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Posts Tagged ‘RKO Radio Pictures’

The Tragedy of The Magnificent Ambersons (1942)

Wednesday, October 29th, 2014

And while I’m in a Welles mood, what about his true lost masterpiece, the uncut The Magnificent Ambersons?

While it will be interesting, no doubt, to see what happens with The Other Side of the Wind, the true lost Welles masterpiece is the complete version of The Magnificent Ambersons, which was taken away from Welles and recut by RKO under the supervision of Robert Wise, up to the point of having 45 minutes or so of footage chopped out, and a “happy ending” substituted at the last minute. To add insult to injury, the film was ultimately released on the bottom half of a double bill with Leslie Goodwins’ distinctly downmarket film Mexican Spitfire Sees a A Ghost - essentially dumped in the marketplace.

By this time, as has been well documented, RKO had undergone a change of management, and the critical praise that the director’s first film Citizen Kane had garnered notwithstanding, the studio was no longer in a mood to give Welles the creative freedom he had enjoyed on Kane. He had simply caused the studio too much trouble, and the new management was only interested in one thing – money. To make matters even worse, RKO ordered the destruction of all the negative trims and outtakes of the complete version, so that a later reconstruction by Welles would be impossible.

To this day, historians and theorists continue to hope that a complete copy of the film will turn up somewhere, in some long forgotten vault, and since Welles was in South America working on his abortive project It’s All True during Ambersons‘ editing, there is the faint – very, very faint – possibility that a complete version of the film was sent to him there, but this is the stuff of legend.

I’m reluctant to say that the complete film is absolutely gone, simply because while Kane dazzles, Ambersons is a much darker, more complex film, about the collapse of memory and social change, in which the world that one lives in is subject to the constant whims of “progress.” But while I can hope, I have to be a realist. It seems that the complete Ambersons is truly lost to us – forever.

If Kane is is a thunderbolt of a film, Ambersons reminds me of the work of Henry James; complex, convoluted, richly layered and deeply introspective. The destruction of the complete version of the film by RKO remains one of the great crimes of cinema history – a crime which it seems it impossible to undo. In the meantime, we have the 88 minute version, which still shows what the film was gesturing at, and what it might have been. In the end, I’ll come down on the side of Ambersons over Kane as Welles’ most deeply felt film, even in the current mutilated version.

We may never see the complete Ambersons, but what remains is still one of the masterworks of the cinema.

1941 Orson Welles Script Finally to Be Produced

Tuesday, December 10th, 2013

Here’s amazing news from Cinephilia and Beyond on an unproduced Orson Welles screenplay.

As the website notes of this unproduced gem — and it really is a great script — “buried deep among the hundreds of old scripts in RKO Pictures’ archives was a 1941 melodramatic gem about an amnesia-stricken man who wakes up in the middle of a revolution in Mexico. Never produced, the screenplay for The Way to Santiago is credited to Orson Welles. A quick look at the text leaves no doubt it was the work of the Citizen Kane filmmaker when he was at the peak of his arrogant brilliance. The script begins: ‘My face fills the frame.’

Abandoned by RKO after Welles’ epic fall from grace, The Way to Santiago has finally gotten the green light nearly six decades later and is being produced by a rejuvenated RKO. ‘This script caught everything about Welles,’ said RKO Chairman and CEO Ted Hartley, citing the screenplay’s action, suspense and jungle romance. ‘It reflected his greatness in storytelling.’ The Welles script was known to film historians for years, but it wasn’t easy to find.

Santiago tells the story of a man who wakes up in Mexico with no idea of who he is or how he got there. The twist is that he has an uncanny resemblance to a notorious figure. The story follows the man’s search for his own identity while evil forces try to kill him. Welles intended to direct and star in the film, as he had done in Kane, so the name of the main character is simply ‘Me’ in the script.

In a letter on file in RKO’s archives, Welles writes from New York to studio production head George Schaeffer on Feb. 2, 1941 that he’s eager to get started, assuring Schaeffer ‘we are going to successfully avoid a lot of the things that cost us time and money in the making of Kane. The only way to achieve the results we all urgently want is for those in responsibility to understand, finally, that even if they don’t like my way of doing things, they must do it my way just the same… (and most important) without making an effort to prove in the process that my way is wrong,’ Welles wrote.”

You can read the rest by clicking here; with the right director, this could be riveting.

Frame by Frame: Hollywood Movie Moguls

Thursday, July 5th, 2012

Click here, or on the image above, to see a brief video on the Hollywood moguls.

I have a new Frame by Frame video out today, directed and edited by Curt Bright, on Hollywood’s movie moguls of the 1930s through the 1960s, and how their era came to an end; it’s part of the work of my book, Death of the Moguls: The End of Classical Hollywood, forthcoming from Rutgers University Press for Fall, 2012.

Death of the Moguls is a detailed assessment of the last days of the “rulers of film,” which examines the careers of such moguls as  Harry Cohn at Columbia, Louis B. Mayer at MGM, Jack L. Warner at Warner Brothers, Adolph Zukor at Paramount, and Herbert J. Yates at Republic in the dying days of their once-mighty empires. The sheer force of personality and business acumen displayed by these moguls made the studios successful; their deaths or departures hastened the studios’ collapse. Almost none had a plan for leadership succession; they simply couldn’t imagine a world in which they didn’t reign supreme.

Covering 20th Century-Fox, Selznick International Pictures, Metro-Goldwyn-Meyer, Paramount Pictures, RKO Radio Pictures, Warner Brothers, Universal Pictures, Republic Pictures, Monogram Pictures and Columbia Pictures, Death of the Moguls: The End of Classical Hollywood briefly introduces the studios and their respective bosses in the late 1940s, just before the collapse, then chronicles the last productions from the studios and their eventual demise in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

I discuss here, and in the book in much more detail, of course, such game-changing factors as the de Havilland decision, which made actors free agents; the Consent Decree, which forced the studios to get rid of their theaters; how the moguls dealt with their collapsing empires in the television era; and the end of the conventional studio assembly line, where producers had rosters of directors, writers, and actors under their command.

Barry Keith Grant read several drafts of the book during its production, and wrote that “in this accessible and engaging history of the moguls who made the studios successful [. . .] Dixon does a terrific job of getting inside the heads of the bosses who built their studios into major entertainment factories.”

The book should be out in September, so you can read it for yourself then.

The Whip Hand (1951)

Tuesday, December 6th, 2011

Here’s an essay I published last week — November 28, 2011 — on one of the most deliriously paranoid noirs of the early 1950s, William Cameron Menzies’ The Whip Hand, which was produced by the reclusive financier Howard Hughes after he took over RKO Radio Pictures. The film was originally designed as a neo-Nazi espionage thriller, but at the last moment, Hughes scrapped large portions of the film to retool it as an anti-Communist effort. As I note in the web journal Noir of the Week, ably edited by Steve Eifert,

“Ultimately, The Whip Hand is a work as curious and resonant as the reclusive lifestyle led by its true auteur, Howard Hughes; while Menzies designed and executed the film, paying as little attention as possible to the actors but lavishing enormous attention on the sets and mise en scene of the film, it was Hughes own obsessions and paranoid delusions that really inform the bulk of the film’s convoluted narrative [. . .] Hughes typically reshot films after they were finished, and in his own mind, the Communist threat was not only more timely than the Nazi angle; it was also more real. What Menzies did was to give solidity to Hughes’ paranoid fantasies, and it is this, more than anything else, that makes The Whip Hand simultaneously preposterous, and yet all too real; this was the way Howard Hughes saw the world in the 1950s, and Menzies brought his vision to life.”

You can read the entire essay by clicking on the image above, or here.

Val Lewton

Saturday, September 3rd, 2011

If you don’t know the work of producer Val Lewton, you should.

Lewton came up working for David O. Selznick, and then accepted an offer from RKO in the early 1940s to head up their horror film unit, using pre-sold titles, miniscule budgets, and existing sets to create a series of Gothic films to rival those of Universal, then the reigning kings of 1940s horror.

Instead, Lewton created a series of poetic, atmospheric masterpieces, working with directors Jacques Tourneur, Robert Wise and Mark Robson (Wise and Robson both apprenticed under Lewton; Wise, an editor who had cut, among other films, Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane [1941], was anxious to direct, and Lewton gave him the chance to do so).

It all happened very quickly, and Lewton’s reign was brief but incandescent; in slightly less than four years, he produced, designed, and brought to life eleven films, of which nine comprise the body of work on which his reputation rests.

Lewton’s key films are:

Cat People (1942)
I Walked With a Zombie (1943)
The Leopard Man (1943)
The Seventh Victim (1943)
The Ghost Ship (1943)
The Curse of the Cat People (1944)
The Body Snatcher (1945)
Isle of the Dead (1945)
Bedlam (1946)

Click on any of the titles above for more information on these films.

Just for the record, Cat People, I Walked with a Zombie (Jane Eyre transported to the West Indies, with remarkable results), The Seventh Victim (devil worship in Greenwich Village), The Body Snatcher and Isle of the Dead are my personal favorites.

Much has been written on Lewton’s tragically short career; perhaps one of the best overviews of his films in the first major book on his work, Joel E. Siegel’s Val Lewton: The Reality of Terror; there are also no less than two box sets of DVDs of Lewton’s work, and several documentaries.

Lewton’s films aren’t really horror films at all, as everyone now realizes; they are the deeply personal testament of a literate man, steeped in the classics, who saw a chance to bring his vision of the world to the screen, and seized it with both hands. When Lewton departed from RKO, his career was essentially finished; he died at the age of 46 on March 14, 1951, after a series of heart attacks.

Lewton’s films can be seen again and again, revealing with each viewing multiple levels of depth and detail that makes his work as resolutely modern as Universal’s 40s horror films are now dated; Lewton’s world is the world we all live in, with its joys, difficulties and problems, and his films, very much a product of wartime America, resonate in our consciousness today as much as they ever did.

Below: Val Lewton in the projection room at RKO, mid 1940s.

Click here, or on the image above, for a detailed list of Lewton’s films.

About the Author

Wheeler Winston Dixon

Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of thirty books and more than 100 articles on film, and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. To contact Prof. Dixon for an interview, reach him at 402.472.6064 or wdixon1@unl.edu. Visit him at his website wheelerwinstondixon.com.

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