Fox Takes Warm and Fuzzy Look at Its `First 50 Years'

Article excerpt

Typically diverting and superficial, the house documentary titled "20th Century-Fox: The First 50 Years" was prepared by Fox Television for American Movie Classics, the principal cable TV showcase for the Fox film library.

Premiering Tuesday at 8 p.m., the compilation is somewhat curiously timed, since it runs out of chronology about 12 years short of the contemporary Fox franchise hit that is about to reach movie audiences in a shiny new edition: George Lucas' "Star Wars."

That auspicious revival, which begins Jan. 31, could arouse more curiosity about the company, organized in 1915 as Fox Film Corp. and now owned by Rupert Murdoch's News Corp., than this once-over-lightly memory album. A parting summary does mention such recent assets as "Star Wars," "Big" and "Home Alone." It also takes the precaution of inserting the most famous model shot of 1996: the White House being zapped by an alien spaceship in "Independence Day," the top box-office draw of the year and now Fox's biggest home video attraction.

But the last three decades at 20th Century Fox remain to be summarized in detail. Teeming with clips but frequently negligent about significant aspects of corporate and personal history, this chronicle limits its nostalgia to a loosely defined half-century of movie lore, ranging more or less from Theda Bara and Tom Mix, the company's first silent stars, to Elizabeth Taylor in the 1963 epic "Cleopatra" and Julie Andrews in the popular movie version of "The Sound of Music," which dominated the 1965 Academy Awards and restored the studio to financial health - for the balance of the 1960s, anyway.

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Writer-director Kevin Burns begins a more or less straightforward chronicle by sketching a bio of the founder, William Fox, who was born Wilhelm Fried on New Year's Day 1879 in Hungary of German-Jewish parents. The eldest of 13 children, Fox grew up on the Lower East Side of New York City from about the age of 9 months. He prospered in the garment trade, acquired a penny arcade in 1904 and expanded that site into a theater chain, film exchange and production company, all based in New York, over the next decade.

One of the most energetic and innovative of the founding fathers of the American film industry, Fox relocated to Los Angeles after incorporating his thriving new empire in 1915. He might very well have been the dominant mogul if not for the stock market crash of 1929, which came just as Fox was negotiating to acquire the Loew's theater chain, which owned MGM. Wall Street's calamity reduced Fox stock from $119 a share to $1 within two days. Valued at $200 million before the disaster, the company brought Fox a mere $18 million - and persistent financial grief - when he had to sell his holdings in the early 1930s. …