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Creator / RKO Pictures

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Well, they weren't called Radio Pictures for nothing.
Modern logo

— The Morse code message transmitted by the tower in the studio's Vanity Plate.

RKO Pictures is a small, independent studio involved in co-productions of films. It wasn't always like this, though.

When the successful 1927 release of The Jazz Singer prompted an industry-wide migration to sound film, the Radio Corporation of America shopped around RCA Photophone (which, despite the name, was actually developed by General Electric) for use in sound films. Since the other studios were already aligned with Western Electric's ERPI process, GE bought a stake in the small studio Film Booking Offices of America, while FBO's owner Joseph P. Kennedy purchased Keith-Albee-Orpheum, a vaudeville theater chain transitioning into film. Kennedy subsequently sold both properties to RCA, and on October 23, 1928, Radio-Keith-Orpheum (for which RKO stands) was launched as the first Hollywood studio to produce nothing but sound films. Its first three releases were, respectively, Syncopation, Street Girl, and Rio Rita, all successes.

Despite some successes, RKO didn't really wow anyone in its first few years, but the hiring of David O. Selznick as Head of Production in 1931 heralded a number of well-received hits, most notably King Kong. Unfortunately, this wasn't enough for the studio to overcome its tepid early years, which combined with The Great Depression led to the company being placed in receivership from 1933 until 1940, with Selznick departing amid rising tensions with newly-installed studio head Merlin Aylesworth. King Kong co-director Merian C. Cooper took his place, and before long RKO had settled into a niche as the smallest of the "Big Five" companies of the Hollywood studio system.

During The '30s, RKO produced the highly popular and iconic Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers musicals, as well as many Cary Grant films. It was in many respects the studio that built Screwball Comedy, films such as Bringing Up Baby. In 1936, it signed a landmark agreement with Walt Disney, which was in effect for almost two decades and largely replaced the output of Van Beuren Studios; his first feature film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, was the most successful Hollywood release between The Birth of a Nation and Gone with the Wind. Samuel Goldwyn was another independent producer to be employed by RKO, joining the company in 1941. Selznick also made movies for RKO as an independent producer. In the later period of its life, it was the American distributor of Akira Kurosawa's Rashomon, and thus was responsible for exposing American movie audiences to Japanese cinema.

One reason why RKO was the smallest of the Big Five film companies is the fact that they never cultivated the stable of contracted actors, writers and directors that the other major studios did. This however made RKO reorient itself by focusing on production design and studio facilities. Van Nest Polglase, RKO's highly regarded design department head, worked there for a decade and under him, RKO became perhaps the most sophisticated studio in terms of technicians and special effects artists. As historian James Naremore notes, "[RKO's] most distinctive pictures contained a strong element of fantasyŚnot so much the fantasy of horror, which during the thirties was the province of Universal, but the fantasy of the marvelous and adventurous." Indeed, historian Robert Carringer has noted that while Citizen Kane is definitely the prototypical "auteur's film", it was highly unlikely that it could be made at any other studio than at RKO. The decentralized nature of the company made it possible for them to give Orson Welles his legendary contract, the sophisticated production facilities (especially its optical printer which was way more advanced than at any other studio) helped create the film's distinct visual look.

The sophistication of its special effects is also on display in the series of horror films by producer Val Lewton and director Jacques Tourneur, released at the time as B-Movies but today recognized for being among the best films of The '40s. In an effort to save costs, RKO distributed numerous additional B productions, far more than the other major studios. This resulted in limited creative boundaries but also allowed RKO to turn a bigger profit, considerably more than most of their bigger-budget material. The studio came to specialize in the low-budget, fatalistic crime films that would later come to be referred to as Film Noir; their most prolific cinematographer, Nicholas Musuraca (who also shot the majority of the Lewton films) had helped define the Chiaroscuro look of Hollywood noir in RKO's 1940 film Stranger on the Third Floor, and RKO contract star Robert Mitchum became one of the definitive stars of the genre, with 1947's Out of the Past (starring Mitchum, directed by Tourneur, and shot by Musuraca) perhaps the most famous of them all.

In 1946, RKO, as well as the film industry in general, had its most successful year yet. Yet by this time, changing beliefs following the end of World War II put the business models of the major studios under scrutiny, and by 1947, the majors were forced to divest themselves of their theater chain. RKO suffered the worst of the Big 5 studios, its profits plummeting under new owner Howard Hughes.

Hughes' management of the studios was described by period historian Betty Lasky as a "systematic seven-year rape." A big fan of staunch anti-communist Senator Joseph McCarthy, Hughes shut down RKO briefly to weed out employees in suspicion of Communist sympathies. Hughes, being no fan of the Hays Code but a big fan of free publicity, made a number of steamy films that barely made it past the censors (some of which starred his muse, Jane Russell), then had his staff pose as religious groups to push Moral Guardians to boycott his own movies. It didn't help matters that most of the films Hughes produced at RKO were just plain awful, which Hollywood doesn't care about, but were expensive flops, which Hollywood does care about. The final straw came in 1956, when RKO unleashed Hughes' production of The Conqueror, which managed to become one of the year's highest grossing pictures and still failed to bring back its bloated budget, and even today is seen as a joke for its asinine casting of John Wayne as Genghis Khan, poor script, and possibly causing the cancer related deaths of its cast, including Wayne.

RKO's famed movie ranch in Encino was shut down and sold off, Disney bailed to distribute future works independently, and Hughes sold the studio to the General Tire and Rubber Company in 1955. General Tire attempted to continue producing films at RKO, and despite being modestly successful at it, the movie industry proved to be too much of a challenge for the new owners. RKO was finally shut down in 1957, its last movies being released by other studios; Columbia Pictures released its final film, Verboten! in 1959. The studio's lots were purchased by Lucille Ball (who got her start at RKO) and Desi Arnaz through Desilu. When Desilu was sold to Gulf & Western in 1967, a number of RKO's backlots were sold off except for one, the studios next door to Paramount (which Gulf & Western bought the year prior).

RKO was then reincorporated as RKO General, General Tire's subsidiary for broadcasting, as well as the distribution rights to the film library, which were sold to United Artists and Marian B. Inc. These rights now lie with Warner Bros. in North America, the UK and Australia (with the European rights being sold on a country-by-country basis to various companies) as a result of various sales and mergers, though RKO retains the copyright. Eventually, as FCC lawsuits were bringing RKO General down (the whole mess can be read about here, but the gist of it was that RKO General engaged in fraudulent practices and General Tire was no better), RKO was revived as a producer of films for other studios, the first of which was Carbon Copy.

As of today, RKO mainly exists to handle the copyrights of its library, as well as helping to produce the occasional film. As of 2023, RKO's most recent film is Barely Lethal, and will be releasing the documentary about Joan Lowell, "Ocean of Lies" this year. They've even established a podcast division. And we're not making this up.

Not to be confused with the initials of the full name of wrestler Randy Orton, whose finishing move is also called the "RKO."

Films released by RKO include:

     Disney films 
     Other films 

Alternative Title(s): RKO Radio Pictures, RKO