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RKO Radio Pictures

RKO Radio Pictures: A Titan Is Born

Copyright Date: 2012
Edition: 1
Pages: 340
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  • Book Info
    RKO Radio Pictures
    Book Description:

    One of the "Big Five" studios of Hollywood's golden age, RKO is remembered today primarily for the famous films it produced, from King Kong and Citizen Kane to the Astaire-Rogers musicals. But its own story also provides a fascinating case study of film industry management during one of the most vexing periods in American social history.RKO Radio Pictures: A Titan is Bornoffers a vivid history of a thirty-year roller coaster of unstable finances, management battles, and artistic gambles. Richard Jewell has used unparalleled access to studio documents generally unavailable to scholars to produce the first business history of RKO, exploring its decision-making processes and illuminating the complex interplay between art and commerce during the heyday of the studio system. Behind the blockbuster films and the glamorous stars, the story of RKO often contained more drama than any of the movies it ever produced.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-95195-2
    Subjects: Film Studies

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-7)

    “RKO—isn’t he a wrestler?” asked one of my students when I told him I would be teaching a class on RKO during the following semester.

    “No,” I said. “It’s an old movie studio that had a particularly interesting history.”

    “Oh,” he responded, and quickly walked away.

    As the years fall away since the general public recognized only one kind of screen entertainment, the name RKO Radio Pictures has less and less resonance. Most of the company’s competitors during the “golden age” of American cinema—Paramount, Warner Bros., Universal, Twentieth Century–Fox, Columbia—remain familiar, their ubiquitous corporate logos gracing...

  5. 1. “Master Showmen of the World”: Prehistory and the Formation of the Company
    (pp. 8-19)

    The roots of RKO can be traced back to 1883. In that year, the vaudeville showman B.F. Keith opened a variety theater in a fifteen-by-thirty-five-foot remodeled store in South Boston, Massachusetts.¹ Keith’s theater was a success and he decided to expand. When he died in 1914, he controlled a nationwide circuit of vaudeville houses that could, and did, book entertainers on tours of more than a year’s duration. Keith built his theatrical domain through expansion of his Keith houses and by amalgamating them with the Albee circuit.

    During the early years of the twentieth century, the movies were generally regarded...

  6. 2. “It’s RKO—Let’s Go”: The Brown-Schnitzer-LeBaron Regime (1929–1931)
    (pp. 20-39)

    On January 25, 1929, FBO ceased to exist. The film production enterprise was renamed RKO Productions, Incorporated. “Officials of the old FBO company,” theExhibitors Herald-Worldreported, “were elated at the change in name, feeling that the new title carries with it some of the glory and prestige of the gigantic Radio-Keith-Orpheum organiza tion, of which RKO Productions is such a prominent part.”¹ Three weeks later, it was announced that the studio’s product would be trade-named “Radio Pictures.” RCA’s determination to foster the new enterprise and to remind people that it had brought the company into existence was implicit in...

  7. 3. “Failure on the installment plan, a ticket at a time”: The Aylesworth-Kahane-Selznick Regime (1932–1933)
    (pp. 40-64)

    A scene that would be repeated all too frequently during RKO history played out during David O. Selznick’s first few months as production head. “Reorganization” was the objective—a general realignment and house cleaning intended to get the company on the right track. Many changes were made, the most dramatic coming in the executive ranks.

    Early in 1932, it appeared Hiram Brown and Joseph Schnitzer would continue at the top of the RKO totem pole. Schnitzer announced that he planned to move his office back to New York, leaving production matters on the West Coast completely in Selznick’s hands.¹ Schnitzer...

  8. 4. “All this is very distressing to me”: The Aylesworth-Kahane-Cooper Regime (1933–1934)
    (pp. 65-93)

    B.B. Kahane and Merlin Aylesworth were prepared for the departure of David Selznick. They had decided in January that if negotiations with Selznick failed, they would ask Merian C. Cooper to take charge of production.¹ When the opportunity was presented, Cooper first asked Selznick’s permission. He felt considerably indebted to Selznick, who had brought him to RKO and supported him throughout his association with the studio. Selznick had no objections, and Cooper accepted the position. Merian Cooper had a big job ahead of him, for at that very juncture the “Titan” was entering equity receivership.

    On January 27, 1933, Judge...

  9. 5. “He feels the company is unsettled”: The Aylesworth-McDonough-Kahane Regime (1934–1935)
    (pp. 94-114)

    Except for the emergence of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers as vital stars, very little of consequence transpired at RKO during the last half of 1934. J. R. McDonough set up a permanent office in Hollywood, and B. B. Kahane began devoting himself to specific production problems and decisions. Company executives decided to maintain a low profile concerning the studio’s new organizational structure. The fact that Kahane was now functioning as production chief received only passing mention in RKO publicity. Perhaps this was a face-saving strategy for Kahane, former president of the production company, who now appeared to be saddled...

  10. 6. “An awfully long corner”: The Spitz-Briskin Regime (1936–1937)
    (pp. 115-148)

    The initial period of Odlum stewardship turned out to be particularly troublesome. Management shake-ups, now seemingly regular company events, had always proved disruptive, but this one churned the waters more than most. Leo Spitz and Sam Briskin were both mystery men as far as RKO’s employees were concerned, and their unfamiliar personalities magnified the usual trepidation that accompanied executive realignment. The situation was different from that created by the promotion of M. C. Cooper or J. R. McDonough or B. B. Kahane into positions of authority, because each of these men had prior service with the company. Spitz and Briskin...

  11. 7. “Plaything of industry”: The Spitz-Berman Regime (1938)
    (pp. 149-167)

    RKO celebrated its tenth birthday in 1938. During its lifespan, the or ga niza tion had experienced six major shake-ups in leadership. This was not the case with its competitors. At MGM, Nicholas Schenck and Louis B. Mayer had directed their company throughout the same period; so had Harry and Jack Warner at Warner Bros. and Harry and Jack Cohn at Columbia. Upper management at Paramount, Fox (Twentieth Century–Fox), and Universal was less settled during the same time frame, but these companies now employed trustworthy executives who would offer positive guidance through the war years and, with the exception...

  12. 8. “The company’s best interest”: The Schaefer-Berman Regime (1939)
    (pp. 168-190)

    Unlike all of RKO’s previous corporate presidents, fifty-one-year-old George J. Schaefer was a tempered industry veteran. He had spent more than a quarter century in the distribution end of the business, beginning as a salesman for the old World Film Company. Later he worked as a booker, branch manager, district manager, general sales manager, and vice-president of Paramount before accepting the position of vice-president and general manager of United Artists.¹

    Given his background, it could be expected that Schaefer would work closely with Ned Depinet on the promotion and marketing of RKO films, leaving the creative decisions in the hands...

  13. 9. “Quality pictures are the lifeblood of this business”: The Schaefer-Edington Regime (1940–1941)
    (pp. 191-222)

    George Schaefer’s determination to make RKO the preeminent company in the industry might have been motivated by a desire to please Nelson Rocke feller. Besides being Schaefer’s major supporter, Rocke feller was an art collector and, along with his mother, Abby Aldrich Rocke feller, one of the most active patrons of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Given that MOMA was the first museum in the United States to recognize motion pictures as an art form and to begin to amass a film collection, Rocke feller undoubtedly would have been pleased to see RKO become a leader in...

  14. 10. “Crossing Wires”: The Schaefer-Breen Regime (1941–1942)
    (pp. 223-256)

    By midyear 1941, RKO had been revamped once again. In addition to the arrival of Joe Breen, Charles Koerner, former West Coast division manager for RKO exhibition, was now in charge of the entire network of theaters.¹ Koerner succeeded John J. O’Connor, who handed Schaefer his resignation in May. Like J. J. Nolan before him, J. R. McDonough was forced to surrender his title as vice-president of the company. The following memo from McDonough to Schaefer explains the reason for this and clearly indicates McDonough’s feelings about the matter:

    I attach, as requested by you, my letter resigning the office...

  15. APPENDIX: “The whole equation of pictures” RKO and the Studio System
    (pp. 257-272)
  16. Notes
    (pp. 273-304)
  17. Selected Bibliography
    (pp. 305-310)
  18. Index
    (pp. 311-330)