Saturday, January 22, 2011

20TH CENTURY FOX 75TH ANNIVERSARY (Fox 1931-2010) Fox Home Video

Depending on one's vantage, 20th Century Fox's 75th Anniversary Collection is either an ambitious compendium of the studio's biggest and brightest money makers from 1931 to present, or an utterly shameless repackaging the studio's surplus in back catalogue titles; most having been collected elsewhere at an even greater expense than the hefty $400 plus price tag this handsomely packaged set is being sold for.


Throughout the decades, 20th Century-Fox has had an illustrious history. The company dates all the way back to 1915 and its theatre chain pioneer, William Fox. Today, it seems inconceivable that the studio would come second in the overall creation of this film and television corporate entity. However, just as Marcus Loewe had done with MGM, William Fox proved to be more the entrepreneur and businessman. He built picture houses, forming fleeting distribution deals and, in some cases, lasting alliances with then prominent independent film producers as an afterthought. But by 1926, this sort of freelancing product for the rapidly expanding theatre chain was no longer feasible. To be truly great, meant to have a full time production company making films exclusively for the Fox theatres.

In 1927 Nicholas Schenck assumed the reigns of Loew's Incorporated after Marcus Loewe's untimely death, and this hastened a proposed merger between Loew's and Fox. For better or worse, L.B. Mayer - the president of MGM thwarted this deal to preserve his studio's autonomy under the U.S. anti-trust laws and Fox - already deep in debt - was shortly thereafter forced into receivership.

It seemed the end of the line, except that by 1933 Joseph Schenk's Twentieth Century Pictures was a fledgling studio with minor clout in search of a distribution apparatus. Wooing producer/writer Darryl F. Zanuck from Warner Brothers, the new amalgam of 20th Century-Fox instantly became the last of the six major motion picture studios to enter the marketplace. It did not take the new studio very long to establish itself as one of the best in all Hollywood. Zanuck's background as a writer/producer helped fuel a steady string of highly profitable, artistically sound movies including The House of Rothschild (1934) and Les Miserables (1935) - both Oscar nominated for Best Picture.

By late 1949, Zanuck had decided to leave the studio to pursue his own independent productions elsewhere around the world, having made 20th Century-Fox the envy of the world - in strong competition with MGM and Warner Brothers. The debut - and lucrative renting out of Fox's patented Cinemascope process - the most readily used widescreen format - ensured that the studio's profits would endure for a time.

There is something to be said for 'the age of Zanuck', if only by direct comparison to the way his studio was mismanaged under successor, Spiros P. Skouris. By 1952, the studio had swelled in size and scope to encompass a vast backlot - second only to MGM. They also managed to produce some of the most memorable entertainments of the golden age. Zanuck briefly returned to helm Fox after 1964 before being ousted by his son, Richard and co-producer, David Brown in 1971. From here on in, 20th Century-Fox gradually slipped into its current state as an impersonal corporate entity - expanding aggressively into television under Rupert Murdoch's guidance and eventually becoming an offshoot of his News Corps. empire.

Now, after decades of oversight, Fox's studio coffers have once again been looted for the film aficionado and casual classic buff. But this 75th Anniversary offering only features three movies that are new to DVD and virtually no new remastering efforts on any of the other discs included in this set.

Of all the decades represented in what ought to have been a more comprehensively 'balanced' offering, the 1930s are the most woefully neglected. We get 1933's Cavalcade (the long overdue debut of a magnificent generational melodrama that won the studio its first Best Picture Oscar), Steamboat Around the Bend (1935), a standard Will Rogers comedy and 1939's Shirley Temple classic 'The Little Princess'. While it is gratifying to have Cavalcade finally released, this set is poorer for the absence of such Fox classics from this vintage as In Old Chicago, The Big Trail, Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, The Littlest Rebel, Heidi, On The Avenue, Sally Irene and Mary, Alexander's Ragtime Band, Suez, The Rains Came, and, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes.

From this meagre offering, we delve into Fox's richest period with some truly iconic movies: The Grapes of Wrath 1940), Blood and Sand (1941) starring resident heartthrob Tyrone Power as an ill fated bullfighter, John Ford's truly memorable melodrama about Welsh miners, How Green Was My Valley (1941), The Ox-Bow Incident (1943), The Song of Bernadette (1943), Laura (1944) - Otto Preminger iconic film noir - Gentleman’s Agreement (1947), Miracle on 34th Street (1947) - everyone's favourite Christmas classic, and finally, Twelve O’Clock High (1949). Still, there are some rather glaring omissions from this period that, at least in this reviewer's opinion, ought to have been included, such as The Razor's Edge, The Ghost & Mrs. Muir, Wilson, State Fair, Down Argentine Way, Week-end in Havana, With A Song in My Heart, Pin-Up Girl, Moon Over Miami, The House on Telegraph Hill, Boomerang and The Snake Pit.

The 1950s are well represented by some stellar offerings: Joseph Mankewiscz's scathing melodrama, All About Eve (1950), Robert Wise's enduring sci-fi classic, The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), Howard Hawk's delightfully obtuse Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953) - that officially launched the career of Marilyn Monroe, The Robe (1953); the first feature to be photographed in Cinemascope, The Seven Year Itch (1955), The King and I (1956), Love Me Tender (1956), Leo McCarey's perennial three hanky weepy, An Affair to Remember (1957), South Pacific (1958) and the sobering melodrama, The Diary of Anne Frank (1959). Other titles that ought have been included are Anastasia, Oklahoma!, Island in the Sun, The Three Faces of Eve, Three Coins in the Fountain, Desk Set and The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit.

From the 1960s, we get Paul Newman's memorable turn as The Hustler (1961), Zanuck's independently produced all-star war epic, The Longest Day (1962), the disastrously overproduced spectacle Cleopatra (1963) that nearly bankrupted the studio, Anthony Quinn's iconic turn as Zorba the Greek (1964), The Sound of Music (1965) - still the happiest sound in all the world - the garish sci-fi misadventure, Fantastic Voyage (1966), Robert Wise's disturbing war melodrama, The Sand Pebbles (1966), Planet of the Apes (1968), Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) and last, but not least, Hello Dolly! (1969); a movie musical that bombed upon its initial release but that deservedly takes its place amongst the all time great musical entertainments.

Robert Altman's anti-war comedy M.A.S.H (1970) kicks off the 70s. At the opposite end of the spectrum is Patton (1970) - a reverent portrait of WWII's most enigmatic general. The French Connection (1971), Poseidon Adventure (1972), Phantom of Paradise (1974), Young Frankenstein (1974), Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975), The Omen (1976), Star Wars (1977), Alien (1979), All That Jazz (1979) and Norma Rae (1979) conclude the decade's offerings with both high and low lights from the studio coffers. But where oh where is The Towering Inferno, Vanishing Point, Sleuth, The Heartbreak Kid, The Paper Chase, Harry and Tonto, Silent Movie, Julia, The Turning Point and The Rose?

Seemingly unable to find a single film worth including from the first half of the next decade, the set leaps ahead to 1985's Cocoon to kick off the '80s, that includes Raising Arizona (1987), Oliver Stone's Wall Street (1987), Big (1988), Die Hard (1988) and Working Girl (1988). Next to the 1930s, the 1980s are the most poorly represented decade in this set and that's a genuine shame, since the studio gave us such memorable flicks from this period as Broadcast News, 9 to 5, Oh Heavenly Dog, Aliens, Quest for Fire, Romancing the Stone, Bachelor Party, Prizzi's Honor, The Fly and The Abyss - to name but a handful of the unceremoniously omitted.

Home Alone (1990) kicks off the 90s, that also feature Michael Mann's The Last of the Mohicans (1992), Mrs. Doubtfire (1993), Speed (1994), Waiting to Exhale (1995), The Crucible (1996), Roland Emmerich's sci-fi spectacle, Independence Day (1996), The Full Monty (1998), There’s Something About Mary (1998) and Boys Don’t Cry (1999). Glaring omissions from this roster include: Edward Scissorhands, Sleeping With the Enemy, Point Break, Speed, True Lies, That Thing You Do, Romeo + Juliet, Anastasia, The X-Files: The Movie, Ever After, The Thin Red Line, Never Been Kissed, and, Anna and the King.

The last spate of films included in this box takes us up to the present. Cast Away (2000), X-Men (2000), Baz Luhrman's Moulin Rouge! (2001), the computer animated, Ice Age (2002), Spielberg's chilling sci-fi thriller, Minority Report (2002), Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003), Sideways (2004), Mr. & Mrs. Smith (2005), Walk the Line (2005), The Devil Wears Prada (2006), Little Miss Sunshine (2006), Night at the Museum (2006), Juno (2007), Slumdog Millionaire (2008), Avatar (2009).

As already stated, the DVD transfers included in this box are derived from existing elements. No new remastering efforts have been put forth. In all cases, the discs included herein appear to feature the last mastering effort (in cases where certain titles have had multiple re-issues) thereby ensuring that the latest advancements in disc mastering quality have been retained. In some cases, this is not a issue. The B&W films in this box set vary in quality. Steamboat Around the Bend seems to be the poorest offering of the B&W classics with Cavalcade respectably sharp, though perhaps not quite as refined as one might have expected. The color features vary greatly due to film stocks and color technologies of their day. There really is no accurate way to review them all by direct comparison except to say that there are no glaring screw ups anywhere to complain about.

Audio effortlessly shifts from mono to stereo as the decades wear on and where ever possible, Fox has also included a rechanneled stereo track on their older releases for those who simply cannot bear the thought of their surround channel speakers remaining silent. A goodly number of the discs included herein contain all of the extra features that came with their original single disc release some time before. A glaring omission is the lengthy 'Cleopatra: The Film That Changed Hollywood' documentary. When Cleopatra was first released as part of Fox's Five Star Series it included this magnificent documentary on a separate disc. This new 75th Anniversary does not include that third disc.

Bottom line: if you haven't any of the films in this set, then for its price this is the one to buy. You will be getting a gargantuan slice of Hollywood history in one giant slab of engrossing, often frothy, always eclectic entertainment. However, if you, like so many others, own a goodly number of these titles from years gone by, then this critic's advice is that you abstain from this purchase simply to acquire the three titles new to DVD. Given the glaring omissions of Fox classics listed above, this set is hardly as comprehensive as it ought to have been and no doubt, in days yet to come, it will be replaced by efforts from Fox to remaster these films for Blu-Ray (the current preferred mode of home theatre viewing).

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

3.5 (for comprehensiveness of this collection)*

VIDEO/AUDIO

4 (for overall quality of mastering efforts featured in this set)

EXTRAS

3

2 comments:

OK Records 1138 said...

You make valid points that this set is missing some great movies, while at the same time including ones that perhaps aren't so great.

But, unfortunately the big picture here is that this is 75 years of Fox, not 150. If your set is going to include 75 movies to represent 75 years, you have to draw the line somewhere, and unfortunately some films are going to be ommitted.

I guess you just have to file this one under, "You can't please everyone."

Perhaps a better tactic from fox would have been to release one movie for earch year from the past 75 years.

Nick Zegarac said...

Dear OK Records 1136:

I concur. You can't please everyone. But this box set seems to insult a great deal of collectors.

Being one, I would have much appreciated Fox Video to do a decade by decade celebration for something as epic as their 75th anniversary.

Given their extensive and rich heritage of films they could have released box sets containing 25 or 50 films from each decade.

What this box looks like, frankly, is Fox's attempt to unload overstock of already minted discs that didn't sell well individually. Hence, the inclusion of a good many titles that left most of us scratching our heads as to their inclusion herein.

That's the part I find particularly insulting. But all the studios are guilty of over marketing and under producing these days.

Look at the way Universal Home Video is marketing their 100th anniversary. While I commend them for their restoration efforts on All Quiet on the Western Front and Out of Africa (two of my all time favorite films), marking such a milestone as 100 years with repackaged editions of Animal House and Fast Times at Ridgemont High, while continuing to exclude landmarks like Schindler's List from a Blu-ray release seems just in poor - or perhaps, bad - taste.

Any way, Fox's 75th Anniversary Box is really only good for a very select market of consumer - those who don't own ANY of the films in this box separately, and those who aren't particularly discerning about what they watch. But that really isn't the target audience for such an effort, nor should it have been when thoughts for this weighty and expensive offering were first begun.

More's the pity that this set is neither as comprehensive, nor celebratory as it might have been - but, rather just a regurgitation of titles already dumped on the market.