Fox celebrates 75 years of groundbreaking film

Next time you're at a movie at the Century City shopping center or visiting the Century Plaza Hotel, take a few moments to listen. Perhaps you'll hear the ghosts of such legendary actors as Henry Fonda and Tyrone Power running lines from their memorable roles.

During Hollywood's golden era, the back lot of 20th Century Fox spread across Century City. Portions of such films as "The Grapes of Wrath" and the 1956 musical "The King and I" were shot here.

Though all that's left from those bygone back lot days is the New York street used in such films as "Hello, Dolly!," 20th Century Fox has never forgotten its historic past. It's pulling out all the stops for its 75th anniversary this year, screening seminal films in famous locations, for example 1951's "The Day the Earth Stood Still" in Washington, D.C., celebrating the studio's film music at the Hollywood Bowl in September and a 75th commemorative DVD box set of classic Fox films handpicked by the studio's co-chairmen and CEOs Tom Rothman and Jim Gianopulos.

FOR THE RECORD: An earlier version of this article misspelled the last name of Jim Gianopulos as Giannopoulos.

"The history and the legacy is what separates a major studio from any newly created entertainment entity," Rothman says. "We are custodians of that legacy and honor. I wouldn't say you feel the weight of history, but I would say in a very positive way that you feel the inspiration of history."

Twentieth Century Fox was born May 31, 1935, out of a merger between Fox Films, which was founded by William A. Fox in 1915, and the 2-year-old upstart 20th Century Pictures, founded by Darryl F. Zanuck, Joseph Schenck, Raymond Griffith and William Goetz.

The Fox studio was in a bad way at the time of the merger. In 1929, William Fox was injured in a car accident and ended up losing most of his money in the stock market crash. On the verge of bankruptcy, he lost control of the studio. The studio's biggest star, Janet Gaynor, was waning at the box office and its other major star, Will Rogers, died in a plane crash shortly after the merger. The only bright lights were blond musical comedy star Alice Faye and the young Shirley Temple, who became the biggest commodity at the studio in the late 1930s.

Despite the studio's downfall in the early 1930s, William Fox was an influential pioneer. "When you look back at the history of this company," Gianopulos says, "it was started by a guy who took all of his capital and put it all at risk. He started out as a guy making $25 a week in the clothing business and eventually built his business up and bought his first theater."

Fox had changed the face of Hollywood filmmaking, importing German expressionist master F.W. Murnau to the studio where the director helmed the 1927 masterpiece "Sunrise." "Bringing this European expressionist cinema to Hollywood movies changed everything," says Fox restorationist Schawn Belston. Several filmmakers in Hollywood even came to observe Murnau on the set, including two from Fox — John Ford and Frank Borzage.

Just as today with the success of Fox's 3-D digital blockbuster, "Avatar," Fox was in the forefront of technical innovations. "Fox had built their own camera, which was a smaller, lightweight camera that gave them more freedom to move a camera around," Belston says.

It was Zanuck who turned 20th Century Fox into a major player. "It seems to be Zanuck came in with the sort of storytelling ideas that he developed at Warner Bros. and totally revitalized the studio," Belston says.

With the studio star roster nearly bare, Zanuck hired fresh young talent. Fonda, Power, Don Ameche, Betty Grable, Gene Tierney, Carmen Miranda and Marilyn Monroe were among the studio's top stars.

The newly formed studio also made important films by such directors as Ford including 1941's "How Green Was My Valley," which won the best picture Oscar, and Elia Kazan's 1947 "Gentleman's Agreement," a drama about anti-Semitism that also won the best picture Oscar.

The studio produced some memorable film noirs, including 1944's "Laura" and 1947's "Nightmare Alley." Besides Ford and Kazan, such filmmakers as Howard Hawks, Edmund Goulding, Jules Dassin and Joseph Mankiewicz were nurtured at the studio. It also embraced the sci-fi genre, which continued over the decades with "The Day the Earth Stood Still" and 1966's "Fantastic Voyage" and the " Star Wars," "Aliens," "Predator" and "X-Men" franchises.

When TV seemed to be destroying the movie business in the early 1950s, 20th Century Fox acquired the rights to the large-screen format Cinemascope and paid to have theaters equipped to play the large- format films. And even when the big-budget extravaganzas like 1963's "Cleopatra" and 1970's "Tora! Tora! Tora!" threatened to bring the studio to its knees, a film like 1965's Oscar-winner "The Sound of Music," 1968's "Planet of the Apes" and 1970's "MASH" brought it out of the mire.

"The things that we cherish and something that inspires us going forward is the combination of bold creativity, willing to take on challenges, nurture the best and the brightest filmmaking talent and be willing to explore the reaches of technology," Gianopulos says. "It's a very tough act to follow."

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