From Cimarron to The Big Sky
RKO had been one of the major Hollywood studios but after eccentric millionaire Howard Hughes took control in 1948, mismanagement and decline ensued, the studio was acquired by the General Tire and Rubber Company in 1955 and ceased production in 1957.
So the period we’ve been examining, the early and mid-1950s, was not a glorious time for the studio.
In 1953, RKO put out 23 movies, only one of which, Alfred Werker’s 3D prison drama Devil’s Canyon starring Dale Robertson and Virginia Mayo, was a Western.
In 1955, the other year we have selected for comparison, the total output had declined to 14 films but the proportion of Westerns was much higher: five of them, over a third, were oaters. They were The Americano with Glenn Ford, a present-day Western set in South America; the enjoyable Reno brothers yarn Rage at Dawn with Randolph Scott; a version of Bret Harte’s Tennessee’s Partner with John Payne and Ronald Reagan and directed by Allan Dwan; the George Sherman-directed Mexican Western The Treasure of Pancho Villa with Rory Calhoun, Shelley Winters and Gilbert Roland; and lastly Tim Whelan’s last film, Texas Lady, with Claudette Colbert and Barry Sullivan.
The business was formed in October 1928 after the Keith-Albee-Orpheum theater chain and Joseph Kennedy’s Film Booking Offices of America were brought together under the control of the Radio Corporation of America (RCA), which had an advanced optical sound-on-film system, Photophone, recently developed by its parent company General Electric. The name RKO was an abbreviation of Radio-Keith-Orpheum. Two years later, another Kennedy concern, the Pathé studio, was incorporated into the operation. By the mid-1940s, RKO was controlled by investor Floyd Odlum.
In these early days the studio favored song-and-dance pictures with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers as well as screwball comedies with the likes of Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant. RKO also produced two of the most famous films in motion picture history: King Kong and Citizen Kane. Westerns, however, were fewer and farther between. Still, in 1931 RKO had a big success with an adaptation by Howard Estabrook of Edna Ferber’s novel Cimarron, the epic film directed by Wesley Ruggles and starring popular Richard Dix and Irene Dunne. Extremely expensive to make (the land rush scene alone was spectacularly huge) , it did not recoup its production costs during its initial run in 1931 but, a critical hit, the picture ‘grew’ in stature, especially after it was nominated for seven Oscars and won three of them, including Best Picture, the first Western ever to do so.
To film it, RKO purchased the Encino Ranch, which would become the location for many an oater.
Later that year, twenty-nine-year-old David O Selznick was hired as head of production and he gave producers and directors more autonomy than they had, and recruited some highly talented personnel such as director George Cukor and producer Merian Cooper. Selznick only lasted fifteen months at RKO, when Cooper took over, but contributed greatly to its improvement. RKO behind the scenes people were among the finest in Hollywood, including composer Max Steiner, cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca, and designer Van Nest Polglase.
Apart from putting Dix in The Conquerors in 1932, directed by William Wellman, and later West of the Pecos, The Arizonian and Yellow Dust, RKO generally avoided the Western genre in the early 30s with the exception of a few Tom Keene programmers. There was the occasional oater as the 30s progressed, such as Gun Law and Lawless Valley with George O’Brien (O’Brien made 18 pictures at RKO) and Powdersmoke Range and The Law West of Tombstone with Harry Carey, B-Westerns really, but the studio was certainly not specializing in the genre.
At the end of the 30s, the majors were again making Westerns, often big-budget ones, and RKO got into the act with Allegheny Uprising (1939) with Stagecoach stars John Wayne and Claire Trevor, and Bad Lands, a remake as a Western of John Ford’s World War I drama The Lost Patrol.
In 1940 winsome Tim Holt started a series of 46 fun programmers at RKO with Wagon Train. One of RKO’s stars was the young Robert Mitchum, and when Tim Holt went off to war, Mitchum was cast as a replacement in Nevada and West of the Pecos.
But major A-picture Westerns were as rare as hen’s teeth. Of the thirty-one features released by RKO in 1944, for instance, ten were budgeted below $200,000, twelve were in the $200,000 – $500,000 range, and only nine (but no Westerns) cost more.
In 1945 Gary Cooper made his first Western as producer, the light-hearted Along Came Jones, at RKO. In 1944 and ’45 Universal had had hits by grouping as many horror characters as you could think of in movies like House of Frankenstein and House of Dracula, in which Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster, wolf men, hunchbacks and mad doctors crowded the cast list, and RKO must have thought they would have a go at that with Western outlaws. They would put the James gang, the Daltons, Sam Bass and Belle Starr all in the same movie, Badman’s Territory. Surprisingly, it was a box-office success. Randolph Scott helped. He came back in Trail Street the following year.
1948 was a good year for the RKO Western. Rachel and the Stranger, starring Mitchum and William Holden with Loretta Young, did very well, as did the noirish Station West with Dick Powell and the outstanding Blood on the Moon with Mitchum again, directed by talented Robert Wise.
But in particular that year John Ford made the first of his so-called cavalry trilogy at the studio, the wonderful Fort Apache with John Wayne. The year after, Ford did the sequel She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, which earned an Oscar for its color photography, and the year after that Ford made Wagonmaster there too.
This post-war period was really the high-point of the RKO Western. It was downhill from there.
There were a few quite interesting pictures to come, notably in 1952 when the studio released Rancho Notorious, The Lusty Men and The Big Sky. The first was directed by Fritz Lang, who had a really quite distinguished Western record for a European import, and it headlined Marlene Dietrich, but it was a strangely lackluster affair. Nicholas Ray’s contemporary rodeo picture, whose lurid title Hughes had insisted on, was well acted, especially by Mitchum, and in many ways a fine picture, though barely a Western in the true sense, while Howard Hawks’s The Big Sky was an early Western with Kirk Douglas doing his thing. It was a big picture, though, which garnered two Oscar nominations, for Arthur Hunnicutt and for Russell Harlan’s cinematography.
1953, as we have said, only one. 1954 gave us Silver Lode with John Payne and Cattle Queen of Montana with Barbara Stanwyck and Ronald Reagan. Ho-hum. 1955, see above. 1956, The First Traveling Saleslady, Great Day in the Morning, Tension at Table Rock. The last RKO Western was Run of the Arrow, another Sam Fuller effort, with an overacting Rod Steiger.
So, with an inglorious early period, apart from Cimarron, and an equally uninspired later one once Hughes had taken over, we have to say that there only a few years, at the end of the 40s and start of the 50s, when RKO could come even close to rivaling an outfit like Fox or Warners (I mean as far as Westerns went) and studios like Columbia and Universal, even Republic, did a better job in our noble genre.
I liked the beeping radio tower, though.