Slow Fade to Black: The Decline of RKO Radio Pictures

Slow Fade to Black: The Decline of RKO Radio Pictures

by Richard B. Jewell

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Slow Fade to Black completes Richard B. Jewell’s richly detailed two-part history of the RKO film studio, which began with RKO Radio Pictures: A Titan Is Born, published in 2012. This second volume charts the studio’s fortunes, which peaked during World War II, declined in the postwar period, and finally collapsed in the 1950s. Drawing on hard-to-access archival materials, Jewell chronicles the period from 1942 to the company’s demise in 1957. Towering figures associated with the studio included Howard Hughes, Orson Welles, Charles Koerner, Val Lewton, Jane Russell, and Robert Mitchum. In addition to featuring an extraordinary cast of characters, the RKO story describes key aspects of entertainment history: Hollywood’s collaboration with Washington, film noir, censorship, HUAC, the rise of independent film production, and the impact of television on film. Taken as a whole, Jewell’s two-volume study represents the most substantial and insightful exploration of the Hollywood studio system to date.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520289673
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 03/22/2016
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 288
Sales rank: 794,525
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.80(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Richard B. Jewell is Hugh M. Hefner Professor of Cinema and Media Studies at the USC School of Cinematic Arts. He is author of The Golden Age of Hollywood and The RKO Story, among other works, as well as coauthor of Primary Cinema Resources. In 2008, he was named Academy Film Scholar by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

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Slow Fade to Black

The Decline of RKO Radio Pictures

By Richard B. Jewell


Copyright © 2016 Richard B. Jewell
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-96424-2


"Showmanship in Place of Genius"

The Rathvon-Koerner Regime (1942–1945)

At the beginning of June 1942 the United States had been at war with Japan, Germany, and Italy for nearly half a year without success. The Japanese military, on the other hand, mounted an extraordinary offensive throughout Asia after bombing Pearl Harbor, "capturing one-sixth of the surface of the planet in only six months." But on June 4 the U.S. Navy scored a resounding victory during the Battle of Midway, sinking four Japanese carriers and effectively short-circuiting the enemy's dominance in the Pacific. Although advancement would be slow, bloody, and intractable from this point forward, the future outcome of battles fought in Europe, Africa, Asia, and the Pacific would generally favor U.S. forces.

In a scenario that eerily mirrored America's early efforts in the global conflict, RKO Radio Pictures, a major American motion picture company, had also been foundering between December 1941 and May 1942. On the day of the Midway confrontation, RKO corporate president George J. Schaefer instructed his new Hollywood production chief Charles W. Koerner to make "no further commitments on the pictures that are to be produced later in the year for 1942–43." This message was issued because it appeared that fiscally challenged RKO might close its studio or fall back into receivership, a state of corporate bankruptcy in which the company had languished throughout most of the 1930s. The order became one of the last formal directives issued by Schaefer, who resigned shortly thereafter.

Charles Koerner obeyed, realizing that even if new funding were found to prop up the company he would likely still be asked to cut his filmmaking budget even further. Nevertheless, perhaps inspired by the confidence that other members of RKO's leadership team seemed to have in his abilities, Koerner showed no signs of despondency. He continued to work resolutely on the films that would comprise the initial portion of the new season's releases. They would be his first pictures as RKO executive producer, and he was determined to turn out successful product.

During the months of financial decline that led to Schaefer's resignation, there had been considerable squabbling among three powerful groups that comprised the leading investors in RKO: RCA, the Rockefeller family, and the Atlas Corporation. Even though the production arm was scheduled to run short of cash and be unable to meet payroll in the middle of June, none would agree to support some sort of stopgap measure to keep the cameras turning.

But as soon as George Schaefer was out of the picture, Floyd Odlum of Atlas, who had never been a supporter of Schaefer, stepped up to protect his investment. Owning some 46 percent of RKO, considerably more than either RCA or the Rockefellers, Odlum arranged to redirect $600,000 from the corporation, which it had to draw from its theater subsidiary, and secured a temporary loan of $800,000 from Manufacturers Trust Company to keep the studio operating throughout June and July. This was only a temporary solution but, by July 10, Odlum had convinced the other owners to accept an arrangement whereby Manufacturers Trust would loan an additional $3 million, with RKO putting up its theaters as collateral. As Time magazine reported, Floyd Odlum intended to take a more active interest in RKO than ever before.

Proof of this came in late June with the naming of Odlum subordinate N. Peter Rathvon to replace Schaefer as president of Radio-Keith-Orpheum and chairman of its board of directors. As a reward for ten-plus years of diligent service, Ned Depinet, a veteran executive and the top man in the distribution division, became president of the picture company, RKO Radio Pictures.

This new hierarchy faced enormous challenges, and it is unlikely that anyone in Hollywood expected them to succeed. Indeed, RKO had a dubious history of placing untested, inexperienced executives in key management positions, and the company appeared to be making the same mistake once again. A graduate of the University of Colorado Law School, fifty-one-year-old Peter Rathvon worked for various mining companies, practiced law, and became a member of the New York Stock Exchange before joining the Atlas Corporation in 1933. During his years as one of Floyd Odlum's most important lieutenants, he had applied his fiscal and organizational skills to a number of companies in which Atlas had interests, including RKO. In fact, most of his energies had been focused on the movie concern during the past few years, and he was serving as an RKO vice president and a member of its board of directors when Schaefer submitted his resignation. Still, Rathvon had never functioned as top man of any corporation before, and his knowledge of the motion picture industry was manifestly inferior to that of the executives running the other major Hollywood companies in 1942.

Charlie Koerner, born in 1896, on the other hand, had been working in the business since he started projecting movies at a theater in Havre, Montana, while still a teenager. Following service in World War I, Koerner continued to work in exhibition, catching on with RKO in the early 1930s. Eventually he would be placed in charge of various regional sectors of the RKO theater chain, including those in the Southwest, upstate New York, New England, and the West Coast. Koerner was finally named general manager of all the RKO houses in 1941. But his stay at the company's New York headquarters would be short-lived. In early 1942 he departed for Hollywood, supposedly to pinch-hit for studio production chief Joseph Breen while Breen recuperated from an illness. In fact, this was a ruse to enable Breen, who had been RKO's executive producer for a little over one year, to save face; Schaefer and the company's board of directors had decided Breen could not handle the studio job and were turning it over to Koerner. After his recuperation Breen would head back to his old position running the Production Code Administration, Hollywood's in-house board of censors. Unquestionably, Charles Koerner was a show business veteran, but his long experience was entirely in exhibition, not production; now he was taking on the toughest task of them all, a job that required a daunting matrix of organizational, literary, and personal skills, as well as the instincts of a professional gambler and the foresight of a soothsayer. Many individuals had been named executive producer and failed to deliver the goods (moneymaking pictures) before — at RKO and other companies. But Koerner was undaunted; he summed up his approach by employing an analogy straight from Detroit:

Successful manufacturing depends on the product produced, is it wanted by the public and if so is it within [the] price range the public is willing to pay. An automobile manufactured with the basic ingredients, appeal and quality of a Packard or Cadillac, and produced at the cost of a Ford will show great profits through sales as a result of demand, but a car produced with the quality of a Ford and at a cost making it imperative to sell at the price of a Packard will not show a profit.

Koerner's goal was to make A pictures that were Packards and Cadillacs, but on Ford budgets.

As if their jobs were not formidable enough, Rathvon and Koerner needed to breathe new life into a company that was very sick — one with a recent track record of disappointing releases, one without any major stars under exclusive contract, one littered with daunting personnel problems, one for whom few creative people in Hollywood wanted to work and from whom few independent exhibitors wanted to lease movies. Nevertheless, this excerpt from a letter written by Rathvon to Koerner in late June suggests that RKO's new corporate president also looked toward the future with considerable enthusiasm:

My job is tough and vital but no less so is your own. Perhaps the desperate condition in which this company has been allowed to drift leaves no room for optimism but I cannot help feeling that you and Ned [Depinet] and I, with the help of all the good men in this organization, are going to be able to turn the trend and bring the company into black figures before the end of the year.

Inspiring remarks of this type had often been uttered before, usually to be crushed by the harsh reality of RKO's feeble performances. Rathvon's words, however, turned out to be remarkably prophetic.

With the solid backing of Floyd Odlum, Peter Rathvon and Charles Koerner set to work, determined not to make the mistakes their predecessors had made. Sid Rogell, longtime studio manager who resigned toward the end of Schaefer's tenure, was rehired in his former position. He and veteran commitments expert J. J. Nolan would provide Koerner much-needed assistance in running the movie-making plant. The objectives of management included a patriotic component that was personal; it was imperative to restore the company to good health so that the many RKO workers who had already departed, or would soon depart, for the military would have "jobs to return to" when the conflict ended.

One of the first items on the agenda was to clean up various messes left behind by George Schaefer. High on the list was Orson Welles and his two most recent films, The Magnificent Ambersons and It's All True. Schaefer had hired Welles and was justifiably proud of Citizen Kane, but the wunderkind's subsequent films had played a large role in Schaefer's forced resignation. After a disastrous preview of Ambersons in Pomona, California, in March 1942, the studio assigned editor Robert Wise to recut the film and, with some forty minutes removed, previewed it several more times. In mid-May a screening at the State Theater in Long Beach went fairly well; many of the preview cards were positive. Still, a number of the respondents complained about the depressing impact of the story, so the studio decided to shoot a different, more upbeat ending.

The picture opened in August, some two months after George Schaefer's departure. It was not handled gently by RKO distribution. In many places Ambersons played on a double bill with a "Mexican Spitfire" comedy. As expected, it fared poorly. The final deficit on The Magnificent Ambersons amounted to $624,000.

Later, Welles would complain bitterly about the emasculation of his masterpiece. The excision of almost one-third of the intended footage plus the new ending galled him, as well as the editing choices made. "They let the studio janitor cut 'The Magnificent Ambersons' in my absence," he wailed. Ever since, cinema scholars have bemoaned the mangling of Ambersons, expressing a fervent yearning to view it as Welles intended. Unfortunately, that will never happen. The vital footage is gone forever; on December 10, 1942, Charles Koerner gave instructions to "junk" all the outtakes.

The unanswerable question is why preview audiences reacted so negatively when the picture was first screened. Mark Robson, who assisted Robert Wise with the editing, was mystified by the response:

That film was heartbreaking. The great things that happened on film. ... I guess people didn't care. They just left the theatre. I think we must have taken it to dozens of previews. It reached a point when we had to pick up the film at the booth, people were waiting for us as if they were going to beat us up. They were so angered and annoyed.

A version of The Magnificent Ambersons at least gained release in 1942. It's All True was not so fortunate. An experimental omnibus film designed to foster solidarity between the North and South American continents, the picture's strongest advocate had been RKO investor Nelson Rockefeller, then heading up the government's Office of Inter-American Affairs. Rockefeller understood that the commercial prospects of such a film were limited at best, so an arrangement was concluded guaranteeing that Washington would cover any losses incurred by RKO, up to $300,000. Therefore, George Schaefer could not envision any downside to the arrangement, since he expected Welles to expend no more than a couple of months and $600,000 to complete it. But Welles fooled him. By the time Schaefer quit, Orson Welles had been in Brazil for almost five months and the film's projected final budget, according to studio experts, had climbed well north of a million dollars.

Now that Schaefer had departed, Charles Koerner cast a jaundiced eye on the project. At that time Welles was in Fortaleza shooting material to be used in a section of the film about four fishermen who sailed their raft two thousand miles from northern Brazil to Rio de Janeiro to make the country's president aware of the plight of the starving people in their region. Meanwhile, studio production manager Lynn Shores, who detested Welles and believed the whole adventure had been a colossal waste of time and money, remained in Rio attempting to clear up various loose ends. Among other things, Shores claimed Welles had neglected to secure the proper rights to much of the Brazilian music he planned to include in the picture, forcing the production manager to contend with the problem. In addition, Shores informed the studio that the director had made "all kinds of high, wide and handsome commitments to artists of the Urca [night club] about big rewards they were going to receive for their participation in the picture." According to Shores, these commitments had been promised without proper authorization or approval. Shores, therefore, had to "negotiate" these sensitive matters. On top of all this, Welles threw a temper tantrum just before departing for Fortaleza, tossing china and furniture out of his Rio apartment window to the street below. The resultant newspaper coverage took a scandalous turn until Shores paid hush money to quiet everything down. Shores alleged that the episode cost approximately $2,000.

Rathvon, as well as Koerner, soon became exasperated with Orson Welles. In late June, Shores received instructions to publish a disclaimer in the local papers stating that RKO would no longer be responsible for any commitments or debts incurred by Welles or members of his party. When he returned from Fortaleza, Welles was ordered back to the United States and told no more money for It's All True would be forthcoming.

Meanwhile, Charles Koerner and his Hollywood studio associates took further action. Welles's Mercury Production staff were evicted from their offices at the RKO Pathe studio; the footage of It's All True was, in effect, impounded; and RKO lawyers began scrutinizing the Welles contracts to determine the studio's rights and potential liabilities should Welles decide to sue. Upon hearing the news in Brazil, he could not resist a good pun. Welles wired his associates, "Don't get excited. We're just passing a rough Koerner on our way to immortality." Officials of the new RKO countered with "All's well that ends Welles."

The ultimate fate of It's All True dangled in the breeze for a long time thereafter. At first, the studio planned to finish the picture and distribute it without any further input from the director. To benefit from the U.S. government's $300,000 pledge against losses, the film had to be released. For a time it appeared that Welles might get backing from another distributor, repaying RKO's costs out of the eventual proceeds of the picture. When this failed to materialize, the project entered an uneasy limbo period for more than two years. Finally, RKO sold Welles the footage in late 1944, but he defaulted on his promissory note two years later and the film was returned to the studio's possession. Some of it was later destroyed.

Charlie Koerner quickly garnered a hatchet-man reputation in Hollywood. Besides unceremoniously dumping Mercury Productions and calling a halt to It's All True, Koerner also canceled Name, Age and Occupation, Pare Lorentz's first Hollywood production, which had been filming for several months. Lorentz was considered America's foremost documentary filmmaker, thanks to two productions made in support of Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal: The Plow That Broke the Plains and The River. Now he decided to cast his lot with Hollywood and, like Welles, had been given a contract by Schaefer that guaranteed a good deal of autonomy. But Charles Koerner decided the director had abused his privileges unconscionably. Name, Age and Occupation had been in production, off and on, since March, yet Lorentz still did not have a finished script in July. The original plan called for a budget between $300,000 and $350,000, most of which Lorentz had spent without coming near to completing the picture. The new studio estimate projected a final cost of $706,317. Lorentz's insistence on the use of Floyd Crosby, a painstaking cameraman; his failure to inform the studio of his production plans, thus making it impossible to anticipate his requirements; and his exposure of an excessive amount of footage at a time when the wartime government demanded film conservation were numbered among Koerner's other grievances. On July 3 Koerner sent Lorentz a strongly worded letter, enumerating the director's abuses, insisting he deliver a complete script "immediately," and setting forth a number of other general production requirements. When Lorentz failed to comply by July 12, Koerner closed down the production. The press were informed that the picture had merely been suspended because of "technical and screen play difficulties," but the new studio chief had no intention of allowing the director ever to shout "Action!" at RKO again. RKO did, at least, gain one valuable asset from the Lorentz fiasco. Fledgling actor Robert Ryan had been placed under contract when Lorentz cast him in Name, Age and Occupation. Ryan would soon emerge as one of the studio's leading male performers.


Excerpted from Slow Fade to Black by Richard B. Jewell. Copyright © 2016 Richard B. Jewell. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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Table of Contents


List of Illustrations, ix,
Preface, xi,
Notes, 217,
Selected Bibliography, 249,
Index, 255,

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