in the Internet Archive ) Info: The archive link was inserted automatically and has not yet been checked. Please check the original and archive link according to the instructions and then remove this notice. @1@ 2Template: Webachiv / IABot / www.film-center.com