Cable prowls Hollywood sound stages

Hollywood: The Golden Years A&E/cable, Sunday, 10-11 p.m. (Repeated 2 a.m. and Aug. 20, 11 a.m.) Narrator: Ed Asner. Producers: Charles Chabot and Rosemary Wilton for BBC. While commercial television continues to plod its way through the summer doldrums with reruns of old movies, cable TV steals the spotlight this Sunday with an entertaining new series.

As soon as narrator Ed Asner started walking through the sound stages of RKO Radio Pictures in ``Hollywood: The Golden Years,'' I suspected I was in for a treat.

Then, as he described the talent assembled at RKO - the studio ``where Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers danced, where Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant sang to a leopard, where King Kong made off with Fay Wray, where the hunchback Charles Laughton cried out for sanctuary, where 25-year-old Orson Welles made cinematic history with `Citizen Kane,''' - I was certain of it.

The premi`ere episode of this six-part series is titled ``The Birth of a Titan,'' and in the succeeding five episodes viewers will be treated to studio history not only through film clips but background information from people who were there, interviews with the stars, office memos, and, well, gossip is the word for it.

Mr. Asner admits at the start that ``many of the best and quite a few of the worst moments in talking pictures took place on these stages'' as he delves into the archives and into the public and private life of RKO Radio.

The series begins with Rudy Vallee, who, captured on camera at 84, boasts about his appeal with the opposite sex, as the film shows awful scenes from his awful film ``The Vagabond Lover,'' his first and last film for RKO.

Then, with the help of inside stories from technicians as well as Fay Wray and director Merian C. Cooper's wife and secretary, we learn how ``King Kong'' was made. Soon, we are joining a chorus line on the wing of a small plane dancing the famous ``Flying Down to Rio'' production number, with wind machines buzzing.

Just a little of the beginning of the reign of Katharine Hepburn and Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers whets the appetite for Segment 2. I have seen that, and, to my mind, the clips of Astaire-Rogers films, together with frank talk by both Fred and Ginger, alone, make that segment worth watching.

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