Six hours of “THE RKO STORY,TALES FROM HOLLYWOOD”  told by the people who were there. It doesn’t get any better. From the stars, producers, directors to the technicians like the sound engineer, the cinematographer, the poster artist.

Back in 1987, the BBC , in association with the RKO company, made a 6 part documentary series about the smallest Hollywood major.  I remember watching it, and what fascinated me was seeing presenter Edward Asner looking through the archives of RKO, going through drawers which were full of everything, from contracts to preview cards, to letters the stars wrote to the studio bosses.

You are back to wishing that the money could be found to digitise all the written material.

The good fortune was that , at that time, the BBC  was  able to interview so many of the RKO employees –  from the 1930s studio head Pandro Berman to Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, Katharine Hepburn,Robert Mitchum,Jane Greer and many more. This really is the inside story.And it’s wonderful that everybody was willing to be interviewed.

And the 6 hours are jammed packed with film clips.

Heaven knows why this series wasn’t released on dvd. I had it on video and a kind friend (that’s you,Alistair!) copied it to dvd for me when the BBC showed it again.


Ed Asner was one of the best presenters ever, sometimes in front of the camera, but mostly behind it. He started off in front of the RKO building above. It no longer said RKO , but instead Paramount. And the big radio mast above the concrete dome was gone.

Initially RKO relied on stage adaptations. Kay Brown in New York was employed to read stories from every source. She recommended Edna Ferber’s book, CIMARRON and the film won 3 Oscars in 1930. The camera operator on the film, Joseph Biroc said there were 2,000 people and over 2000 horses used for the Land Rush scene.

Biroc said, “It was all planned on paper….we had close to 30 camera set-ups.”

At age 29, David O.Selznick came into RKO. Katharine Hepburn was offered a contract by him. The great Kate said,

I said I wont go out there for less than $1500 a week……I took a flier.”

And it worked. We saw her contract!

She was expertly showcased by George Cukor and won an Oscar for her first film, BILL OF DIVORCEMENT.



Robert Armstrong, Fay Wray

“Did you ever hear of Kong?”

Writer/director Merian C. Cooper sold the idea of KING KONG to Selznick. Cooper originally intended shooting the film in a jungle  with a real gorilla! Then he met Willis O’Brien who was trying to put things on the screen that you couldn’t possibly photograph – stop- motion photography. Cooper realised that he could do the picture on the RKO backlot.

In Fay Wray’s interview, she said that Cooper told her, “You’re going to have the tallest,darkest leading man in Hollywood!”

Median C. Cooper

Merian C. Cooper

Sound engineer Murray Spivak explained how he achieved some of Kong’s sounds. He went to a zoo and recorded sounds of lions and tigers at feeding time, then slowed the sounds down, played them backwards and forwards to create the sound of Kong.

Fay Wray added, “The Empire State Building was built just in time.!”



RKO always seemed to be permanently in financial trouble. Selznick joined MGM in 1933 and Merian C. Cooper became head of production for a short time. . And then the young Pandro Berman led the studio into a golden period.

Kay Brown read out a telegram she got from Merian C. Cooper in March,1933:

Can you ship Fred Astaire by airplane today. answer straight wire or phone.”

Pandro Berman

Pandro Berman

And suddenly RKO had a stream of hits on their hands with the Astaire-Rogers films. The RKO special effects unit went into overdrive. Using wind machines, the girls and the planes in front of huge back projection screens. It was a spectacular routine.

Flying Down To Rio

Flying Down To Rio

Edward Eliscu,  who wrote the lyrics for the Flying Down to Rio songs, said,

“I never conceived of girls being strapped to the wings of a plane. I think that’s subject to cruelty to dancers.!”

Fred and Ginger had 4th and 5th billing in the film, and only one musical number., ‘The Carioca’.


My favorite interviewee was Hermes Pan. He was so enthusiastic when describing his association with Fred Astaire, And like his namesake, seemed perennially young. In looks and appearance, he could have been Astaire’s younger brother.

Ginger Rogers, Hermes Pan

Ginger Rogers, Hermes Pan

His first film  on Flying Down To Rio came about when the film’s choreographer Dave Gould said to him,

“Fred Astaire is up on Stage 8. Would you go up and see if you can help him.”

Astaire and Pan

Astaire and Pan

And so the collaboration began. He confirmed that he would teach Ginger the routines, and that on ROBERTA there were no cuts on the ‘I’d Be Hard To Handle’ number – the taps were recorded live.

Ginger Rogers said,

“We spent 6 weeks in daily rehearsals and we didn’t go into principal photography till after that. We would dance all day in a rehearsal hall. We had a great deal of fun. Something about rehearsals ,very exciting.”

Ginger Rogers

Ginger Rogers

Pandro Berman: “We were fortunate that we came up with the Astaire-Rogers series when we did.”

Back in 1987 when the series aired, a never before scene from SECOND CHORUS was shown – Hermes Pan dressed as a ghost and dancing with Fred Astaire. Shame it was cut from the film. The number was called ‘Me and the Ghost Upstairs’ and can be seen on You Tube.

Hermes Pan, Fred Astaire

Hermes Pan, Fred Astaire

Hermes told a story about Irving Berlin:

“Berlin came in one afternoon – he was a terrible pianist – he would play the song – he played ‘Cheek to Cheek’ and sang it. When he got through,we’d sort of look at each other and say, ‘Yes,very good – Is it?’

And then when Hal Borne came in and played it, it was exquisite.”

The musician, Hal Borne said:  “Berlin was a man who was blessed with a natural talent.”

Pandro Berman had other views on the great composer:

“Irving Berlin was a very nice gentleman – a very tough trader, hard as nails – money negotiations were very difficult with him.”

Borne commented on Astaire’s voice:

“He had a nice voice. I set all the keys in the right direction,so that it was comfortable and he didn’t have to go stretching.”

Isnt This a Lovely Day

Isnt This a Lovely Day

Another amazing and rare film clip was of Astaire rehearsing ‘Slap That Bass’ in color – taken by George Gershwin!

Pandro Berman had trouble keeping Astaire with Rogers:

“I went through a lot of hell getting them to make picture after picture for various reasons……I solved it really by getting the company to give Fred a new contract which gave him 10% of the profits. After he got the first few cheques from the profits, his reluctance evaporated.!”

In the Archive vaults, Ed Asner showed us the contracts which had Fred insured for $1million and Ginger for $500,000.

Ginger said, “Fred was a perfectionist but he was not my Svengali.”


More to come, Welles, Film Noir and the man called Hughes.


10 responses »

  1. Lovely post. Out of all the old film studios, RKO is the one I have the most interest in. Call it a lifelong interest in the underdog. Had no idea this documentary existed. Sad to hear it’s never been released on DVD. Would love to see it.

  2. I haven’t seen this since it was broadcast but I still remember it fondly and the movies that were shown that summer to accompany the series. The BBC are poor at releasing this kind of stuff and I really wish they would – it was one of the best things they did at that time.

  3. It’s so worth preserving for all the wonderful interviews including so many people from behind the scenes.
    I think the A&E Network in the States may have shown it.

  4. Came to the comment section to lament the lack of DVD availability but I see you’ve mentioned above that it’s available on YouTube! Yipee! Will definitely give it a watch. RKO made some of my very favorite movies.

  5. *gasp!* It IS on YouTube! I just saw it. Hooray for us!

    Thanks for sharing all this great background from RKO. It’s a studio I’m not too familiar with, so it will be grand to catch up with your post and the series.

    Thanks for the recommendation! 🙂

  6. I’m currently reading Richard B. Jewell’s “RKO Radio Pictures: A Titan is Born” so this post is very timely.

    One of the more fascinating Hollywood studio stories, IMHO. Because they always seemed to be dancing on the edge of runs/disaster – much of it self-made – RKO took chances that other studios wouldn’t. 3-strip Technicolor (“Becky Sharp”), hiring Orson Welles, “King Kong” etc. For every genius thing they did (signing as distributor of Disney’s animation) they did a dumb thing (letting David O. Selznick walk).

    The BBC series was unavailable on YouTube for a long while so I’ve never watched the whole thing – I will amend that situation at once! Thanks for this!

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