The history of RKO (aka Radio-Keith-Orpheum, aka RKO Radio Pictures) is utterly unique among the Hollywood studios, particularly the Big Five integrated majors. It was the last of the major studios to be created and the first (and only) studio to expire, with its corporate lifespan bracketed and defined by two epochal events, the coming of sound and the coming of television—events that circumscribed not only RKO's history but classical Hollywood's as well. Moreover, because it was created in October 1928, one year before the stock market crash that preceded the Depression, RKO was plagued by economic hardships early on, including bankruptcy in the early 1930s, from which it never fully recovered. Thus the studio lacked the resources, the stable production operations, and the consistent management and business practices that characterized the other majors. As RKO historian Richard Jewell writes: "RKO existed in a perpetual state of transition: from one regime to another, from one set of production policies to the next, from one group of filmmakers to an altogether different group. Being a less stable studio that its famous competitors, the company never 'settled down,' never discovered its real identity" (Jewell, p. 10).
This instability proved to be a mixed blessing, as RKO was rocked by a succession of financial and organizational crises yet took truly courageous risks and produced a number of historic films and canonized classics including King Kong (1933), Bringing Up Baby (1938), Citizen Kane (1941), and The Best Years of Our Lives (1946). RKO's financial distress sorely limited its pool of contract filmmaking talent, but it led to innovative and productive alliances with independent producers like Walt Disney (1901–1966) and Sam Goldwyn (1881–1974), freelance directors like John Ford (1894–1973) and George Stevens (1904–1975), and top stars like Cary Grant (1904–1986), Carole Lombard (1908–1942), and Irene Dunne (1898–1990). And although RKO lacked the corporate stability and creative identity necessary to establish a distinctive house style, it did create a number of "signature" film cycles and series, including a Depression-era run of Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers musicals, a wartime cycle of low-budget horror films, and a succession of film noir thrillers throughout the 1940s.
RKO also saw an astounding turnover in the executive ranks, which was another key factor in its failure to develop a "real identity." Here the talent proved remarkably uneven, ranging from David Selznick (1902–1965), who briefly ran the studio in the early 1930s, to the monomaniacal Howard Hughes (1905–1976), who purchased the company in 1948 and instigated its decade-long demise. From the moment he took control of RKO, Hughes made one disastrous business decision after another, and in 1955 he sold off the studio's assets—both its films and its production facilities—to the burgeoning television industry. Despite a troubled, turbulent history that led to its eventual collapse, however, and despite being the only major studio in Hollywood's history to cease production-distribution operations altogether, RKO's legacy survives in its films, available to new audiences on cable movie channels and DVD reissues, and also in the sporadic efforts to exploit the enduring value of its "brand" and the remake rights to its classic films.