September 30th, 2008

carole lombard 02
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Know the (RKO pre-)Code

I was born and raised in Syracuse, N.Y. (which gives me something in common with Richard Gere and Tom Cruise!), and while I haven't lived there since 1970, I nevertheless maintain a great deal of fondness for the Salt City. So finding the picture above struck a chord with me.

It's the RKO Keith's theater that was on the 400 block of South Salina Street, right in the heart of downtown. It's been gone for more than 40 years, replaced by a department store as part of urban renewal; a Paramount theater down the block suffered the same fate. Ironically, the department store that replaced it lasted less than two decades before it was shuttered in the late 1980s, and last I heard, the building had been converted into offices.

If you look up the street, on the other side of West Jefferson Street, you'll see the Loew's theater, and since it was showing "Cast A Giant Shadow" and "Don't Worry, We'll Think Of A Title," the photo was likely taken in the spring of 1966 -- a few months before my 11th birthday. The Loew's is thankfully still around, known as the Landmark Theater; in fact, earlier this month, it hosted the world premiere of "The Express," a biopic based on the life of Ernie Davis, one of the great Syracuse University running backs to wear number 44 (Jim Brown preceded him, Floyd Little followed him). Davis helped the Orange win the national title as a sophomore in 1959, and was the first black Heisman Trophy winner two years later. However, he was stricken with leukemia before he could play pro football, and died in 1963.

At the time this photo was taken, Keith's -- knowing its fate -- was celebrating its past with a live stage show (the theater had opened in 1920 as a vaudeville house). Funds were also raised to help relocate the theater organ, and it now is at a theater on the New York State Fairgrounds, a few miles away. Keith's went dark for good just after New Year's 1967.

I bring this all up because on Wednesday, Turner Classic Movies in the U.S. is beginning a month-long tribute to the studio whose features were shown at this theater:

October marks the 80th anniversary of the RKO studio; it was a merger of the Keith-Albee-Orpheum theater circuit, Joseph P. Kennedy's Film Booking Offices of America and the Radio Corporation of America (RCA), which needed an outlet for its sound-on-film process. (Warner Bros., the first studio to popularize talking pictures, used a sound-on-disc process.) Keith's knew vaudeville was fading and sought to make a transition to hosting films, while Kennedy had the production facilities. (He also ran Pathe, where Carole Lombard worked for a time, but that was a separate entity and wasn't folded into RKO until early 1931.)

On Wednesday. TCM is showing RKO product all day long, focusing on its pre-Code product. There are some intriguing films, too -- some well-known, others obscure. Here's the schedule (all times Eastern):

* 6 a.m. -- "Street Girl" (1929). This jazz musical was RKO's first production, starring Betty Compson and directed by Wesley Ruggles.

* 7:30 a.m. -- "Rio Rita" (1929). RKO's first hit, a well-received musical with two-strip Technicolor sequences. With Bebe Daniels, as well as Wheeler and Woolsey for comedy relief.

* 9:15 a.m. -- "Seven Keys To Baldpate" (1929). This George M. Cohan play had been filmed several times as a silent (one with Cohan himself in 1917), so it was natural this perennial would get the talkie treatment. With Richard Dix and Miriam Seeger.

* 10:30 a.m. -- "Dixiana" (1931). Daniels, Wheeler and Woolsey again, but this one's set in New Orleans, not Texas. And by 1931, musicals were a very hard sell; people had seen too many bad ones.

* 12:15 p.m. -- "Girl Crazy" (1932). Wheeler and Woolsey once more, at a dude ranch. An adaptation of the Broadway musical, retaining three George and Ira Gershwin songs.

* 1:30 p.m. -- "Bird Of Paradise" (1932). Dolores Del a Polynesian? Yep, with Joel McCrea as her love interest. Directed by King Vidor.

* 3 p.m. -- "The Most Dangerous Game" (1932). McCrea and Fay Wray, in one of her pre-"King Kong" screamers, as a big game hunter goes after...humans.

* 4:15 p.m. -- "The Animal Kingdom" (1932). An important advance in Myrna Loy's career, she stars with Leslie Howard and Ann Harding in this sophisticated tale.

* 5:45 p.m. -- "Double Harness" (1933). Harding with William Powell in a solid pre-Code romance directed by John Cromwell.

* 7 p.m. -- "Cross-Fire" (1933). Nothing to do with the forties film of (roughly) the same name, this stars Tom Keene as a war hero fighting gangsters in a western town.

* 8 p.m. -- "Cimarron" (1931). One of the least-remembered best picture winners, this tale of the Oklahoma Territory stars Richard Dix and Irene Dunne, and is directed by Wesley Ruggles.

* 10:15 p.m. -- "The Lost Squadron" (1932). Dix and Erich von Stroheim are World War pilots who find work as movie stuntmen. With Mary Astor.

* 11:45 p.m. -- "What Price Hollywood?" (1932). Sort of a precursor to "A Star Is Born," this stars Constance Bennett who rises to the heights of Hollywood before falling. With Lowell Sherman and Neil Hamilton; directed by George Cukor.

* 1:15 a.m. -- "King Kong" (1933). Blonde girl, big ape, Empire State Building. But you knew all that.

* 3 a.m. -- "Our Betters" (1933). Cukor directs Bennett again, this time in a society drama with Gilbert Roland.

* 4:30 a.m. -- "Christopher Strong" (1933). Katharine Hepburn as an aviatrix, with Colin Clive and Billie Burke. Directed by Dorothy Arzner.

Let's go back to Syracuse for our final picture, this showing the beautiful interior of RKO Keith's. I think I saw a film or two there in the company of my older sister:

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