- The Lost and Found RKO Collection
In late 2008, Turner Classic Movies (TCM) released a DVD box set of six films from the 1930s that had not been seen in fifty years or more. The titles, all originally produced and distributed by RKO Radio Pictures, were One Man's Journey (1933), Rafter Romance (1933), Double Harness (1933), Stingaree (1934), Living on Love (1937), and A Man to Remember (1938). The story of their resurrection and restoration is quite fascinating.
It begins with Merian C. Cooper, the intrepid adventurer, military hero, pioneering [End Page 159] documentary filmmaker, and producer-director of King Kong (1993). In early 1933, Cooper replaced David O. Selznick as production head of RKO. His tenure in the position lasted only sixteen months and was marked by extended absences from the studio because of illness. Cooper's principal discovery during this time was that superintending a slate of fifty or so pictures a year was not for him, and he concentrated on producing for the rest of his Hollywood career. But thanks to his contract as RKO's executive producer, he left the studio with a nice little annuity—a percentage of the revenues generated by the pictures made under his aegis.
Flash forward to the end of World War II. In a scenario that had been played out before and would recur innumerable times in the future, Cooper became convinced that his old company was shortchanging him on his participation income and sued RKO. A settlement was reached to wash up the arrangement in 1946; from that point forward, RKO would owe Mr. Cooper no more annual checks. The terms of the settlement are unclear, but there was one highly unusual element. As part of the deal, RKO turned over the rights to Cooper of four films made during his time as production chief, plus remakes of two of the original pictures.
Why did Cooper want these films? It's easy to understand why he might wish to own and watch a print of One Man's Journey. It featured a young actress named Dorothy Jordan who married Cooper around the time the picture was produced. Mrs. Cooper then abandoned her acting career and was not seen on screen again for more than twenty years. (In addition to two other appearances in 1950s films, she plays a small but memorable role in The Searchers , the western masterpiece that Cooper produced for director John Ford.) But what of the other titles? Perhaps Cooper felt they had economic value RKO had never exploited. It seems more likely that he wanted to own the pictures because of his memories of their gestation and production, for he never made much effort to remake them, sell them, or in some other way squeeze additional income from them. In the mid-1950s, Cooper did license all the movies, except A Man to Remember, for television presentation, but oddly, they were only televised occasionally for some three years in the late 1950s and apparently only on one station: WNBC in New York City. By the time Cooper died in 1973, he had assigned the rights to Ernest L. Scanlon for tax reasons, and the films had been essentially forgotten.
Enter the TCM staff. In assessing the RKO library Turner had acquired for presentation on the TCM cable channel, they discovered that the films were missing. Thus began a period of intense detective work, negotiations to acquire rights from the heirs of Scanlon, and restoration so that the films could be shown publicly in New York and Los Angeles, presented on TCM for the first time in 2007, and then sold to the public as a DVD box set beginning in December 2008. Were the efforts of TCM senior program manager Dennis Millay and his staff worth it? After all, no one would include these pictures among the great American motion pictures of the decade. Nevertheless, I would answer the question in the affirmative, and resoundingly so.
First, these films demonstrate the simple pleasures of solid screen storytelling. Though rather short by contemporary standards (with running...