RKO Radio Pictures Horror, Science Fiction And Fantasy Films, 1929-1956 by Michael R. Pitts (book review).

According to author Michael R. Pitts, film studio RKO Radio Pictures either produced or distributed 140 films between 1929-1956 that belonged to our genre. The distribution bit is important because it also enables him to include Disney’s cartoon films for that period as well. RKO didn’t restrict themselves to distributing English films as they also released ‘The Mysterians’ (1959) and Rodan (1956) from Japan. Even so, I think he’s stretching it a bit and although very occasionally he justifies why a film is included, I think I would raise questionable doubt over at least two-thirds of them. There are a lot of detective mystery films in here and RKO only did a few SF (granted two extremely famous ones) and a few more horror and fantasy films.


Each film gets a full credit list, well at least as much is on the screen credits, plus the roles the actors play as well as in the synopsis. There is also the media reaction to each film at the time and little bits of information like who else was being considered for key roles. All in all, making for a comprehensive background knowledge allowing you to select films that you can pick out the ones you want to see or stir up to watch those you already own from this time period. For the UK, you’ll pay more attention to when they become available on TV, so it serves all purposes, although I ended up checking if some of them were also on DVD and many are.

The biggest failing is that the film catalogue is in alphabetical order than year, which is only listed at the back. Although I can see it might be easier to quickly check up on films as a reference book, reading it straight through, you don’t get a sense of studio history or how the film industry is evolving at the time. Likewise with actors. Being told that ‘Bedlam’ is Boris Karloff’s third contractual film for RKO early in the book before reading about the other two first can be a little disconcerting. It isn’t as though there isn’t also a comprehensive index at the back of the book. The same applies with ‘Dick Tracy’, ‘The Falcon’ and ‘Tarzan’ series with their films in alphabetical than year order as well. It would have made a lot more sense to have put those in numerical order, too. A good bonus is a selection of cinema posters, some at full page size, and odd photo from the various films, too. They might be in black and white but that also adds as a reminder of the time period.

Obviously, I’m not going to give out too much detail here but there are odd tit-bits of info that piqued my interest and you will probably pick out other things that you didn’t know. Take Bambi (1942). Did you know, for instance, that hunters objected to the death scene of Bambi’s mother? Things haven’t changed that much, have they? Oddly, this is one of those odd occasions that Disney didn’t sugarise an event but left the brutality as it should be shown.

One thing that became quickly apparent was how many films had British cast and then the realisation that they were also British productions. Back in that time period, there was an agreement that American studios would finance British productions so they wouldn’t swamp our market. As such, it’s hardly surprising that so many genre films would crop up under the RKO stable. After all, they were relatively cheaper to make and as ‘B’ features could be matched to ‘A’ features. This doesn’t mean they should be dismissed. After all, would we have the likes of ‘The Cat People’ (1942) without it.

In alphabetical order, probably the first significant SF film is ‘From The Earth To The Moon’ (1958) based off Jules Verne’s books. Pitts’ information is in depth and if, like with all the other entries, I would have thought it would have been useful if he’d seen the film, he could have included his own opinions, even at the cost of minimising what the critics at the time said. At least that way, you would have an evaluation as to whether it might be worth picking the film up to watch it.

Some of the choices included are odder. I mean, just because Bela Lugosi is in, say, the comedy film ‘Genius At Work’ (1945), does that qualify it to be here?

Something I hadn’t realised is that ‘King Kong’ (1933) wasn’t the first film to have a giant gorilla run off with the leading lady. Another RKO film called ‘Ingagi’ did a similar plot in 1930! Who said old plots don’t come around a second time and does it better?

There are some other sharp reminders. RKO was the first studio to use the plot of man as the ultimate hunted animal with the film ‘The Most Dangerous Game’ (1932). In 1931, ‘The Public Defender’, there is a mysterious person who is an apparent criminal but actually a crime fighter which predates many a super-hero who takes on a similar role. A little side note here is that many actors whom Tom Weaver interviewed in his books often pop up here which makes for an interesting connection.

During WW2 when there was no European market and Disney, through RKO, explored South America with ‘The Reluctant Dragon’ (1941), a mixture of cartoons and live-action showing how production was done. The cartoons were shown separately at one point. Their second was ‘Saludos Amigoes’ (1943) and I do have vague memories of one of them with the parrot Joe Carioca.

If you want an unusual statistic, RKO made three versions of a detective film called ‘Seven Keys To Baldpate’ in 1929, 1935 and 1947 before other studios took it on. Makes our current single remakes look like they’re slacking in comparison.

Disney’s ‘Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs’ (1938) has an odd curio as there is a voice artist for Dopey, who is actually mute. This does make me wonder if Pitts wasn’t concentrating or paying attention to this anomaly.

I had to do some research of my own, mainly because Peter Lorre had a part in it, but ‘Stranger On The Third Floor’ (1940) is regarded as the first film noir film.

Although I’ve been critical of a lot of the films not being part of our genre in this book, don’t forget that apart from ‘King Kong’, RKO was also responsible for ‘The Thing From Another World’ (1951). It’s more a case of looking for the odd gem in all the clutter. Even so, you do come away from this book with a lot of RKO knowledge although I doubt if many of you will do what I did and read systematically and there’s a lot to absorb. If you are into old films, then this book deserves a place on your shelves if only because Pitts has brought so much information together under one cover. One would hope that there would be books of this nature for the other American studios.

GF Willmetts

February 2016

(pub: McFarland. 397 page illustrated indexed large enlarged paperback. Price: £42.95 (UK), $48.00 (US). ISBN: 978-0-78646-047-2)

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Geoff Willmetts has been editor at SFCrowsnest for some 21 plus years now, showing a versatility and knowledge in not only Science Fiction, but also the sciences and arts, all of which has been displayed here through editorials, reviews, articles and stories. With the latter, he has been running a short story series under the title of ‘Psi-Kicks’ If you want to contribute to SFCrowsnest, read the guidelines and show him what you can do. If it isn’t usable, he spends as much time telling you what the problems is as he would with material he accepts. This is largely how he got called an Uncle, as in Dutch Uncle. He’s not actually Dutch but hails from the west country in the UK.

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