Monday, 9 May 2011

City of Angels: The Studios, Part 4: 20th Century Fox

Looking at the history of the major Hollywood studios, it quickly becomes apparent that the one thing they all had in common was the fact that, being the product of a fledgling industry, they all expanded rapidly while trying to adapt to the shifting tastes of an ever fickle audience.

Depending as they did, of course, on an ever erratic economy, this usually resulted in a number of sudden changes of ownership and takeovers.

This applies in particular to Twentieth Century Fox, and hardly any studio - with the possible exception of RKO - matched its extraordinary ups and downs. The choppy and inconsistent history of Twentieth Century Fox was reflected in the quality of its product. Unlike Warner Brothers, MGM, or Paramount, whose output during the golden age of Hollywood often bore a distinct, idiosyncratic look, the films of Twentieth Century Fox were as incongruous in quality as their look was interchangeable.

William Fox

The Fox Film Corporation was founded by William Fox in 1914, who, similar to his competitor, Adolph Zukor, also was of Hungarian-Jewish descent. Like Zukor, Fox had once owned a chain of penny arcades and nickelodeons before breaking into distribution, and later, production. Operating from his studio on Staten Island, Fox then relocated to New York. He is credited with discovering the sultry siren Theda Bara, whose box-office appeal was contributory to the company’s speedy growth. Also under contract to Fox were Raoul Walsh and J. Gordon Edwards, Blake’s father, who became Bara’s main director. Like MGM and Paramount, Fox, too, acquired a chain of theatres to ensure his company’s presence on the ever-expanding film-market.

Theda Bara

But after years of steady expansion, by 1924 the studio began to face strong competition from its rivals, which, unlike Fox, had the advantage of having an impressive array of bankable stars and directors. John Ford, Howard Hawks, and Frank Borzage joined the line-up of directors, and in 1927 Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau arrived from Germany. Murnau’s films of his German period, Nosferatu (1921), Der Letzte Mann (The Last Laugh, 1924), and Faust (1926), were resounding triumphs that didn’t go unnoticed in Hollywood, which was forever on the hunt for new talent.

Friedrich-Wilhelm Murnau

Murnau’s first film for Fox, Sunrise (1927) was enthusiastically received. At the first Academy Awards ceremony, held in the Blossom Room of the newly built Roosevelt Hotel, Sunrise won in three categories,including one for the film’s leading actress, Janet Gaynor. Following up on the success of Sunrise , Murnau shot Four Devils (1928) and Our Daily Bread (1929), which were both box-office failures. Tragically, just shortly after the completion of his masterpiece Tabu (1931), Murnau died in a car crash outside Santa Barbara.

The late 1920s were a highly competitive period for the ever-expanding studios, which one by one left their - silent - infancy behind and broke into sound. Fox had embraced sound early on, developing its own sound system, called Fox Movietone. In order to accommodate the requirements of the fledgling technique, Fox built a new studio, including sound stages, in the Westwood neighbourhood of Los Angeles.

The year 1929 was a bad one for William Fox: Not only was he seriously injured in a car accident, his company was also badly hit by the stock market crash. To make matters worse, the Justice Department sued him for his monopolistic dealings, and he was eventually forced to sell his shares in the company. Harley Clarke, who apparently had a hand in ousting Fox, took over as president, only to be replaced by Sydney Kent a few years later.

Financially however, the studio was prospering again, due mainly to the commercial hits of Janet Gaynor’s films and the arrival of Will Rogers in 1929, who was the studio’s biggest box-office draw until his premature death a mere 6 years later.
Cavalcade (1933), based on Noel Coward’s play, won Fox its first Best Picture Oscar to date, also resulting in big box-office receipts. In 1935, the Fox Film Corporation merged with Twentieth Century Pictures, headed by Joseph Schenk and the fast and furious Darryl F. Zanuck, who, prior to founding his own company, had been production chief at Warner Brothers.

Thus, Twentieth Century-Fox was born.

Zanuck, along with Kent, became the company’s presidents, and he went on to oversee the better part of the company’s 50 or so A features a year, supervising everything from production to editing. During the second half of the 1930s, the films of Shirley Temple became the company’s bread and butter. In dire need of stars, Zanuck signed Don Ameche, Tyrone Power, Alice Faye and Loretta Young, whom he had brought along from his former company, Twentieth Century Pictures. Even tough Zanuck’s pictures were successful in terms of box office receipts, their artistic merits remain somewhat debatable, and apart from John Ford’s efforts such as Young Mr. Lincoln (1939), and The Grapes of Wrath (1940), the bulk of Fox's fare was sheer escapist entertainment.

In 1941 Syndey Kent died, and with Zanuck being called into war service, Spyros Skouras, formerly running the company’s theatre chains, was appointed president.

"Fasten your seatbelts, it's going to be a bumpy night!"

The 1940s saw an artistically more interesting period for the company, releasing films like The Oxbow Incident (1943), Wilson (1944), and the sinister film-noirs Laura (1944) and Leave Her To Heaven (1946), to name but a few. The quality of the films during that decade is unparalleled in the studio’s history. This is underlined by the fact that three Best Picture Oscars would go to the studio during that period, starting with John Ford’s Going My Way in 1941, followed up by Kazan's Gentlemen’s Agreement in 1947, leading up to the classic All About Eve (1950), which currently ranks at number 16 of the American Film Institute’s list of the best American films of the past 100 years. In addition to that, in-house director Joseph L. Mankiewicz, won the Academy Award for best director twice in a row, first for A Letter To Three Wives in 1949, and a year later for All About Eve.

The 1950s got off to a bad start when Twentieth Century Fox, too, was forced to get rid of its theatre chain, which, with the advent of television, resulted in a box office slump. However, with a young, so far neglected starlet under contract to the studio, the fate of Twentieth Century Fox would soon turn around again.

Her name was Marilyn Monroe.

Marilyn was first signed up by Zanuck in 1946, who, failing to fully realise her potential, put her in the mediocre Scudda-Hoo!, Scudda-Hay!, where she had a mere decorative part, only to drop her contract the following year yet again. Passed around from studio to studio, and doing a pin-up calendar in between, by 1950, Monroe had met a number of influential honchos and executives. One of them, Johnny Hyde, was a big shot at the William Morris Agency. Upon reading the screenplay to All about Eve, he persuaded Zanuck to give his protégée the part of Claudia Casswell, the famous “graduate of the Copacabana School of Acting”. Zanuck bowed, and so Monroe was back at Fox, with a seven-year contract and the part of Miss Casswell in her pocket. Of course, Marilyn went on to become the studio’s biggest draw since the days of Will Rogers and Shirley Temple, and her films How To Marry A Millionaire (1953), Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1954), River Of No Return (1954), and Bus Stop (1955) were among the studio’s biggest grossers during the 1950s.

La Monroe

But apart from Monroe, who, to be sure, would end up doing her best work for other studios (Some like it Hot, 1959, and The Misfits, 1960, both United Artists), there was little else the studio had going for itself. Elia Kazan and Joseph L. Mankiewicz, the studio’s most notable directors, both left in 1953 and 1951, respectively. Resident actors were few and far between. They included bomb shells Jayne Mansfield and Joan Collins, as well as the no doubt brilliant Joanne Woodward. With Zanuck’s exit in 1956, there was no disguising the fact that the studio was in trouble and in dire need of some much needed artistic input and talent.

The extravagant production of Cleopatra (1960-1962), whose costs were skyrocketing by the minute, turned out to be the studio’s downfall. In order to pay for the extraordinarily expensive film, the studio had to sell off a part of its back lot while the film’s star, Elizabeth Taylor, was hospitalised in London, fighting for her life. Hence, what used to be a thriving film studio was subsequently turned into a sprawling new neighbourhood, called Century City, abounding with hotels, offices and apartment buildings. Cleopatra remains the most expensive production to date by any studio. And even the four Oscars, which the film ended up receiving, didn’t help to boost its box-office receipts.

To stop the bankers from further pulling the rug from beneath the sinking studio, Spyros Skouras was sacked and Zanuck was called back from his self-imposed exile in France. Running the studio in collaboration with his son Richard as his sidekick, they slimmed Twentieth Century Fox down by getting rid of overheads and staff, and nixing unpromising projects. During his second coming at his old studio, Darryl F. Zanuck produced the second world war drama The Longest Day (1962), which became a respectable hit, and prevented the studio from further collapse. The extraordinary financial success of The Sound Of Music in 1965, however, was of little help when a couple of expensive flops at the end of the 1960s (Hello Dolly!, 1970, Tora! Tora! Tora!, 1970) threatened once more to ruin the shaky studio, which resulted in the departure of the Zanuck-duo, to be replaced by Alan Ladd Jr.

Under Ladd’s reign Fox regained ground financially, but lost further ground artistically. While the New Hollywood movement was in full swing, Fox had already subscribed to the soon-to-be-popular blockbuster rage, producing escapist fare like The Towering Inferno (1974), Star Wars (1977), The Empire Strikes Back (1980), and Nine to Five (1980), which were all tremendously successful at the box office, but did little to live up to the studio’s quality pictures of the past.

Alan Ladd left Fox in 1979 to found his own production company. Then, media magnate Marvin Davis acquired the studio only to sell it a mere few years later to another media tycoon, Rupert Murdoch, in 1985. The studio’s artistic output has since declined with films like The War Of The Roses (1989), The Thin Red Line (1998) and Moulin Rouge (2001) being the exception rather than the rule, as Murdoch is reaping the profits of light-weight fare like Independence Day (1996), Titanic (1997), Ice Age (2002), and I, Robot (2004).