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page created: 3/17/03

Yellow Layer Failure, Vinegar Syndrome and Miscellaneous Musings by Robert A. Harris

Robert A. Harris - Main Page

Finally, Fox

During the decades spanning the 1920s through the early 1950s, the studio system became the power base for the production of motion pictures in America. Owned by single families or small groups of investors, each studio was generally controlled by an individual with power filtering downward, and that individual's decisions were considered absolute.

The career of a star (no less a lowly actor), director, producer, composer or any other talent in the system could be elevated or destroyed by the studio czar.

In many ways structured like medieval European cities, these walled studio lots, guards ready at the gates, protected the goings on within from the prying eyes of the public, allowing only information and gossip as was deemed necessary, proper and advantageous.

There was little movement of personnel between these walled entities, and signing a contract as a bit player or trainee director, in many cases meant that one might be owned for decades, for life, or at least until the weakening of the studio system and the advent of independent production companies in the 1950s and '60s; this even after the thirteenth amendment.

And so it is that we can ascertain the production studio of a film from that period by the lighting, the mix of actors and the directorial style. Each followed a similar pattern.

There is the gritty Warner Brothers look, with films directed by Michael Curtiz, the early work of John Huston, William Keighley, Busby Berkeley (until his move to MGM) and Raoul Walsh generally starring the likes of Humphrey Bogart, Edward Robinson, James Cagney, Errol Flynn, Bette Davis, Joan Crawford (starting in the '40s) and Doris Day with support by players like Sydney Greenstreet, Elisha Cook, Jr., Peter Lorre, George Brent, Claude Rains and others.

MGM films were directed by George Cukor, Victor Fleming, Clarence Brown, Sam Wood, W. S. Van Dyke, Norman Taurog (before moving to Paramount) and Robert Z. Leonard. Those actors photographed in the glossy M-G-M style were the likes of Spencer Tracy, Robert Young, Clark Gable, Mickey Rooney, Elizabeth Taylor and Judy Garland and the initial two decades of work from Joan Crawford.

Universal titles would be directed by Douglas Sirk, Robert Siodmak, Tod Browning (before a move to MGM) or James Whale. You can probably fill in the actors. The most notable genre, being the horror film, before the discovery of the likes of Abbott and Costello or a certain talking mule.

Paramount films would be helmed by Josef von Sternberg, Preston Sturges, Ernst Lubitsch, Billy Wilder and Cecil B. De Mille. Their directing talents would be aimed toward Marlene Dietrich, Gary Cooper, Ray Milland, Betty Hutton, Bob Hope & Bing Crosby, Alan Ladd, Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck, Mae West, W. C. Fields, and The Marx Brothers.

Very slowly, some of these classic (and not so classic) offerings have been making their way to DVD, sometimes after being cleaned up in the process, but not necessarily restored. In many cases what they've got is what we get. Sometimes the attempt to cleanse a film, both pictorially and sonically, allow little of the original intent to make it to home video.

One studio that has gone almost unheard from when it comes to their classic library has been Fox. Like Paramount, they came late to the restoration and preservation game. But the news for the last few years coming from Fox has been extremely positive, with restoration projects like All That Jazz making their way through their systems and on to the public. They now have an archival staff headed by Schawn Belston, who came from post-production with a background in audio. His career began at Skywalker Sound during a stint at USC, and when a post-production position opened at Fox, he jumped at the chance.

This was a fortuitous move for not only Belston, but for Fox and the cinephile public. He and his superior at the time, Ted Gagliano, shared a great admiration for the films of 20th Century Fox, and out of that passion a proposal for a preservation program was born. Bill Mechanic, studio head at the time, championed the program, and they were off and running - momentum that is built on today with support from the current corporate hierarchy.

Belston has been given the ability to do as necessary to save the asset base of the studio, overseeing not only actual film elements, but paper and props as well. So finally, Fox's library, which has not been cared for terribly well over the years is "making a return." It is being offered to the public as home video releases and being preserved for future generations.

Which is the reason that I can finally discuss their library in positive terms. The fact that Fox titles have been among the missing has been a major loss to the public, because during that classic era, a time when the studio was under the extremely literate and high quality control of Darryl Zanuck, it produced some of the most important films to come from Hollywood, with a keen eye toward social consciousness.

The list of filmmakers who worked under the Fox banner is legendary.

John Ford (1895 - 1973) directed films for each Fox incarnation. Beginning in 1921 after his move from Universal, Ford worked under the William Fox banner. After creating a few notable classics at United Artists, Columbia and RKO, he was back at Fox Film Corp, staying with them after the company became 20th Century-Fox.

In all, Ford directed 47 films for Fox, many of them consummate classics of the period including The Lost Patrol, Judge Priest, Steamboat Round the Bend, The Prisoner of Shark Island, Young Mr. Lincoln, Drums Along the Mohawk, The Grapes of Wrath, Tobacco Road, How Green Was My Valley and My Darling Clementine.

After a stint at Paramount, Rouben Mamoulian (1897 - 1987) joined Fox in 1940, directing The Mark of Zorro with Tyrone Power and Blood and Sand, beautifully rendered in three-strip Technicolor.

Austrian émigré Otto Preminger (1906 - 1986) arrived at Fox in 1936, and during his nearly twenty year stay created films like Laura, Whirlpool and Where the Sidewalk Ends.

Fox, which started using the early Technicolor process in the '20s, was known for their brilliantly Technicolored musicals through the 1940s. These productions were the base for more great films in the 1950s. Walter Lang (1898 - 1972) gave his signature look and sound to films like the Technicolor Shirley Temple vehicle The Little Princess, as well as a run of over a dozen of Hollywood's greatest musicals inclusive of vehicles for Don Ameche, Carmen Miranda, Betty Grable, Cesar Romero and Alice Faye.

Tin Pan Alley, Moon Over Miami, Week-end in Havana, Coney Island, Greenwich Village, State Fair* and The Mother Wore Tights in the '40s, led to Call Me Madam, There's No Business Like Show Business* and The King and I in the '50s. After working with other studios, Henry Koster (1905 - 1988) came into his own as the leader of the CinemaScope revolution at Fox, directing films such as The Robe, Desiree, The Virgin Queen and Good Morning, Miss Dove.

Henry King (1888 - 1962) began his career in 1915 working for Pathe, spent a short period with First National (later to become part of WB) and UA, joining Fox in 1930. Directing a gamut of productions from high drama and film of epic content to musicals, King was responsible for Lloyds of London, In Old Chicago, Alexander's Ragtime Band, Jesse James, Stanley and Livingstone, Little Old New York, Chad Hanna, The Song of Bernadette, Wilson, Margie, Captain from Castile, Prince of Foxes, Twelve O'Clock High and The Gunfighter before moving on to a wider canvas with Love is a Many-Splendored Thing, King of the Khyber Rifles and Carousel.

Add to these, the works of Henry Hathaway (1898 - 1985): A Wing and a Prayer, Nob Hill; Howard Hawks (1896 - 1977): I Was a Male War Bride, Monkey Business* and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes*; Frank Borzage (1893 - 1962) Seventh Heaven; John Brahm (1893 - 1982): The Lodger, Hangover Square; Irving Cummings (1888 - 1959): Curly Top, The Poor Little Rich Girl, The Story of Alexander Graham Bell, Hollywood Cavalcade, Lillian Russell, Down Argentine Way, That Night in Rio and The Dolly Sisters.

But wait, there's more!

Edmund Goulding (1891 - 1955) helmed The Razor's Edge, Nightmare Alley and Down Among the Sheltering Palms. H. Bruce Humberstone (1903 - 1984) began his work at Fox directing Charlie Chan programmers and moved on to Sun Valley Serenade, To the Shores of Tripoli, Hello, Frisco, Hello, Pin-up Girl and Three Little Girls in Blue.

Nunnally Johnson (1897 - 1977) gave us Night People, Black Widow, The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit and The Three Faces of Eve.

If there was a quintessential Fox film director, it might well be a gentleman known for the literary quality of his work, his extremely fine direction and work with actors and his attention to detail. If you make the trek over to IMDB, you'll note that before taking the directorial reigns, Joseph L. Mankiewicz (1909 - 1993) was an extremely successful producer and writer.

Mankiewicz is represented in the first offering of classic vault titles from Fox, appropriately called the "Studio Classics Collection" by one of their (and his) highest achievements - All About Eve*, the Best Picture of 1950, now finally restored - both looking and sounding far superior to what it has in years. If you have the earlier incarnation of Eve, give it to a friend and grab the new edition. The differences are major. Before we leave Mr. Mankiewicz, we should be looking forward to Dragonwyck, The Late George Apley, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (coming in April), A Letter to Three Wives and others. His Cleopatra* is already represented.

Now you understand why the fact that Fox Home Video delicately placing a toe in the classics pond should be a cause for major excitement. Beginning with three titles in January (All About Eve*, Gentlemen's Agreement* and How Green Was My Valley*) representing three Academy Award winning Best Pictures, followed by An Affair to Remember* and continuing forward with one title per month throughout 2003 with some of the most important films in their library, the Studio Classics Collection portends to be what many have been waiting for - the opening of the Fox floodgates (albeit slowly) and the offering of some of the most important titles in cinema history.

I mentioned early in this piece that the library has not seen the best of conditions over the years. As each and every one of these titles must be inventoried, checked, and new elements produced, this may be a slow process. But knowing that Mr. Belston is firmly in place at the Fox archive with a functioning preservation plan can only be positive news for everyone who loves the classic cinema.

Just a few notes on the initial releases...

All are worth the purchase at their street price of approximately $14, if they are not already in your library. These are magnificent films. Additional material has been offered in support of the feature for How Green* and Gentlemen's*, and the transfers have been improved from their original releases on DVD. As there is no question that they should be part of this series, their re-release is much more than simply re-marketing an old product. Each disc offers something new. Like the Criterion Collection, Fox has set these new releases apart from the rest of their library and has begun to number them on the spine. For some, this will be reason enough to upgrade. For those who feel that they don't need the new matching packaging or ancillary material, the old releases should serve them well - with a two exceptions.

All About Eve*. This is a major upgrade over the previous release. Overprinted and abused over the years, the film elements on Eve* have been looking tattered in recent years. The audio, especially on the laserdisc release, was far below minimum standards of the period.

Eve* has no extant original negative, but fortunately MOMA created a preservation safety fine grain master in the 1970s from the Oneg before it was destroyed. It is this fine grain, which (with pickups from other elements) was used for the basis of the new restoration.

Pete Oreckinto and John Polito, who left just the correct amount of optical hiss and ambiance to make the sound correct as recorded, restored the audio. It has not been overly cleaned and polished as some audio is today, thereby removing its original personality. The music that plays behind the main and end titles comes from elements preserved by the Alfred Newman estate.

This new release of All About Eve* finally returns the film to the public with beautiful quality. This is a must buy.

A note should also be made regarding How Green Was My Valley*. With the original negative of this production long gone, a restoration was begun several years ago as a cooperative effort among Fox, The Academy Archive and UCLA. Copying portions of a nitrate fine grain master, an Australian nitrate dupe negative as well as original nitrate prints, the film was literally cobbled together, with the final result being virtually seamless.

Paul Rutan of Triage Laboratories in Hollywood performed laboratory work for the basis of this restoration. Using film stocks not intended for the purpose, specifically 2238 separation master stock, Rutan was able to hold contrast in check, while keeping grain down and allowing the mid-tones of the gray scale to be replicated. A beautiful job.

How Green Was My Valley* has been re-mastered for this new release, providing a far better visual palette now virtually devoid of digital artifacts which marred the earlier release.

The third film to be offered, Gentlemen's Agreement*, faired condition-wise a bit better than its co-releases. Although there is no extant original negative, there was a surviving fine grain master, becoming the basis for the production of a dupe negative - the new transfer element.

Leo McCarey's 1957 CinemaScope romantic comedy An Affair to Remember, which was originally previewed for the press aboard the U.S.S. Constitution, is being re-visited on DVD, this time in a version far superior to the earlier pictorially, but still missing the original stereo tracks sonically as they did not survive the decades. The difference between this version and the previous is major, as the initial offering had unpleasant problems with electronic enhancement. This time around the image is clean, properly colored and anamorphic.

Robert Wise's The Day the Earth Stood Still* (number 5 in the series) is a purchase that is highly recommended. This sci-fi tale of an alien emissary landing in Washington, D.C. is much more than meets the eye and should be viewed with an eye skewed firmly toward events of the period. A superb representation on DVD of a beautifully transferred historic film.

The Ghost and Mrs. Muir* is one of Hollywood's greatest love stories, with textures of Portrait of Jenny*, it is very much a film leaning toward unrequited love. It brings to mind Mr. Berstein's speech concerning the girl in the white dress on the ferry from Citizen Kane. A recall an interesting thesis, written a number of years ago, which commented upon Muir and Mr. Peabody and the Mermaid as being films which in their darkest recesses equated elements of unattainable love with the psychology of menopause.

Ghost shines in all technical departments. Photographed in gorgeous black and white by Charles Lang (with over 160 films to his credit, photographed between 1926 and 1973) and with a stunning and rich score that begins over the Fox logo by Bernard Herrmann, it is one of the treasures of the post-war period. For those of you who remember the film's earlier appearance on laserdisc, seeing the newly mastered version on DVD is a totally new experience. This is another Fox film, which must be included in the collection of any serious cinephile. The disc is inclusive of a documentary giving a warts and all bio of Sir Rex. One strange anomaly with Muir is that the mono track has been spread across a five speaker sound stage. Although unexpected, it works, and in no way damages the film and certainly gives Mr. Herrmann's score more punch. The Ghost and Mrs. Muir* is scheduled to appear at your local purveyor of find DVDs on April 1.

There is another interesting occurrence however, as concurrent with the release of the "Studio Classics" series, Fox is also offering another series of titles straight from the vaults. Two of the most interesting of the initial batch are the 1959 CinemaScope Journey to the Center of the Earth*, directed by Henry Levin and the 1943 Harold Schuster film, My Friend Flicka*.

Both of these titles are of interest, and for similar reasons. Journey was shot on Eastman 5248 in one of its late incarnations, one of the most unstable color negative stocks to exist, and the DVD looks startlingly beautiful for its time. The faded original was color corrected as well as possible before YCM Laboratories created a new printing element, and then that element was further tweaked in the digital transfer realm, where small miracles seem to come with the territory these days. The audio is a wonderful representation of the original discreet four track stereo mix. Take a close look at Journey and you'll begin to see all sorts of elements "borrowed" for use in later films.

Flicka is notable as a three strip Technicolor release, something still a rarity on DVD.

One of the great deals in DVD is also being offered with the release of this Collection. Purchase any three of the first fourteen in the series, and for the cost of shipping (there's no profit built in here) Fox will send you a copy of Murnau's Sunrise* (1927), one of the most beautiful and historically important films ever produced.

Sunrise is also a new transfer, based upon a diacetate print derived from a nitrate negative held by the British Film Institute. The original inter-titles have been newly digitized and corrected for length (without over-cleansing) thus providing the new viewer with the look of the original. I have seen Sunrise* in various incarnations over the past decades and it has never looked or sounded better. Those involved with its restoration have done a beautiful job.

Sunrise, as a late "silent" film, was photographed in both full frame silent and Academy aperture versions, with at least two complete original negatives produced for its openings in both silent and sound venues. This version is presented in its 1.2:1 aspect ratio, matted left and right, although it may have been derived from an older adapted frame and then repositioned for the Movietone aspect ratio.

One of the extras on the Sunrise* DVD is a running commentary by one of my personal favorite and one of our most respected DPs, John Bailey. Mr. Bailey also guides you through a number of alternate and outtakes, pointing out areas of interest that only a cinematographer's eye would see.

To paraphrase those wonderful TV credit card commercials.

Purchasing your DVD player - About $300
Sunrise* on DVD - The Cost of Shipping
Having John Bailey sit next to you discussing Sunrise* - Priceless

Since every one of the titles being offered by Fox via this promotion is a must own for anyone who loves the cinema, this is a no-brainer.

For the record, titles coming our way are:

The Ghost and Mrs. Muir* - 4/1
Love is a Many-Splendored Thing - 5/6
The Grapes of Wrath - 6/3
Anastasia (hopefully also with audio from 4 track magnetic) - 7/1
The Inn of the Sixth Happiness - 8/5
Titanic (1953) - 9/2
The Mark of Zorro - 10/7
Laura - 11/4
The Ox-Bow Incident - 12/2

Your support of this package will give Fox both the funds and impetus to continue the huge task of properly restoring and preserving their library, and from the discussion above, you can see where things may well be headed. Decidedly in the proper direction.

It would be wonderful if Fox would continue this important series of "Studio Classics," and for 2004 make available Frank Borzage's 1927 Seventh Heaven as a bonus DVD.

As for Sunrise*, allow me to sum up my thoughts on this production this way.

While it is only March, Sunrise* portends to be THE classic film release of 2003. If it were selling for over $100 a copy I would not be able to recommend its purchase more highly.

Robert Harris


* Designates a film worthy of purchase on DVD.

Don't forget - you can CLICK HERE to discuss this article with Robert and other home theater enthusiasts online right now at The Home Theater Forum. And speaking of that, thanks to the HTF's Ron Epstein for the picture of Robert seen in the column graphic above.

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