A Century of Film


The Studio

A first note that the picture of the logo above, as always, comes from here and again there is an excellent piece on the history of the logo.

“[David] Sarnoff and Boston financier Joseph Kennedy created RKO back in 1928.  They merged several film companies into a fully integrated major, RKO-Radio Pictures, with RCA providing the sound, and the new studio immediately took off.  In 1930, its second full year of operation RKO pulled in profits of nearly $3.5 million.  But business had been so good during the talkie boom that it was impossible for a major studio not to make money.  Only when the Depression hit in 1931 did Sarnoff realize how inefficiently the studio was being run.  He was impressed when Selznick looked him up in New York to pitch his unit-production scheme. … David Selznick, at age twenty-nine, became RKO’s ‘vice president in charge of production’.”  (The Genius of the System: Hollywood Filmmaking in the Studio Era, Thomas Schatz, p 127-28)

Selznick merged RKO-Pathe into RKO Radio, vastly cut down on personnel (sacking all but three directors: Wesley Ruggles, Gregory La Cava and George Cukor) and bringing in such future stars as Katharine Hepburn, Lucille Ball and Fred Astaire.  By the end of 1932, Selznick had the studio in shape with mostly modestly budgeted features and the occasional big budget offset by cheap Westerns.  However, he had been so efficient that Louis B. Mayer, who had tried to bring in Selznick before he went to RKO made an offer good enough that Selznick headed off to MGM.

Selznick was replaced by his protégé, Merian C. Cooper (who oversaw King Kong) but Cooper had periods of absence and it was his fill-in, Pandro S. Berman who, after seeing Astaire and Ginger Rogers in Flying Down to Rio, “decided to star them in The Gay Divorcee.  Thus began the legendary Astaire-Rogers partnership, and a series of popular and critically esteemed musicals that almost single-handedly kept RKO afloat during the middle years of the Depression.”  (The RKO Story, Richard B. Jewell, p 12)  Berman would also produce almost all the most popular RKO films through the rest of the decade, peaking in his final year, 1939, with Gunga Din, Love Affair and The Hunchback of Notre Dame.

But one of the most important things that happened to RKO and that would help keep the studio afloat over the following decade was the distribution deal they reached with Walt Disney which meant, that until the early 50’s, RKO would distribute (and get a small piece of) all the Disney feature films. (Note:  Although the Disney films were released by RKO, I don’t list them among any of the things down below as I consider them “Disney” films)

But when Berman left for MGM, George Schaefer took over and tried to turn RKO into a prestige studio and while he had some major successes (Citizen Kane, Suspicion), his “films nearly bankrupted the company before he resigned in 1942.”  (Jewell, p 12)

Through the war, RKO survived with musicals, low budget noir and the work of producer Val Lewton and coming out the war, releasing films not produced by the studio like The Best Years of Our Lives and It’s a Wonderful Life, was starting to finally move up.

“In 1947-1948 RKO was trying to build up in-house production under controlling owner Floyd Odlum, president Peter Rathvon, and studio head Dore Schary.  Schary was particularly proud of the young directors he had under contract including Edward Dmytryk, Nicholas Ray, Joseph Losey, and Mark Robson.  At this point Odlum, who viewed RKO as an investment rather than a vocation, sold his interest in RKO to one of the strangest figures in twentieth-century American history: Howard Hughes.”  (History of the American Cinema Volume 7: Transforming the Screen: 1950-1959, Peter Lev, p 19)

Hughes did become one of the first studio heads to divest of a theater chain as required by the Supreme Court decision that essentially ended the Studio Era but since RKO only had fewer than 150 theatres it wasn’t nearly as monumental a decision as it was for the other majors.

The problem was that Hughes then decided to take firm control of the studio without really knowing about it.  So all scripts had to go through him but he didn’t know enough about film-making on an executive level to actually keep things moving forward.  As a result, over the course of the next several years, RKO would make fewer and fewer films and they would be less important.  There were other problems as well.

“RKO was involved in a long series of scandals during the Hughes years.  Hughes was often in court, sometimes with RKO stockholders.” (Lev, p 20)  These involved the films that were being made and how they were being made.  When he found a buyer in 1952 that also touched off a scandal that cancelled the scale.  Within five years after buying the studio, Hughes had incurred loses of $20 million.

In 1955, Hughes finally sold, but it was just so that the new owner could sell off RKO’s film library which was promptly done.  Production started on new films but it wasn’t enough and by the end of 1956, the studio, for all intents and purposes was finished.  The last remaining productions were completed but were actually distributed by Universal.  For over 25 years, there had been five major studios in Hollywood.  Now, the Studio Era was over and it was down to four.

Notable Films

  • Syncopation  (1929)  –  first RKO release
  • Street Girl  (1929)  –  second RKO release, first RKO production
  • Cimarron  (1931)  –  Oscar winner for Best Picture
  • The Runaround  (1931)  –  first full Technicolor RKO film
  • Flying Down to Rio  (1933)  –  first Fred and Ginger team-up
  • The Informer  (1935)  –  winner of 4 Oscars, the most for an RKO film until 1946
  • Snow White and the Seven Dwarves  (1937)  –  first Disney film released through RKO
  • Citizen Kane  (1941)
  • The Little Foxes  (1941)  –  the first Goldwyn film released through RKO
  • The Best Years of Our Lives  (1946)  –  most successful RKO film at awards and box office, produced by Goldwyn, last RKO Best Picture winner
  • Peter Pan  (1953)  –  final Disney Animated film released through RKO
  • The Conqueror  (1956)  –  unique in being the highest grossing RKO film of the year and the one that lost the most money; also notable for killing much of its cast and crew due to nuclear fallout while filming
  • The Brave One  (1956)  –  final RKO film to win an Oscar which went to one of Dalton Trumbo’s fronts
  • Man in the Vault  (1956)  –  final film distributed by RKO

The Directors

More than any other of the major studios, RKO was hampered by its directors.  When it had great directors it didn’t have them for very long and usually had them at the beginning of their careers (George Cukor, Orson Welles) or just got them briefly somewhere in the middle because of circumstances (Alfred Hitchcock, William Wyler).  The directors it had for a long time (for instance Leslie Goodwins, who directed the Mexican Spitfire films or William A. Seiter who directed the Wheeler and Woolsey films and aren’t listed below) weren’t very good.  So this list is different than for most other studios in having a few directors whose work there wasn’t great (but was significant) or directors who stayed a very short time.

George Cukor

  • Films:  6
  • Years:  1932 – 1935
  • Average Film:  64.8
  • Best Film:  What Price Hollywood
  • Worst Film:  Our Betters

Cukor was with RKO at the beginning of his career, including his first Oscar nomination (Little Women) but he left just as he was starting to really do bigger and better films.  Still, he did more films for the studio than any other Top 100 director except John Ford.

Edward Dmytryk

  • Films:  11
  • Years:  1942  –  1947
  • Average Film:  59.8
  • Best Film:  Crossfire
  • Worst Film:  Seven Miles from Alcatraz

Dmytryk was one of the studio’s most prominent directors, including earning an Oscar nomination for Crossfire before the Blacklist destroyed his career.  What’s more, his career is broken up into two parts there and he was clearly on the upswing (his first six films averaged a 50.5 while his last five averaged a 71).

John Ford

  • Films:  8
  • Years:  1934  –  1950
  • Average Film:  73.0
  • Best Film:  The Informer
  • Worst Film:  Wagon Master

Ford worked at the studio in the mid 30’s when he was still moving up and except The Informer (one of his and the studio’s best films) his work was mostly uninteresting.  But he returned to the studio in the late 40’s for his Calvary Trilogy, cementing his place at the studio with the most films directed there by a Top 100 director.

Alfred Hitchcock

  • Films:  3
  • Years:  1941  –  1946
  • Average Film:  88.0
  • Best Film:  Notorious
  • Worst Film:  Mr. and Mrs. Smith

Hitchcock made two very good films at RKO in 1941 (Suspicion is the other one) and then returned for Notorious.  While three films is very few, they are all in the Top 20 in the studio’s history.

Jacques Tourneur

  • Films:  8
  • Years:  1942  –  1953
  • Average Film:  68.1
  • Best Film:  Out of the Past
  • Worst Film:  The Leopard Man

Tourneur made one great film for the studio and no bad ones which puts him above a lot of directors.  He also has one of the highest averages for directors who made as many films at the studio as he did.

Orson Welles

  • Films:  3
  • Years:  1941  –  1946
  • Average Film:  90.0
  • Best Film:  Citizen Kane
  • Worst Film:  The Stranger

Welles made his first three films at the studio and two of them are the among the 10 best ever made by RKO (The Magnificent Ambersons is the other one).  The studio gets credit for giving him carte blanche on Citizen Kane but also deserves the knock for not having the faith in his version of Ambersons.

William Wyler

  • Films:  2
  • Years:  1941  –  1946
  • Average Film:  93.5
  • Best Film:  The Best Years of Our Lives
  • Worst Film:  The Little Foxes

Yes, Wyler makes the list with only two films.  But they are both among the 13 great films made by RKO and he is the only director to earn two Oscar nominations (including one of RKO’s two wins) working for the studio so he’s earned his place here.  He really never worked for the studio – he worked for Samuel Goldwyn and Goldwyn happened to release these two films through RKO.

The Stars

Unlike MGM, RKO didn’t have many stars (which makes it all the more ironic that their two biggest stars would actually make their best film together at MGM) but they did have a few key stars.

Irene Dunne

Dunne was nominated twice for Best Actress working at RKO (Cimarron, Love Affair) and was one of the studio’s biggest draws throughout the 30’s (even if two of her Oscar nominations came at Columbia).
Essential Viewing:  Cimarron, Love Affair, My Favorite Wife

Katharine Hepburn

The first person to win an acting Oscar for the studio, she also earned a second nomination before being declared box office poison and moving on to MGM and working with Tracy.
Essential Viewing:  Bringing Up Baby, Little Women, Stage Door, Morning Glory, Alice Adams

Cary Grant

Unlike Hepburn who left, Grant continued making films at RKO for quite a while, including one of his two Oscar nominations (None but the Lonely Heart).
Essential Viewing:  Bringing Up Baby, Suspicion, Notorious

Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers

It was King Kong producer Merian Cooper who signed Rogers and then paired with Astaire in Flying Down to Rio, kicking off a string of Musicals that the two made together.  Rogers also won one of the few acting Oscars for the studio with Kitty Foyle.
Essential Viewing:  The Gay Divorcee, Top Hat, Swing Time


RKO would occasionally branch out such as their Tarzan films starting in the early 40’s and the Horror films made by Val Lewton.  They also, like all the studios, had a Western unit that would crank out films.  In the 40’s, RKO would move into Suspense and Mystery films because such Noir films were inexpensive to make and RKO more than the other studios, made a lot of cheaper films.  But the vast majority of RKO’s production relied on the main genres of Drama, Comedy and Musicals.

The Top 50 RKO Films

  1. Rashomon
  2. Citizen Kane
  3. The Best Years of Our Lives
  4. It’s a Wonderful Life
  5. Notorious
  6. Bringing Up Baby
  7. King Kong
  8. The Informer
  9. The Magnificent Ambersons
  10. The Gay Divorcee
  11. Crossfire
  12. Out of the Past
  13. The Little Foxes
  14. The Thing from Another World
  15. Ball of Fire
  16. The Spiral Staircase
  17. Suspicion
  18. Top Hat
  19. Gunga Din
  20. Stage Door
  21. Mr. and Mrs. Smith
  22. They Live By Night
  23. Shall We Dance
  24. The Devil and Daniel Webster
  25. This Land is Mine
  26. The Body Snatcher
  27. The Princess and the Pirate
  28. What Price Hollywood
  29. Sudden Fear
  30. The Stranger
  31. Little Women
  32. Fort Apache
  33. Of Human Bondage
  34. The Fugitive
  35. The Long Night
  36. The Window
  37. The Devil and Miss Jones
  38. A Bill of Divorcement
  39. Beyond a Reasonable Doubt
  40. Rancho Notorious
  41. Joan of Paris
  42. The Pride of the Yankees
  43. A Damsel in Distress
  44. Casanova Brown
  45. Desperate
  46. She Wore a Yellow Ribbon
  47. The Big Sky
  48. Blood on the Moon
  49. Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House
  50. The Woman in the Window

Notable RKO Films Not in the Top 50

note:  Includes all films I have either already reviewed or have current plans to review in the future as well as all films I saw in the theater.

The Bottom 10 RKO Films, #6xx-6xx
(worst being #10, which is #xxx overall)

  1. Blackbeard the Pirate
  2. Millionaire Playboy
  3. Bullet Code
  4. No Orchids for Miss Blandish
  5. Killers from Space
  6. Behind the Rising Sun
  7. Seven Miles from Alcatraz
  8. Riverboat Rhythm
  9. The Conqueror
  10. Captive Women

note:  The first seven films are **.  The last three are *.5.

The 5 Most Under-Rated RKO Films

These are all films that I rate at high ***.5 that have never appeared in TSPDT’s Top 1000 (now 2000).  Also, I eliminated a few films that were nominated for Best Picture (The Informer, Suspicion, Crossfire).  I present them in their rank order.

  1. Ball of Fire
  2. The Spiral Staircase
  3. Mr. and Mrs. Smith
  4. Shall We Dance
  5. The Devil and Daniel Webster

The Best RKO Films by Decade

  • 1930’s:  Bringing Up Baby
  • 1940’s:  Citizen Kane
  • 1950’s:  Rashomon

The Worst RKO Films by Decade

  • 1930’s:  When’s Your Birthday
  • 1940’s:  Riverboat Rhythm
  • 1950’s:  Captive Women

The Best RKO Films by Genre

  • Action:  n/a
  • Adventure:  Gunga Din
  • Comedy:  Bringing Up Baby
  • Crime:  They Live By Night
  • Drama:  Rashomon
  • Fantasy:  n/a
  • Horror:  King Kong
  • Kids:  n/a
  • Musical:  The Gay Divorcee
  • Mystery:  The Spiral Staircase
  • Sci-Fi:  The Thing from Another World
  • Suspense:  Notorious
  • War:  n/a
  • Western:  Fort Apache

note:  An n/a means that no film was **** or ***.5.

The Worst RKO Films by Genre

  • Action:  Dick Tracy’s Dilemma
  • Adventure:  The Conqueror
  • Comedy:  Riverboat Rhythm
  • Crime:  No Orchids for Miss Blandish
  • Drama:  Seven Miles from Alcatraz
  • Fantasy:  n/a
  • Horror:  n/a
  • Kids:  Little Orvie
  • Musical:  Let’s Sing Again
  • Mystery:  Stranger on the Third Floor
  • Sci-Fi:  Captive Women
  • Suspense:  The Ghost Ship
  • War:  Drums in the Deep South
  • Western:  Bullet Code

note:  An n/a means that no film was ** or lower.

The Most Over-Rated RKO Films

  1. Cimarron
    The only in-house Best Picture winner (Best Years of Our Lives was released but not produced by RKO), it’s also one of the worst in the Academy’s history.
  2. Kitty Foyle: The Natural History of a Woman
    Best Picture nominee and one of the worst choices ever for Best Actress.
  3. The Farmer’s Daughter
    Another of the worst choices ever for Best Actress.
  4. Morning Glory
    Actually a deserving film to win Best Actress but Hepburn’s performance is the only good thing about this film which is even worse than the previous two.
  5. None But the Lonely Heart
    Not a bad film but a mediocre one (high **.5) and not even remotely deserving of being remembered for being one of Cary Grant’s two Oscar nominations, especially since he was much better in Arsenic and Old Lace in the same year.

The Statistics

Total Films 1912-2011: 604  (9th)

Total Percentage of All Films 1912-2011:  3.16%

Total Percentage of All Films 1930-1956:  12.55%

note:  None of the 1929 RKO films that I have seen were Oscar eligible in 1929, so they really begin with 1930.

  • 1930-1939:  264  (14.84%)  (4th)
  • 1940-1949:  240  (13.80%)  (5th)
  • 1950-1956:  100  (5.22%)  (8th)

Percentage I’ve Seen by Decade:

  • 1930-1939:  56.80%
  • 1940-1949:  63.78%
  • 1950-1959:  66.67%
  • TOTAL:  61.13%

note:  I’m stunned that I even got to this level and I’d be surprised if there are very many people alive who can say they’ve even seen 50% of all the RKO films let alone 60%.  I’ve reached at least 50% in every year, 60% in most years from 1943 forward and over 70% in several years.

Biggest Years:

  • 1933:  39
  • 1943:  34
  • 1932, 1940:  31

Biggest Years by Percentage of All Films:

  • 1932:  20.26%
  • 1943:  19.88%
  • 1931:  16.30%


  • Top 10 Most Films every year from 1930 to 1956 (so, basically, every year of its existence)

RKO started at a deficit, beginning years after the other majors and never really caught up, though it has solid numbers for every year of its existence.

Best Years:

  • 1941:  4 Top 10; 7 Top 20
  • 1946:  4 Top 10; 5 Top 20

The Top Films:

  • Nighthawk Winner:  1935, 1941, 1952
  • Top 10 Films:  27
  • First Year in the Top 10:  1932
  • Latest Year in the Top 10:  1952
  • 5 Films in the Top 20:  1941, 1946
  • Top 20 Films:  42
  • Best Decade for Top 20 Films:  1940’s  (25)

Average Film By Decade:

  • 1930-1939:  56.38
  • 1940-1949:  60.13
  • 1950-1959:  57.88
  • TOTAL:  58.10

Best Years for Average Film:

  • 1941:  64.09
  • 1946:  63.00
  • 1948:  62.00
  • 1947:  61.00

Worst Years for Average Film (minimum 5 films):

  • 1932:  47.45
  • 1931:  47.91
  • 1954:  51.88

Star Rating:

note:  The percentage breakdown for all RKO films by star rating.

  • ****:  2.15%
  • ***.5:  3.31%
  • ***:  32.40%
  • **.5:  39.78%
  • **:  21.86%
  • *.5:  0.50%

Oscar Eligibility Statistics

Having completed my project of a spreadsheet tracking the studio for every film ever submitted for Oscar consideration, here are the stats for RKO:

  • Total Films Submitted:  838
  • Rank Through 2011:  #8
  • Rank Through 1956:  #7
  • Number of Films I Have Seen:  516
  • Percentage of Films I Have Seen:  61.58%


  • Total Films Submitted:  415
  • Rank:  #5
  • I’ve Seen:  240
  • Percentage:  57.83%


  • Total Films Submitted:  255
  • Rank:  #5
  • I’ve Seen:  171
  • Percentage:  67.06%


  • Total Films Submitted:  167
  • Rank:  #10
  • I’ve Seen:  105
  • Percentage:  62.87%

Because it started late (one film was actually submitted in 1929, which I haven’t been able to see (Syncopation)), RKO was already behind the other majors.  But RKO leapt into the Top 20 in 1930 with 31 more submissions and into the Top 10 the next year.  By 1934, RKO was up to 5th total (behind Paramount, Warners, Fox and MGM – the other four majors) but was never able to catch up to any of them.  RKO was also one of the studios with very few listed submissions during the war (just 42 from 1941-45) and partially as a result of that, Universal caught it by 1950 and Columbia in 1952.  With RKO winding down, UA passed the studio in 1961 and RKO has been sitting in eighth ever since.  However, with 200 more films than Disney (through 2011), it will be a long time before RKO finally drops to 9th.  Also, while RKO was a major, submitting as many as 50 films (1932) or even 55 films (1937), it is the only major (not just the originals, but the new ones like Columbia, Universal, UA or Disney) to never have the most submitted films in a single year.  But from 1930 through 1953 and again in 1956, it was among the Top 10 in submissions each year.

Nighthawk Awards

  • Number of Films That Have Earned Nominations:  52
  • Number of Films That Have Won Nighthawks:  21
  • Number of Films With Multiple Nominations:  35
  • Number of Films With Multiple Wins:  8
  • Best Picture Nominations:  11
  • Total Number of Nominations:  185
  • Total Number of Wins:  56
  • Category With the Most Nominations:  Actress  (19)
  • Director with Most Nighthawk Nominated Films:  Mark Sandrich  (5)
  • Best Film with No Nighthawks:  Out of the Past
  • Best Film with No Nighthawk Nominations:  They Live By Night
  • Number of Films That Have Earned Drama Nominations:  34
  • Number of Films That Have Earned Comedy Nominations:  12
  • Number of Films That Have Won Drama Awards:  14
  • Number of Films That Have Won Comedy Awards:  5
  • Drama Picture Nominations:  12
  • Comedy Picture Nominations:  8
  • Total Number of Drama Nominations:  95
  • Total Number of Comedy Nominations:  46
  • Total Number of Drama Wins:  29
  • Total Number of Comedy Wins:  7
  • Category With the Most Nominations:  Actress  (16 – Drama  /  8 – Comedy)
  • Best Drama Film With No Nominations:  The Thing from Another World
  • Best Comedy Film With No Nominations:  Casanova Brown
  • Most 2nd Place Finishes:  The Best Years of Our Lives  (7)
  • Most 6th Place Finishes:  The Gay Divorcee  /  Notorious  /  It’s a Wonderful Life  /  Out of the Past  /  Sudden Fear  (2)
  • Most Top 10 Finishes:  Citizen Kane  (15)
  • Most Top 20 Finishes:  Citizen Kane  /  It’s a Wonderful Life  (15)
  • Films With at Least One Top 10 Finish:  66
  • Best Film Without a Top 10 Finish:  The Fugitive
  • Films With at Least One Top 20 Finish:  78
  • Best Film Without a Top 20 Finish:  The Long Night

Most Nighthawk Nominations:

  1. Citizen Kane  –  13
  2. Rashomon  –  13
  3. The Best Years of Our Lives  –  12
  4. The Little Foxes  –  10
  5. King Kong  –  9
  6. The Informer  –  8
  7. The Magnificent Ambersons  –  8
  8. Crossfire  –  8
  9. It’s a Wonderful Life  –  7
  10. The Gay Divorcee  /  Bringing Up Baby  –  6

Most Nighthawks:

  1. Citizen Kane  –  12
  2. Rashomon  –  9
  3. The Informer  –  6
  4. The Magnificent Ambersons  –  6
  5. King Kong  –  4

Most Nighthawk Points:

  1. Citizen Kane  –  685
  2. Rashomon  –  645
  3. The Informer  –  490
  4. The Magnificent Ambersons  –  435
  5. The Best Years of Our Lives  –  430
  6. King Kong  –  355
  7. The Little Foxes  –  350
  8. Crossfire  –  330
  9. Bringing Up Baby  –  270
  10. It’s a Wonderful Life  –  270

Most Drama Nominations:

  1. The Little Foxes  –  8
  2. The Best Years of Our Lives  –  8
  3. The Informer  –  5
  4. Stage Door  –  5
  5. Crossfire  /  Rashomon  –  5

Most Comedy Nominations:

  1. The Gay Divorcee  –  8
  2. Top Hat  –  6
  3. Bringing Up Baby  –  5
  4. Ball of Fire  –  5
  5. Mr. and Mrs. Smith  –  5

Most Drama Wins:

  1. The Informer  –  4
  2. Citizen Kane  –  4
  3. Rashomon  –  4
  4. The Magnificent Ambersons  –  3
  5. four films  –  2

Most Comedy Wins:

  1. The Gay Divorcee  –  2
  2. The Farmer’s Daughter  –  2
  3. Top Hat  –  1
  4. Bringing Up Baby  –  1
  5. The Bishop’s Wife  –  1

Most Drama Points:

  1. The Informer  –  365
  2. Rashomon  –  360
  3. The Little Foxes  –  355
  4. Citizen Kane  –  340
  5. The Best Years of Our Lives  –  335

Most Comedy Points:

  1. The Gay Divorcee  –  355
  2. Top Hat  –  270
  3. Bringing Up Baby  –  245
  4. Ball of Fire  –  205
  5. Mr. and Mrs. Smith  –  205

All-Time Nighthawk Awards

  • Best Picture
  1. Rashomon
  2. Citizen Kane
  3. The Best Years of Our Lives
  4. It’s a Wonderful Life
  5. Notorious

Analysis:  Three RKO films win the Nighthawk: The Informer, Citizen Kane and Rashomon.  In addition, eight more earn nominations (King Kong, The Gay Divorcee, Bringing Up Baby, The Little Foxes, Magnificent Ambersons, Best Years of Our Lives, It’s a Wonderful Life, Crossfire).  RKO manages three Drama wins (the same three as above) but no Comedy wins.  It earns nine Drama noms (the six Dramas above as well as Of Human Bondage, Stage Door and Suspicion).  In Comedy / Musical, in addition to Divorcee and Baby it scores noms for Top Hat, Shall We Dance, Gunga Din, Ball of Fire, Mr and Mrs Smith and The Princess and the Pirate.  Overall, RKO manages 27 Top 10 films in the years it existed (about one per year).
RKO won the Oscar twice: Cimarron (one of the worst choices ever) and The Best Years of Our Lives (a great choice).  Because RKO was at its peak during the expanded BP era it managed 17 nominations from 1933 to 1947 (not counting Best Years) with three each in 1935 (Alice Adams, Informer, Top Hat) and 1941 (Citizen Kane, Little Foxes, Suspicion).  It kind of peaked at the start of the 5 BP Era with five noms including a win in just three years (Bells of St Mary’s, Best Years, It’s a Wonderful Life, Crossfire, Bishop’s Wife).
Best Years was the only Globe winner while Hans Christian Anderson earned a Comedy nom.  The only six nominations RKO ever received at the BAFTAs were all for Picture with Best Years winning and Crossfire, Set-Up, The Window, Rashomon and Boy Kumasenu earning noms.
The only critics groups during the RKO years were the NBR and the NYFC and The Informer and Citizen Kane both won both groups.  In addition, Topaze and None but the Lonely Heart won the NBR while Best Years won the NYFC.

  • Best Director
  1. Orson Welles  (Citizen Kane)
  2. Akira Kurosawa  (Rashomon)
  3. William Wyler  (The Best Years of Our Lives)
  4. Orson Welles  (The Magnificent Ambersons)
  5. Frank Capra  (It’s a Wonderful Life)

Analysis:  There are four Nighthawk winners: Welles (twice), Kurosawa and John Ford (The Informer).  Wyler and Capra are joined as nominees by Ernest Schoedsack (King Kong), Howard Hawks (Bringing Up Baby), Edward Dmytryk (Crossfire) and Wyler again (The Little Foxes).  Those all earn either Drama or Comedy noms with additional Comedy noms for Mark Sandrich twice (Gay Divorcee, Top Hat), George Stevens (Gunga Din), Hawks (Ball of Fire) and Hitchcock (Mr and Mrs Smith).
Ford and Wyler win the Oscar with noms for Wesley Ruggles (Cimarron), George Cukor (Little Women), Gregory La Cava (Stage Door), Sam Wood (Kitty Foyle), Welles (Kane), Wyler (Foxes), Leo McCarey (Bells of St Mary’s), Capra, Dmytryk and Henry Koster (Bishop’s Wife).
Capra wins the Globe.  Wyler wins both the NYFC and NBR, Ford and La Cava win the NYFC and Kurosawa wins the NBR.

  • Best Adapted Screenplay:
  1. Rashomon
  2. The Best Years of Our Lives
  3. It’s a Wonderful Life
  4. Bringing Up Baby
  5. The Informer

Analysis:  RKO does well here winning the Nighthawk five times in less than 20 years (with Ambersons replacing Life in the Top 5).  There are also another 10 nominations, all from 1933 to 1947 with two each in 1934, 1941 and 1947.  Bishop’s Wife adds a Comedy win to the mix.
There are four Oscar winners: Cimarron, Little Women, Informer and Best Years though only six other nominees (Holiday, Stage Door, Kitty Foyle, Little Foxes, Pride of the Yankees, Crossfire).
No RKO film won a WGA award although 12 different films earned noms (all in the era when it was split by genre instead of adapted-original) and I Remember Mama actually earned noms in three different categories in 1948 (Drama, Comedy, Screenplay dealing with the problems of the American scene).

  • Best Original Screenplay:
  1. Citizen Kane
  2. Notorious
  3. Ball of Fire
  4. Mr. and Mrs. Smith
  5. Top Hat

Analysis:  A much weaker category than Adapted with Kane winning the Nighthawk and an additional 11 nominees.  RKO takes four of the five nominations in 1941 including the winner.  What Price Hollywood manages a Drama win.
The studio wins three Oscars: Citizen Kane, The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer and The Brave One (the last RKO film to win an Oscar, in 1956).  There are also 13 other nominees including Pride of the Yankees which earned a Story nom in addition to the Screenplay nom above.

  • Best Actor:
  1. Orson Welles  (Citizen Kane)
  2. James Stewart  (It’s a Wonderful Life)
  3. Fredric March  (The Best Years of Our Lives)
  4. Cary Grant  (Notorious)
  5. Leslie Howard  (Of Human Bondage)

Analysis:  Welles and Stewart win the Nighthawk with noms for March (losing to Stewart), Howard, Lowell Sherman (What Price Hollywood), Victor McLachlen (Informer), Grant (Bringing Up Baby), Walter Huston (Devil and Daniel Webster), Gary Cooper (Pride of the Yankees) and Boris Karloff (Body Snatcher).  Cary Grant is kept out of the Top 5 in Notorious because it is so overwhelmingly strong.  Howard wins the Drama award.  Aside from the regular nominees, Grant is in for Drama (None but the Lonely Heart) and Fred Astaire three times for Comedy (Gay Divorcee, Top Hat, Shall We Dance) as well as Cooper (Ball of Fire) and Robert Montgomery (Mr and Mrs Smith) and Grant again (Bishop’s Wife).
McLachlen and March won the Oscar with noms for Richard Dix (Cimarron – one of the worst nominations in the category’s history), Raymond Massey (Abe Lincoln in Illinois), Welles, Huston, Cooper (Pride), Grant (Heart), Bing Crosby (Bells of St Mary’s), Stewart and Michael Redgrave (Mourning Becomes Electra).
The only two Globe noms are both in Comedy / Musical – Harold Lloyd (The Sin of Harold Diddlebock) and Danny Kaye (Hans Christian Andersen).
Redgrave won the NBR as did James Mason for Face to Face (one of three films he won for).

  • Best Actress
  1. Katharine Hepburn  (Bringing Up Baby)
  2. Bette Davis  (The Little Foxes)
  3. Ingrid Bergman  (Notorious)
  4. Bette Davis  (Of Human Bondage)
  5. Joan Fontaine  (Suspicion)

Analysis:  Unlike the Actor Top 5 which earn a 9, 9, 8, 7 and 6, all five of these performances are a 7.  This is, quite frankly, the best category for RKO.  RKO wins four Nighthawks, all in a row from 1932-35: Constance Bennett (What Price Hollywood), Katharine Hepburn (Morning Glory), Davis (Bondage) and Hepburn again (Alice Adams).  There are also 15 other nominations including three more for Hepburn (Little Women, Stage Door, Baby) and all four in 1941 (Davis, Fontaine, Barbara Stanwyck in Ball of Fire and Carol Lombard in Mr and Mrs Smith).  Aside from the Nighthawk winners, Davis wins Drama for Foxes, Ginger Rogers wins Comedy for Top Hat and Loretta Young wins a very weak Comedy field for The Farmer’s Daughter.  Including winners there are 16 Drama noms (4 for Hepburn) and 8 Comedy noms (one for Hepburn).
RKO wins four Oscars in this category: Hepburn (Glory), Ginger Rogers (Kitty Foyle), Fontaine and Young.  There are also 17 other nominees including two each in 1931, 1941 and 1948.
RKO takes home three Globes in a row with Bergman (Bells of St Mary’s) and then Rosalind Russell twice (Sister Kenny, Mourning Becomes Electra), adds another win in 1951 (Jane Wyman – The Blue Veil) and then noms for Joan Crawford (Sudden Fear) and Debbie Reynolds (Bundle of Joy).
Fontaine, Agnes Moorhead (Magnificent Ambersons) and Bergman all win the NYFC.

  • Best Supporting Actor:
  1. Toshiro Mifune  (Rashomon)
  2. Claude Rains  (Notorious)
  3. Robert Ryan  (Crossfire)
  4. Harold Russell  (The Best Years of Our Lives)
  5. Kirk Douglas  (Out of the Past)

Analysis:  Mifune, Rains and Ryan win the Nighthawk.  Russell and Douglas earn noms as do Dana Andrews (also Best Years), Edward Everett Horton (Gay Divorcee), Charles Dingle (Little Foxes), George Sanders (This Land is Mine), Jose Ferrer (Joan of Arc) and Mickey Rooney (The Bold and the Brave).  Horton wins the Comedy award as does Charles Bickford (Farmer’s Daughter) in a very weak year.
Russell is the only Oscar winner with noms for William Gargan (They Knew What They Wanted), Charles Coburn (The Devil and Miss Jones), Rains, Bickford, Ryan, Ferrer, Oscar Homolka (I Remember Mama), Jack Palace (Sudden Fear), Arthur Hunnicutt (The Big Sky) and Rooney.

  • Best Supporting Actress:
  1. Gloria Grahame  (Crossfire)
  2. Teresa Wright  (The Little Foxes)
  3. Agnes Moorhead  (The Magnificent Ambersons)
  4. Machiko Kyo  (Rashomon)
  5. Teresa Wright  (The Best Years of Our Lives)

Analysis:  Graham, Wright (Foxes) and Moorhead win the Nighthawk as do Alice Brady (Gay Divorcee), Una O’Connor (The Informer) and Andrea Leeds (Stage Door).  There are also noms for Kyo, Wright (Best Years), Patricia Collinge (Little Foxes), Billie Burke (A Bill of Divorcement), Ethel Barrymore (None But the Lonely Heart, The Spiral Staircase), Leopoldine Konstantin (Notorious) and Ellen Corby (I Remember Mama).
Barrymore (None) is the only Oscar winner though Foxes and I Remember Mama (adding Barbara Bel Geddes) earned two noms each and noms also went to Leeds, Maria Ouspenskaya (Love Affair), Marjorie Rambeau (Primrose Path), Moorhead, Barrymore, Grahame and Joan Blondell (The Blue Veil).
Corby won the Globe while Moorhead, as mentioned above, won the NYFC for lead.

  • Best Ensemble
  1. The Best Years of Our Lives
  2. The Little Foxes
  3. It’s a Wonderful Life
  4. Notorious
  5. Crossfire

Analysis:  This is based on the total points for acting for all members of the cast.

  • Best Editing:
  1. Citizen Kane
  2. Rashomon
  3. The Best Years of Our Lives
  4. It’s a Wonderful Life
  5. Bringing Up Baby

Analysis:  Kane and Rashomon win the Nighthawk with nominations for Best Years, Life, Baby, King Kong, Gay Divorcee, Informer, Crossfire and Out of the Past.
RKO wins two Oscars (Pride of the Yankees, Best Years) and earns 10 other nominations, all but two of them (Informer – 1935, Brave One – 1956) in the 40’s.

  • Best Cinematography:
  1. Citizen Kane
  2. Rashomon
  3. The Best Years of Our Lives
  4. Notorious
  5. The Magnificent Ambersons

Analysis:  Kane, Rashomon, Ambersons and The Informer win the Nighthawk (with the other two in the Top 5 kept out of the winning spot because of Children of Paradise) with noms for Years, Notorious, King Kong, Suspicion, Crossfire and Out of the Past.
After earning nominations for nine black-and-white films (and one color) in this category from 1931 to 1946, RKO finally won, in fact won back-to-back color Oscars for Joan of Arc and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon in 1948-49.  RKO earned three more nominations in 1952 (two black-and-white, one color) but that was it.

  • Best Original Score:
  1. Rashomon
  2. King Kong
  3. Citizen Kane
  4. The Informer
  5. The Best Years of Our Lives

Analysis:  The first four of these win the Nighthawk as does Magnificent Ambersons.  There are also 11 more Nighthawk nominees (including Best Years).
Informer, Devil and Daniel Webster and Best Years win the Oscar.  This is actually by far the best category for RKO at the Oscars for nominations with another 35 nominations in less than 20 years including 20 just from 1941-45.

  • Best Sound:
  1. Citizen Kane
  2. King Kong
  3. Rashomon
  4. The Best Years of Our Lives
  5. The Thing from Another World

Analysis:  Kane, Kong and The Lost Patrol win the Nighthawk with Cimarron, Gunga Din, Pride of the Yankees, It’s a Wonderful Life, Best Years, Thing and Rashomon earning noms.
Three films win the Oscar: This Land is Mine, Bells of St Mary’s and Bishop’s Wife.  There are also 25 other nominees including six in the 1950’s, the best category for RKO in its final years.

  • Best Art Direction:
  1. Citizen Kane
  2. The Magnificent Ambersons
  3. Rashomon
  4. The Little Foxes
  5. It’s a Wonderful Life

Analysis:  The top three all win the Nighthawk while the other two as well as Stage Door earn noms.
Cimarron is the only Oscar winner though a whopping 20 other films earn noms, one of RKO’s better categories (helped by the large number of nominees at the time).

  • Best Visual Effects
  1. King Kong
  2. Citizen Kane
  3. Deluge
  4. Mighty Joe Young

Analysis:  King Kong, Citizen Kane and Mighty Joe Young all win the Nighthawk.
The Oscars are the only group with a Visual Effects award during this era.  Wonder Man and Mighty Joe Young win the Oscar (King Kong predates the category) with noms for Swiss Family Robinson, Pride of the Yankees, Navy Comes Through, North Star, Bombardier and Days of Glory.

  • Best Sound Editing
  1. King Kong
  2. The Thing from Another World
  3. Rashomon
  4. Mighty Joe Young
  5. Citizen Kane

Analysis:  King Kong, Thing and Mighty Joe Young all win the Nighthawk with noms for Citizen Kane and Rashomon.  That’s the whole list of RKO films that earn points from me.
RKO dissolved before any group gave an award in this category.

  • Best Costume Design:
  1. The Magnificent Ambersons
  2. Rashomon
  3. Citizen Kane
  4. The Little Foxes
  5. Joan of Arc

Analysis:  Citizen Kane is the only Nighthawk winner while the other four as well as The Devil and Daniel Webster, Little Women and The Princess and the Pirate all earn noms.
Joan of Arc won the Oscar while Hans Christian Anderson and Sudden Fear earned nominations.

  • Best Makeup
  1. Citizen Kane

Analysis:  Yes, Citizen Kane is the only RKO film I consider worthy (and it does win the Nighthawk).  Since RKO died before the Makeup award existed anywhere, there’s nothing more to be said here.

  • Best Technical Aspects
  1. Citizen Kane
  2. Rashomon
  3. King Kong
  4. The Magnificent Ambersons
  5. The Best Years of Our Lives

Analysis:  Simply adding up all the points in the technical categories.

  • Best Original Song:
  1. “Cheek to Cheek”  (Top Hat)
  2. “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off”  (Shall We Dance)
  3. “The Continental”  (The Gay Divorcee)
  4. “They All Laughed”  (Shall We Dance)
  5. “Shall We Dance”  (Shall We Dance)

Analysis:  It’s definitely not a coincidence that all of these songs come from Fred Astaire films.  Those were the films with the great music at RKO.  The first and third songs win the Nighthawk while the second runs up against “Heigh Ho”.  Five RKO films earn a nomination while Roberta, Swing Time and Shall We Dance earn two each.
With 21 Oscar nominations and two wins (“The Continental”, “The Way You Look Tonight” from Swing Time) this is one of the studio’s most successful categories.

  • Best Animated Film:
  1. n/a

Analysis:  RKO never released an Animated Film.

  • Best Foreign Film:
  1. Rashomon

Analysis:  RKO rarely released Foreign Films but they did so notably with Rashomon which wins the Nighthawk and won the Oscar and the NBR.

  • Best Film (by my points system):
  1. Citizen Kane
  2. Rashomon
  3. The Best Years of Our Lives
  4. It’s a Wonderful Life
  5. Notorious

Analysis:  This just tallies up all of my points.

  • Best Film  (weighted points system)
  1. The Best Years of Our Lives
  2. Citizen Kane
  3. Rashomon
  4. It’s a Wonderful Life
  5. Notorious

Analysis:  Best Years jumps into the #1 spot because of all the great performances.

Best Films With No Top 5 Finishers:

  • The Spiral Staircase
  • Gunga Din
  • Stage Door

note:  Because of the scarcity of great films, RKO has three films with 10 or more all-time nominations which is very rare for a whole studio.  Also, all of the **** earn noms and these are the only high ***.5 that don’t earn them.

Worst Film with a Top 5 Finish:

  • Deluge

Nighthawk Notables

  • Best Film to Watch Over and Over:  King Kong
  • Best Line  (comedic):  “I just went gay all of a sudden!”  (Cary Grant in Bringing Up Baby)
  • Best Line  (dramatic):  “Clarence! Clarence! Help me, Clarence! Get me back! Get me back, I don’t care what happens to me! Get me back to my wife and kids! Help me Clarence, please! Please! I wanna live again. I wanna live again. Please, God, let me live again.”  (James Stewart in It’s a Wonderful Life)
  • Worst Line:  “I feel this Tartar woman is for me, and my blood says, take her. There are moments for wisdom and moments when I listen to my blood; my blood says, take this Tartar woman.”  (John Wayne in The Conqueror)
  • Best Opening:  Citizen Kane
  • Best Ending:  It’s a Wonderful Life
  • Best Scene:  the homecoming in The Best Years of Our Lives
  • Best Kiss:  Ingrid Bergman and Cary Grant in Notorious
  • Best Death Scene:  Orson Welles in Citizen Kane
  • Most Gut-Wrenching Scene:  George berating his uncle in It’s a Wonderful Life
  • Best Use of a Song:  “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off”  (Shall We Dance)
  • Best Soundtrack:  Top Hat
  • Funniest Film:  Bringing Up Baby
  • Worst Film by a Top 100 Director:  Bachelor Bait  (George Stevens)
  • Watch the Film, SKIP the Book:  The Best Years of Our Lives
  • Read the Comic Strip, SKIP the Film:  Dick Tracy’s Dilemma
  • Performance to Fall in Love With:  Teresa Wright in The Little Foxes
  • Sexiest Performance:  Ingrid Bergman in Notorious
  • Highest Attractiveness / Acting Ability Ratio:  Helen Mack in Son of Kong
  • Best Performance in an Otherwise Terrible Film:  Katharine Hepburn in Morning Glory
  • Coolest Performance:  Robert Mitchum in Out of the Past
  • Best Cameo:  Bing Crosby in The Princess and the Pirate

At the Theater:  I’ve never seen an RKO film in the theater though I would gladly pay to see King Kong on the big screen.  I wrote that back in January but then TCM announced King Kong would return to theaters for one day on March 15.  I had tickets.  I still have them.  They are going unused as I write this because of COVID-19.


One thing to bear in mind is that RKO stopped releasing films in 1956.  At that time, there were no BFCA Awards, the Globe had, most years, only announced winners, the BAFTAs hadn’t extended beyond Picture for the most part, only two of the six critics awards existed and the only guild awards were the DGA and WGA.

Academy Awards

  • Number of Films That Have Earned Nominations:  112
  • Number of Films That Have Won Oscars:  25
  • Number of Films With Multiple Nominations:  53
  • Number of Films With Multiple Wins:  4
  • Best Picture Nominations:  19
  • Total Number of Nominations:  264
  • Total Number of Wins:  37
  • Category With the Most Nominations:  Score  (40)
  • Number of Films with Nominations I Haven’t Seen:  2
  • Directors with Most Oscar Nominated Films:  George Stevens  (7)
  • Best Film with No Oscar Nominations:  Bringing Up Baby
  • Year with Most RKO Nominated Films:  1940 / 1941 / 1944 / 1945  (8)
  • Year with Most RKO Nominations:  1941  (31)

Oscar Oddities:

  • The Best Years of Our Lives won 7 Oscars – as many as the next two best years for RKO combined.
  • RKO didn’t win many Oscars.  It had three films that went 0 for 6 (Love Affair, North Star, Hans Christian Anderson) and one that went 0 for 9 (The Little Foxes).
  • Of the five films to earn 8 or more nom for RKO, Best Years won 7 while the other four won a combined three.
  • No RKO film with more than one nomination won all of its nominations.

Most Oscar Nominations

  1. The Pride of the Yankees  –  11
  2. The Little Foxes  –  9
  3. Citizen Kane  –  9
  4. The Bells of St. Mary’s  –  8
  5. The Best Years of Our Lives  –  8
  6. Cimarron  –  7
  7. Joan of Arc  –  7
  8. The Informer  –  6
  9. Love Affair  –  6
  10. North Star  /  Hans Christian Anderson  –  6

Most Oscar Wins:

  1. The Best Years of Our Lives  –  7
  2. The Informer  –  4
  3. Cimarron  –  3
  4. Joan of Arc  –  2
  5. 21 films  –  1

Most Oscar Points:

  1. The Best Years of Our Lives  –  520
  2. The Informer  –  365
  3. Cimarron  –  360
  4. The Pride of the Yankees  –  360
  5. Citizen Kane  –  325
  6. The Little Foxes  –  300
  7. The Bells of St. Mary’s  –  265
  8. Kitty Foyle  –  225
  9. Joan of Arc  –  215
  10. Crossfire  –  195

Oscar Nominated Films:

  • RKO had at least one nominated film every year from 1930 to 1952.
  • RKO had at least two nominated films every year from 1933 to 1949.
  • RKO had at least four nominated films every year from 1934 to 1947, the only studio to do that in that stretch.

By Decade:

  • 1920’s:  1  (6th – tie)
  • 1930’s:  37  (5th)
  • 1940’s:  62  (4th)
  • 1950’s:  13  (8th)
  • Total:  113  (9th)

Oscar Nominations:

  • RKO lead all studios in total nominations in 1941 and 1946.
  • RKO reached as high as fourth place all-time in nominations in 1935, 1941 and 1946-49.

Years with Most Total Oscar Nominations:

  • 31:  1941
  • 19:  1942, 1945
  • 18:  1946

By Decade:

  • 1920’s:  1  (8th – tie)
  • 1930’s:  74  (5th)
  • 1940’s:  163  (2nd)
  • 1950’s:  27  (8th)
  • Total:  265  (9th)

Oscar Wins:

  • RKO won at least one Oscar every year in the 1940’s.

By Decade:

  • 1930’s:  12  (4th – tie)
  • 1940’s:  23  (4th)
  • 1950’s:  2  (10th – tie)
  • Total:  37  (10th)

Critics Awards

  • Number of Films That Have Won Critics Awards:  12
  • Number of Films With Multiple Awards:  4
  • Best Picture Wins:  7
  • Total Number of Awards:  18
  • Category With the Most Awards:  Picture  (7)

Most Awards:

  1. The Informer  –  3
  2. The Best Years of Our Lives  –  3
  3. Citizen Kane  –  2
  4. Rashomon  –  2
  5. eight films  –  1

Most Points:

  1. The Informer  –  270
  2. The Best Years of Our Lives  –  262
  3. Citizen Kane  –  180
  4. Rashomon  –  104
  5. Stage Door  –  90

Most Points by Critics Group:

  • NYFC:  The Informer  /  The Best Years of Our Lives  –  190
  • NBR:  Rashomon  –  130

Golden Globes

  • Number of Films That Have Earned Nominations:  11
  • Number of Films That Have Won Globes:  7
  • Number of Films With Multiple Nominations:  1
  • Number of Films With Multiple Wins:  0
  • Best Picture Nominations:  2  (1 – Drama, 1 – Comedy)
  • Total Number of Nominations:  12
  • Total Number of Wins:  7
  • Category With the Most Nominations:  Actress  (6)
  • Best Film with No Globe Nominations:  Rashomon
  • Best English Language Film with No Globe Nominations:  Notorious

Most Globe Nominations:

  1. Hans Christian Anderson  –  2
  2. ten films  –  1

Most Globes:

  1. seven films  –  1

Most Globe Points:

  1. The Best Years of Our Lives  –  100
  2. It’s a Wonderful Life  –  90
  3. Hans Christian Anderson  –  85
  4. four films  –  70

Guild Awards

  • Number of Films That Have Earned Nominations:  11
  • Number of Films That Have Won Guild Awards:  0
  • Number of Films With Multiple Nominations:  1
  • Number of Films With Multiple Wins:  n/a
  • Best Picture Nominations:  n/a
  • Total Number of Nominations:  13
  • Total Number of Wins:  0
  • Category With the Most Nominations:  Screenplay  (13)
  • Best Film with No Guild Nominations:  The Thing from Another World

note:  By the time RKO dissolved, the only guild awards were the DGA and the WGA.

Most Guild Nominations:

  1. I Remember Mama  –  3
  2. ten films  –  1

Most Guild Points:

  1. I Remember Mama  –  120
  2. ten films  –  40


  • Number of Films That Have Earned Nominations:  6
  • Number of Films That Have Won BAFTAs:  1
  • Number of Films With Multiple Nominations:  0
  • Number of Films With Multiple Wins:  n/a
  • Best Picture Nominations:  6
  • Total Number of Nominations:  6
  • Total Number of Wins:  1
  • Category With the Most Nominations:  Picture  (6)
  • Best Film with No BAFTA Nominations:  The Thing from Another World

Most BAFTA Points:

  1. The Best Years of Our Lives  –  100
  2. five films  –  50

All Awards

Most Nominations:

  1. The Best Years of Our Lives  –  13
  2. Citizen Kane  –  11
  3. The Pride of the Yankees  –  11
  4. The Bells of St. Mary’s  –  10
  5. The Informer  –  9
  6. The Little Foxes  –  9
  7. Hans Christian Anderson  –  9
  8. I Remember Mama  –  8
  9. Cimarron  –  7
  10. Joan of Arc  –  7

Most Awards:

  1. The Best Years of Our Lives  –  12
  2. The Informer  –  7
  3. Cimarron  –  3
  4. Citizen Kane  –  3
  5. The Bells of St. Mary’s  /  Rashomon  –  3

Total Awards Points

  1. The Best Years of Our Lives  –  962
  2. The Informer  –  635
  3. Citizen Kane  –  505
  4. The Bells of St. Mary’s  –  391
  5. Cimarron  –  360
  6. The Pride of the Yankees  –  360
  7. I Remember Mama  –  306
  8. The Little Foxes  –  300
  9. Stage Door  –  255
  10. It’s a Wonderful Life  –  247


Lists for studios are harder because I have to come up with them myself.  There are no books that rank the best films by studio and no way to sort through them on the IMDb or TSPDT (actually, the IMDb has now changed that, but, sadly, RKO isn’t one of the choices).

The TSPDT Top 10 RKO Films

  1. Citizen Kane  (#3)
  2. Rashomon  (#21)
  3. The Magnificent Ambersons (#77)
  4. It’s a Wonderful Life  (#81)
  5. Bringing Up Baby  (#125)
  6. Notorious  (#135)
  7. King Kong  (#163)
  8. Out of the Past  (#185)
  9. The Best Years of Our Lives  (#209)
  10. Cat People  (#448)

note:  The numbers in parenthesis are the position on the most recent (2020) TSPDT list.
note:  Cat People is an oddity.  Until this year it was never within 25 of Top Hat and rarely within 60.  But this year it leapt up over 100 spots for some reason and is now 70 spots above Top Hat.

The IMDb Top 3 RKO Films

  1. It’s a Wonderful Life
  2. Citizen Kane
  3. Rashomon

note:  Those are all the RKO films in the Top 250 at the IMDb.

Top 10 U.S. Domestic Box Office

There doesn’t seem to be any question that the top two grossing RKO films are The Best Years of Our Lives and The Bells of St. Mary’s, in that order.  But how much each made isn’t quite clear.  BOM lists the former with a gross of $23.65 mil and the latter with a gross of $21.33 mil.  That would indicate a ratio of 1.10.  Yet, the listed rentals from Variety at the time are $11.5 mil and $8 mil which is a ratio of 1.44.  Comparing the figures leave us with a 2.09 multiple for Years (which is average) and a 2.67 for Bells (one of the 10 highest in a chart of some 150 films I have done comparing BOM grosses with Variety‘s reported rentals).  RKO also distributed Disney films for a long time, including Snow White (with rentals of at least $6 million from its original release).


The RKO Story, Richard B. Jewell with Vernon Harbin, 1982

One of the series of books produced in the 70’s and 80’s, big glorious coffee table books that covered each major studio with bits on every film made, this was one of the last released which is ironic since RKO had been defunct since the 50’s so they could have started with this one since it was the only one that wouldn’t be immediately outdated upon release.  A great addition to any film library just like all the others.

The Genius of the System: Hollywood Filmmaking in the Studio Era, Thomas Schatz, 1988

One of the best books on film, covering, as it is says, the Studio Era.  RKO isn’t covered much but there is a specific chapter dealing with the studio (because of the time when David O. Selznick was part of the studio).

History of the American Cinema Volume 7: Transforming the Screen, 1950-1959, Peter Lev, 2003

Aside from being a volume in a really great, informative series about American film history, this volume is particularly relevant for covering the era in which the studio went defunct.


The Best RKO Film I Haven’t Yet Reviewed

Ball of Fire
(1941, dir. Howard Hawks)

It’s hard to write about the world if you’re not engaged with it at all.  That can be especially true in certain fields.  If a group of professors are spending all of their time shut up in a large house, writing the definitive encyclopedia, that can be fine depending on the subject.  Certainly the historian can simply learn about the facts of the world.  But what if you’re the grammarian of the group and an encounter with the garbageman makes you realize you have no idea what the current state of slang is?  How can you write about what people are saying if you don’t venture forth to actually hear them speak?  So, poor Bertram Potts, the young, handsome professor in the bunch (the one who is paraded in front of the middle aged woman whose dead father’s fortune is paying for this and that she is clearly smitten with) heads out to a local nightclub and what follows can only be predicted in that this is a Screwball Comedy and the unpredictable is what the film is all about.

Out at the nightclub, Potts meets Sugerpuss O’Shea.  He is entranced by all the slang in the song she performs and doesn’t seem to grasp that’s she Barbara Stanwyck.  He only wants her for her language.  She, on the other hand, also doesn’t seem to realize that he’s Gary Cooper.  She at first just wants him to leave her alone but when her current beau, Joe Lilac (Dana Andrews) is being investigated for murder and she’s a key witness, she decides that Potts is providing the perfect place to hide.  So she’ll live with the eggheads and he’ll frisk her for words and everyone will be happy.

Well, not everyone will be happy, of course, because this is a Screwball Comedy after all, perhaps the greatest subgenre of Comedy ever created, one that flourished for just a brief decade and then pretty much went away with the rare exceptions of revivals from the likes of the Coen Brothers and George Clooney.

It’s easy to see what the problems are going to be.  I sat Veronica down to watch this with me and she could spot them coming pretty easily: that the patron would not be pleased to see Potts interested in Sugarpuss, that the housekeeper would be very displeased by all of this, that Lilac would not let his woman go without a fight and that somehow Sugarpuss and Potts would have to notice that the other is extremely attractive and that this would somehow have to lead to what Stephen Sondheim so perfectly noted: a happy ending, of course.  What she could not see coming along the were things like a great use of a magnifying glass, some very interesting slang, a punch that was unexpected both in who threw it and who received it and which characters could possibly be speeding down the highway on the side of a garbage truck (as opposed to the people who would actually be in the truck).

It’s well worth remembering before you get to this film, a film you might never have seen given that it’s not considered among the very best of the genre (as evidenced by its total lack of inclusion on the Top 2000 at TSPDT) even though it’s co-written by Billy Wilder and stars Cooper and Stanwyck and has one of Stanwyck’s rare Oscar nominated performances, that it’s directed by Howard Hawks.  While many great directors have been thought of for one genre or another, Hawks easily moved between genres.  In the decade before this, he made one of the greatest Crime films of all-time (Scarface) and in the decade after this, he made one of the greatest Mysteries (The Big Sleep) and Westerns (Red River).  And that this comes in a period that also saw Bringing Up Baby and His Girl Friday, two other brilliant Screwball Comedies that are perhaps part of the reason that this film hasn’t been remembered as much as it should be.

The Worst RKO Film I Haven’t Yet Reviewed

Captive Women
(1952, Stuart Gilmore)

Just because a movie is made on the cheap doesn’t guarantee that it has to be terrible.  Indeed, even being made by Albert Zugsmith doesn’t guarantee it will be bad either, as he would later, after moving on to work with Universal, produce the best film ever made by Douglas Sirk (Written on the Wind) and one of the best films ever made by anybody (Touch of Evil).  Unfortunately, though, Zugsmith’s three film deal with RKO wasn’t a chance for him to show quality on the cheap, but rather to provide some really quick, inexpensive films that RKO could throw out into theaters.  The worst of these, indeed, the worst of any RKO film I have seen, which is impressive given that I’ve seen The Conqueror, a film legendary for it awfulness, is Captive Women, a little crap piece of post-apocalyptic Sci-Fi garbage.

The film is set in New York, not because of any good idea, but because the film was made for less than $100,000 and is about three tribes, the Norms and Mutates and Upriver People who are fighting it out in these bleak days.  At first, it’s all about the Norms and the Mutates in kind of a pathetic idea ripped off from The Time Machine, but then the Upriver People start coming down and stealing their women (thus the unoriginal title of the film) and the first two groups of course have to band together to fight off the latter one.  Or at least that’s what Wikipedia tells me, because to be honest, even glancing at it again was more than I wanted to do.

The main problem, aside from the awful writing, terrible directing and acting so bad that none of these people should even have Wikipedia pages except for Margaret Field and that’s really more because she’s the mother of a two-time Oscar winner, is that there is no effort put into the film itself.  The sets don’t do anything to really make it feel like this is after an apocalypse and the costumes seem like whatever the producers could find that was left behind after a Roman Epic.

Captive Women is kind of an odd film.  At mid *.5, it’s not really bad enough to be among the real drecks of the cult films of this era, yet it’s also far too bad to really be worth remembering either.  It just kind of exists in this nether region, neither really deserving to be forgotten or remembered, and in some ways I should have written about The Conquerer, a film far more famous for being bad because of its major stars and because the making of it probably helped kill much of the cast and crew.

Bonus Review

The Hunchback of Notre Dame
(1939, dir. William Dieterle)

Since I can’t write about what I usually write about in this space (a film I saw in the theater while in high school or college that is preferably a solid ***), I decided to go another route and address one of my constant annoyances: there is an apparently unshakable belief that 1939 was the greatest year in film history.  That idea mainly stems from the fact that it’s the release year for the film that by one (very important) measure is the biggest film in history, Gone with the Wind and one film that could very well be the greatest film ever made, The Wizard of Oz.  Yes, there are a few other films that I would call indisputable classics (Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Stagecoach, Wuthering Heights).  But the year is also filled to the brim with films that people mention as support for this claim when they are no better than solid to very good films, films like Ninotchka, Drums Along the Mohawk, Dark Victory, Love Affair, Gunga Din, Goodbye Mr. Chips, Young Mr. Lincoln and this version of a great novel which is an interesting case in and of itself.

I have long written about the 1923 version as one of the great under-appreciated films of all-time, a film that may contain the best performance of the actor who might very well have been the best actor of the Silent Era.  But, because it was filmed at Universal and isn’t really considered part of their Horror films, it gets pushed aside.  It’s also been in the public domain since 1951 and so there’s not a studio that has a vested interest in really reviving it properly and doing it proper justice on video.

In some ways, this film might seem to be comparable.  Like the first one, it got a sizable budget far out of proportion for most films by its studio at the time, had a major acting talent in the role (jn this case Charles Laughton) who is mostly un-supported on the acting side and a beautiful Esmeralda whose only real job is to be beautiful (and with Maureen O’Hara in the role, that part is a success).  But honestly, that’s where the similarity ends.  While Wallace Worsley, the director of the 1923 film never did much else and while William Dieterle, the director of this version was coming off a recent Best Picture winner, it’s really the first film where everything stands out.  This film isn’t bad, far from it, it’s a solid *** film.  But because this book has unaccountably been ignored as a major live studio production (the only live action version made for theatrical release since this one is the very weak 1957 version), this is the version that most people look back to.  But it just doesn’t have nearly the majesty of the first film.

The major problem is that Charles Laughton, who was a great actor who knew when to not go over the top, doesn’t have that measure of restraint in this film.  Perhaps because he wanted to be felt outside of the makeup, he really overacts in a way that he hadn’t before and that looks especially weak when you consider him against the magnificent Chaney performance.  What’s more, the makeup on Laughton pales in comparison to what Chaney did.  Just think of the brilliant close-up of him that reveals him.  That film had a majesty in the way it was shot and edited that this film really doesn’t have.

It comes down to this.  This film is a perfectly solid film, a good film that is worth seeing and does a decent job adapting a great book to the screen.  But, because it’s the last really major production of the novel (live-action that is), it gets held up as a standard that it doesn’t really live up to, which in some ways, makes it the perfect example of 1939 in film as a whole.  It’s good, but let’s not mistake that for being classic.