Mogul's daughter bungles RKO story

RKO: The Biggest Little Major of Them All, by Betty Lasky. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall Inc. Illustrated 242 pp. $14.95. There was a time when a movie audience would know what to expect simply by the appearance of the studio's logo, like MGM's ``Leo the Lion'' or Columbia's ``Lady with the Lamp.'' Yet, only in biographies of the movie moguls of the 1930s and '40s has there been any real attempt to define the unique style the individual studios imposed on the films they produced.

In ``RKO: The Biggest Little Major of Them All,'' Betty Lasky (the daughter of movie mogul Jesse L. Lasky) provides a business history of a studio that, unlike its competition, never had one man putting his imprint on its production for long. At RKO there was no Jack Warner or Louis B. Mayer. Owned at various points by the likes of Joseph Kennedy, David Sarnoff, and Howard Hughes, it was continually kicked around in a variety of business transactions.

While Lasky appears to have done a great deal of research in untangling the confused financial history of the studio, she fails to indicate what impact all this wheeling and dealing had on the films themselves. RKO made movies like ``King Kong,'' ``Citizen Kane,'' and the Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers musicals, but they might as well have been turning out automobiles for the amount of information Lasky provides about those pictures.

One cannot read a book about a David O. Selznick or a Darryl Zanuck without it changing the way you look at the films these moguls produced. No one is likely to gain such insight into an RKO picture from reading this book.

Part of it is due to Lasky's decision to concentrate on the business dealings of the owners rather than on the production of film. Even producer Pandro S. Berman, one of the most important figures in RKO's history (``Morning Glory,'' ``Top Hat,'' ``The Hunchback of Notre Dame'') remains largely a cipher, never really becoming a living, breathing person for the reader.

While Lasky provides a road map for future scholars, her book may interest students of stock transactions more than those who want to know how a movie studio operates.

Daniel M. Kimmel is a Boston-based film critic and a frequent contributor to the Monitor.

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