Book Review
By Ray Young




Twentieth Century Fox: Inside the Photo Archive

Preface by Tom Rothman and Jim Gianopoulos

Foreword by Martin Scorsese
Photographs selected by Rob Easterla, Kevin
Murphy, and Miles Scott

240 pages, fully illustrated in color and black and white;

Harry N. Abrams, Inc.; hardcover, 10”x12”, $50.00
    “The Fox Photo Archive maintains the still photography of Twentieth Century Fox and its pre-merger companies,” write Tom Rothman and Jim Gianopulos, the Chairmen of Fox Film Entertainment, for the preface of Twentieth Century Fox: Inside the Photo Archive, “in a state-of-the-art temperature/humidity-controlled storage on our historic Pico Boulevard Lot in Los Angeles…Collection holdings date from 1917 and include contemporary movie images…A working collection that continues to grow through various accessions, the Photo Archive acquires an estimated 100,000 new images annually.”
    The act of film preservation goes beyond maintaining and restoring just the motion pictures, and it’s heartening to see that Fox has taken the initiative with their vast library of stills. Studios and distributors, some older than Fox, others as new as Miramax, trash their inventory without a moment’s hesitation (studio space is money), no matter the historic or artistic value or simple nostalgia it may offer.
    This striking new volume, printed on heavy semi-gloss paper, is an eye-popping gallery of faces, performances, portraits and locations, a monument to a bygone dream factory. It began in 1935 with the merger of William Fox’s Fox Film Corporation and the Twentieth Century company. Under the supervision of Darryl F. Zanuck, 20th Century Fox became one of the majors in less than ten years, upstaged in so-called ‘prestige productions’ by MGM alone, but with a flashier roster of contract players than Universal or Columbia. And no one else had as memorable a musical fanfare over their logo as Alfred Newman’s, which Fox continues to use to this day.
    In the beginning they specialized in the successful Shirley Temple pictures and Sonja Henie’s romantic comedies on ice. But Fox was instrumental in the development of Hollywood musicals, indulged in costly Technicolor (a budgetary no-no at RKO and Warners), and by the late 40’s in pictures like The House on 92nd Street and Panic in the Streets, made significant advances away from studio confines with location filming. As television kept people at home in the early 50’s, the company retorted with a determined investment in CinemaScope.
    Rather than break down the history chronologically, Inside the Photo Archive bounces freely from decade to decade, star to star, genre to genre, creating the impression of timeless unity. To these eyes, it’s most telling that recent photos — Tom Cruise in Minority Report, Russell Crowe in Master and Commander — appear rather mundane, while an incidental test shot of Charles Wagenheim for 1953’s Beneath the 12-Mile Reef is instinctively detailed, reaching, mysterious. Yes, he’s ‘just’ a character actor in a b-picture, but Wagenheim unconsciously embodies the very essence of movie star, exemplifying the conjured persona brought to life and trapped in the workaday grind of the studio system.

Forever sultry: Ava Gardner between takes on The Snows of Kilimanjaro
From Twentieth Century Fox: Inside the Photo Archive
(Photo copyright © Twentieth Century Fox; used with permission.)

    The media’s recent subscription to homogenized and humorless ‘family values’ may have influenced the book’s editors away from one conspicuous fact. Of all the studios, Fox was the leading purveyor of sex and sexual titillation. First in cheesecake (the million dollar legs of Betty Grable) and beefcake (Victor Mature, an edgy icon), they made Tyrone Power a swarthy matinee idol, fashioned a modern eroticism for their ‘gene pool’ — Gene Tierney, Jeanne Crain, Jean Peters — and then mastered the packaging and marketing of Marilyn Monroe.
    Independent producer Howard Hughes may have laid the groundwork for exploratory T&A in the 40’s with The Outlaw and Jane Russell’s heaving bosom (imagine that movie in 3-D!), but Fox spared no expense when nurturing the Marilyn fantasy in CinemaScope and Technicolor, entrusting it to the a-list of Howard Hawks, Billy Wilder and George Cukor. They sold it lock, stock and barrel to the McCarthy and Eisenhower era, an example of just how much yearning is stimulated by repression. (After Monroe’s initial peak, Fox fed them Jayne Mansfield and, ten years later, Raquel Welch.)
    She was a publicist’s dream and we’d expect a picture book to pad space with obligatory Marilyn galleries, but Inside the Photo Archive doesn’t rely on timeworn shots of gusty subway grates sending dresses skyward. Instead, a 1952 posed portrait finds her a breathless mannequin, whose nervous immaturity is trumped two pages later by urbane Liz Taylor looking deliciously post-coital on the set of Cleopatra. Frozen again, this time wearing a deer-in-the-headlights expression and a bathrobe, Marilyn poses with her metaphoric Seven Year Itch identity tag, ‘the girl.’ But most dramatic of all is a wardrobe test for Gentlemen Prefer Blondes: exposed back to the camera, legs tilted and shielded by a dress ready to drop, vulnerable defiance on a face sheepishly in profile, hands in conflict over which way to rest, sex and infantilism at war on the auction block. The studio chalkboard near her feet only amplifies the commodity.

Tyrone Power taking a coffee break from In Old Chicago
From Twentieth Century Fox: Inside the Photo Archive
(Photo copyright © Twentieth Century Fox; used with permission.)

    Contrasting the snapshot realism of People and Us, weekly magazines of earlier generations such as Look and Life ran an artier breed of portraiture, a lot of it supplied by the studios for publicity. Darryl F. Zanuck was an enthusiastic and hyperbolic promoter who could transform the occasional white elephant — say, The Agony and the Ecstasy — into a cause célèbre. Two promotional images from that picture are in the book, Rex Harrison bearing down in papal glory, and Michelangelo Heston daring us with a hardened gaze ‘neath the paint splatters. They recall a time when aged and refined figures held that subtle trait sought after by so many: “Character.”
    Inside the Photo Archive is rife with candid and posed variations on the theme: a pensive Peter Lawford dealing with Normandy (or dreaming of cocktail hour) in The Longest Day; a pale and fleshy Marlene Dietrich on her luggage (waiting for the next train to von Sternberg?), posed and lit by Cornel Lucas for No Highway in the Sky; Walter Lang and Gene Tierney between takes of On the Riviera, he in half shadow, she in an outfit both regal and ridiculous, wearing an expression of — what? — bitterness? condescension? seduction?, in a stony discussion concerning . . . lunch?
    Was it all one big party and power play? Is it still? In a number of shots taken on sets and locations, the boredom and tedium and patience of picture making becomes its own private microcosm, and nearly bridges us (the ‘little people’) to the human element manufacturing the fantasy. Nearly. Film stars have been America’s sovereigns ever since Mary Pickford, and they’re permanently fixed beyond reach. The book’s editors oblige us with shots of stars mixing it up with fans — David Hedison putting his claw around a young visitor to the set of The Fly, Henry Fonda and Tyrone Power chatting it up with tourists during Jesse James. But the gulf separating our reality from theirs is vast and conspicuous, and ultimately measured by the size of one’s bank account (or credit line).
    You can see it on the set of the 1992 movie, Man Trouble, a disheveled power trio (Beverly D’Angelo, Ellen Barkin, Jack Nicholson) having coffee on an equally scrubby set, doted over by the makeup department. Haughtiness permeates the sleaze, and an aloof concept of “work” to both insult and impress anyone with a ‘real job’ in the ‘real world.’ On the facing page is another matter entirely: Hitchcock, Alma and Tallulah Bankhead (holding a long-stem rose) during Lifeboat. An innocent enough gathering, chatting while a technician gets matters squared away perhaps. But something above and beyond time, wealth and arrogance blocks us from this group, some unseen link of theirs to an elusive, restricted higher order.
    Rob Easterla, Kevin Murphy, and Miles Scott have put together a mixture of exceptionally rare images, purposely avoiding anything at all familiar, to create a walking tour through Fox history. More than a coffee table book, Inside the Photo Archive is weighty, big and glossy, but with insight and admiration for the subject. Lending a sense of humanity to films and their creation, it manages to show us just how heavenly the stars truly are — or appear to be.