In 1957 the BBC made a deal with RKO Film Library for the rights to 100 old movies. RKO were one of the original Big Five studios of the Golden Age of Hollywood, and the library included titles by Orson Welles, John Ford and Howard Hawks — in other words, the great film artists of their day. Over sixty years on, and the deal is still paying dividends, as 26 films are added to the BBC iPlayer streaming service to help film fans make it through lockdown.
With other services concentrating on shiny new “original content”, the iPlayer additions represent a welcome treasure trove for anybody looking to expand their viewing. Of the films, Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane (1941) jumps out immediately, as does his lesser-seen, but scarcely less impressive follow-up The Magnificent Ambersons (1942). Tragic, sweeping portraits of eras, industry and great men, Welles’ grand, melancholic visions are historically important, and chock full of technological innovations. They’re also tremendously entertaining and far from the cultural vegetables that reputation might suggest.
There are more immediately visceral thrills available in the original 1933 version of King Kong. But if giant monkeys smashing up cities don’t do it for you then how about the gentler pleasures of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers dancing up a storm in Mark Sandrich’s Top Hat (1935)? If you want stars and apex predators then look no further than Howard Hawks’ wondrous 1938 screwball staple, Bringing Up Baby. In addition to a valuable Brontosaurus bone, a hungry dog and a pet leopard, the film features Cary Grant as a paleontologist, and a luminous Katherine Hepburn as a scatterbrained heiress.
Cary Grant is more sinister as Joan Fontaine’s potentially murderous husband in Alfred Hitchcock’s underrated 1941 thriller Suspicion. Musicals, melodramas, thrillers and comedies — there’s something from all of the great Hollywood genres. For some though, classic films mean westerns and we cannot fail to recommend two superior specimens from master director John Ford: John Wayne stars in 1949’s Technicolor marvel She Wore A Yellow Ribbon, while the director deemed 1950’s stripped back Wagon Master, “the purest and simplest western I have made.”
You can discover the whole slate of classic RKO films on BBC iPlayer from 18 May.