Movie geeks have endless numbers of desert island lists. What ten movies would you take to a desert island? What five movies? Which director's entire output? Which actor's entire output? Which genre? Here's another one. If you could have the entire output of only one movie studio and/or distributor, which would it be? If you wanted The Godfather, say, you'd have to pick Paramount, and you would also get the Indiana Jones films, the Iron Man films, some Preston Sturges comedies, Rear Window, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, some Jerry Lewis films, Chinatown, and so on, up to -- sadly -- The Last Airbender. Or if you chose MGM, you could get Freaks, The Manchurian Candidate, and a whole bunch of musicals.
Of course, there are some complications here. If you chose MGM, does that mean you get the United Artists stuff? And does it count if the studio just distributed the film, or do they have to produce it from the ground up? I know what I would pick, and what my rules are. My studio of choice is the old RKO Radio Pictures, and I would count anything they distributed, as well as produced. In short, I count anything that starts with that little bleeping sound over the radio antenna. Here's what I would get:
The Val Lewton Films
These films are the impetus for this whole idea. In a fire, my Val Lewton box set would be the first set of DVDs I'd grab. I love these films unabashedly and I love revisiting them often. Rarely has cinema poetry met the horror genre so completely and beautifully, and rarely has a cycle of films kept up its high quality from beginning to end. Incidentally, I'd also want Robert Wise's underrated -- and virtually unknown -- Mademoiselle Fifi (1944), a straight drama made right in the middle of the horror films with some of the same cast and crew.
Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons
Goes without saying, right? The thing about these Orson Welles films is that they are considered among the greatest films ever made, but they're also quite watchable. They're not boring or dry by any stretch; they're actually highly dynamic and constantly refreshing. I'd also get Journey Into Fear (1943), an interesting film that Welles worked on right around the time he went to Brazil; it's a 65-minute film noir that looks like a Welles film, and he's in it, but most scholars insist that he did not direct it and wasn't even around for most of it.
Here's another one that somehow stands up to many, many viewings. What I love most about King Kong (1933) is that, though the effects are primitive, the technicians found a way to make Kong and his fellow creatures move in a really fluid and organic way; the actual movements may be jerky, but the overall flow is totally convincing. This is also one of those movies that ventures into such dark areas that you may not believe your eyes. This would come with the amazing film that directors Ernest B. Schoedsack and Merian C. Cooper made just prior, The Most Dangerous Game (1932).
The Fred Astaire & Ginger Rogers Films
In their small parts, they stole Flying Down to Rio (1933), and then launched into a series of starring roles, including The Gay Divorcee (1934), Roberta (1935), Top Hat (1935), Follow the Fleet (1936), Swing Time (1936), Shall We Dance (1937), etc. These musicals also have not aged, thanks mainly to the grace and subtlety of the dancing, as well as the sharp, snappy dialogue. Later musicals would become bombastic and busy, but this stuff was as simple, as dazzling and as gorgeous as it gets. Also sign me up for Gregory La Cava's excellent musical Stage Door (1937).
Many people consider this to be Hitchcock's finest work. It's probably in my top ten. Either way, I'm always ready to see it, from the super-hot kissing scene between Cary Grand and Ingrid Bergman (consisting of dozens of little kisses, rather than one big one, to appease the censors), to the mind-blowing tracking shot ending on the key in Bergman's hand. I'd also get Hitchcock's Suspicion (1941), which is not one of his better ones, but at least contains an Oscar-winning performance by Joan Fonatine.
Disney's early masterpieces
Here's where cynics will disagree with me, but the fact is that before Disney became his own distributor, he released all his films through RKO. This includes Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), Pinocchio (1940), Fantasia (1940), Dumbo (1941), Bambi (1942), Saludos Amigos (1942) and The Three Caballeros (1945) -- in other words, all my favorites. These were the years in which Disney was less concerned with marketing and allowed all those little dark demons to creep through into the work.
The Thing from Another World
Sticking with only one studio, I'd probably miss Howard Hawks most of all, but I'd have a consolation prize with this, my favorite sci-fi movie of the 1950s. Hawks produced it, and it has his signature all over it; many scholars insisted he secretly directed, but many others say he didn't. Either way, there's an almost documentary-like naturalism here as a bunch of scientists (and one reporter) try to figure out what's going on with that mysterious form frozen in a block of ice.
On Dangerous Ground
This is one of my favorite Nicholas Ray films, in which the hunt for a killer leads a hard, slightly disturbed city cop (Robert Ryan) out to the snowy countryside, and into the company of a sweet blind lady (Ida Lupino). It would come stacked next to a few more Ray films, including Macao (1952) and The Lusty Men (1952), as well as one of Lupino's films The Hitch-Hiker (1953).
Obviously there are lots more, and I'd get the whole package, including a bunch of films I've never seen. I'm sure I'd miss some of my other favorites, but this is my pick and I'm sticking with it. What's yours?