The Lost & Found RKO Collection

For years my curiosity was piqued by a handful of titles that were plucked from the RKO library and salted away by Merian C. Cooper, who for a brief time was executive in charge of production at the studio. These six titles reportedly appeared on New York television in the 1950s but went back…

into Cooper’s vault after that. Fortunately he was wise enough to transfer the original 35mm negatives to safety film decades ago, and the original materials wound up alongside his extensive collection of papers and memorabilia at Brigham Young University in Utah. Prints of some titles were screened over the past decade at Cinefest in Syracuse, New York, revealing that there were no forgotten classics in the group—but they were still worth seeing for anyone who loves movies of the 1930s.

Last year the good folks at Turner Classic Movies arranged to screen all six titles and bring them back to a wide and appreciative audience. Now they’ve gone one step further and released them on DVD with a variety of extras, including a brief but informative interview with film historian Rudy Behlmer about the Cooper collection and a welcome array of original photos, behind-the-scenes stills, posters and pressbooks. (The pressbooks can also be downloaded as pdf files on your computer.) The Stingaree disc includes an enjoyable excerpt from a 1975 interview with director William Wellman, who discusses his early life and career—but not the film at hand. It’s also great fun to listen to Garson Kanin on the disc of A Man to Remember. A professional wordsmith, he speaks with precision and gentle humor about his experiences in Hollywood but doesn’t talk about the hoopla that surrounded this particular film, which marked his directing debut.

As for the films themselves: Rafter Romance (1933) is a likable-enough romantic comedy starring Ginger Rogers and leading man (and later director) Norman Foster as boarding-house neighbors who wind up sharing an apartment: she spends her evenings there while he rests during the day and vice versa. RKO thought it was sturdy enough material to recycle as a B movie in 1937, Living on Love, starring James Dunn and Whitney Bourne.

Stingaree (1934) was one of RKO’s lamentable attempts to find a Richard Dix vehicle that would match the success of the 1930 Oscar winner Cimarron. Here again he plays a larger-than-life character named Stingaree who, despite his notoriety as an outlaw, falls in love with a would-be opera singer (Irene Dunne). It’s a handsome production that does give Dunne an opportunity to sing several undistinguished songs, but even a director as skillful as Wellman couldn’t enliven a lumbering screenplay. Dix could be delightful when he played naturalistically, but in these overblown sagas he adopts a grandiose manner that seems positively antiquated.

Double Harness (1934) is a sophisticated comedy-drama about a purposeful woman (Ann Harding) who traps wealthy William Powell into marriage and then tries to win him over romantically. It’s not hard to recognize that this was based on a play, but director John Cromwell does a capable job with two trusted stars.

My favorite film of the lot is One Man’s Journey (1933), a sentimental story about a small-town doctor (Lionel Barrymore) who sacrifices his own happiness for the sake of the people in his community—although they scorn him and take him for granted. Joel McCrea plays Barrymore’s son, who vows to make good in the city and leave small-town life behind. Frances Dee and Dorothy Jordan (soon to be Mrs. Merian C. Cooper) costar in this deeply-felt drama that’s built on the rock-solid foundation of Lionel Barrymore’s performance in the lead. It’s amazing how much plot and character development a studio movie could pack into just 72 minutes back in the 30s; it’s a lesson that today’s filmmakers could stand to learn.

RKO knew how good the movie was and trotted it out again as a property for its hot “wonder boy” director Garson Kanin in 1938. A Man to Remember tells the exact same story (in 79 minutes) but sacrifices a bit because it was made so quickly and inexpensively. The cast isn’t bad, but while Edward Ellis is a stalwart character actor he’s no Lionel Barrymore. Still, A Man to Remember was greeted as a sleeper in 1938 and received a surprising amount of critical attention for a B movie off the RKO assembly line. Unfortunately the original negative no longer exists, and all we have is a print with Dutch subtitles and insert shots; still, we’re lucky to have that.

Old-movie buffs are always on the lookout for discoveries from the past, and while these six films don’t fill any particular gap in our knowledge of the 1930s it’s still great to have them back in circulation. TCM deserves our thanks for all the wonderful work they do on behalf of movie lovers. For more information on these films, including information on ordering, visit this TCM site.
(Turner Classic Movies/TCM Vault Collection)

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