Several weeks ago, we took a look at the early days of MGM. Let’s do the same thing this week with a studio that’s doing a little better these days: 20th Century Fox.
…Or at least one half of its parentage. 20th Century Fox was created in 1935 by the merger of Fox Film Corporation and the three-year-old Twentieth Century Pictures. Fox Film was created in 1915 by a merger of its own: two companies that William Fox created. William Fox would run the new Fox Film until 1929, when he lost control of the company from a hostile takeover following the great stock market crash of 1929, which signalled the beginning of the Great Depression. It’s important to keep in the back of your mind, as we go through this series of posts about the late 1920s, that the Depression is just around the corner.
But for now, let’s root ourselves in about 1928. Fox is the best equipped studio in the world. It’s rolling out the Movietone sound-on-film process that will soon crush the now immensely popular Vitaphone sound-on-disc process. The Fox Movietone News newsreel series is a couple years into a run so successful it would last until 1963.
And it owns and impressive 500 theaters nationwide, and William Fox is in negotiations to acquire 200 more by purchasing the Loew’s theater chain, following the death of Marcus Loew in 1927. Ultimately, the merger never went through. It would be fought by MGM and stall in the Justice Department over alleged anti-trust issues, and before it can be resolved, William Fox is injured in both a car crash and the stock market crash, rendering the whole matter moot.
So things will soon go south for Fox Film until after the merger with Twentieth Century Pictures. But for now, Fox is riding an unprecedented high.
Much of its present prestige comes from the release of two hugely successful 1927 films, both interestingly starring Janet Gaynor, which I’m sure is what earned her the first spot in this layout of Fox’s contracted stars. One was Sunrise, which we talked about on the podcast just recently in our Top 6 Movie Dates segment, and also in our segment on German Expressionism. Sunrise is a brilliant film that holds up well today and a real must-see viewing for lovers of film.
Gaynor’s co-stars in these two films, George O’Brien and Charles Farrell respectively, also appear in the layout. Contrast O’Brien’s jovial, clean-cut photo with the in-character still in the Vintage: Ads For Artists, Part 1 post. You’d never guess they were the same person.
Dolores Del Rio is also worth pointing out, for two reasons: one, she was the first ever famous Mexican star. Two, her career was killed by the sound era and then subsequently revived in the 1940s when she went back to Mexico to make Spanish movies. Usually you don’t get a second shot at stardom. When your star sets, it sets.
Victor McLaglen was a leading man in 1928, but he would later achieve even more success as a character actor later on. McLaglen is very familiar to me, from many films all the way up to the 1950s. He’s one of those wonderful character actors that do so much to spice up a film, usually playing big tough brutes. John Ford loved to cast him. In particular, he cast him in The Quiet Man (1952), where he and John Wayne duke it out (no pun intended) in what is commonly cited as the longest fist fight in the movies.
But in discussing the stars themselves, I’m missing the most interesting thing about this whole spread, and that’s how it plays up the “youth” angle. For most moviegoers today, 1928 isn’t even on the radar. “Old” movies are Ghostbusters and Raiders of the Lost Ark. But even the broadest minded film fanatics start their understanding of film history around the mid-1920s. I mean, sure, there are some loose ends before that — The Great Train Robbery, Birth of a Nation, Nosferatu — but films start to become broadly viable around the mid-1920s, and here we are, 1928, already talking about how the young stars are replacing the old. It makes sense when you think about it long enough, but it’s truly a jarring thought to see Janet Gaynor classified as one of those young ingenue upstarts stealing thunder from the veterans. We’re talking about somebody who retired before John Travolta was ever born.
Today, the turnover of stars is faster than it ever was. I remember when I first became aware that Britney Spears was a superstar. It was roughly the same time somebody told me she was a has-been and the real superstar of the moment was Christine Aguilera. Since then, of course, there have been three or four more generations. Lindsay Lohan isn’t even “it” anymore. Now it’s Anne Hathaway.
This sort of started somewhere in the 1970s or 1980s, as far as I can tell. Pop culture didn’t become so obsessively youth-driven until the baby boomers hit their teens, and it took another generation before the movies figured out that Star Wars would tap into the market more effectively than youth gang dramas. And that, unfortunately, is roughly when Hollywood lost touch with the great character actors. The leading stars are so big (and so expensive), that movies spend all their time with them and don’t really have as much time with the Victor McLaglens and (as we’ve also discussed here recently) the Peter Boyles and so on.
But clearly we can see this tendency — the desire to promote young stars to young audiences — as early as 1928. It’s human nature, I suppose. We want to see young, healthy, beautiful people having exciting adventures and falling in love and living happily ever after…in an eternal state of youth.