“Da da-daaa. Da da da da da da-daaa.”
Documentaries that cover the history of individual Hollywood studios have been common releases in the video era. Warner Brothers, Universal, MGM, and Republic have all issued quite entertaining and informative programs summarizing, usually in a chronological fashion, their studio’s background liberally spiced with clips from past films. Normally some well-known star was tagged to do the narration. MGM has probably been the most enterprising of the bunch with its 6-hour 3-part When the Lion Roars history and the three odes to MGM musicals — That’s Entertainment! (1974), That’s Entertainment, Part 2 (1976), and That’s Entertainment! III (1994). All of these appeared on VHS and most on laserdisc. 20th Century Fox, however, came a little late to the table and it wasn’t until 1996 that they released their own contribution to the field — 20th Century Fox: The First 50 Years — partly in conjunction with American Movie Classics. Image entertainment has now released this 2-hour program on DVD with some very nice supplements.
James Coburn narrates the history of 20th Century Fox, focusing on the first fifty years of its existence, 1915-1965. Events are covered chronologically and supplemented by clips from over 120 films, contemporary interviews, archival footage, and film out-takes.
This is a fascinating presentation of the studio’s past. We learn about the first couple of decades when it was only Fox (there was no 20th Century yet) — after founder William Fox — and was: the home of such stars as Tom Mix, Theda Bara, Will Rogers, and a young John Wayne; where director John Ford would first make his mark; and where the first viable optical soundtrack was perfected. We then learn about Darryl Zanuck’s role as his 20th Century Pictures absorbs Fox which had fallen on hard times in the early 1930s. Zanuck would remain production head of the renamed 20th Century Fox until the late 1950s when he became an independent producer releasing through 20th. Finally, we learn about the financial difficulties caused by Cleopatra (1963) that almost bankrupted the company. These problems precipitated Zanuck’s return to control and the eventual resurrection of the studio, principally with the success of 1965’s The Sound of Music. James Coburn’s narration is effective and the material is presented fairly factually without being too self-congratulatory on Fox’s part.
Throughout all this are interspersed clips from dozens of memorable films. These are the heart of the program and great to see, but you soon get a little depressed as you realize that virtually none of them have yet made their way to DVD or even been announced or hinted at. Come on Fox, where are Hound of the Baskervilles, Drums Along the Mohawk, The Grapes Of Wrath, Laura, The Song of Bernadette, the Charlie Chan and Mr. Moto series, all the pictures of Tyrone Power, Alice Faye, Shirley Temple, Don Ameche, Betty Grable, Carmen Miranda, the Ritz Brothers, Marilyn Munroe, Clifton Webb (yes, even Clifton Webb), et cetera, et cetera.
Image’s DVD of 20th Century Fox: The First 50 Years is a very nice presentation. The image is full frame as originally shot with image quality quite good during Coburn’s segments; the film clips themselves range from very good to average in clarity and crispness. There are 20 chapter selections. Most of the clips from the Cinemascope films of the 1950s and 1960s are properly letterboxed. The sound is stereo for the narration, but the clips appear to be mainly mono as originally recorded.
For Image, the supplements on this disc are outstanding, comprising four different pieces totaling about 2 hours in length. They appear to have been originally intended as promotional pieces for the company’s exhibitors. First up is a 5-minute piece extolling the virtues of The Robe (1953), the first Cinemascope film. This is followed by two studio tours, each about 15 minutes long, for the years 1936 and 1937. We see the studio lot with its buildings, sets and ongoing construction along with introductions to many of the studio workers both behind and in front of the camera. There is some repetition in what is shown on the 2 pieces. Finally, there is an 80-minute program entitled “The Big Show,” presented in Cinemascope (2.35:1) with 9 chapter selections, which details 1958 activities at Fox with segments devoted to the ongoing work of several of the producers (including extensive clips from films in production) and introductions to upcoming stars. (You can’t help noticing that some of the producers as well as Fox’s chairman have no sense of how to speak in front of a camera whatsoever.) Each of the four supplements is very much worth viewing for its content. The image quality is a little variable, looking somewhat soft on parts of the 1936 and 1937 pieces. The 1958 summary, which is in colour, shows some noticeable fading on several of the reels.
I have few bones to pick with this DVD at all. I can only opine, once again, all the Fox films that the program covers that aren’t close to seeing the light of DVD day.
20th Century Fox: The First 50 Years is an entertaining and fascinating look at one of Hollywood’s major studios. Image gives the DVD a nice presentation, adding four significant supplementary programs that double the disc’s length. This disc is a fine complement to the handful of classic titles that Fox has so far released and provides plenty of great ideas for film titles that you can bug Fox to release on DVD.