The American moviegoers of the 1940s and the decades afterwards never really had to worry about a shortage of new films hitting their neighborhood cinemas. There were plenty of movie companies, studios, and distribution organizations. Some movie companies are still in business, while others just disappeared or were sold and sold and sold again, while their films reappear every now and then under the logo of an entirely different firm.
RKO (Radio-Keith-Orpheum) Radio Pictures belonged to the latter category and today still is one of my favorite movie companies. They had a huge output of brilliant movies, great producers and directors who, most of the time, enjoyed unusual artistic freedom and could experiment freely. Besides making such masterpieces as the very first King Kong (1933), Citizen Kane, It’s A Wonderful Life and The Hunchback of Notre Dame, RKO also became famous for making lots of rather cheap horror, science fiction and fantasy movies.
Between 1929-1956 the company released 140 full length movies of that genre. Movies that have received too little attention so far, if we believe book author Michael Pitts, who has specialized in horror and science fiction filmography in a number of previous publications. Even if I walked with a Zombie and The Seventh Victim created a following when they were released, the majority of that genre is mostly forgotten and underrated. Producer Val Lewton, today regarded as visionary and genius, made this possible when he entered the firm in the early 1940s; another name important for the RKO catalog was legendary special effects man Vernon Walker.
One of the great actors always associated with RKO was Robert Mitchum, who almost single-handedly made RKO a synonym for excellent film noir for a while. The company had its ups and downs, and when in 1948 Howard Hughes took over, it slowly went downhill altogether, its catalog today existing merely in a niche now owned by Time Warner.
However, the book at hand will mention such facts just very briefly in a short introduction no longer than a few pages. The rest is an extensive anthology of those 140+ movies, complete with very elaborate cast listings, more than 110 pictures, plots and financial outcome.
A number of unpopular films noir, rated B-movies and worse, were produced too. Today, those are sought-after gems by collectors, in a sense. Furthermore, RKO also released many short films and mini-series, they are listed here as well.
There are some aspects of this volume that are really worth getting into, like the simple fact that you will hardly find a book that deals with these very special genres and this company.
But then I am not so sure that all the mentioned 140 pictures actually belong to the aforementioned genres. There are a number of movies that (from another point of view) would belong simply to the mystery, detective or western genre. And even if there are some reviews, rumors and production details included in the plot synopsis, I would have preferred finding all that in a longer chapter on the company itself, instead of looking for it in the individual plots.
But for the movie historian and the collector – who already has all that information – this will not matter, I believe.
Review by Dr. A. Ebert © 2015
Michael R. Pitts . RKO Radio Pictures Horror, Science Fiction and Fantasy Films, 1929-1956. McFarland, 2015, 408 p.