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Thursday, July 13, 2017

Documentaries Worth Seeking Out ...

A Last Round-Up Of RKO

My nominee for best of the studio documentaries is Hollywood The Golden Years: The RKO Story, done by the BBC in 1987 and spread over six hour-long episodes. Not many US stations played it. I had to cadge the set on VHS from a friend in Ohio. Like so much of oral history, The RKO Story has disappeared into cracks of time. Thirty years have gone by, after all. Like with Kevin Brownlow’s Hollywood series, there would be a devil’s own struggle clearing excerpts, these rights having expired since 1987. Visuals then look hopeless today beside digital rebirth of RKO’s best. Cloudy clips in The RKO Story made me wonder that anyone sought out the features if they looked no better than this. RKO surfaced on satellite broadcast, and minus commercials, during heyday of AMC when it was known accurately as American Movie Classics. These runs were for me an awakening. Gone were most C&C logos a stain on 16mm syndicated prints. We got back the beeping tower and new transfers in the bargain. From current HD perspective this seems primitive still, but progress, if slow, has been steady. When I compare highlights of King Kong from The RKO Story with superb quality we now have on Blu-Ray, the difference is startling.

Where The RKO Story has us beat, decisively, is then-access to surviving personnel from the legendary lot, faces and voices to tell first-hand what work was like from RKO’s inception. Gathering all these from fabled past makes The RKO Story a historic document to be treasured. It should be seen and seen again by everyone with an interest in movies past. I had not looked at the six since they were new, and so forgot how riveting all were. Edward Asner is host and narrator. He speaks from the very archive where RKO records were then-stored, pulling original documents from file drawers to illustrate points. This alone lends gravitas to the programs, along with Vernon Harbin, guardian of the archive, as documentary consultant. He had been with RKO from early on, taking an interest in the company’s history and seeing to its preservation. What we know of RKO may be attributed to his lifelong stewardship, plus research and writings by Richard Jewell, who had access to the files, his two volume chronicle of RKO a best ever history.

A highlight among many in The RKO Story is its second episode focused on the Astaire-Rogers musicals. Everyone relevant is there, that is of ones alive in the mid-80's, which fortunately included Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, choreographer Hermes Pan, producer Pandro Berman, even several of art director staff, plus writers. Never was coverage of these films so alive. They had passed into American folklore by this time, and that's told to Astaire who reassures us that object at the time was simply to "make a buck." Narrator Asner adds that Fred made his buck by way of percentage interest once the series caught on. We are guided through dance numbers as grinding ordeal, weeks of rehearsals, torturous route to a finish thanks to snafus of equipment or performance. Astaire says he was never really satisfied with work he did, couldn't bear to watch end result on film, even years later when he'd come upon past effort. This is all pretty generally known, but there's impact at hearing Fred at advanced age commenting on specifics that are then illustrated by clips. Same with Rogers, who remembers dresses from fifty years before and how they kinked up shooting progress. Having Berman aboard means we get dollar-cent reality of the A-R's and why they couldn't last forever. The series would in the end be simply played out. The RKO Story is at You Tube. Catch it if you can.


Blogger Kevin K. said...

King Kong, Fed Astaire -- bah! The real question: is there anything about Wheeler & Woolsey?

Seriously, I'm pretty sure I watched this series, but have no memory of it.

11:34 AM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

I have watched this and agree 100% that it does an engrossing and welcome job. I don't know whether you mean the King Kong Blu-ray is better than what is offered in it but for my bucks it sure is. We get the original Kong uncensored and complete from a source in Britain. Brownlow's silent films documentary series is equally splendid.

12:22 PM  
Blogger Mikeymort said...

Just watched this on YouTube in a six-hour marathon session. Really great until the sad downturn at RKO in episode six. To answer Kevin K above, yes there is mention of Wheeler and Woosley and a clip from one of their shorts.

4:55 AM  
Blogger Scott MacGillivray said...

There is a quick flash of Wheeler & Woolsey in KENTUCKY KERNELS, but that's all. Ted Okuda says that Dorothy Lee was approached for an on-camera interview but she declined, reasoning that viewers wouldn't care to see clips of her as a teenager followed by new footage of her as a senior citizen.

5:15 AM  
Blogger radiotelefonia said...

I managed to see this series in Argentina, on Cinemax. This was before Time-Warner absorbed Turner. The episodes are all interesting although it does not manage to provide a satisfactory explanation on why the company doing so bad until KING KONG.

10:22 AM  
Blogger Lou Lumenick said...

Clips from the Astaire and Rogers interviews turn up in the documentary included in Warners' Astaire-Rogers set. My understanding is that WB (which holds rights to almost all the film clips) has attempted to license the entire series but failed to come to terms. Which is a shame, because in many ways it's superiors to the MGM and WB studio mini-series that they do own. They have also licensed some archival interviews with the likes of Edward G. Robinson and Joan Blondell that were done for a 1970 PBS documentary written by Richard Schickel.

1:36 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Make-up artist Craig Reardon has some thoughts on a make-up genius from the RKO days (Part One):

Hi John,

Been awhile since I've weighed in (is that the right spelling, 'weighed'?) on your great blog, but you take it for granted I hope that it has nothing to do with my consistent and continuing enthusiasm for it.

I was spurred to write due to today's (?) blog about "The R.K.O. Story". First: yes, I'm certainly one who would have greatly relished watching this entire series when it was first aired, but either I was never aware of it, or it wasn't aired in L.A. The latter alternative, in La-La Land, home of the Hollywood of the world's imagination (as there are other 'Hollywoods' here and there, Florida for instance), seems highly unlikely! But, I'm telling you, this one got by me entirely when it was new.

But, I HAVE since seen bits of it sampled and included on certain DVD extras, and, I believe I've also seen links to extras which inevitably took me, too, to YouTube. I'm delighted to infer from your column that it's still see-able there, and I must take the time to do it!

As we think similarly (and many of your readers would say the same, I grant you), your citation of the inclusion of real veterans of R.K.O. in this ambitious portrait of a studio's life is unquestionably one of its greatest virtues. You cited as an example the people most important to the studio's relatively-brief but significant status as a maker of memorable and influential musicals. I would contribute this fact, that they also sought out Maurice Seiderman. Maurice was of course the famously uncredited makeup genius who supervised and created the looks for "Citizen Kane", which were unprecedented in their realism and variety in 1941, and also their relative technical sophistication. It WAS rare then for age to be executed in either a really believable fashion, OR by employing actual physical changes to a person's facial construction. Proof is in viewing most of the movies made in the '30s and '40s and even later. Physical alterations (let alone convincing ones) were very rare and usually it would seem saved up for 'special' projects where they could scarcely have been avoided without completely scuttling the film. I'd cite as a good example "The Lost Moment" with its startling transformation of Agnes Moorehead---who, to her great credit, transforms herself just as credibly in her acting and the sound of her voice---into a woman of over 100 years. In fact, it would not be until Dick Smith upped the ante on that approach changing Dustin Hoffman into at least superficially a completely persuasive man of [virtually mythical age] 120 for "Little Big Man" in 1969 that a 'special purpose' age makeup of that sort was done again. But, I'm talking here about the HUNDREDS of movies in which people age in the course of telling the story. This is by far the majority group, and to me as a makeup artist myself, it strikes me that these changes were quite often wrought in a very simple, almost 'stage makeup' manner. Maurice, with the full endorsement and backing of Orson Welles, took such a radical departure from this approach that "...Kane" still impresses on the level of the cosmetic as it does on each and every other level, SO many of which were either progressive or simply singular and a kind of nose-thumbing (or, as the Brits say, cock-snooking!) gesture in the direction of "business as usual".

1:50 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Part Two from Craig Reardon:

Through my friend and mentor the aforementioned Dick Smith, I was introduced to Maurice Seiderman myself one Saturday afternoon in 1979. Maurice, and I think this may interest anyone, lived on Beechwood Drive in Hollywood at its very terminus, high up in the Hollywood hills (yes, the same hills which still bear the resurrected, famous 'Hollywood' sign.) From this perch he had an absolutely incredible vista to the east. How he snatched such a wonderful property, I don't know, and I didn't think to ask him. Not a grand house, but a very modern and elegant kind of house---the house of an artist, through and through. Surrounding him to his immediate left was public property: the famous Griffith Park, which sprawls over the crest of the hills down into the San Fernando Valley side. Maurice deliberately put out food every day for wild raccoons, and sure enough a whole family of them showed up at dusk and chowed down, babies and all! And Maurice was a wonderful raconteur, though a lot of his stories I later discovered had a healthy dose of B.S. in them. I think that's fitting for a respected colleague of Orson Welles, who is known to have told a lot of whoppers with the same earnestness a father tells his kiddies bedtime stories, over the years. Maurice had a wonderful converted garage or studio, I wouldn't know which, accessible through a breezeway outside his home proper, in which he'd pursued his many hobbies and his professional activities over the decades. Parked out there was the original full-head life cast he'd taken of Welles for "...Kane" almost 40 years before at that point. Amazing! He showed Dick and me a couple of telegrams from Welles importuning him for 'freebies' (false noses, to be specific) for this or that project in his later career, reflecting the kind of hardscrabble approach to filmmaking Welles had painted himself into in those declining years. He wasn't above putting the pinch on Maurice, but it must be remembered that he also went to bat for Maurice BIG time at R.K.O. in '41, not only handing him the "...Kane" project on a platter, over the head of the very irked official head of the makeup department there; but also denied said makeup head contractual credit on the film, because a) he didn't deserve it, and b) he could (by terms of his own overriding contract!) What's more, Welles famously went directly to F.D.R., himself, and his Secretary of Labor, briefly and eloquently laying out what Maurice had done on the film and adding, "Yet, he can't get into the union." The Secretary made a little call to the makeup union in Hollywood and Maurice said his union card arrived by messenger. Yeah, it helps to know somebody in Hollywood, alright.

And, that Maurice, as I remember him, is IN "The R.K.O. Story", complete with his 'disciple beard' he affected at that point in his life. Just as lively and disruptive as I imagine he'd been as a young man, which also must have appealed to Welles enormously.

Bravo for talking up this show! I wish it was on disc, too. And I'm somewhat crushed to read your VERY convincing analysis of why the simply great series "Hollywood" by Kevin Brownlow is still stalled on Blu-ray. Of course. I should've known; but, my head never goes to the practicalities in these areas. Clearances! Clearances for the movie clips, and maybe even clearances for the appearances of some of the personalities, since it's amazingly possible to 'own' a personality these days even years after their deaths. Sheesh.


1:51 PM  
Blogger Tommie Hicks said...

When I was a kid I was told by a Wisenheimer that the studio was named RKO Radio Pictures because RKO broadcast their films via radio waves to the film laboratory for printing. Hence the broadcasting tower at the beginning of the films. I believed this for a couple of months.

6:01 PM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

"Sheesh." Remember, we all appreciate income. These personalities have as much of a right to an income as the rest of us do. That said, when a series as spectacular as Kevin Brownlow's HOLLYWOOD gets bogged down it is a real crime against the cinema.

12:04 PM  
Blogger coolcatdaddy said...

Those new transfers of the RKO classics turned on laserdisc - there were, I think, 99 titles released in the "RKO Classic Collection" series. I still see posts from laserdisc collectors that either have all of them or are trying to collect a complete set.

7:46 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Interesting that people would continue to seek out these laserdiscs when there are such superior DVD's and Blu-rays available. Could the jacket art and sometimes unique extras have something to do with it?

8:16 AM  

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