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Issue: Issue Fall 2012

Last Page: RKO Pictures, A Titan is Born

Discover Hollywood Special Book Review

As Paramount Pictures celebrates its centennial, it acquired legendary RKO and incorporated the historic lot’s 131⁄2 acres into its iconic domain in 1966.  In fact, the roots of RKO can be traced back as far as 1883, when vaudeville showman B.F. Keith opened a variety theatre in South Boston.  In the early 1920s after going into the movie production business it attracted the attention of that city’s Joseph P. Kennedy and from there its glorious story unfolds.

According to James P. Snyder’s History of RKO:  “RKO was formed in 1929 from the merger of the Keith-Albee-Orpheum (KAO) theater chain located mostly in New England, the Film Booking Office (FBO), Pathé, and became an operating division of the Radio Corporation of America (RCA). Joseph Kennedy, President John F. Kennedy's father, had bought the basis of FBO in 1925, added the Keith-Albee-Orpheum chain , and then sold 25% of his companies to RCA in 1927. Kennedy quickly sold the remainder of the company to RCA and the merged companies become Radio-Keith-Orpheum. RCA purchased its way into the motion picture business to have an outlet for its new variable density optical sound-on-film system, RCA Photophone. The term "RKO Radio Pictures" was to mark the ownership by RCA.”

           

Richard Jewell takes the reader into the fascinating business world of one of Hollywood’s early motion picture giants.

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 Born offers 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. (Amazon)

Reviews

"Jewell not only makes great use of this primary material, but presents a clear, fair-minded narrative that puts the facts into proper context."

— Leonard Maltin's Movie Crazy

"Enjoying exclusive access to RKO archives before they were dispersed to the winds, Rick Jewell has crafted a powerful and unprecedented company history that is rich in detail and sharp in insight. Pinpointing both industry ambitions and corporate shenanigans, Jewell offers a tale both gripping and instructive. A major contribution to Hollywood studio history in the classic era."

— Dana Polan, author of Scenes of Instruction: The Beginnings of the U.S. Study of Film

"Richard Jewell has written a definitive portrait of a major Hollywood studio during the heyday of the movies. Enriched by a lode of archival material, Jewell's RKO story reconstructs the dynamics of the studio system; its stresses and strains; its logistical challenges; and its in-house rivalries. Some big names are vividly brought to life: David Sarnoff, Pandro Berman, Fred Astaire, Katharine Hepburn, Orson Welles, to name a few. Jewell interweaves RKO's corporate maneuverings and production agenda with great skill. A more compelling history of a Hollywood major is hard to imagine."

— Tino Balio, author of The Foreign Film Renaissance on American Screens, 1946-1973

"A painstakingly researched and lucidly written business history of RKO Studios from its founding through 1942, Richard Jewell's RKO Studios: A Titan is Born not only traces the shifting economic fortunes of the studio that gave us King Kong, the Astaire-Rogers musicals, and Citizen Kane but also fills an important gap in our understanding of how the studio system survived and at times even thrived during the Golden Age of Hollywood."

-— Charles Maland, author of Chaplin and American Culture

About the Author

Richard B. Jewell is Professor of Critical Studies at the USC School of Cinematic Arts. He is the author of The Golden Age of Hollywood, and The RKO Story, among others. DH