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Just the Fox, Ma’am

The Model and the Marriage Broker

Fox Cinema Archives, the MOD program launched by Fox last year, continues to confound, frustrate and, every once in a while, come up with some surprisingly first rate work. My New York Times column this week takes a look at some recent releases from Fox’s very mixed bag; once again, the quality of the transfers ranges from the execrable (“Meet Me after the Show”) to the excellent (“The Model and the Marriage Broker”), while there’s no apparent logic behind the titles chosen for release. And why the studio that imposed CinemaScope in the 1950s should be the last company still releasing widescreen films in pan-and-scan remains a mystery beyond my modest powers of comprehension.

I haven’t been able to look at everything they’ve put out, though, so if folks have some discoveries to share (or titles particularly to be shunned), I’d love to hear about them. What Fox films would you like to see coming out in this program? What comes to mind for me right away, because I’ve been working on Allan Dwan for a few months now, are Dwan’s late 30s films for Fox’s B-unit, which include at least one perfect entertainment (the 1936
“Fifteen Maiden Lane”) and a pretty strong melodrama that weds Dwan’s fascination with parentage to an audacious racial theme (the 1937 “One Mile from Heaven”).

181 comments to Just the Fox, Ma’am

  • Richard T. Jameson

    A trivial point, and irrelevant to the very interesting discussion, er, evolving about MGM house style, but: Isn’t there one other Hitchcock film made at MGM? I’m thinking of Rope, which in addition its many other anomalies is a stateless film: produced at MGM by Hitchcock’s Transatlantic Pictures, initially released with the Warner shield up front, and now, after decades in limbo, bearing the Universal logo.

  • Barry Lane

    Hi Blake Lucas…I drew my conclusion directly from your input. A New York theatre man, admittedly talented but with absolutely no film experience, in short order re structures the art department of a fairly sophisticated and successful operation. I saw this, sort of, as Johnny Mack Brown coming from nowhere to save the ranch and then slinging his saddle over his shoulder and Drifting Along on to the open road. Only the ranch in this case required no saving. I did, however, anticipate an important response from you, and I appreciate the validation.

    Re Cukor and Bhowani Junction: Your take on this is as good or bad as anyone’s but surely not definitive. Yes…?

  • Barry Putterman

    Gregg, no doubt about it, whether it is OUT BETTERS or OUR BETTORS, the folks of this site certainly know a creative title when they stumble over it.

    Blake, I don’t think that we are in disagreement, but may well be thinking in terms of slightly different things. I wouldn’t hold you literally to examples you came up with at the spur of the moment, but if the earliest instances we can find of evidence of Minnelli’s successfully freeing the Metro art directors from the hold of Gibbons is 1952, then we are talking about a time when(a.) Minnelli had already been at the studio for a decade, (b.) the shifts made by Schary had already had their effect and (c.) the power of the studio to dictate style was already on the wane.

    And Hitchcock is the perfect example of the rise of the semi-independent producer-director who with the help of a powerful agent like Lew Wasserman, could form his own unit and move from studio to studio with its personnel intact. I was not aware of the Metro origins of ROPE that Richard details, but that is fascinating news. And it brings to my mind another harbinger of the world which was to come in that regard, FORCE OF EVIL.

    So again, I wouldn’t disagree with anything you are saying, but I have more in mind the studio system as it existed before the upheavals of the 50s arrived.

  • Michael Dempsey

    I watched “Rope” twice in two days last week. The first time was to prepare for a showing of it to European and Asian ESL students. It was chosen in part because it’s so talky, which seemed likely to be helpful to the development of their English-speaking abilities.

    But, without a doubt (despite its shock opening), it sorely lacks what audiences of their age nowadays consider “action.” So I was prepared for the usual complaints of “nothing happening,” “too slow,” and the like — with eyeballs obsessively glued, also as usual, to the tiny smartphone screens instead of to the one showing this film.

    Nonetheless, most of the students caught the nuances of

    — the dialogue (“I used to read a lot when I was a girl.” “We all do strange things when we’re young.”),

    — the characterizations (Are Brandon and Phillip gay? To what extent is Rupert implicated in their crime?), and

    — the suspense-building techniques (a lengthy medium close-up of James Stewart/Rupert looking at and listening to off-screen behavior, the extremely long deep-focus shot of the chest as the maid moves back and forth while preparing to open it, unaware of the corpse inside it).

    Anyway, the DVD, released by Universal, bears that studio’s current logo up front. But the Warner Bros. shield comes next, and then an opening title that labels the picture “Transatlantic Pictures’ Production” (its companion being “Under Capricorn”).

    I hadn’t heard that “Rope” was filmed at MGM. This certainly adds to the complications of its origins. Yet it just as certainly doesn’t look or sound like anyone’s conception of MGM’s house style, which (as several contributors here have noted in such fascinating detail) was well into its long decline by 1948.

  • Blake Lucas

    Barry P., yes I named some films that jumped to mind on the spur of the moment as you say–ones I like very much in the way they look as well as for other reasons–and they are from the 1950s and not the late 40s. It doesn’t invalidate the point though, and rather than go combing through books and elaborating on many titles after the time I spent before, I trust most here to rely on their own considerable experience with the films through all periods to draw their own conclusions about Gibbons’ waning influence over the studio style after the conflicts with Minnelli.

    Barry Lane, you should remember that Minnelli not only had ideas about cinema but had been given the rare opportunity by Arthur Freed to be at the studio several years working around the fringes and learning, providing ideas, directing some sequences, before he made a feature. Where we disagree in any event is about the “fairly sophisticated and successful operation” that the studio had been and I’ve had my say on this but it is apparent my experience of it is shared by others, no matter how the studio is perceived in older official histories of Hollywood.

    I’d be just fine with the Johnny Mack Brown analogy in fact, except that Minnelli did not just “drift along” but stayed, and my opinion of him and that of others here may actually be less important in a way than that of the studio itself. He appears to have become their most valued director in his tenure there, as he himself observed never being loaned out and given his choice of projects over a range of genres. Of course, there is a lot to elaborate within that, which I won’t do now, though I think a lot of people here know all about it too.

  • Brian Dauth

    I did know that OUR BETTERS was an RKO film — what I was trying to convey (clumsily) was that Cukor’s approach existed fully formed prior to his working at MGM, and that when he arrived, he dropped that approach down into the house style and went to work. DINNER AT EIGHT is made the same year as OUR BETTERS — 1933 — and both are illuminated by the Cukor touch. Is any other MGM film of 1933 as free and capacious as DINNER AT EIGHT?

    With respect to both Blake and Dave, I think Cukor resisted MGM artificiality very well — prewar: CAMILLE; THE PHILADELPHIA STORY; THE WOMEN — postwar: THE ACTRESS; BHOWANI JUNCTION; LES GIRLS — Cukor even breathed life into A LIFE OF HER OWN and that often artificial actress Lana Turner.

    As for a comparison with Clarence Brown or William Wellman: they seem to work well within the house style — often pushing it, but I never feel the freedom or challenge I experience with Cukor.

  • Barry Putterman

    I’m not quite sure how Wellman got into this discussion, since the amount of time he spent at Metro is negligible in terms of his overall career, but I think that it does bring out an interesting point. Both Minnelli and Cukor are artists for whom, in there somewhat different ways, the concept of artifice is centrally integrated into their vision of reality. As such, while the pre Schary THE PHILADELPHIA STORY and THE CLOCK look and work quite differently from the post Schary THE ACTRESS and FATHER OF THE BRIDE, all four films can succeed on their own terms.

    Wellman is a director for whom artifice, at least in the manner in which Minnelli, Cukor or Metro employ it, is antithical. And so there is a world of difference between the pre Schary ROBIN HOOD OF EL DORADO and the post Schary MY MAN AND I. Even more to the point, Wellman’s one pre code film at Metro, MIDNIGHT MARY, begins quite well and then ultimately drowns under a wave of society melodrama and Franchot Tone. Kind of like a Cagney Warners film morphing into a Chatterton Warners film.

    By the way, MY MAN AND I is a sadly neglected work in Wellman’s filmography. As is Blake’s favorite WESTWARD THE WOMEN.

  • Alex Hicks

    Sorry about confusing Gable’s starring in It Happened One Night with It Happened One Night as an MGM production.

    Harlow Re MGM style was meant — clearly enough, I think — to refer to Harlow at MGM. (1932-1936, no?)

    Whether Some Came Running is relevant to MGM style, despite it’s 1958 appearance, is, I guess, dependent on whether Some Came Running was not just distributed by MGM but produced by it –and to what extend (financing, producer, sound stages, contributors’ career profiles re MGM, etc., i.e., matters for an MGM scholar).

  • jbryant

    The sad neglect for Wellman’s WESTWARD THE WOMEN gets mitigated this Wednesday afternoon on TCM. Check local listings. It’s followed by five Anthony Mann westerns: THE FAR COUNTRY, WINCHESTER ’73, DEVIL’S DOORWAY, CIMARRON and THE LAST FRONTIER.

  • Junko Yasutani

    ‘produced at MGM by Hitchcock’s Transatlantic Pictures, initially released with the Warner shield up front, and now, after decades in limbo, bearing the Universal logo.’

    There is picture in Kinema Jumpo of Jack Warner visiting set of ROPE 1948. Caption is stating ‘Jack L. Warner and Alfred Hitchcock on ROPE set Warner Brothers Studio Burbank California.’

    Isn’t MGM Studio in Culver City California?

  • Richard T. Jameson

    Hmmm, I wrote a response to Junko’s bombshell of a comment, and then the post disappeared into web limbo. OK, trying again.

    Good work, Junko! That would seem to crush my pernicious notion that Hitchcock rented space at MGM to make Rope. I’ve harbored that notion for decades, because I read it in some early account of Hitchcock’s career (John Russell Taylor?). I’ll hold out hope that the photo caption is wrong about Warners Burbank vs. MGM Culver City; Jack L. could have dropped by, even at a rival studio, to say hello, since his company was going to distribute the picture and also Hitchcock’s next four or five….

    Sorry to have led the discussion up the garden path (“or is it down? I never can remember”). Since I was also the guy who dropped the in-passing remark that set off the black-and-white Scope conversation, I figure I’m still ahead on points for this thread.

  • Brian Dauth

    Barry P: You hit on the exact point: Cukor and Minnelli understood artifice to be part of life and so could incorporate it with ease into their art. As a result, the artificiality of the MGM house style never feels unreal in their hands (at least to me) — just a heightened version of the artifice human beings encounter every day of their lives. I think this is why when Cukor films go outside the studio, they seem so at home — as an artist Cukor was always deeply committed to reality and knew how to employ artifice — whether of the studio or the real world — to convey it (which is one of the reasons his bringing real horses into his studio Ascot works so well — Eliza’s outburst cheering on Dover is the cherry atop the sundae — Cukor understood how artifice and the “real” interpenetrate each other to give birth to experience).

    And has Central Park ever been more real than when Tony Hunter and Gabrielle Gerard dance in it? The Paris of AN AMERICAN IN PARIS seems to me just it may have felt to a postwar G.I. who decided to stay abroad and not come back to America (I actually think Minnelli is less effective when he actually goes to Paris in GIGI). The Paris Jerry Mulligan dreams of in the final ballet has all the roominess and generous proportions that the Paris of his every day life conspicuously lacks (Minnelli will repeat the closed-in/open dichotomy in BRIGADOON, although AAIMP is already BRIGADOON retold with Gershwin tunes — Alan Jay Lerner was always a canny re-cyclist).

  • Barry Lane

    Brian — The essential difference between Brigadoon and An American In Paris is that the Kelly character embraces life in Paris and death in Brigadoon.

  • Alex

    To give an accurate description of what has never ocurred … is the inalienable privilege of any man of parts and culture. –Oscar Wilde, “The Critic as Artist.”

  • Brian Dauth

    Barry L: that is a great way to look at the two films. Thank you.

    What I see is are two films where the male protagonist (slightly jaded) with his male pal (usually more cyncial than he) explore a new world/advenure. A woman intervenes, with romance ensuing that breaks up the bonded male pair (the paradigm also holds for Gaston/Honore and Higgins/Pickering).

    Both BRIGADOON and AAIP end with the hero intensely desiring the return of his beloved which becomes fact as Fiona and Lise magically re-appear after having departed (Lerner was also big on male wish fulfillment).

  • Barry Lane

    Brian —

    We have a match. I appreciate your thoughts and analysis and so happy you see my view re the Kelly character. Again, thank you.

  • Peter Henne

    Great discussion on MGM. I can’t help agreeing with Gregg that outside of auteurs breaking through the glaze, MGM’s house style tends to be “sterile and airless.” At least, that has been my experience. However, a later artist like Minnelli reconceives the fussiness over set-ups and lighting as tools which can be used, he disentangles their components, and adds his own. I think that way he was able to sidestep causing offense and could enjoy a long tenure there.

    I’ve never felt that Borzage made much concession at MGM during his time there from the late ’30s through early ’40s. Though it’s sometimes said his kind of melodrama was in decline by the time he arrived, two of those 10 films have a Nazi twist (THREE COMRADES, THE MORTAL STORM); one has patriotic themes which were in evidence in Borzage’s films before and after MGM (FLIGHT COMMAND); three are unusual fantasy pieces, so much so their insistent style could be called “high-strung” (SMILIN’ THROUGH, SEVEN SWEETHEARTS, THE VANISHING VIRGINIAN); and one (THE SHINING HOUR) is a dark, moody chamber drama with camerawork which can be easily linked to HEARTS DIVIDED made at Warner and several other mid-’30s films. That leaves THE BIG CITY, MANNEQUIN, and STRANGE CARGO, all of which I’ll grant feel much less personal and more like the studio putting on the squeeze, especially for the all-star headliners in the last. Borzage brought knowledge as a producer as well as director and already had worked at length at Paramount, Fox, then Warner and some stints at Columbia and Universal, which suggests to me he had been around the block, had run into studio politics before, and was familiar with how to work his way around personalities. His stylistic stamp does not falter overall and several of these are among his highest achievements in my view. It’s interesting to note that the sound film of his which receives the highest consensus for acclaim, THE MORTAL STORM, was made at MGM.

  • Barry Lane

    Re Strange Cargo and the star system. No one turns Clark Gable down. It is a big deal to have a man like that work with you. The other way. The rest of these people, Dekker, Lucas, Crawford in this film, Lorre…there is no pressure to use them but rather to have them available. Or, am I misreading the implication…?

    House style like any other performance art evolves over time. It could not have happened without executive suite approval and by that I mean Mr. Mayer. No…?

  • Peter Henne

    Barry Lane, I have sometimes wondered if Clark Gable, fresh off of GONE WITH THE WIND, was too valuable of a commodity for a studio to entrust to any director. In other words, heavy interference was inevitable and MGM would treat this production as a project to be shepherded through by the front office. Just my speculation. In any case, STRANGE CARGO feels stale and over-calculated to me, and very little of the compositional style looks like the rest of Borzage’s work in my opinion. Though John Belton in “Hawks/Borzage/Ulmer,” from The Hollywood Professionals series, singles it out as one of nine films to spotlight the accomplishments of his career, he spends considerably less time on its visual style than for the others, practically none at all.

  • Barry Lane

    Peter Henne — Thank you. That’s a good take and I see those points.

  • Alex Hicks

    Brian Dauth ,

    Just a “heads up” — in the unlikely event that one is needed– Re David Brody’s long rave snippet on Mankiewicz’s CLEOPATRA iont he current New Yorker.

    I always thought Mankiewicz’s CLEOPATRA extremely under appreciated, but still no more than a failed masteropiece, a brilliantly rich, sharp and diverting film that falters toward the end, but Brody seems to regard the film as an unqualified masterpiece –which makes me want to re-view it.

  • Alex Hicks

    Was there really a particularly “sterile and airless” MGM style, or was it simply that MGM production values were so lush that films that would have been utterly disregarded as mediocre or worse from other Studios had a gloss that earned them just enough attention to qualify for subsequent critical deflation? A true “Studio style”variant on “less than meets the eye.”

  • Brian Dauth

    Thanks Alex. I will have to go to a newsstand and check it out. Brody has written appreciatively of Mankiewicz before and was kind enough to something nice about my book of interviews in his blog. Slowly, the tide turns on JLM. LOL

    CLEOPATRA is weaker in the second half, and part of that is because that is where most of the cuts were made. But I still enjoy it — CLEOPATRA is Mankiewicz doing sword-and-sandal epic, nodding in the direction of the genre’s conventions (as he does those of the musical in GUYS AND DOLLS), but its genre is “Mankiewicz film” first and foremost.

    I think JLM’s use of Taylor and her status/positioning as a star is fascinating (an issue he also tackled in SUDDENLY, LAST SUMMER) — a film about image-making and the close of Classical Hollywood era — if the movie were not so long, it would make a great double bill with TWO WEEKS IN ANOTHER TOWN.

  • Alex

    Brian Dauth,

    The reference, in commemoration of the 50th anniversay of CLEOPATRA’S release and a concurrent Blue-Ray release, is “Richard Brody, DVD Notes, ‘Royal Pains,’ The New Yorker, June 10, 2013, p. 34.”

  • Brian Dauth

    Thanks Alex. I went and found the issue at a CVS store during lunch. Brody highlights what I always thought was a key moment – the wink Cleopatra/Taylor gives Caesar/Harrison at the end of her entrance into Rome. I have never picked up on the heat of the Taylor/Burton involvement when I have watched the film before, and will pay closer attention (I may just be restricted from sensing it — I have always done poorly apprehending star pairs who do/do not have chemistry). CLEOPATRA — it is playing one day in New York City at Film Forum (one day?!?!?) and I am looking forward to it.

  • Several years ago I saw some of the cut footage from “Cleopatra” that was in work print condition that was screened at the Motion Picture Academy. At the time there was a plan to restore this footage (and perhaps other footage.) Does anyone know what happened?

  • Brian Dauth

    Lucky x!!! From my knowledge, they never found any of the cut material though they searched every vault they could think of, including one in Kansas (this is from Mrs. Mankiewicz whom I worked with on the interview book — she was most gracious and granted permission to reprint the colloquy that had appeared as preface to the script of ALL ABOUT EVE in 1972).

    They sometimes say that the current 248-minute version is the restored version (in terms of length), but that was the original roadshow cut (down from the 6-hour/2-movie version Mankiewicz envisioned). The four-hour version lasted about two weeks, then went down to 220 minutes for general release and eventually to 182 minutes.

    Was the work print material you saw from the six-hour version and never made even the roadshow print? That material could easily (in my view) be incorporated since JLM’s manner of filming necessitated the dropping of whole scenes rather than cuts within scenes (he held a clipboard over the camera lens when he did not want particular footage). Films in Review also published an article outlining what scenes were trimmed/dropped, so we do know the form/structure of the unrealized six-hour version – James Beuselink, “Mankiewicz’s Cleopatra,” Films in Review. Jan. 1988: 2-17.

  • “Was the work print material you saw from the six-hour version and never made even the roadshow print?”

    Based on the shape it was in I’d say it was from the 6 hour version; any elements from the roadshow version would look better. The color timing for this work print-looking footage was dark, there were grease pencil marks, etc. It amounted to around an hour of footage and looked like it was from one sequence. after all these years I don’t remember much about it except that Martin Landau was in several scenes.

  • Brian Dauth

    x: sounds like the footage was from the six-hour version since Landau was featured heavily in the 2nd half of the film. Maybe one day CLEOPATRA will be restored even further (please do not all cheer at once).

  • Re: wanting to be a studio director, Scorsese has also expressed that wish, specifically in being able to make as many as three films a year.