The RKO story – The little studio with big ideas


Born out of mergers between several much smaller movie companies and the Radio Corporation of America, RKO is an abbreviation for Radio-Keith-Orpheum. It couldn’t really count itself as one of the big six studios (Paramount, Universal, 20th Century Fox, Warner Bros, MGM and Columbia) but during the 1930’s and 40’s it could certainly count itself up there producing a string of high quality as well as the candidate for greatest film of all time – Citizen Kane (which the studio actually lost money on.)

In it’s earliest days David Selznick was head of production at the studio, meanwhile by the mid thirties producer Pandro S Berman was busy with a string of fabulous Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers musicals that included Top Hat (1935), Swing Time (1936), Shall We Dance? (1937) and Carefree (1938). Before then the studio had already struck gold thanks to a certain giant, empire state building climbing, ape by the name of King Kong (1933).

Other key 1930’s productions included Alice Adams (1935), The Informer (1936) and The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939). The early forties saw Orson Welles try his luck with both the aforementioned Citizen Kane and then The Magnificent Ambersons (which also failed to turn a profit for the studio.)

RKO really came into it’s own with the Bing Crosby starring The Bells of St Marys (1945) which was a massive popular success as was Hitchcock’s Notorious the following year. Meanwhile it’s now regarded as one of the must see Christmas films of the festive season but when Frank Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life was released by the studio in 1946 it failed to do any kind of business.

The studio also managed to score quite a bit of success with the burgeoning post war film noir genre with movies such as Out of the Past (1947) and Crossfire (also 1947) both earning critical plaudits and commercial success.

The arrival of Howard Hughes

By the late forties RKO was struggling financially though and were bought out by Howard Hughes who pretty much used the studio to further his Jane Russell obsession and churn out none too successful action and war films.

When Hughes tired of movie-making he sold the studio to General Teleradio who quickly discovered they were out of their depth and in turn sold the studio to Desilu, the production company owned by Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz who used it as the studio base for the I Love Lucy series. Something of a far cry from the days of Orson Welles and Fred & Ginger.