MoMA series reveals movie gems from the William Fox era


One of the original movie-industry moguls, William Fox founded the studio bearing his name in 1915. From May 18 to June 5, New York’s Museum of Modern Art is celebrating his work in a series called “William Fox Presents.”

Born in Hungary, Fox grew up in New York City. He bought his first nickelodeon in 1904, building a chain of theatres before moving over to making movies. The Fox Film Corporation took over a production company in Long Beach, California, and leased studio space in Fort Lee, New Jersey.

A disastrous vault fire in 1937 destroyed 90 percent of the company's film holdings, so it's difficult to determine the style and quality of Fox's output. Largely due to the efforts of Eileen Bowser, who was running MoMA's film collection in the 1970s, the museum holds around 200 titles, almost everything that survives from Fox Film Corporation.

"We've been restoring some of the trickier projects, like Transatlantic and The Brat," says Dave Kehr, curator of the Department of Film. "Now we're rescanning original nitrate prints for digital versions."

The series focuses on Fox films from the late silent period at the end of the 1920s to the transition to sound. "It's astonishing how many first-rate talents were at the studio then," Kehr says. "It's like a New York Yankees of contract directors."

The most influential director at the studio at the time was F.W. Murnau, famous in Germany for projects like Nosferatu. Murnau is represented by City Girl (May 27), a 1928 silent that was re-edited in 1930 as a sound film. MoMA restored the original, revealing a work on par with the director's best movies.

Murnau's Oscar-winning Sunrise was a huge influence on everybody at the lot, including directors like John Ford and Frank Borzage. Ford recalled watching Murnau work on Sunrise's gigantic sets, and his subsequent films employed a similar German expressionist camera style.

A possibly apocryphal story has Janet Gaynor finishing work on Sunrise and starting on Borzage's 7th Heaven that afternoon after lunch.

Little known today, in the 1920s Borzage was one of the most celebrated directors in the industry. Set in Paris just before World War I, 7th Heaven (May 18 & June 2) is an intense, at times delirious melodrama about love and sacrifice, made with such passion that it overwhelms even the most recalcitrant viewer. Gaynor and Borzage both won Oscars, as did Benjamin Glazer for Best Adapted Screenplay. This version, restored by Twentieth Century Fox from the sole surviving nitrate print (in MoMA's collection), brings into full focus the remarkable cinematography by Ernest Palmer and Joseph Valentine.

The series includes two other Borzage titles, the 1926 comedy The First Year (May 24) with a screenplay by Frances Marion, and 1931's Bad Girl (May 24 & June 3). Based on a novel by Vina Delmar, this intimate Depression soap opera won Borzage another directing Oscar.

Janet Gaynor may have been Fox's biggest star during this period. Along with 7th Heaven, she appears in Tess of the Storm Country (June 2), a talkie remake of a Mary Pickford vehicle, and One More Spring (June 1 & 4), a gentle comedy directed by Henry King that was one of the last Fox productions before its merger with Twentieth Century. Leisurely, digressive, at times surprisingly pointed, One More Spring took a harsher—or perhaps more realistic—view of the Depression than studios like RKO and MGM.

Like many stars of the period, Gaynor was asked to perform in a musical, in this case Sunnyside Up (May 18 & June 2), a large-scale production set largely in Manhattan's Yorkville neighborhood. Nothing in it quite matches the movie's daring opening, an extended crane shot that travels down, up and across a studio-built tenement block filled with parents and kids. Along with the title track, there's "Turn Up the Heat," a song-and-dance routine so hot that its gyrating chorines melt igloos and cause giant banana trees to spring up.

As Kehr points out, what's intriguing about Fox during this period is the free hand directors had to make personal films. The series includes titles from John Ford, Howard Hawks, Allan Dwan, Raoul Walsh and Henry King, directors who helped define what Hollywood movies would look like. Here they are still experimenting, still learning how to use their tools.

Ford's The Brat (June 1) is unlike any of his other films, an irreverent sex comedy with wild camerawork. Fig Leaves (May 20), the second feature by Hawks, finds the director learning how to shoot comedy in a story that travels from the Garden of Eden to contemporary New York. And in The Red Dance (May 26), Walsh somehow cast the glamorous Dolores del Rio as a Russian peasant in an adventure that includes support from Griogori Rasputin and Leon Trotsky.

The series highlights two other Walsh titles: Women of All Nations (May 26), a sequel to his hit What Price Glory, and Wild Girl (May 26), a Wild West comedy with Joan Bennett and Charles Farrell.

In previous MoMA series, Kehr has been making a strong case for underappreciated directors like William K. Howard. His Sherlock Holmes (May 23 & June 3), starring Clive Brook, offers an idiosyncratic take on the detective. With cinematography by James Wong Howe, Transatlantic (May 23 & June 3) is a precursor to ensemble films like Grand Hotel, only with a darker, rawer tone. Since no complete domestic print survives, MoMA's chief preservation officer Peter Williamson had to piece together this version by combining French, Italian and Spanish prints with the U.S. soundtrack.

The Fox series also includes multiple titles from studio stalwart Irving Cummings. Later known for glossy Technicolor musicals like Down Argentine Way, here he's represented by the crime films Romance of the Underworld and Dressed to Kill, both with Mary Astor; and The Mad Game, with Spencer Tracy as a principled gangster who draws the line at kidnapping. (All three screen on May 19.)

Clara Bow shows up in her last two features, Call Her Savage and Hoop-La, favored by camp aficionados (both May 21). It's Great to Be Alive (May 28), another pre-Code comedy, stars Brazilian matinee idol Raúl Roulien as the last man on Earth, destined to be auctioned off to the highest bidder. And in a counterpart to the Marx Brothers comedy Horsefeathers, Rackety Rax (May 29) offers Victor McLaglen as a gambler who takes over a college football team, drafting his thugs as players.

Like many titles in the series, It's Great to Be Alive and Rackety Rax have been almost impossible to see, even in theatres. Kehr plans a sequel to the series next year that will feature eight or nine newly restored or digitized titles, including Walsh's Me and My Gal and Borzage's Street Angel.

"Not everything is on TCM, or on disk," he reminds us. "You've actually got to get up and go to a theatre, that's the only way you can see them."

A good example is Hat Check Girl (May 25 & June 5), a 1932 nightclub comedy with so much "loose sex" that Twentieth Century Fox couldn't get a permit from the Production Code Administration to reissue it in 1937.

Fox himself did not fare well during the Depression. He was involved in a car accident during an attempt to take over Loew's, the parent corporation for MGM. Facing mounting debt to AT&T and others, he was sentenced to prison for perjury. Vandra Krefft's biography about Fox, The Man Who Made the Movies, published last November by HarperCollins, has all the details of Fox's tragic story.