Tuesday, March 18, 2008

20TH CENTURY-FOX: THE FIRST 50 YEARS (Van Ness, FoxStar, AMC 1997) Image Entertainment

The history of 20th Century-Fox is perhaps no more or less fascinating than any other during the first part of the last 100 years. At the turn of the last century, Hollywood was a sleepy community unaccustomed and, arguably, unprepared to become the dominating force in filmed entertainments.

True, by the time of 20th Century-Fox’s creation occurred - the result of an amalgamation between the William Fox Corporation and 20th Century Pictures – virtually all its rivals had been in operation and making movies for over a decade. Fox had a lot of catching up to do. The last of the great empires to emerge from this fertile filmdom, Fox would eventually become not only one of its leaders but also a pioneering trendsetter within the industry.

But perhaps the great different between 20th Century-Fox and other studios of its vintage and ilk lay with the fortuitous choice in casting of a little known zeitgeist named Darryl F. Zanuck as its president; a uniquely American film mogul amongst a litany of otherwise European immigrants; irascible – some would suggest oversexed – and fueled by a relentless passion to tell great stories of social significance; Zanuck was a film maker both in theory and practice. His personal hallmark and imprint on the golden period of Fox films remains an enduring cinematic legacy; showmanship par excellence.

The essence of 20th Century-Fox in its heyday is therefore inextricably linked to Zanuck’s own heart and the films made under his banner, with his personal involvement, reflect how robust, proud and determined that appendage in his own tiny body came to be reflected in these towering achievements emerging from his studio.

And now, Van ness, FoxStar, Twentieth Television and American Movie Classics have created a documentary to immortalize that period in the studio’s artistic growth: 20th Century-Fox: The First 50 Years. Hosted by legendary actor, James Coburn, this documentary is a cook’s tour of the studio backlot with a myriad of filmic treasures wedged between a loosely strung together narrative written and directed by Kevin Burns. To be certain, there are interviews – vintage and new – from surviving contributors to the Fox vault including sound bytes from actresses Debbie Reynolds and Julie Andrews, director Robert Wise and executive David Brown among others.

The first part of the documentary is relatively evenly paced – charting the developmental process of creating the iconography for Fox films. We get to see Zanuck in rare outtakes, enjoy snippets of Shirley Temple (Fox’s biggest star of the 1930s) and Marilyn Monroe in all their glory, chart the minor intrigues of stardom and success under Zanuck’s reign and the eventual morphing from ‘personal empire’ into ‘corporate conglomerate’.

However, unlike the lavishly appointed documentary MGM: When The Lion Roars (Turner/Warner Bros.), 20th Century-Fox: The First 50 Years steers clear of investigating the more intimate back stories on the backlot. The narrative written by Burns plays it safe. This is a studio tour as one might have discovered it riding the tram behind the soundstages; cleansed of all innuendo, rumor and the more tawdry details of what life at Fox was like beyond the footlights.

The viewer is treated to a litany of stellar film clips from such exemplary works as Laura, The Grapes of Wrath, How Green Was My Valley, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and The Sound of Music. Yet, in the final analysis all that we’re left with are the movies – without personal, telling and/or revealing glimpses into the people that made their mark in them.

Worse, the last few minutes of the 129 minute running time seem dedicated to a very shabby gloss-over of the last 50 years in the studio’s history; jumping from trailer clips of Hello Dolly! and Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid to poster art for films like Die Hard and Speed. In the final analysis, 20th Century Fox: The First 50 Years is deserving of a second glance on DVD. However, it does not retain the viewer’s appetite for a more thorough investigation of the studio or its stars. It merely provides short shrift of a history in the making that sadly never attains the level of a finished product.

Image Entertainment’s DVD delivers an overall pleasing visual presentation. Regrettably, all the clips in this documentary are presented full frame – rather defeating the purpose of the segment illustrating Zanuck’s creation of Cinemascope; the first widely embraced widescreen process. Varying quality in actual film footage makes for an uneven, though acceptable presentation.

The audio is stereo surround. Inexplicably, Image has chosen to make this offering a 2-disc set with four vintage featurettes slapped together haphazardly on Disc 2. These include a 1936 short subject, a studio tour hosted by Zanuck in 1937 and ‘The Big Show’ (1958) in which newly appointed Fox president, Spiros P. Skouris is painfully ill at ease while introducing the coming attractions in the studio’s pipeline.

FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)






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