RKO Radio Pictures: A Titan is Born (2012) Richard B. Jewell
University of California Press
Trade paperback, 330 pages
(includes photos, appendix, notes, selected bibliography, index)
This two-volume history of RKO Radio Pictures (an expansion of Jewell’s 1982 coffee table book, The RKO Story) begins with A Titan is Born, a work covering the studio’s journey from its birth in 1928 to the release of The Magnificent Ambersons in 1942. (The second volume, Slow Fade to Black: The Decline of RKO Radio Pictures, picks up during WWII, ending with the studio’s demise in 1959.) Anyone considering this book should know that Jewell’s primary focus is on the business side of the studio, and to a much lesser degree, its stars and films. If that sounds stogy and uninteresting, I can assure you it’s not. A Titan is Born gives the reader an insight into what went on (and to some extent, probably still goes on) behind the scenes of a major Hollywood movie studio. Such goings-on are not always logical, fair, or even common-sensical, but for the movie fan who wants to understand what gets made and why, the book is essential reading.
Right from the introduction, Jewell suggests readers begin with the book’s appendix, a crash course in learning the components of movie production during the classic days of the Hollywood studio system. Most avid movie fans may already consider themselves knowledgable about the roles of writers, directors, producers, actors, and management, but what about the behind-the-scenes aspects of movie-making, such as wardrobe, sound, post-production, accounting, legal and publicity issues, distribution, and rentals? Even if readers are conversant in such areas, the book’s appendix provides a good refresher before tackling the heart of the book.
If the story of the transformation of a variety theater in South Boston in 1883 to a major Hollywood studio seems unlikely, it was. Who would’ve guessed that a British automobile exporter (Robertson-Cole) would purchase 13.5 acres in Hollywood in 1920 for the purpose of expanding their profits by making and distributing motion pictures? Who would’ve guessed that Joseph P. Kennedy would become involved or that radio and motion pictures could profitably co-exist? These early days of the company (that would eventually become known as RKO) are unique in the larger umbrella of Hollywood history, so much so that readers may absorb these early chapters while scratching their heads, thinking, “How the heck did that happen?”
Reading A Titan is Born brings to mind the experience of movie-goers as they watch on-screen characters walking into dangerous situations or making foolhardy decisions. The early history of RKO is filled with such moments, brought about not only by a revolving door of leadership changes, but also in how it acquired and managed (or mismanaged) talent, made poor script-purchasing choices, and consistently failed to control film budgets. Such problems (and many others) landed RKO in receivership for what seemed like a life sentence. Of course it’s easy for modern-day cinephiles to read these pages in hindsight, shouting questions like, “Why did you let a production chief as talented as David O. Selznick slip away to MGM?” or “Don’t you know what to do with Fred Astaire?” or maybe the biggest blunder of all: not renewing Joan Fontaine’s contract. RKO also allowed several other actors to slip through (or in some cases, were forced through) their fingers: Katharine Hepburn, Laraine Day, Joel McCrea, Linda Darnell, James Ellison, and Ann Sheridan, to name just a few.
Time magazine once called RKO “Hollywood’s most mismanaged studio,” and from reading just a few chapters of A Titan is Born, it’s easy to support that statement. Despite producing such great films such Top Hat, King Kong, Bringing Up Baby, Gunga Din, and Citizen Kane (not all of which made money), RKO struggled financially and artistically. Perhaps the artistic side of the ledger provides some of the reason for the company’s financial failures. RKO did a fairly good job of finding talent (Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, Irene Dunne, etc.), but had no experience (or interest) in developing new talent, a necessity for any studio that wants to compete in Hollywood.
A constant, ever-changing parade of studio leadership not only created inconsistency in nearly every department, it also resulted in confusion, jealousy, missed opportunities, and just plain bad decisions. One of the greatest missed opportunities came from a partnership with Walt Disney starting in 1937. RKO distributed many Disney projects, including the 1937 classic Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Although the film made nearly $8 million in film rentals (nearly $145 million in 2019 dollars), RKO’s profit was only $380,000. Yet the greater sin was in RKO’s not following Disney’s overall philosophy. That philosophy is spelled out in a memorandum written by Disney employee George E. Morris in 1938: “May I add that Walt built this institution up to what it is today by concentrating on one idea - that of giving quality entertainment no matter what the cost, and, as you know, in spite of many protests from the bookkeepers and financial departments, he has, up to this time always, without exception, been right.” (p. 147) This quote should’ve been etched onto the walls of every RKO manager.
I have knowingly mentioned none of the names of the people in management at RKO, mostly because there were so many and they would come across only as names, but also because I want you to experience these leaders for yourself and evaluate their effectiveness (or non-effectiveness, as the case may be). Yet I will mention one name to watch for during your reading, that of production manager Pandro Berman, who may be remembered as the brightest light at RKO during this era. What did he do and what happened to him? You’ll have to read the book to find out.
Many famous names slip in and out of the RKO story: Alfred Hitchcock, Nelson Rockefeller, George Stevens, the Marx Brothers, George Gallup, and of course, Orson Welles, whose troubled production It’s All True closes the volume, encapsulating in microcosm all of RKO’s problems up to that point.
Once again, rest assured that reading about the business side of RKO in this volume is nothing like trying to stay awake during a corporate board meeting. The creative side is present as well, but understanding the behind-the-scenes financial and business aspects actually gives readers a greater insight into the challenges, anxieties, and frustrations the stars, writers, directors and other crew had to deal with on a daily basis. And probably still do.