When the studio reopened, Hughes was supervising all aspects of administration and production, and the results were disastrous. RKO released a few notable films early in Hughes's regime—most of them initiated under Schary, including two noir classics, The Set-Up (1949), directed by Robert Wise, and They Live By Night (1948), directed by newcomer Nicholas Ray (1911–1979). Merian Cooper and his Argosy Pictures partner John Ford also made the first two of their famed cavalry trilogy at RKO: Fort Apache (1948) and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949). But there was little else of note in the late 1940s, as Hughes's RKO became the studio of last resort for the growing ranks of independent producers, directors, and stars.
RKO's troubles deepened in the early 1950s as Hughes became increasingly erratic, focusing more on litigation and deal-making than on film production. He sold and than repurchased a controlling interest in the company in 1952, as studio losses mounted, and in 1954 he attempted to buy all of the outstanding stock as an apparent tax write-off. This effort was thwarted by Floyd Odlum, who decided to repurchase RKO and battled Hughes for control of the company until mid-1955, when Hughes sold his interests to General Teleradio, a subsidiary of the conglomerate General Tire and Rubber Company. The new owner was more interested in RKO's film library as TV syndication fodder than in its production operation, whose output had fallen to barely a dozen pictures per annum, few of any real note. There were the Disney releases, including Treasure Island (1950) and Alice in Wonderland (1951), and the occasional quality noir thriller such as Ray's On Dangerous Ground (1952). Desperation for product also led to the 1952 US release of Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa's Rashomon (1950). The other major studios were producing blockbusters to compete with television, and Hughes tried in vain to keep pace with Son of Sinbad (1955) and The Conqueror (1956), the latter a $6 million flop starring John Wayne (1907–1979) as a Mongol ruler. The signal disaster of Hughes's regime was Jet Pilot , apet project initiated in 1949, finally completed in 1957, some two years after Hughes's departure, and distributed by another studio, Universal-International.
There was a brief surge in production activity immediately after General Teleradio bought RKO, but the studio's fate was already clear. Within weeks of the July 1955 purchase, the RKO library of roughly 750 titles went into television syndication—the first major studio vault to go,
which opened the proverbial floodgates in terms of top Hollywood films being sold or leased to the upstart TV medium. By 1957 RKO was all but defunct as a production-distribution entity, and its actual demise came that year with the purchase of the studio lot by Desilu, the successful TV series producer owned by Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, who had once been under contract to RKO.
At this time all of the company's assets were sold with the exception of its unproduced screenplays, the remake rights to its produced films, and of course the trademark itself. There have been efforts over the years to parlay one or more of these assets into a successful motion picture venture—a partnership in the early 1980s with Universal Pictures, for instance, which resulted in such coproductions as The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas (1982) and a remake of Cat People (1982). In 1989 actors Ted Hartley and his wife Dina Merrill, heir to the E. F. Hutton and Post cereal fortunes, bought RKO and attempted to reactivate the studio, cofinancing remakes of RKO classics like Mighty Joe Young (1998) and The Magnificent Ambersons (2002, for the A&E cable television network). Thus RKO endures, although its role as a full-fledged studio—i.e., an active producer-distributor—has long since expired.
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