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At Large: Science fiction double feature

At Large: Science fiction double feature

His pupils contracting as the house lights rise, Matthew JC. Powell's mind is filled with wonder . . .

Gentle readers, I am intrigued. A question has planted itself in my head over the weekend, and my attempts to find an answer have left me knowing little more than I did before. I am appealing, then, for your help.

You will not be at all surprised, I am sure, to learn that over the recent holidays I attended a number of moving picture screenings at my local exhibitor. What with this being the 1990s and all, you will also be unfazed to learn that the particular moving pictures I saw were talkies, utilising the modern miracle of colour. Technology truly is a wondrous thing.

It may, however, surprise you to learn that the films I saw over the weekend were intended for children. Further, that I was unaccompanied by anyone under the age of 10. I admit this with only slight embarrassment, as nothing you can do in response to reading this in print will be more difficult to endure than the look on the ticket-seller's face when I purchased one adult ticket for The Rugrats Movie.

What can I say? The preview made it look better than it was. The bit where the dog falls off the bridge, by the way, was too traumatic for the young audience, and I didn't even hear the last 10 minutes or so of the movie. Oh, the screams!

But I digress. The other film I saw was the new Disney thingy, Mighty Joe Young. I saw it primarily for the Oscar-nominated visual effects, which didn't disappoint (and, I note, didn't win the Oscar). I also saw it because I happen to love the original 1949 film (which, incidentally, did win the Oscar for its visual effects) and wanted to see how it would be modernised.

What I found is that it resembles the original film only in name and a couple of similar characters. I noted that a credit was given to the original author of the story, Merian C Cooper (who also wrote King Kong - big monkeys a specialty), although little of his original story survived the remake process.

I also noted (and this is the intriguing part) that the production company responsible, whose logo appears right after that of Disney, is RKO Radio Pictures. As I pointed out earlier in this column, this is the 1990s, and I have not seen an RKO logo on a film made after the 1950s. The logo had even been modernised, with computer graphics and animation and so forth. Where did this logo come from, and does the company still exist?

Here's what I found out. When moving pictures started to drag people away from their homes in the early part of this century, the dominant radio producer, Radio Corporation of America (RCA), started up its own film studio - to make sure it was on whatever horse won the race. Thus was born Radio Pictures, which had trouble finding hits. Cinemas didn't show its films, preferring the more certain success offered by Warner Brothers et al.

In a bid to change this, Radio Pictures bought the Keith-Albee-Orpheum chain of cinemas, creating Radio-Keith-Orpheum (RKO). A prize to anyone who can tell me what happened to Albee. At some point in its mottled history, RKO Radio Pictures came under the control of billionaire tycoon, aviator and fluid enthusiast Howard Hughes. It introduced the notion of the double feature, where audiences could be lured to a cheaply-made Radio Picture by the promise of seeing a more polished release by one of the bigger studios.

Trouble came when independent cinema operators, whose business was being damaged by RKO's unlimited access to its own films, sued Radio Pictures under the terms of US antitrust law. They argued that ownership of both the means of production and the means of distribution constituted a monopoly. A jury agreed, and damages were awarded against RKO. The decision was overturned on appeal, but the Supreme Court upheld the original verdict and trebled the damages.

Without double features in its arsenal, RKO eventually failed and its properties divided amongst its rivals. The 1976 remake of King Kong, for instance, was produced by Paramount, with no acknowledgment of RKO's original ownership. Without wanting to seem heavy-handed, I could point out that other eccentric billionaires fighting antitrust law to protect their monopolies might want to learn something from RKO's experience. Fifty years from now, will anyone wonder what the hell that Microsoft logo is doing on a copy of Corel Word 49?

I, however, am none the wiser. If Paramount didn't have to acknowledge RKO in 1976, why does Disney have to now? My e-mail address is in the column at right, and I'm open to ideas.


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