August 15, 1988 12:00 PM

A & E (Sun., Aug. 14, 10 p.m. ET)

There’s young, virile Robert Mitchum—in drag! Plus Jane Russell discussing the scanty outfits Howard Hughes tried to stuff her into; Ginger Rogers’ mother, Lela, testifying before the House Un-American Activities Committee; clips from It’s All True, Orson Welles’s aborted Brazilian epic; Fay Wray recounting a phone call in which she was offered a starring role opposite “the tallest, darkest leading man in Hollywood”; and a frame-by-frame look at the special effects that went into the making of the classic screwball comedy Bringing Up Baby—did you know the leopard that Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant seemed to be toting around was actually spliced in? Film buffs will go bonkers, and fittingly so. Never before on the home screen has there been such a detailed, introspective look at a movie studio. From 1928, when it was founded, to 1953, when it was bought by former contract player Lucille Ball, the financially unstable RKO turned out some of Hollywood’s most innovative movies, including King Kong, Flying Down to Rio, Hitler’s Children, Citizen Kane and The Outlaw. Leave it to the BBC to present a fascinating, six-part, weekly look at this American institution. This is not a glossy Hollywood tribute, but a no-holds-barred report on what it must have been like in the so-called golden days. In the second segment, Let’s Face the Music and Dance, the Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers musicals are analyzed in microscopic detail, featuring present-day interviews with the team’s choreographer, Hermes Pan, and the original costume designers. In Part Five: Dark Victory, the emergence of film noir is analyzed by the directors, scriptwriters and actors who made those grainy mysteries, never realizing they were creating (stand back!) a genre. In episode five, director Edward (Out of the Past) Dmytryk talks about being blacklisted during the McCarthy era and serving a prison term. Two parts are dedicated to Hollywood’s quirkiest giants, Orson Welles and Howard Hughes. In scathing interviews, Jane Greer talks about how Hughes deliberately sabotaged her career because she wouldn’t date him, while Stewart Granger, who was married to Jean Simmons when she was at RKO, recalls how he devised a plan to “accidentally” murder the tyrant tycoon because he was making his wife’s life hell. Part of the fun of this series is seeing juxtapositions of what the stars looked like then and how they look now (Jane Greer and Fay Wray tie for Best Preserved). But the studio itself is the star, and the BBC has turned RKO into a dark, eccentric, splendiferous personality. The only sloppy note in what is otherwise a first-class presentation, produced by the BBC in association with RKO, is the misspelling of Katharine Hepburn’s name superimposed onscreen as she talks.

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