Remembering 20th Century Fox

24 Mar

As a result of the recent acquisition of parts of the Fox empire by the Walt Disney Co., which took effect on March 20, 2019, 20th Century Fox no longer exists as a major studio.

From an article by Jake Coyle on the Fox Business website, In End of 20th Century Fox, a New Era Dawns for Hollywood:

When the Walt Disney Co.’s $71.3 billion acquisition of Fox is completed at 12:02 a.m. Wednesday, the storied lot — the birthplace of CinemaScope, “The Sound of Music” and “Titanic” — will no longer house one of the six major studios. It will become the headquarters for Rupert Murdoch’s new Fox Corp., (he is keeping Fox News and Fox Broadcasting) and Fox’s film operations, now a Disney label, will stay on for now as renters under a seven-year lease agreement.

The history of Hollywood is littered with changes of studio ownership; even Fox Film Corporation founder William Fox, amid the Depression, lost control of the studio that still bears his name. But the demise of 20th Century Fox as a standalone studio is an epochal event in Hollywood, one that casts long shadows over a movie industry grappling with new digital competitors from Silicon Valley and facing the possibility of further contraction. After more than eight decades of supremacy, the Big Six are down one.

It’s not clear yet how Fox productions will be branded or if the fabled 20th Century Fox studio logo will even be displayed or not. That logo (see above) has adorned thousands of movies made from 1935 to this year.

I thought I would take this opportunity to recall my long history of attending movies made by Fox and some of my favorite films from the studio. But first, a historical capsule describing why Fox remains so highly regarded by fans of Hollywood’s golden age. (In my estimation, only Warner Bros. is more celebrated.)

The studio was created in 1935 when Darryl F. Zanuck’s 20th Century Pictures, in need of a distributor, merged with the Fox Film Corporation (formed by William Fox in 1915) to become 20th Century Fox, which quickly took its place as one of seven major studios operating in Hollywood at the time. Under Zanuck’s astute guidance and inexorable drive, Fox quickly stood out as a place where socially conscious films and works by visionary directors were made alongside lavish musical entertainments, big-budget westerns and swashbucklers. Zanuck was that rare studio mogul who was actively involved in the creative end, usually as a producer but also occasionally as writer and director. John Ford made some of his best films at the studio, including YOUNG MR. LINCOLN, THE GRAPES OF WRATH, MY DARLING CLEMENTINE and the Oscar-winning Best Picture of 1941, HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY. Henry Hathaway perfected his semi-documentary approach to the telling of true-life crime and spy stories at Fox, making THE HOUSE ON 92ND STREET, 13 RUE MADELEINE, KISS OF DEATH and CALLING NORTHSIDE 777. Elia Kazan got his start at Fox, making his debut with an adaptation of A TREE GROWS IN BROOKLYN, Betty Smith’s semi-autobiographical novel about growing up in a poor Irish home in Williamsburg, Brooklyn in the first two decades of the 20th century. He followed up with such timely films as BOOMERANG!, GENTLEMAN’S AGREEMENT and PINKY.  Otto Preminger made some of his best films at Fox in the years 1944-50, including the film noir classics, LAURA, FALLEN ANGEL, WHIRLPOOL and WHERE THE SIDEWALK ENDS, and the romantic drama, DAISY KENYON.

In the 1960s, however, the studio made some costly mistakes which nearly bankrupted it, including the expensive flops, CLEOPATRA, DR. DOLITTLE, STAR! and HELLO, DOLLY. Fortunately, it found success in the early 1970s with a couple of popular Oscar-winning Best Picture winners, PATTON and THE FRENCH CONNECTION, and even greater success a few years later with STAR WARS (1977). In later decades, the studio has been known mostly for the ALIEN franchise, the STAR WARS sequels, the X-MEN films, and the James Cameron hits TITANIC and AVATAR.

Fox took the lead in embracing certain technical advances. In the first ten years of three-strip Technicolor, Fox made more films using the process than any of the other studios, turning out such unforgettable color productions as JESSE JAMES, DRUMS ALONG THE MOHAWK, THE LITTLE PRINCESS, THE RETURN OF FRANK JAMES, BELLE STARR, BLOOD AND SAND, THE BLACK SWAN and countless musicals starring the likes of Betty Grable, Alice Faye, and Carmen Miranda.

In 1953, Fox became the first studio to distribute films in the widescreen process, Cinemascope, designed to combat the encroachment of television by giving moviegoers a wider, more immersive screen image than they could get on the tube. THE ROBE, a biblical epic based on a best-selling novel by Lloyd C. Douglas and starring Richard Burton, Jean Simmons and Victor Mature, opened on September 16, 1953 and by the end of 1954, Fox had produced 17 more Cinemascope films. In fact, the first 20th Century Fox films I saw were THE ROBE and its sequel DEMETRIUS AND THE GLADIATORS, when the two were reissued as a double bill in 1958. I went with my older brother and father and luckily we saw DEMETRIUS first, which excited me no end with its spectacular scenes of gladiatorial combat in Ancient Rome. It helped that I was already familiar with Mature from TV showings of ONE MILLION B.C. (1940) and ANDROCLES AND THE LION (1952)..

In contrast, THE ROBE, a drama about a Roman tribune plagued by guilt after the crucifixion of Jesus, was too long and talky for a five-year-old and I had to struggle to keep from incurring my father’s wrath by fidgeting.

I would see five more Fox films two years later in 1960, two double bills and one single, and I remember enjoying them all. The first double bill was FLAME OVER INDIA and A DOG OF FLANDERS, both 1960. The first was a rousing adventure about a party of westerners on a train in northwest India trying to get a Hindu prince out of Moslem territory where rebels have pledged to kill the boy. I remember the train covered in people trying to escape the fighting, including many perched on top of the cars. When the train encounters a massive wooden wall-like barrier, it smashes right through, no doubt killing many of those hanging on. Later, the train reaches a bridge that’s been partially destroyed and has to stop. The passengers then have to make their way gingerly across a precarious set of widely spaced planks over a high gorge, while warily regarding one of their number, who may have it in for the prince.

DOG OF FLANDERS starred Alan Ladd’s son, David Ladd, and is based on the famous novel about a poor boy who rescues a dog from a cruel master. I remember reading a comic book about David Ladd that was timed to promote the film’s release.

I next saw the double bill of THE LOST WORLD and YOUNG JESSE JAMES, both also 1960. The first, in color and Cinemascope, was an Irwin Allen production based on Arthur Conan Doyle’s novel about an expedition to a lost plateau in South America where dinosaurs still roam. The unlikely team consists of a pair of fussy old scientists, an Amazon guide with a hidden agenda, a beautiful young heiress, her likeable younger brother and a handsome reporter. These characters were played, respectively, by Claude Rains, Richard Haydn, Fernando Lamas, Jill St. John, Ray Stricklyn and David Hedison. There is a spectacular climax involving a cave of diamonds, a volcanic eruption, streams of lava, a lost tribe of Indians, and a “fire serpent,” all designed to make a seven-year-old very happy indeed. The dinosaur scenes were shot with live lizards with appendages added and placed in miniature backgrounds, the same way the dinosaurs were filmed in the movies I’d been seeing on TV, such as ONE MILLION B.C. (1940) and KING DINOSAUR (1954). At this point I had yet to see KING KONG (1933) and its masterful stop-motion dinosaurs.

YOUNG JESSE JAMES was a low-budget black-and-white western with Jesse played by the same actor, Ray Stricklyn, who’d played the younger brother in THE LOST WORLD, something we certainly noticed at the time. It was about on a par with the numerous TV westerns I was watching enthusiastically on television, so I came away from the double feature quite satisfied as, I believe, was true of the rest of the packed child audience that Saturday afternoon. (When I finally re-watched YOUNG JESSE JAMES–on the Fox Movie Channel nearly 50 years later–I was more than a little surprised at how violent it was–and marketed to kids!)

Next up was JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH (1959), which arrived in my neighborhood theater in the fall of 1960. Based on a Jules Verne novel, it followed an expedition that has to go deep inside the earth to find dinosaurs, which were created by adding fins to live lizards and placing them in miniature sets. There’s a lost ancient city and another climactic eruption of lava. The star was James Mason, but his co-star was American pop singer Pat Boone, in his fourth film and his first non-musical. I remember my mother, who took us to see this, ridiculing Boone’s performance. Still, we kids were enthralled.

Two years later, I’d see another Jules Verne adaptation that also happened to be, like THE LOST WORLD, an Irwin Allen production for Fox, FIVE WEEKS IN A BALLOON (1962), starring the only-in-an-Irwin-Allen-movie lineup of Red Buttons, Fabian, Cedric Hardwicke, Barbara Eden, Barbara Luna, Richard Haydn, and Peter Lorre. It’s about a Victorian-era expedition into Africa conducted in a ship suspended from a massive hot air balloon. It was a real crowd-pleaser that afternoon, laden with action, humor and slapstick, all played by a game cast, one of whom, pop singer Fabian, sings the catchy title song which we all went home singing, “…away up there, without a care, five weeks in a balloon.” Toward the end of the film, the balloon riders have to frantically jettison their supplies in order to lighten the load and keep the balloon afloat. At home, my siblings and I would use the top bunk of our bunk bed to pretend we were in the balloon as it was being buffeted about, throwing off the pillows and blankets and hanging on the side. I don’t recall our parents’ reaction, but it can’t have been good.

That same summer, I saw my first Fox stinker. It was called THE BIG SHOW (1961) and it was a drama about a circus starring Esther Williams and Cliff Robertson. (I would later learn it was a remake of a 1949 Fox drama called HOUSE OF STRANGERS.) It came at the end of a triple feature that included the Italian costume drama, CARTHAGE IN FLAMES, and the Universal western, THE LAST SUNSET, starring Kirk Douglas and Rock Hudson. After an opening circus scene, the film descended into one dull conversation after another and by the third or fourth scene, my sister and I concluded we’d had enough and walked out. (I was nine, she was seven, and it was the first time I’d gone to the movies without an older sibling. Incidentally, none of the three films was meant for children.)

The next Fox release for me was THE LONGEST DAY (1962), producer Zanuck’s all-star epic production about the allied assault on the Normandy coast on D-Day, June 6, 1944, which arrived at my neighborhood theater in the fall of 1963. It quickly became one of my favorite movies and remains so to this day, a film I’ve re-watched many times over the years.

Throughout the 1960s, I’d be seeing Fox movies in theaters, some of my favorites being the following:

HUSH…HUSH, SWEET CHARLOTTE (1965)

I wrote about this film in my piece on the centennial of its director, Robert Aldrich.

OUR MAN FLINT (1966)

This clever spoof of secret agent movies catapulted James Coburn to stardom. He plays a sort of zen version of James Bond. And it has a great score by Jerry Goldsmith, including a catchy theme that I worked out on the piano at church not long after seeing the movie.

BATMAN (1966)

This was the movie version of the Batman TV series starring Adam West and gave us three high-profile villains from the show for the price of one—the Joker (Cesar Romero), the Penguin (Burgess Meredith) and the Riddler (Frank Gorshin), plus the more ambiguous Catwoman (Lee Meriweather). Since my household did not have a color TV, this was my first chance to see the famous characters and their costumes in color. The Batman TV series was also produced by Fox.

ONE MILLION YEARS B.C. (1966)

More dinosaurs, this time courtesy of master animator Ray Harryhausen, who inserts a lot of stop-motion creatures into this remake of ONE MILLION B.C., which had starred Victor Mature as the caveman hero. This one was more female-centric and focused on Raquel Welch in a gold animal skin bikini, her first starring role.

THE ST. VALENTINE’S DAY MASSACRE (1967)

This was one of Roger Corman’s only films made for a major studio and is probably the first gangster film I saw on the big screen. I wrote about it here.

THE DETECTIVE (1968)

I wrote about this sober detective thriller, featuring one of Frank Sinatra’s best performances, when I covered the actor’s centennial in 2015.

PLANET OF THE APES (1968)

A science fiction classic with a screenplay co-written by Michael Wilson and Rod Serling and directed by Franklin Schaffner, this became one of my favorite movies on first viewing and I would go see it many more times in theaters over the next few years since it was brought back often by Fox. I also made sure to read the book by Pierre Boulle on which the film was based. The film was followed by four sequels, a TV series and a 21st century reboot.

BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID (1969)

This light-hearted western, mixing action with movie star dazzle (courtesy of co-stars Paul Newman and Robert Redford) and abundant humor, thanks to William Goldman’s witty screenplay, came out in the same season as three other, much grittier western classics, THE WILD BUNCH, TRUE GRIT and ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST. While I enjoyed CASSIDY back in the day and saw it multiple times in theaters, I’ve much preferred to revisit the others in more recent decades.

In 1970-71, Fox gave us three excellent films which were among my favorites at the time: Robert Altman’s M*A*S*H, Franklin Schaffner’s PATTON and William Friedkin’s THE FRENCH CONNECTION, the latter two being Best Picture winners.

THE FRENCH CONNECTION is the only one I’ve re-watched in the last 20 years and I wrote about it here.

VANISHING POINT (1971) was another Fox release from that period that I liked a lot and saw frequently in theaters and became something of a cult classic.

On TV, I’d been watching Fox movies since early childhood when we were glued to Shirley Temple movies on weekend afternoons. (Temple was the studio’s biggest star in the 1930s.)

Years later, I’d be exposed to all manner of Fox classics on TV and, when I was in film school, on revival theater screens.

Some of my favorites, in addition to those already mentioned:

THE RAINS CAME (1939)

THE MARK OF ZORRO (1940)

JANE EYRE (1943)

THE SONG OF BERNADETTE (1943)

CAPTAIN FROM CASTILE (1947)

THE GHOST AND MRS. MUIR (1947)

PRINCE OF FOXES (1949)

NO WAY OUT (1950)

PANIC IN THE STREETS (1950)

THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL (1951)

GARDEN OF EVIL (1954)

KING OF THE KHYBER RIFLES (1954)

SOLDIER OF FORTUNE (1955)

The very first major studio release I saw in a theater may have been DEMETRIUS AND THE GLADIATORS, a Fox film. As of this writing, the last major studio release I saw in a theater was a Fox film, ALITA: BATTLE ANGEL, seen earlier this year. I’d put ALITA in the same category I put THE BIG SHOW in fifty-odd years ago. (I didn’t walk out on it, but I was tempted.)

So, for now, all we have left of the original seven major studios are the three that have retained  their basic corporate form and still occupy the same Los Angeles county real estate they settled in the 1910s and 1920s—Universal Pictures, Paramount Pictures and Warner Bros. Who knows how long they’ll be around.

 

One Response to “Remembering 20th Century Fox”

  1. squeesh April 22, 2019 at 9:59 AM #

    Too bad about 20th Century Fox going into history—it still made a lot of great pictures during some great eras, though.

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