Reviewing this unique year at RKO for the Classic Movie History Project Blogathon.
Why did I choose RKO in 1943? Same reason everyone has their favourite championship teams among many in a league, season or era; there’s a magical combination of talent and timing that leaves a big mark on history and also has some personal appeal to the fan. In my case I’ve just always loved RKO’s movies, story and that logo. Stats show that for RKO, 1943 was a prolific, profitable year that produced some great films and introduced some great talent behind the camera. By looking through that year’s movies, by seeing its trends and transitions, its star vehicles and programmers, you get a capsule of changing careers, tastes, styles and themes, and the picture of a company rebuilding after difficulty to release a delightful grab bag of pictures.
Up to 1942 RKO’s president was George Schaefer, a man who proved he knew a good thing when he championed Orson Welles’ work on CITIZEN KANE. He was both praised and derided for his love of artistry, which many argued came at the expense of much-needed earnings. During his three-year regime at RKO, the studio bled cash and were short on hits, so he was one of those swept out in the 1942 shake-up, and replaced by production chief Charles Koerner, whose policy emphasized entertainment. Under Koerner profits started turning and ramped up through ‘43. With new controlling stockholders and a company on solid financial footing, much of the success RKO saw in 1943 was the foundation for their future direction making bigger movies with bigger names.
RKO released 50 movies in 1943, a big increase compared to 39 films the previous year and 33 the following. Only 4 of those 50 movies posted losses (today’s studios can only dream of such a ratio), and profits that year were just under $7 million (almost $100 million in today’s dollars). No more financial trouble and doom and gloom; 1943 seemed like a vehicle firing on all cylinders after a few years of driving on bumpy roads in a rickety jalopy.
Naturally, war was a subject of many movies that year. THIS LAND IS MINE was an excellent story about the importance of standing up for open expression and freedom of speech (I recently reviewed the film). Pilots were the spotlight of BOMBARDIER and SPITFIRE (aka THE FIRST OF THE FEW) for which David Niven was given leave from military service. A WWI biopic’s patriotic messages applied to the current conflict in THE IRON MAJOR, while pro-Russian propaganda was the thrust of THE NORTH STAR, starring Anne Baxter, Farley Granger and Dana Andrews. FOREVER AND A DAY was a special case that brought together 7 directors and 78 name actors in a charity movie distributed by RKO with proceeds going toward war causes.
Pearl Harbor and Nazi spies played a part in director Edward Dmytryk first movie at RKO, SEVEN MILES FROM ALCATRAZ. It marked the start of a prolific and profitable year for him that continued with HITLER’S CHILDREN, which made $3.35 mil, earned a spot in the top ten box office hits for the year, and was the “champion sleeper in RKO history.” Dmytryk continued the streak with BEHIND THE RISING SUN which made just under $1.5 mil, the hit Ginger Rogers tearjerker TENDER COMRADE, as well as programmers CAPTIVE WILD WOMAN and THE FALCON STRIKES BACK.
Back in 1941, then-president Schaefer was advised that audiences were craving horror and it might prove a profitable genre for RKO to focus on. Schaefer disagreed, so it’s ironic that the same big changes that ushered him out the door also brought in a new talent, producer Val Lewton. Lewton kicked off 1943 with CAT PEOPLE, the first of the year’s three movies directed by Jacques Tourneur. Sure enough, CAT PEOPLE turned a profit and kicked off RKO’s new cycle of horror movies. Lewton worked at mind boggling speed, producing I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE, THE LEOPARD MAN, and THE SEVENTH VICTIM. VICTIM may have been the least successful of Lewton’s pictures that year, but it remains one of his most disturbing and influential, and it was the debut of director Mark Robson, who would work again with Lewton on GHOST SHIP. Any one of these would have been a desirable product for the studio, but to have the string of them launching Lewton’s time at RKO, and marking the early work of great directors is a bit of a marvel. Other movies made more money, but of all the films listed here, arguably these are the ones still influencing filmmakers and thrilling movie buffs (I co-hosted an event celebrating Lewton here).
RKO’s 1943 packed slate of bread-and-butter franchises and series included several new properties along with long-running series building up or winding down. Considered the first successful spin-off, the Great Gildersleeve radio show had a built-in audience of 17 million listeners; within the year RKO would churn out THE GREAT GILDERSLEEVE, GILDERSLEEVE’S BAD DAY, and GILDERSLEEVE ON BROADWAY. Another comedy venture teamed busy contract actors Wally Brown and Alan Carney in RKO’s version of Abbott and Costello for the first two of their six movies: THE ADVENTURES OF A ROOKIE and ROOKIES IN BURMA. Tom Conway had already been introduced in the previous year’s transitional Falcon movie and fully took over the series in 1943 with THE FALCON STRIKES BACK, THE FALCON IN DANGER and THE FALCON AND THE CO-EDS, where he proved he was more than cool and slick enough to handle action, romance and witty repartee.
The Ape Man swung over from MGM to RKO this year in TARZAN’S DESERT MYSTERY and TARZAN TRIUMPHS. Lum and Abner had two of their six pictures, TWO WEEKS TO LIVE and SO THIS IS WASHINGTON. THE SAINT MEETS THE TIGER came from the British wing, and though it was the first Simon Templar novel, it was the eighth and final film for the character at RKO. Other characters that ended their series that year were Guy Kibbee as Scattergood Baines in CINDERELLA SWINGS IT and Lupe Velez as the titular character in MEXICAN SPITFIRE’S BLESSED EVENT. Velez was to appear in only one more film, NANA, before her untimely death in 1944.
As young crooner Frank Sinatra arrived to appear in his first major movie, HIGHER AND HIGHER, famed bandleader Kay Kyser made his last RKO picture, AROUND THE WORLD. Richard Dix finished out his contract with GHOST SHIP, and producer Bert Gilroy was let go after 11 years for going repeatedly going over budget and making too many flops. But in the spending department Gilroy was likely overshadowed by Orson Welles, whose budgets had troubled many an executive. In 1943, after a year of tinkering and reshoots, Welles’ latest production, JOURNEY INTO FEAR, came out and was the last collaboration between RKO and Welles’ Mercury Productions.
RKO wasn’t hit hard by the waves of stars going off to war, since they had few major names under contract. But who they had was “choice” and who they needed, they borrowed through smart loans from other studios. They kept their star Tim Holt busy in the smash HITLER’S CHILDREN and the westerns SAGEBRUSH LAW, THE AVENGING RIDER and RED RIVER ROBIN HOOD. That last one was Holt’s final movie he made before going to serve in the military, which left RKO without a regular western series until he came back. RKO traded away the rights to THE ANIMAL KINGDOM and OF HUMAN BONDAGE to Warner Bros. for two actors: John Garfield and Joan Leslie. Garfield they put in the political thriller THE FALLEN SPARROW alongside Maureen O’Hara, and Leslie got THE SKY’S THE LIMIT with Fred Astaire.
MR. LUCKY gave Cary Grant a likable low-life part, RKO another massive hit, and helped make Laraine Day a bigger name. A LADY TAKES A CHANCE paired John Wayne and Jean Arthur in a romantic comedy for RKO’s third highest earner of the year. Bob Hope was loaned in for THEY GOT ME COVERED, one of his best comedies without Bing Crosby. One loan that didn’t go so well, at least in the star’s opinion, was Olivia de Havilland coming over to do screenwriter Dudley Nichols’ directorial debut GOVERNMENT GIRL. Despite her dislike for the project and the arrangement that got her there (via David O.Selznick), the movie made a lot of money. Finally, fresh off her Oscar nomination for MY SISTER EILEEN, Rosalind Russell appeared in FLIGHT FOR FREEDOM, a rare pet project for RKO board chairman Floyd Odlum, who was married to a pilot and wanted this Amelia Earhart-style story brought to the screen.
To use one of Sinatra’s future hits, it was a very good year. What a collection of genres, themes and personalities, fine entertainment, art and earnings for the studio that only months before worried about its future.
THE RKO STORY by Richard Jewell and Vernon Harbin
RKO RADIO PICTURES: A TITAN IS BORN by Richard Jewell