15 December 2012 | AlsExGal
Three film pioneers, three fates
This excellent little documentary is a disc in the "Murnau and Borzage at Fox" set. It talks about the brief time that the careers of three very different men intertwined - film industry mogul William Fox, director F.W. Murnau, and director Frank Borzage. The life stories of any one of them sounds like the stuff of a Hollywood movie, and it is a fascinating and true tale. In the mid 20's William Fox brought directors F.W. Murnau and Frank Borzage to Fox Studios to join his already innovative team that included the likes of John Ford. The result - Fox cleaned up at the first academy awards. The downside - the first academy awards were held in 1929, awarding films made in 1927-1928 that were already obsolete because the sound revolution was underway and the films honored were silents.
F.W. Murnau just ignored the fact and kept making silents, right up to the time of his death in an auto accident in 1931. Who knows what would have happened had he lived. Would he have adapted or become obsolete? Murnau left Fox because with sound coming Fox executives were tampering with his silent masterpieces.
William Fox has the saddest story. In 1929 he heavily leveraged himself by buying up lots of theatres and he was also poised to buy MGM from the Loews. Louis B. Mayer, not wanting to work for someone as unpleasant as himself, used his pull at the justice department to get the deal delayed based on the grounds that it would make Fox studios a monopoly. While the deal was being investigated, Fox had a near fatal automobile accident that required a long convalescence. During this convalescence the stock market crashed. With his assets heavily leveraged, he was forced to sell Fox Films in the spring of 1930 to save the family fortune. The end of William Fox is particularly sad. Fox had pioneered sound on film, and he filed a flurry of patent infringement lawsuits against all the other studios which had adopted this method. He ended as he began - in the 1910's he had fought the Edison trust attempts to sue filmmakers who were using Edison's inventions, and here he was 20 years later using the same tactics out of desperation. He went from facilitating innovation to fighting it. Like Edison, ultimately he was unsuccessful. Unlike Edison, the lawsuits bankrupted him.
Frank Borzage is the most enduring of the three. Winning the first Academy Award for Best Director he stayed at Fox past the time when Fox lost his studio and Murnau had left the studio. Fox's successors didn't think that much of Borzage and gave him trifling assignments including a precode novella "Bad Girl". Borzage turned his lemons into lemonade and won a second Academy Award for Best Director for that film, which turned out to be a great slice of life Depression era saga. Borzage endured, worked for other studios, and turned out to be one of the most admired and prolific directors of the pre-war era. Borzage's personal life is mentioned in more detail than that of the other two men, mainly because it was emotionally tragic, at least in his most productive years. At the same time Borzage was directing the films for which he was most remembered, he was enduring a marriage that was entirely one-sided as far as love went. His wife did not care for him at all and had numerous affairs, although it took 25 years for him to have had enough. Maybe some of the optimism and romanticism found in his films is rooted in his hope that somehow his marriage would work out? Why don't we know more about these early days at Fox? Mainly because of a 1937 vault fire in which many of the pre-1937 Fox films were destroyed. Another question I had after watching this fine documentary was "How could Fox produce such a good documentary in 2008 with such reverence for its own history and in 2012 be issuing releases of their widescreen films from the 1950's in pan and scan?". I'd really like to know.
At any rate, watch this if you get the chance. It is very fascinating and informative for anybody interested in film history.