Forgotten treasures from the Fox movie vault

12/28/2012 1:19 PM

12/28/2012 1:21 PM

It’s been six months since 20th Century Fox introduced its Cinema Archives series, that venerable studio’s response to the successful manufactured-on-demand lines of no-frills DVD-R editions of older films introduced by Warner Brothers, Sony and MGM/UA.

With this month’s releases, there are now well over 100 titles in the collection, which is carried by Amazon, Movies Unlimited,, ClassicFlix and other retailers (but not, oddly, by Fox’s in-house retail branch, Fox Connect).

I have a profound ambivalence about the undertaking.

On the plus side is that the Fox movies-on-demand program exists at all. At a time when older films have disappeared from cable television – with the eternal, glorious exception of Turner Classic Movies – and the major studios, Fox very much included, have cut their full-scale releases of library titles to a minimum, any time a pre-2000 title makes it out of the vault is a cause for rejoicing.

On the down side, the selection of titles in the Fox series seems comically random, and the stiff $19.98 list price comes with major issues in quality. I’m sure there’s someone interested in “The Rookie,” Fox’s ill-fated 1959 attempt to launch Tommy Noonan and Peter Marshall as a comedy team to rival Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, but to release the black-and-white CinemaScope film in a washed-out transfer is to add insult to arbitrariness.

There are several major films in the Cinema Archive series – for example Allan Dwan’s majestically composed, hauntingly melancholic 1938 costume drama “Suez,” with Tyrone Power as a historically love struck Ferdinand de Lesseps struggling to dig the canal of the title. Mysteriously missing from Fox’s 2008 “Tyrone Power: Matinee Idol” boxed set, the film is presented here in an acceptable transfer.

The Cinema Archives includes another couple of Dwan films – the less imposing but still engaging romantic comedy “Josette” (also 1938), with Don Ameche and Simone Simon, and the sharply comic Western “Frontier Marshal” (1939), with Randolph Scott as a shrewdly manipulative Wyatt Earp.

In the late 1920s and early ’30s the directorial roster of Fox Film made it the New York Yankees of the movies: the talent gathered included Dwan, John Ford, F.W. Murnau, Raoul Walsh, Howard Hawks, Frank Borzage, Henry King; the 1940s and ’50s brought Fritz Lang, Otto Preminger, Joseph L. Mankiewicz, Jacques Tourneur, Richard Fleischer, Henry Hathaway, Frank Tashlin, Delmer Daves, Elia Kazan, Jules Dassin.

It’s a staggering amount of material, and the great majority is inaccessible. If today’s film culture seems so impoverished, it’s in part because we have lost contact with the great tradition of the American cinema, as more and more movies drop out of distribution and down the memory hole.

Enough whining. Let us be grateful for the gifts Fox Cinema Archives has brought us so far, in the hope that many more are to come. Here are personal recommendations:

“THE POWER AND THE GLORY” (1933): One of the few Fox Film titles included in the collection, this masterpiece by William K. Howard relates the rise of a railroad magnate (Spencer Tracy) as a series of tragic personal sacrifices, shaped into an ingenious flashback structure by the screenwriter Preston Sturges.

“I CAN GET IT FOR YOU WHOLESALE” (1951): Though they were soon to be blacklisted, director Michael Gordon and screenwriter Abraham Polonsky offer a largely admiring portrait of American entrepreneurship with the story of an ambitious model (Susan Hayward, in the role that established the template for her late career) who founds her own firm in the Manhattan garment district.

“GALLANT LADY” (1933): That stock figure of pre-code melodrama, the unwed mother who sacrifices her happiness to give her child a name, achieves depth and delicacy in a performance by Ann Harding shaped by the sensitive and self-destructive director Gregory La Cava, who offers a self-portrait in Clive Brook’s supporting performance as an alcoholic doctor.

“CHINA GIRL” (1942): Henry Hathaway is remembered for his hard-edge Westerns and crime thrillers, but he also had a deep romantic streak. This is a wartime romance about an American newsreel photographer (George Montgomery) who falls for an enigmatic Eurasian beauty (Gene Tierney) in a Mandalay hotel rendered in seductive chiaroscuro by the great cinematographer Lee Garmes.

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