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Back in the RKO fold

TCM, owner of the studio library, buys and restores six sold and forgotten 1930s films.

April 01, 2007|Susan King | Times Staff Writer

AFTER much sleuthing and restoration, Turner Classic Movies is unveiling six "lost" films from the RKO library. Caught up in a legal tangle that involved "King Kong" creator Merian C. Cooper and then largely forgotten, the films haven't been seen in some 50 years.

TCM will air the vintage collection, which includes the 1933 William Powell melodrama "Double Harness" as well as "Rafter Romance," "One Man's Journey," "Stingaree," "Living on Love" and "A Man to Remember," Wednesday and April 11. "Stingaree," "Double Harness" and "Rafter Romance" will also screen today at the American Cinematheque's Egyptian Theatre.

The search for the films began last April, when an inquiry showed up on the desk of Dennis Millay, the senior program manager of the cable movie network, which specializes in vintage Hollywood and foreign films. Since the network owns the RKO film library, the viewer wanted to know why TCM had never aired "Double Harness." Millay didn't know and contacted Lee Tsiantis, a rights analyst in the Turner Entertainment Group legal department.

"He found that I actually had asked about 'Double Harness' eight years earlier," says Millay, who admits he had forgotten about that request. "But the person who answered me just said it was sold out of the library."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday April 03, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 38 words Type of Material: Correction
RKO films: An article in Sunday's Calendar section about Turner Classic Movies airing six "lost" RKO films said that TCM owns the RKO library. Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc., via its subsidiary Turner Entertainment Co., owns the RKO library.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday April 08, 2007 Home Edition Sunday Calendar Part E Page 2 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 38 words Type of Material: Correction
RKO films: An article last Sunday about Turner Classic Movies airing six "lost" RKO films incorrectly said that TCM owns the RKO library. Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc., via its subsidiary company Turner Entertainment Co., owns the RKO library.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday April 08, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 40 words Type of Material: Correction
RKO films: An article in the April 1 Calendar section about Turner Classic Movies airing six "lost" RKO films said that TCM owned the RKO library. Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc., via its subsidiary Turner Entertainment Co., owns the RKO library.

Tsiantis uncovered more information -- "Double Harness," a sexy soap opera, was one of six RKO titles whose rights were sold to Cooper, who'd once served as the studio's production head, in 1946. Thus, they were never part of the inventory sold to Ted Turner in 1987.

Though none of the films is considered a classic, all but one is vastly entertaining.

"Double Harness," directed by John Cromwell (father of actor James Cromwell), casts Powell as a lazy lothario, a San Francisco shipping heir pursued by and forced into marriage to a beautiful woman (Ann Harding).

Also from 1933 is "Rafter Romance," a saucy comedy starring Ginger Rogers as a struggling young career woman behind in her rooming house rent who is forced to share an attic apartment with an equally destitute man (Norman Foster) who works as a night watchman. Because they have different work schedules, they never see each other. So they have no idea when they meet cute and fall in love that they are actually roomies.

"Living on Love," from 1937, is the low-budget, pedestrian remake of "Romance" starring James Dunn.

"One Man's Journey," from 1933, is a compelling potboiler chronicling the life of a brilliant country doctor (Lionel Barrymore). Joel McCrea plays his young son, who also goes into the medical profession.

Far superior to "One Man's Journey," though, is its 1938 remake, "A Man to Remember," starring a subtle Edward Ellis as the doctor. The film marked Garson Kanin's feature directorial debut; Dalton Trumbo, who would be blacklisted a decade later, wrote the script.

Rounding out the six is the offbeat 1934 musical adventure "Stingaree." Directed by William Wellman, the film reunites "Cimarron" stars Irene Dunne and Richard Dix in this tale of a dashing Australian bandit and a maid who aspires to become an opera singer.

"To be able to have a William Powell we have never seen before and an Irene Dunne and a Ginger Rogers ..." says TCM host and film historian Robert Osborne. "It is so fun."

Still, Osborne says, he wonders why Cooper chose these six films to keep.

"Did he think they could be remade again?" he offers.

"Why didn't he go for 'King Kong?' Maybe he loved these movies because he was executive producer on them and they meant something for some reason."

Into obscurity

COOPER had been production head at RKO in 1933 and '34. For a decade afterward, he battled the studio over the revenue owed him from the movies produced by the studio during his 16-month tenure.

A settlement in 1946 allowed him to buy the rights to the films, giving RKO the original nitrate camera negatives and Cooper a set of 35-millimeter masters made from the camera negative. All other prints and negatives were destroyed.

Flash forward 10 years. Television was interested in purchasing films it could broadcast, and one of Cooper's former business associates, Ernest L. Scanlon, persuaded him to license five of the titles. "But the films were only shown in one place, WNBC in New York," says Millay.

In researching the titles, Millay discovered that Scanlon had persuaded Cooper to transfer the film rights to him, saying it would be a great tax shelter. But Cooper kept the negatives, says Millay, and because the men couldn't work together, the films eventually disappeared.

Millay and Tsiantis, though, were able to track down Scanlon's 77-year-old son, who had forgotten about the films. Millay bought the rights from the Scanlon family in September and restoration work began.

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