Risky Knock-Outs

Dec 30, 1998 at 12:00 am

You've probably seen it, preceding a late-night televised classic or prior to a feature on AMC -- a large radio tower poised on top of the world, chirping frenetically and sending out concentric rings of light. That beeping tower is the corporate logo of Radio-Keith-Orpheum Pictures, better known as the RKO Studio.

Founded in 1928, RKO was the smallest of the major movie studios, and was financially and managerially unstable throughout its entire existence. It also lacked a consistent production philosophy, the nature of its projects reflecting the preferences of whomever happened to be in charge at the time. If at first glance RKO's inconsiderable size, volatility and lack of focus seem like a recipe for disaster, they actually worked in the studio's favor, leading it to take bold creative risks that resulted in hits and classics in every genre imaginable.

The man in charge in the early '30s was producer David O. Selznick, who made his mark by signing on major talent such as Katharine Hepburn and Fred Astaire. Hepburn made 14 films for RKO between 1932 and 1938, one of them the classic screwball comedy Bringing Up Baby (1938). Also starring Cary Grant as an ever-so-proper paleontologist and directed by Howard Hawks, Baby featured Hepburn as a dizzy heiress who has a discombobulating effect on all those around her. With each comic mishap, Grant becomes more embroiled in Hepburn's harebrained schemes, especially one involving a pet leopard named Baby. Inexplicably, this sidesplitting masterpiece proved a box office flop in its day, leading to the termination of Hepburn's contract.

Fred Astaire was first paired with Ginger Rogers in Flying Down to Rio (1933). They weren't the stars, but their dance duets stole the picture and they went on to create eight more films together, making RKO a leader in the production of musicals throughout the '30s. Never heavy on plot, Astaire-Rogers vehicles usually involved a case of mistaken identity or a romantic misunderstanding, with Astaire playing a witty and debonair dandy and Rogers as his plucky and likable love interest. The plot of Top Hat (1935), their most successful film, provides the flimsiest of excuses for the scintillating dance numbers -- choreographed by Astaire and Hermes Pan -- strung along like so many dazzling charms dangling on the weak chain of the narrative.

"It was beauty that killed the beast," says impresario Carl Denhem in King Kong, the RKO blockbuster hit of 1933. He thereby absolves himself of responsibility for using Fay Wray as bait, then removing the great beast from his island home and trying to exhibit him in the heart of New York City like some cheap sideshow attraction. Kong's subsequent rampage through the city provides a brief moment of exhilaration, but there's something so ineluctably sad about the once-majestic Kong seeking refuge on top of the Empire State building, beset on all sides by dive-bombing fighter planes, fatally losing his grip and plummeting to the ground, his lifeless corpse fodder for the next day's tabloids. Featuring the special-effects wizardry of Willis O'Brien, Kong remains a stunning visual experience to this day.

The '40s saw RKO seeking to compete with Universal Studio's chillers, and in 1942 the studio hired producer Val Lewton as head of the B-horror unit. Lewton's first production, 1943's Cat People (directed by Jacques Tourneur) demonstrated his knack for the expressive use of sound and shadow, and for creating a subdued atmosphere of uncanny creepiness.

Cat People tells the story of a Serbian woman named Irena who believes she is descended from a race of deadly cat-women, who "in jealousy or anger, or their own corrupt passions, can turn into great cats, like panthers." Is this a nightmare come true or merely neurosis? Irena's all-American, rational new husband learns for the first time what unhappiness is, and her seductive psychiatrist pays a high price for transgressing professional boundaries.

When George Schaefer was head of production, his catchword was "quality," and he signed Orson Welles -- who had a reputation as a genius for his work in theater and radio -- to a six-film contract that provided an unprecedented degree of creative control. Schaefer was vindicated when Welles came up with Citizen Kane (1941), a film way ahead of its time and often voted the best motion picture ever made.

Using Welles' characteristic deep-focus compositions -- pioneered by cinematographer Gregg Toland -- unconventional use of sound, and told from the point of view of five narrators, Kane is a film, states critic R. Jewell, "about egomania and unnatural obsession that stripped bare the American love affair with power and materialism, and revealed the emptiness within." Gossip columnist Louella Parsons deemed the film a thinly veiled, unflattering portrait of her boss, William Randolph Hearst, and the Hearst newspaper empire subsequently declared war against RKO, severely damaging the film's box office reception.

By the late 1950s, RKO was finished. Eccentric millionaire Howard Hughes had acquired the company in 1948 and ran it into the ground. Finally, General Teleradio acquired the television rights to the library of old feature films, and Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz -- once contract players at the studio -- acquired the production facilities. But with more than 1,000 films to its credit, the legacy of RKO lives on.