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The classic opening logo of RKO Radio Pictures.

RKO (Radio-Keith-Orpheum) Pictures is an American film production company, one of the so-called Big Five studios of Hollywood's Golden Age. It was formed in October 1928 as a combination of the Keith-Albee-Orpheum (KAO) theater chains, Joseph P. Kennedy's Film Booking Offices of America (FBO) studio, and RCA Photophone, the new sound-on-film division of the Radio Corporation of America (RCA). First under the majority ownership of RCA, in later years it was taken over by maverick industrialist Howard Hughes and finally by the General Tire and Rubber Company. The original RKO Pictures ceased production in 1957 and was out of business as of 1960. In 1981, the name was revived for coproductions by one of RKO's corporate descendants; in the early 1990s, RKO Pictures Inc., with its few remaining assets, the trademarks and remake rights to many classic RKO films, was sold to new owners, who now operate an independent company under the name.

The birth of RKO

Shut out of the profitable sound-film conversion business driven by the success of Warner Bros.' October 1927 release The Jazz Singer, RCA bought its way into the motion picture industry to gain an outlet for the optical sound-on-film system, Photophone, recently developed by General Electric, RCA's parent company. All of the major studios and their theater divisions were in the process of signing with ERPI, a subsidiary of AT&T's Western Electric division, to handle conversion. Hoping to join in the anticipated boom in sound movies, David Sarnoff, general manager of RCA, approached Joseph Kennedy in late 1927 about using the Photophone system for FBO pictures.[1] Negotiations resulted in General Electric acquiring a substantial interest in the studio, followed by Sarnoff and Kennedy arranging for a takeover of the large Keith-Albee-Orpheum circuit of theaters, then used for live vaudeville performances. Under the plan, largely conceived by Sarnoff, Kennedy acquired KAO on May 10, 1928, and with it the Pathé (U.S.)–De Mille filmmaking operations, which had united the previous year under the control of Keith-Orpheum (which soon brought the Albee chain into the fold). Meanwhile, Sarnoff had created RCA Photophone Inc. In October, a merger was effected primarily through a series of stock transfers and the creation of the Radio-Keith-Orpheum holding company was announced, with Sarnoff as chairman of the board. Kennedy, who was briefly president of the new operation before stepping aside, kept what was known as Pathé Exchange (Cecil B. DeMille having been bought out in August) separate from RKO and under his personal control.[2] The prominence of "radio" in the corporate name "Radio-Keith-Orpheum" reflected RCA's 66% share in the concern. It was claimed that the broadcasting-tower logo of the production arm, "Radio Pictures," was suggested by Sarnoff himself.

Kennedy's primary role in the new company, of which he remained a major stockholder even after departing his executive position, was to drive up the share value. He and his associates did so successfully, pushing RKO's price higher even before film production had begun under the new name. Looking to get out of the film business a couple of years later, Kennedy arranged in late 1930 for RKO to purchase Pathé from him. On January 29, 1931, Pathé, with its Culver City studio, backlot (formerly De Mille's), and contract players, was merged into RKO as Kennedy sold off the last of his stock in the company he had been instrumental in creating.[3]

RKO Radio Pictures Inc.

RKO's Rio Rita (1929). This was the first smash hit for RKO Pictures

The early years

Declaring that it would make only all-talking films, RKO began shooting at the former FBO studios in early 1929, with William LeBaron as production chief. The studio's first two releases were musicals, the melodramatic Syncopation, which premiered March 3, and the comedic Street Girl (by some obscure calculus, RKO's first "official" production), which debuted July 30. For the lavish musical Rio Rita, RKO spared no expense, including a number of Technicolor sequences. Opening in September to rave reviews, it was the studio's first major hit and was named one of the ten best pictures of the year by Film Daily. Encouraged by its success, RKO produced several costly musicals incorporating Technicolor sequences in 1930, among them Dixiana and Hit the Deck. Following the example of the other major studios, RKO even planned to create its own musical revue, Radio Revels.[4] Promoted as the studio's most extravagant production to date, it was to be photographed entirely in Technicolor. Another lavish all-color musical was also planned, the first screen version of Victor Herbert's operetta Babes in Toyland. Both of the projects were abandoned, however, as the public's taste for musicals temporarily subsided. The material already shot for Radio Revels was incorporated into short subjects, yet RKO still had a contract with Technicolor to produce two more features with the technology. Complicating matters, audiences had come to associate color with the momentarily out-of-favor musical genre due to a glut of such productions from the major Hollywood studios. Fulfilling its obligations, RKO produced two all-Technicolor pictures, The Runaround and Fanny Foley Herself (both 1931), containing no musical sequences. Neither was a success.

Even as the U.S. economy foundered, RKO had gone on a spending spree, buying up theater after theater to add to its exhibition chain. By the early 1930s, RKO was producing over forty pictures a year, releasing them under the names "Radio Pictures" and, for a short time after the 1931 merger, "RKO Pathé." Cimarron (1931), produced by LeBaron himself, would become the only RKO production to win the Academy Award for Best Picture; nonetheless, it was a major money-loser on original release. Exceptions like Cimarron and Rio Rita aside, RKO's product was largely regarded as mediocre, so in autumn 1931 Sarnoff hired 29-year-old David O. Selznick to replace LeBaron as production chief. In addition to implementing rigorous cost-control measures, Selznick signed and promoted several young actors who would carry RKO through the decade, among them Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, and Katharine Hepburn. Selznick was a champion of the so-called unit production system that gave the producers of individual movies much greater independence than they had under the prevailing central producer system. Instituting unit production at RKO, he predicted substantial benefits in both "cost and quality."[5] To make films under the new system, he recruited prize behind-the-camera personnel, such as director George Cukor and producer/director Merian C. Cooper, and gave whiz kid producer Pandro S. Berman increasingly important projects. Along with those signed by Selznick—who would remain at the studio for less than two years—RKO stars of this pre-Code era included Joel McCrea, Ricardo Cortez, and Mary Astor. Richard Dix, Oscar-nominated for his lead performance in Cimarron, would serve as RKO's standby B-movie star through the early 1940s. The comedy team of Bert Wheeler and Robert Woolsey, often wrangling over sweetie pie Dorothy Lee, were bankable mainstays for years. Irene Dunne made her debut as the lead in the 1930 musical Leathernecking and was a headliner at the studio for the entire decade. Constance Bennett, Ann Harding, and Helen Twelvetrees came over with Pathé, which was dissolved as a separate production unit in 1932. The Pathé acquisition, though a defensible investment in the long term for its physical facilities, was yet another major expense borne by the fledgling RKO.

RKO's King Kong (1933) launched RKO Pictures into the film industry and is widely considered the most popular RKO Pictures film (1933)

Despite Selznick's tenure as production chief, widely considered masterful, the shaky finances and excesses that marked the company's early days did not leave RKO in shape to withstand the Depression; the success of Selznick-backed projects such as A Bill of Divorcement (1932), with Cukor directing Hepburn's debut, and the monumental King Kong—largely Merian Cooper's brainchild—couldn't prevent the company from sinking into receivership in 1933, from which it would not emerge until 1940. Cooper took over as production head after Selznick's departure and oversaw the hit Little Women, with Cukor again directing Hepburn. Directors such as John Ford, George Stevens, and John Cromwell also made impressive films at the studio in the following years—Ford's The Informer and Stevens's Alice Adams were each nominated for the 1935 Best Picture Oscar. The Informer's Academy Award–winning star, Victor McLaglen, would appear in thirteen movies for RKO over a span of two decades. Lacking the resources of the other major studios, many RKO pictures of the era made up in style what they lacked in production values, as exemplified by such Astaire–Rogers musicals as The Gay Divorcee (1934) and Top Hat (1935). One of the figures most responsible for that style was Van Nest Polglase, chief of RKO's highly regarded design department for almost a decade. Costumer Walter Plunkett, who worked with the company from the close of the FBO era through the end of 1939, was known as the leading period wardrobist in the business. From the studio's earliest days through 1935, Max Steiner, seen by many historians as the most influential composer of the early years of sound cinema, made music for over 100 RKO films.[6]

A corporate restructuring in the mid-1930s expanded the ownership team, with investor Floyd Odlum buying 50% of RCA's stake in the company, already reduced over the previous half-decade; the Rockefeller brothers also became major stockholders. From 1935 onward, the Pathé name was used only on newsreels and documentaries; all features went out under the revised name "RKO Radio Pictures." (In 1947, the Pathé-branded newsreel would be sold to Warner Bros.) While the Astaire–Rogers team ran its course and RKO kept missing the mark in building Hepburn's career, major stars Cary Grant and Barbara Stanwyck joined the studio's roster—though Stanwyck would have little success during her few years there. Ann Sothern starred in seven RKO films between 1935 and 1937, paired five times with Gene Raymond. Under new production chief Samuel Briskin, appointed in late 1935, RKO also entered into an important distribution deal with Walt Disney. From 1936 to 1954, the studio released his features and shorts; Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) was the highest grossing movie in the period between The Birth of a Nation (1915) and Gone with the Wind (1939). (The latter, a Selznick coproduction with MGM, was largely shot on RKO's Culver City backlot, known as Forty Acres.) RKO's own product, however, was widely seen as declining in quality and Briskin was gone by the end of 1937. Pandro Berman—who had filled in on three previous occasions—accepted the position of production chief on a noninterim basis. As it turned out, he would leave the job after a year-and-a-half, but his brief tenure resulted in some of the most notable films in the studio's history, including Gunga Din, Love Affair, and The Hunchback of Notre Dame (all 1939). Charles Laughton, who gave a now fabled performance as Quasimodo in the latter, returned periodically to the studio, headlining six more RKO features. For Maureen O'Hara, who made her American screen debut in the film, it was the first of ten pictures she would make for RKO through 1952. The studio's technical departments maintained their reputation as among the best in the industry; Vernon Walker's special effects unit became famous for its sophisticated use of the optical printer and lifelike matte work, an art that would reach its apex with 1941's Citizen Kane.[7]

Kane and rebound in the 1940s

Berman, who had received his first screen credit as a nineteen-year-old on FBO's Midnight Molly in 1925, departed in a dispute over studio policy with new RKO president George J. Schaefer, handpicked by the Rockefellers and backed by Sarnoff. With Berman gone, Schaefer became in effect production chief, though other men nominally filled the role. Schaefer was particularly keen on signing up independent producers whose films RKO would distribute. In 1941, the studio landed one of the most prestigious independents in Hollywood when it arranged to handle Samuel Goldwyn's productions. The first two Goldwyn pictures released by the studio were highly successful: The Little Foxes, directed by William Wyler, is seen as one of Bette Davis's finest films, while the Howard Hawks–directed Ball Of Fire at last brought Barbara Stanwyck a hit under the RKO banner. However, Schaefer agreed to terms so favorable to Goldwyn that it was next to impossible for the studio to make money off his films.[8] That same year, RKO released Citizen Kane, coproducing with director Orson Welles's Mercury Productions. While it opened to strong reviews and would go on to be hailed as one of the greatest movies ever made, it lost money at the time and brought down the wrath of the Hearst newspaper chain on RKO. The next year saw the commercial failure of Welles's The Magnificent Ambersons—like Kane, critically lauded and overbudget—and the expensive embarrassment of his aborted documentary It's All True. In June 1942, Schaefer departed a weakened and troubled studio, but RKO was about to turn the corner. Propelled by the box-office boom of World War II and guided by new management, RKO would make a strong comeback over the next half-decade.

Charles Koerner, former head of the RKO theater chain, had assumed the title of production chief some months prior to Schaefer's departure. With Schaefer gone, Koerner could actually do the job, bringing the studio much-needed stability until his death in February 1946. In 1943, Odlum took over a controlling interest in RKO, buying out both the Rockefellers and RCA, thus cutting David Sarnoff's ties to the studio that was largely his conception. With the studio on increasingly secure ground, Koerner sought to increase its output of handsomely budgeted, star-driven features. Aside from Grant (whose services were shared with Columbia Pictures) and John Wayne, however, the studio no longer had major stars under long-term contract, so Koerner—and his eventual successor, Dore Schary—made deals with the other studios to "loan out" their biggest names for top-drawer RKO productions. Thus RKO pictures of the mid- and late forties offered Bing Crosby, Henry Fonda, and others who were out of the studio's price range for extended contracts. Gary Cooper appeared in RKO releases produced by Goldwyn and, later, the startup International Pictures, and Claudette Colbert starred in a number of RKO coproductions. Ingrid Bergman appeared under a variety of hats for RKO—on loan out from Selznick in The Bells of St. Mary's (1945), in the coproductions Notorious (1946) and Stromboli (1950), and in the independently produced Joan of Arc (1948). Freelancing Randolph Scott appeared in one major RKO release annually from 1943 through 1948. In similar fashion, many leading directors made one or more films at RKO during this era—most notably, Alfred Hitchcock, with Mr. & Mrs. Smith, Suspicion (both 1941), and Notorious, and Jean Renoir, with This Land Is Mine (1943), reuniting Laughton and O'Hara, and The Woman on the Beach (1947). John Ford's The Fugitive (1947) and Fort Apache (1948), which appeared right before studio ownership changed hands again, were followed by She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949) and Wagonmaster (1950); all four were coproductions between RKO and Argosy, the company run by Ford and RKO alumnus Merian C. Cooper. The best-known director under contract to RKO for much of the 1940s was Edward Dmytryk, who first came to notice with the enormous success of Hitler's Children (1943), a sleeper hit made at minimal expense.

RKO's They Live By Night (1949)

More so than the other Big Five studios, RKO relied on B-pictures to fill up its schedule. These low-budget films served as training ground for new directors, among them Jacques Tourneur, Robert Wise, Mark Robson, and Anthony Mann. A number of RKO Bs, notably the movies created by producer Val Lewton's horror unit, such as Cat People (1942), I Walked with a Zombie (1943), and The Body Snatcher (1945), are highly regarded today. Richard Dix concluded his lengthy RKO career with the 1943 Lewton production The Ghost Ship. Tim Holt was RKO's B Western star of the era, appearing in over fifty movies for the studio; Johnny Weissmuller starred in six Tarzan pictures for RKO between 1943 and 1948. Film noir, to which lower budgets lent themselves, became something of a house style at the studio; indeed, the RKO B Stranger on the Third Floor (1940) is widely seen as initiating noir's classic period. Its cinematographer, Nicholas Musuraca, who began at FBO in the 1920s and stayed with RKO through 1954, is a central figure in creating the look of classic noir. Albert D'Agostino—another long-termer who took over as head of the design department from Polglase in 1941—and his team, including art directors Jack Okey and Walter Keller and set decorator Darrell Silvera, are similarly credited. The studio's 1940s list of contract players reads like a noir who's-who: Robert Mitchum (who would graduate to major star status) and Robert Ryan each made no fewer than ten film noirs for RKO. Gloria Grahame, Jane Greer, Lawrence Tierney, and George Raft were also notable studio players in the genre. Tourneur, Musuraca, Mitchum, and Greer, along with D'Agostino's design group, would join to make Out of the Past (1947), now considered one of the greatest of all film noirs. Nicholas Ray began his directing career with the absorbing RKO noir They Live by Night (1948), the first of a number of important films he made for the studio.

RKO's Crossfire (1947)

HUAC, Hughes, and decline

Nineteen forty-six was the most profitable year in the history of RKO, but 1947 brought a number of unpleasant harbingers for all of Hollywood. The British government, followed by others, imposed limits on how much capital American movie companies could withdraw annually, curtailing one of the studios' primary sources of earnings. Television was beginning to drain audiences away from the movies; across the board, attendance—and profits—fell. The phenomenon that would become known as McCarthyism was building up steam, and in October, the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) began hearings into Communism in the motion picture industry. Two of RKO's top talents, Dmytryk and producer Adrian Scott, refused to cooperate; blacklisted as members of the so-called Hollywood Ten, they were fired by RKO per the terms of the Waldorf Statement, the industry's "antisubversive" declaration. Ironically, the studio's major success of the year was Crossfire, a Scott–Dmytryk fim. Floyd Odlum concluded it was time to cash in his RKO holdings, and he put his shares on the market.

It was widely assumed that British film magnate J. Arthur Rank would be the buyer of Odlum's interest in RKO. Defying expectations, however, in May 1948 eccentric multimillionaire and occasional movie producer Howard Hughes gained control by acquiring 25% of the outstanding stock. During his tenure RKO suffered its worst years since the early 1930s, as Hughes's capricious management style took a heavy toll. Production chief Schary quit almost immediately due to his new boss's interference. Within weeks of taking over, Hughes had dismissed three-fourths of the work force; production was virtually shut down for six months as Hughes ordered investigations into the politics of all remaining studio employees. Completed pictures would be sent back for reshooting if the stars, especially female, weren't presented to his liking, or if a film's anticommunist sentiments weren't sufficiently blatant. Offscreen, Robert Mitchum's arrest and conviction for marijuana possession—he would serve two months in jail—was widely assumed to mean career death for RKO's most promising young star, but Hughes surprised the industry by announcing that his contract was not endangered. Of much broader significance, Hughes decided to get the jump on his Big Five competitors by being the first to settle the federal government's antitrust suit against the major studios. Under the consent decree he signed, Hughes split RKO's production-distribution business and its theater chain into two separate companies in 1951, with the obligation to sell off one or the other by a certain date. Hughes's decision was one of the crucial steps in the collapse of classical Hollywood's studio system.[9]

RKO's Beware, My Lovely (1952)

While Hughes's time at RKO was marked by dwindling production and a slew of expensive flops (as well as further witch hunts for suspected Reds), the studio continued to turn out some good films under production chiefs Sid Rogell and Sam Bischoff, each of whom became fed up with Hughes's meddling and quit after less than two years. (Bischoff would be the last man to hold the job under Hughes.) There were B noirs such as The Set-Up and The Window (both 1949), whose reputation has only grown over the decades, and The Thing (1951), a thrilling science-fiction drama coproduced with Howard Hawks's Winchester Pictures. In 1952, RKO put out two films directed by Fritz Lang, Rancho Notorious and Clash by Night. The company also began a close working relationship with Ida Lupino. She would star in two memorable suspense films with Robert Ryan—Nicholas Ray's On Dangerous Ground (1952, though shooting had been completed two years earlier) and Beware, My Lovely (1952), a coproduction between RKO and Lupino's company, The Filmakers. Of more historic note, Lupino was Hollywood's only female director during the period; of the five pictures The Filmakers made with RKO, Lupino directed three, including her now celebrated The Hitch-Hiker (1953). Exposing many moviegoers to Asian cinema for the first time, RKO distributed Akira Kurosawa's epochal Rashomon in the United States, sixteen months after its original 1950 Japanese release.

In September 1952, Hughes and his corporate president, Ned E. Depinet, sold their RKO stock to a Chicago-based syndicate with no experience in the movie business; the syndicate's chaotic reign lasted until February 1953, when the stock and control were reacquired by Hughes. During the turmoil, Samuel Goldwyn ended his 11-year-long distribution deal with RKO. Nineteen fifty-two had been disastrous for the studio financially, and Hughes's divestiture of the RKO theaters the following year did nothing to help. Hughes soon found himself the target of no less than five separate lawsuits filed by minority shareholders in RKO, accusing him of malfeasance in his dealings with the Chicago group and a wide array of acts of mismanagement. Looking to forestall a major legal imbroglio, in early 1954 Hughes offered to buy out all of RKO's other stockholders. By the end of the year, at a cost of $23.5 million, he had gained near-total control of RKO Pictures, becoming the first virtual sole owner of a studio since Hollywood's pioneer days. Virtual, but not quite actual. Floyd Odlum reemerged to block Hughes from acquiring the 95% ownership of RKO stock he needed to write off the company's losses against his earnings elsewhere. Hughes had reneged on his promise to give Odlum first option on buying the RKO theater chain when he divested it and was now paying the price.[10] Thus stalemated, in July 1955, Hughes turned around and sold RKO to General Tire and Rubber Company for $25 million. Hughes retained the rights to pictures he had personally produced, including those made at RKO; he also kept the contract of his discovery Jane Russell. For Hughes, this was the effective end of a quarter-century's involvement in the movie business.

General Tire and the end of RKO Pictures

In taking control of the studio, General Tire restored RKO's links to broadcasting. General Tire had bought the Yankee Network, a New England regional radio network based around WNAC-AM in Boston, in 1943. In 1950, it purchased the West Coast regional Don Lee Broadcasting System, and two years later, the Bamberger Broadcasting Service, owner of the WOR TV and radio stations in New York City. General Tire then merged its broadcasting interests into a new division, General Teleradio. Thomas O'Neill, son of General Tire's founder William O'Neill and chairman of the broadcasting group, saw that the company's new television stations, indeed all TV outlets, were in need of programming. In 1953, O'Neill had approached Hughes about buying RKO's film library; with the 1955 purchase of the studio that library was his, and rights to the approximately 740 RKO films the studio retained clear title to were quickly put up for sale. The asking price of $15.5 million convinced the other major studios that their libraries held profit potential—a turning point in the way Hollywood did business. C&C Television Corp., a subsidiary of beverage maker Cantrell & Cochrane, bought the RKO rights and was soon offering the films to independent stations with ads for C&C Cola already edited into the pictures. RKO—now consolidated with General Tire's other media interests as RKO Teleradio—retained the broadcast rights for the cities where it owned TV stations. By 1956, RKO's classic movies were playing widely on television, and for some half-forgotten films like Citizen Kane, it meant rediscovery by the public.

RKO's Jet Pilot (1957). This is a Hughes pet production launched in 1949, wrapped in May 1951, finally released in 1957 after Hughes's interminable tinkering. RKO was by then out of the distribution business. The movie was released by Universal-International

The new owners of RKO made a half-hearted effort to run the studio, hiring veteran producer William Dozier to head production. Most RKO pictures of this era are either remakes of earlier successes or inflated B-movies. Though the studio released Fritz Lang's final two American films, While the City Sleeps and Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (both 1956), years of mismanagement had driven away many directors, producers, and stars; convinced that RKO was sinking, Disney had followed Goldwyn in ending his arrangement with the studio and setting up his own distribution firm. After a year and a half of mixed success, General Tire shut down production at RKO for good at the end of January 1957 and changed the name of the company to RKO General. The Hollywood and Culver City facilities were sold later that year for $6.5 million to Desilu Productions, owned by Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball, who had been an RKO contract player from 1935 to 1942. Desilu would be acquired by Gulf and Western Industries in 1967 and merged into G+W's other production company, Paramount Pictures; the former RKO Hollywood studio became home to Paramount Television (now CBS Paramount Television, owned by CBS Corporation), which it remains to this day. The renovated Culver City studio is now owned and operated as an independent production facility. Forty Acres, the Culver City backlot, was razed in 1976.[11]

With the closing down of production, RKO also shut its distribution exchanges; from 1957 forward, remaining pictures were released through other companies, primarily Universal-International. The final RKO film, Verboten!, a coproduction with director Samuel Fuller's Globe Enterprises, was released by Columbia Pictures in March 1959. By the end of the year, all that remained of the once ambitious studio was the parent firm, RKO General. It became the holding company for all of General Tire's broadcasting, soft-drink bottling, and hotel enterprises. The original Frontier Airlines was also a subsidiary for a time. Years afterward, Thomas O'Neill claimed that his family's company had broken even on its investment in RKO Pictures, with the sale of the film library and studio lots, along with the profits from its own productions, letting General Tire walk away cleanly.

Notable RKO Pictures

RKO's Flying Down to Rio (1933)


  • Syncopation (1929; first RKO release)
  • Street Girl (1929; first official RKO production)
  • Rio Rita (1929; with Technicolor sequences)


RKO's Bringing Up Baby (1938). Today, is regarded as the best screwball comedy of all time

  • Cimarron (1931)
  • The Runaround (1931; first all-Technicolor RKO production)
  • Bird of Paradise (1932)
  • The Most Dangerous Game (1932)
  • What Price Hollywood? (1932)
  • Flying Down to Rio (1933)
  • King Kong (1933)
  • Little Women (1933)
  • Morning Glory (1933)
  • The Gay Divorcee (1934)
  • The Informer (1934)
  • Of Human Bondage (1934)
  • Alice Adams (1935)
  • Becky Sharp (1935; first feature entirely in three-strip Technicolor)
  • The Last Days of Pompeii (1935)
  • Roberta (1935)
  • Top Hat (1935)
  • Swing Time (1936)
  • Shall We Dance (1937)
  • Stage Door (1937)
  • Bringing Up Baby (1938)
  • Gunga Din (1939)
  • The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939)
  • Love Affair (1939)

RKO's My Favorite Wife (1940)


  • Kitty Foyle (1940)
  • My Favorite Wife (1940)
  • Stranger on the Third Floor (1940)
  • Ball of Fire (1941; distribution only)
  • Citizen Kane (1941)
  • The Little Foxes (1941; distribution only)
  • Mr. & Mrs. Smith (1941)
  • Suspicion (1941)
  • Cat People (1942)
  • The Magnificent Ambersons (1942)
  • The Pride of the Yankees (1942; distribution only)
  • I Walked with a Zombie (1943)
  • Mr. Lucky (1943)
  • This Land Is Mine (1943)
  • The Bells of St. Mary's (1945)
  • The Best Years of Our Lives (1946; distribution only)
  • It's a Wonderful Life (1946; distribution only)
  • Notorious (1946)
  • The Spiral Staircase (1946)
  • The Bishop's Wife (1947; distribution only)
  • Crossfire (1947)
  • Out of the Past (1947)
  • Fort Apache (1948)
  • I Remember Mama (1948)
  • Joan of Arc (1948; distribution only)
  • They Live by Night (1948)
  • The Big Steal (1949)
  • The Set-Up (1949)
  • She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949)
  • The Window (1949)


RKO's The Lusty Men (1952)

  • His Kind of Woman (1951)
  • Rashomon (1951; U.S. distribution only)
  • The Thing (1951)
  • Angel Face (1952)
  • The Lusty Men (1952)
  • Macao (1952)
  • The Narrow Margin (1952)
  • On Dangerous Ground (1952)
  • Rancho Notorious (1952; post-production acquisition and distribution)
  • The Hitch-Hiker (1953)
  • While the City Sleeps (1956; post-production acquisition and distribution)

RKO studios and buildings

  • RKO Hollywood Studios – 780 Gower Ave., Hollywood, Los Angeles/established by Robertson–Cole in 1921; now owned by CBS Paramount Television
  • RKO-Pathé Culver City Studios – 9336 Washington Blvd., Culver City/established by Thomas H. Ince in 1919; now owned by PCCP Studio City Los Angeles
  • RKO Forty Acres (backlot) – Culver City/established by Ince in 1919; razed in 1976
  • RKO Encino Ranch (backlot) – Encino, Los Angeles/established by RKO in 1929; razed in 1954
  • Estudios Churubusco – Churubusco, Mexico City/established by RKO and Emilio Azcárraga Vidaurreta in 1945; now owned by Mexican government
  • RKO Building (offices) – 1270 Sixth Ave., New York/Art Deco skyscraper in Rockefeller Center, built in 1931–32; now known simply as 1270 Avenue of the Americas Building

RKO General

The classic RKO General station lineup consisted of WOR-AM-FM-TV in New York, KHJ-AM-FM-TV in Los Angeles, KFRC-AM-FM in San Francisco, WHBQ-AM-TV in Memphis, the Yankee Network and its flagships WNAC-AM-FM-TV in Boston, and CKLW-AM-FM-TV in Detroit/Windsor. (The Canadian government later tightened rules on foreign ownership of radio and TV outlets, forcing RKO to sell off its Windsor cluster in 1970.) The radio stations became famous as some of the leading adult contemporary, rock, and top 40 stations in the world. However, RKO General's most notable legacy is what may be the longest licensing dispute in television history.

The start of licensing troubles

RKO General's legal saga began in 1965 when it applied for renewal of its license for KHJ-TV in Los Angeles. Fidelity Television, a local group, challenged the renewal, charging RKO with second-rate programming. Later, and more seriously, Fidelity claimed RKO General engaged in reciprocal trade practices, making vendors purchase advertising time on RKO stations if they wanted to sell General Tire products. RKO and General Tire executives testified before the Federal Communications Commission, rejecting the accusations. An administrative judge ruled in favor of Fidelity, but the commission remanded the case for further investigation in 1972.[12] While the KHJ hearings were underway, RKO faced a license challenge for WNAC-TV in Boston. The FCC conditioned renewal of RKO's license for KHJ on the WNAC proceeding. When RKO applied for renewal of WOR-TV in New York, the FCC conditioned this renewal on the WNAC case as well.

On June 21, 1974, an administrative law judge renewed the WNAC license despite finding that General Tire had engaged in reciprocal trade practices. The following year, one of the companies competing for the station asked the FCC to revisit the case, alleging that General Tire bribed foreign officials, maintained a slush fund for American campaign contributions, and misappropriated foreign corporate funds. RKO expressly denied these and other allegations of corporate wrongdoing on General Tire's part during a series of proceedings that began in 1975. Two years later, however, as part of a Securities and Exchange Commission settlement, General Tire admitted to an eye-popping litany of corporate misconduct. Nonetheless, the RKO proceedings dragged on.

After a half-decade in the most recent round of hearings and investigations, the FCC stripped RKO of WNAC's license on June 6, 1980. Factors in the decision were the reciprocal trade practices of the 1960s, false financial filings by General Tire, and gross misconduct by General Tire in nonbroadcast fields. The ultimate basis for the revocation, however, was RKO's dishonesty before the Commission, which found that RKO had displayed a "lack of candor" regarding General Tire's misdeeds, thus threatening "the integrity of the Commission's process." The FCC ruling meant that RKO lost the KHJ and WOR licenses as well. RKO appealed the decision to the District of Columbia U.S. Court of Appeals. While it ordered a rehearing of the proceedings for KHJ and WOR, the court upheld the WNAC revocation solely on the grounds of the company's dishonesty.[13] RKO General again appealed, this time to the U.S. Supreme Court. On April 19, 1982, the court refused to review the license revocation. RKO had lost the case for good. As a result of the decision, RKO General sold WNAC's assets to New England Television (NETV), a new company resulting from the merger of two of the original competitors for the station. As part of the settlement, the FCC granted a full license to NETV, which renamed the station WNEV-TV.[14] The station has since become WHDH-TV.

Reorganization and dismantlement

Under continuing FCC pressure, General Tire persuaded Congress in 1983 to pass a law designed to RKO General's specific interests: the legislative act required the commission to automatically renew the license of any VHF television station voluntarily relocating to a state without such a broadcaster. New Jersey was the only state fitting that description at the time. Consequently, RKO General officially changed WOR-TV's city of license from New York to Secaucus, New Jersey, where it remains today.[15] For all practical purposes, however, WOR remained a New York television station. Ironically, WOR radio was first licensed to nearby Newark and didn't move to New York until 1941.[16] A year after the renewal of the WOR-TV license, General Tire reorganized its farflung corporate interests into a holding company, GenCorp, with General Tire and RKO General as its leading subsidiaries. The WOR move did little to relieve the regulatory pressure on RKO General, and GenCorp put the station on the market in 1986. MCA outbid Cox Communications and Group W for control of the station, which it subsequently renamed WWOR-TV.[17]

WOR-TV "endcap" from 1986, during the station's last months under RKO ownership.

The timing of the WOR-TV sale was fortunate for RKO. In August 1987, FCC administrative law judge Edward Kuhlmann found RKO unfit to be a broadcast licensee on the basis of an extensive pattern of deceptive practices and recommended that the FCC strip the company of its franchise rights. Among other things, RKO was found to have misled advertisers about its ratings, engaged in fraudulent billing, lied to the FCC about a destroyed audit report, and filed false financial statements during the WNAC proceedings. Kuhlmann described RKO's conduct as the worst case of dishonesty ever brought before the Federal Communications Commission.[18] GenCorp and RKO filed an appeal, claiming that the ruling was deeply flawed.[19] However, the FCC, making clear that it would almost certainly reject any appeals and strip the licenses, urged RKO to sell the stations before that became necessary. RKO's parent company, GenCorp, then battling a hostile takeover bid by an investor group, was hungry for cash as a result of paying a premium on its own shares to stave off the attack, so liquidating an asset on the verge of being lost seemed prudent.

Over the next three years, RKO dismantled its broadcast operations. In New York, WOR (AM) was acquired by Buckley Broadcasting and WRKS-FM (the former WOR-FM) went to Summit Communications. In Los Angeles, the KRTH (formerly KHJ) radio stations were purchased by Beasley Broadcasting. In 1988, the decades-long licensing saga of KHJ-TV officially came to an end: under an FCC-supervised deal, the station was sold to the Walt Disney Company for $324 million, with RKO collecting approximately two-thirds and Fidelity the remainder; Disney would rename the station KCAL-TV the following year.[20] During this period, the company also divested its radio stations in Chicago, San Francisco, Boston, Miami–Fort Lauderdale, and the Washington, D.C., market, as well as its film business (see below). By the turn of the decade, its last significant media holdings were the WHBQ TV and AM radio stations in Memphis. In 1990, they were sold to Adams Communication and RKO General was dissolved.

Television stations formerly owned by RKO

Current DMA# Market Station Years Owned Current Affiliation and Ownership
1. New York City WOR-TV 9
(now WWOR)
1952–87 MyNetwork TV affiliate owned by News Corporation
2. Los Angeles KHJ-TV 9
(now KCAL)
1950–88 independent owned by CBS Corporation
7. Boston WNAC-TV 7
(now WHDH)
1948–82 NBC affiliate owned by Sunbeam Television
11. Windsor, Ontario–Detroit CKLW-TV 9
(now CBET)
1954–70 CBC owned-and-operated (O&O)
28. Hartford–New Haven WHCT-TV 18
(now WUVN)
1959–72 Univision affiliate owned by Entravision
44. Memphis WHBQ-TV 13 1953–90 Fox owned-and-operated (O&O)

Radio stations formerly owned by RKO

(a partial listing)

Current DMA# Market Station Current Ownership
1. New York City WOR-FM/WXLO/WRKS 98.7 owned by Emmis Communications
WOR (AM) 710 owned by Buckley Broadcasting
2. Los Angeles KHJ-FM/KRTH 101.1 owned by CBS Radio
(now KHJ once again)
owned by Lieberman Broadcasting
3. Chicago WFYR-FM 103.5
(now WKSC)
owned by Clear Channel Communications
4. San Francisco–Oakland–San Jose KFRC-FM 106.1
(now KMEL)
owned by Clear Channel Communications
KFRC (AM) 610
(now KEAR)
owned by Family Radio
8. Washington, D.C. WGMS-FM 103.5
(now WTOP)
owned by Bonneville International
WGMS (AM) 570
(now WTEM)
owned by Clear Channel Communications
9. Windsor, Ontario–Detroit CKLW-FM 93.9
(now CIDR)
owned by CHUM Limited
CKLW (AM) 800 owned by CHUM Limited
11. Boston WNAC-FM/WRKO/WROR 98.5
(now WBMX)
owned by CBS Radio
WNAC (AM)/WRKO 680 owned by Entercom
12. Miami–Fort Lauderdale WAXY-FM 105.9
(now WBGG)
owned by Clear Channel Communications
WAXY (AM) 790 owned by Lincoln Financial Media
49. Memphis WHBQ (AM) 560 owned by Flinn Broadcasting

The new RKO Pictures

Nastassia Kinski starred in Paul Schrader's unsuccessful Cat People (1982) for the new RKO Pictures, a remake of the original studio's 1942 classic.

Beginning with 1981's Carbon Copy, RKO General became involved in the coproduction of a number of feature films (and one TV movie) through a newly created subsidiary, RKO Pictures Inc. Collaborating on an average of about two pictures per year, RKO frequently worked with major names—including Jack Nicholson (The Border [1982]) and Meryl Streep (Plenty [1985])—but met with little success. In 1986, Half Moon Street became the first RKO solo production in almost three decades; more solo ventures, including the Vietnam War drama Hamburger Hill, appeared the next year, but production ended as GenCorp underwent a massive reorganization following its attempted takeover. The company's flagship tire division was sold to Germany's Continental Tire. With RKO General dismantling its broadcast business, RKO Pictures Inc., along with the original RKO studio's trademark, remake rights, and other remaining assets, was spun off and put up for sale. After a bid by RKO Pictures' own managers failed, it was acquired by Wesray Capital—under the control of former U.S. Secretary of the Treasury William E. Simon and Ray Chambers—and linked with their Six Flags amusement parks to form RKO/Six Flags Entertainment Inc.[21]

In 1989, RKO Pictures was spun off yet again and a majority interest in it was acquired by its present owners: actress and Post Cereals heiress Dina Merrill and her husband, producer Ted Hartley, who merged it with their Pavilion Communications to form the present RKO Pictures LLC.[22] Hartley and Merrill announced that the new RKO Pictures, which had ceased producing films while under Wesray control, would return to moviemaking full-time. With the inaugural RKO production under their leadership, False Identity (1990), the company also stepped into the distribution business. In 1992, the new RKO made its first significant contribution to cinema, distributing the well-regarded independent production Laws of Gravity, directed by Nick Gomez. For the next five years, however, the company neither produced nor distributed a single film as Hartley and Merrill sorted out the ownership rights of RKO's vast library. RKO Pictures reemerged in 1998 with Mighty Joe Young, a remake of a 1949 RKO movie that was itself something of a King Kong redux. During the current decade, the company has been involved as a coproducer on TV movies and modestly budgeted features at the rate of about one annually. In 2002, RKO produced a stage version of the 1937 Astaire–Rogers vehicle Shall We Dance, under the title Never Gonna Dance.

In 2003, RKO Pictures entered into a legal battle with Wall Street Financial Associates (WSFA) concerning a Short Form Acquisition Agreement dated that March 3. Hartley and Merrill, the majority interest holders in RKO, claimed that the owners of WSFA fraudulently induced them into signing an acquisition agreement by concealing their "cynical and rapacious" plans to acquire RKO Pictures with the intention only of dismantling it. WSFA sought a preliminary injunction prohibiting RKO's majority owners from selling their interests in the company to any third parties.[23] The WSFA motion was denied in July 2003, freeing RKO to deal with another potential purchaser, In 2004, that planned sale fell through when apparently folded.[24] At present, the company is evidently focusing on its remake rights, with Are We Done Yet?, based on Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House (1948), in production and a new version of Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (1956) announced.

The RKO library

Today, RKO Pictures LLC is the owner of all the trademarks and logos connected with RKO Radio Pictures Inc., as well as the rights concerning stories, screenplays (including 800 to 900 unproduced scripts), remakes, sequels, and prequels connected with the RKO library.[25] The television, video, and most of the theatrical distribution rights, however, are in other hands: The U.S. and Canadian TV—and, consequently, video—rights to the bulk of the RKO film library were sold at auction in 1971 after the holders, TransBeacon (a corporate descendant of C&C Television), went bankrupt. The auctioned rights were split between United Artists and Marian B. Inc. (MBI). In 1984, MBI created a subsidiary, Marian Pictures Inc. (MBP), to which it transferred its share of the RKO rights. Two years later GenCorp's subsidiaries, RKO General and RKO Pictures, repurchased the rights then controlled by MBP.[26] In the meantime, United Artists had been acquired by MGM. In 1986, MGM/UA's considerable library, including its RKO rights, was bought by Turner Broadcasting for its new Turner Entertainment division. During RKO Pictures' brief Wesray episode, Turner acquired many of the distribution rights that had returned to RKO via MBP, as well as the TV rights originally held back from C&C for the cities where RKO owned stations. In 1995, Turner Broadcasting was merged into Time Warner, which controls and distributes the bulk of the RKO library today, though RKO Pictures retains the copyright.[27]

Ownership of the major European TV and video distribution rights to RKO's library is divided on a virtual country-by-country basis: In the UK, many of the RKO rights are currently held by Universal Studios.[28] The German rights were acquired in 1969 by KirchGruppe on behalf of its KirchMedia division. When KirchMedia went bankrupt in 2002, proposed sales of its assets first to publisher Heinrich Bauer Verlag, then to American media mogul Haim Saban both fell through. Saban finally took control of Kirch's broadcast arm, ProSiebenSat.1, in August 2003, arranging a deal to buy majority ownership the following year. ProSiebenSat.1 leases the German broadcast rights to KirchMedia's former library holdings (including the RKO films), controlled at present by EOS Entertainment's Beta Film, which purchased many of the rights in 2004, and Kineos, a joint venture created in 2005 by Beta Film and KirchMedia, now run by its creditors.[29] In 1981, RAI, the public broadcasting service, acquired the Italian rights to the RKO library, which it now shares with Silvio Berlusconi's Fininvest.[30] In France, the rights are held by Ariès.[31] As for RKO's primary release deals, the Disney pictures originally distributed by the studio are controlled by the Walt Disney Company and its subsidiary Buena Vista. Rights to the Goldwyn features released by RKO, which had been held by the Samuel Goldwyn Company, are now controlled by Sony Pictures, via MGM. The Hartley–Merrill RKO Pictures has reprinted some RKO titles in the public domain, offering them to television with a modernized version of the original RKO opening logo, which was first used theatrically for the 1998 Mighty Joe Young remake.

All RKO Radio Pictures Inc. films produced between 1929 and 1957 have an opening logo displaying the studio's famous trademark, the spinning globe and radio tower, nicknamed "The Transmitter." The closing logo is also a well-known trademark, a triangle enclosing a thunderbolt.

The classic closing logo of RKO Radio Pictures.



  1. Note that many sources incorrectly give FBO's full name as "Film Booking Office of America"; the proper name is Film Booking Offices of America, which may be confirmed by examining several different versions of its official logo (ironically, this source also gives the incorrect name in its headline and text).
  2. Goodwin, Doris Kearns, The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1987), 375–379; Jewell, Richard B., with Vernon Harbin, The RKO Story (New York: Arlington House/Crown, 1982), 9–10; Utterson, Andrew, Technology and Culture—The Film Reader (Oxford and New York: Routledge/Taylor & Francis, 2005), 63–65; "Cinemerger," Time, May 2, 1927 (available online).
  3. Goodwin, 422–423; Jewell, 32.
  4. Bradley, Edwin M., The First Hollywood Musicals: A Critical Filmography of 171 Features, 1927 Through 1932 (Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 1996), 260; "R.-K.-O. Signs More Noted Names," Los Angeles Times, June 20, 1929; "Studios Plan Huge Programs," Los Angeles Times, July 21, 1929.
  5. Bordwell, David, Janet Staiger, and Kristin Thompson, The Classical Hollywood Cinema: Film Style & Mode of Production to 1960 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1985), 320–321.
  6. Finler, Joel W., The Hollywood Story (New York: Crown, 1988), 184.
  7. Bordwell et al., 349.
  8. Jewell, 142.
  9. The Independent Producers and the Paramount Case, 1938–1949: Part 6 "The Supreme Court Verdict That Brought an End to the Hollywood Studio System, 1948" (see "The First Studio Is Dissolved" and "The Mighty Paramount Is Broken"); part of the Society Of Independent Motion Picture Producers research archive. Retrieved 7/22/06.
  10. Jewell, 244-245.
  11. RKO Forty Acres part of the Bonanza: Scenery Of The Ponderosa website. Retrieved 7/23/06.
  12. "KHJ Enveloped in Scandal," Metropolitan News-Enterprise, December 5, 2002 (available online).
  13. RKO General, Inc. v. FCC (1981) December 4, 1981, decision by U.S. Court of Appeals, D.C. Circuit. Retrieved 8/17/06.
  14. "RKO Loses WNAC," The Tech, May 4, 1982 (available online).
  15. "License Bids Against RKO," New York Times, February 10, 1983 (available online); "Rulings Stand on WOR License," New York Times, November 14, 1984 (available online).
  16. WOR Radio 710 HD—WOR History official history of the radio station. Retrieved 8/17/06.
  17. "MCA Is Termed a Serious Bidder for WOR-TV," New York Times, February 18, 1986; "MCA to Buy WOR-TV for a Hefty $387 Million", New York Times, February 19, 1986.
  18. "KHJ Enveloped in Scandal." See also "Mediation Set for RKO Case," New York Times, September 12, 1986 (available online).
  19. "RKO Appeals F.C.C. Ruling," New York Times, October 20, 1987 (available online).
  20. "KHJ Enveloped in Scandal."
  21. "Wesray in Deal for RKO Studio," New York Times, September 18, 1987 (available online); EDGAR Online—Playboy Enterprises International Inc. Proxy Statement SEC form DEF 14A filing dated September 27, 1995. Retrieved 8/13/06.
  22. "Pavilion Buys Stake in RKO," New York Times, September 1, 1989 (available online); "Ted Hartley...and the Rebirth of RKO Studios" detailed 1999 article by Joseph DiSante based on interview with Hartley. Retrieved 7/26/06. Note that while the article refers to Hartley–Merrill's "RKO Pictures Inc.," SEC filings establish that the company is, at least currently, structured as an LLC.
  23. Entertainment Law Digest summary of "New Filing—RKO Acquisition": RKO Pictures v. Wall Street Financial Associates, LLC; L.A. Superior Court SC077345. Complete filing available at ELD, July 2003. Retrieved 8/8/06.
  24. Internetstudios Com Inc 10QSB SEC small business quarterly report filing dated June 30, 2004. For more on see StockLemon Report on InternetStudios. Both retrieved 7/22/06.
  25. "Dina Merrill on Mrs. Johnson" 2002 A&E interview with Merrill. Retrieved 8/14/06; Ted Hartley ’46 U.S. Naval Academy Alumni Association and Foundation biographical essay. Retrieved 8/17/06.
  26. FindLaw—U.S. 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals, Saltzman v CIR ruling in docket nos. 96-4195, 96-4203—argued October 3, 1997; decided December 11, 1997. Retrieved 8/10/06. Note that the association of the corporate name "Marian Pictures Incorporated" with the acronym "MBP" is per this legal document.
  27. See Turner Broadcasting System Inc DEFM14A SEC merger/acquisition proxy solicitation filing dated September 17, 1996. Retrieved 8/17/06.
  28. "The Val Lewton Horror Collection: Introduction" essay on new digital video release, December 12, 2005 (see "The DVDs"); part of the DVD Times website. Retrieved 8/17/06.
  29. TaurusHolding GmbH & Co. KG—Company History detailed history of KirchGruppe under the name it adopted in 2002; part of the Funding Universe website; "German Film and TV Giant KirchMedia Collapses" interview with media journalist Julie Rigg, October 4, 2002; part of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation—Radio National/Night Club website; "KirchMedia: Opportunity Lost" BusinessWeek Online, July 28, 2003; "Saban's Lands KirchMedia at Last", August 6, 2003; ProSiebenSat.1 Media AG Interim Report quarterly financial statement dated September 30, 2003 (see p. 6); "Saban Takes Majority Stake in Restructured ProSiebenSat.1", September 21, 2004; "DLA Piper Advises KirchMedia GmbH & Co. KGaA in the Sale of the National Film Library" DLA Piper press release dated May 13, 2005; Jan Mojto CV of EOS Entertainment chief dated May 21–24, 2005; part of the 18th website. All retrieved 8/18/06.
  30. L'Universale—La Grande Enciclopedia Tematica, vol. 2 (Milan: [Garzanti] Libri S.p.A., 2003–4), 986; "Un satellite per la cultura" 2002 statement by Luigi Mattucci, president of RAISat; part of the Emilia-Romagna IBC website. Retrieved 8/18/06.
  31. "Interview : Dans la tête des Editions Montparnasse" interview with Renaud Delourme, head of company handling French RKO DVD releases, November 22, 2000; part of the DVDFr website; "DVD RKO: Interview des Editions Montparnasse" 2001 interview with two EM professionals; part of the DVDrama website; "La gazette du doublage: Laurence Sabatier, Responsable technique des Editions Montparnasse" 2002 interview with EM professional; part of the Objectif Cinéma website. All retrieved 8/18/06.

Note: The standard history and reference guide to the studio's films, The RKO Story, by Richard B. Jewell, with Vernon Harbin (New York: Arlington House/Crown, 1982)—and not—is used as the final arbiter of whether specific films made between 1929 and 1957 were RKO solo productions, coproductions, or completely independent productions. Year of release is per IMDb-provided release date, independently verified in case of conflict.

External links

RKO Radio Pictures history

RKO General history

RKO Pictures LLC

  • RKO Pictures the Hartley–Merrill company's website
  • Ted Hartley personal website of RKO Pictures LLC's chairman and CEO
  • "Flight of Fancy" Hartley interviewed by Darrell Satzman, Los Angeles Business Journal, July 8, 2002
  • "Newman Helms Doc" article by Michael Fleming on planned Hartley documentary,, September 11, 2003

RKO library and rights

  • C&C RKO 16mm Prints extensive discussion of RKO preservation and rights issues, by David Chierichetti

it:RKO Pictures hu:RKO Pictures