We use cookies to ensure that we give you the best experience on our website. Click here for more information.

William Fox and His Friends, Part 1

A partial guide to the Museum of Modern Art's "William Fox Presents" retrospective.
David Cairns
Howard Hawk's prelapsarian rom-com, Fig Leaves (1926)
Along with the output of Universal, the films of Fox, before the merger with Twentieth Century, have long been among the more mysterious and hard-to-see products of Golden Age Hollywood. When TCM made Warners' pre-Codes readily available to American eyes, these competing studios' outputs remained shut in some vault, unrestored and unavailable. Well, the Museum of Modern Art has liberated some fantastic early Universal films, and now it's the turn of William Fox's lost masterworks to see the light of the projector beam once more in MoMA's "William Fox Presents: Restorations and Rediscoveries from the Fox Film Corporation," May 18 - June 5, 2018.
The season showcases little-seen films by John Ford, F.W. Murnau, Raoul Walsh, Howard Hawks and Frank Borzage, five of the starriest names on the studio's roster of directing talent, but also makes a case for genuinely obscure journeyman talents like Sidney Lanfield, Irving Cummings, Alfred Werker and David Butler, as well as the great William K. Howard. I've had the pleasure of seeing some of these movies, but only in dismal grey or black market form, recorded from long-ago TV broadcasts and bled grey through generations of duping. These films come alive in a special way on a big screen with a projector's light and the presence of a sympathetic crowd. Nevertheless, some of the things I've written in the past may be pertinent, though remember, the fuzzy frame-grabs below will be superseded by magnificently restored, pin-sharp moving images...
One More Spring (Henry King, 1935)
In Henry King's One More Spring, survival is the theme, as a bunch of dispossessed characters shelter in a disused stable in Central Park—a failed antiques dealer (who carts his last possession, a bed Napoleon once slept in but which nobody wants, through the shivery streets until he finds a home), an unemployed actress, an unemployable musician and a bankrupt banker. Busking for pennies, stealing meat from the lions in the zoo (a perilous task which involves outsmarting Stepin Fetchit), paying for their accommodations with violin lessons for a tone-deaf park-keeper, they struggle to make it through the freezing weather to the spring, when maybe there will be hope.
This virtually vanished Fox production (poor William Fox, car-crashed, bankrupt, jailed, and now most of his output lost or suppressed by the indifference of market forces) is notable for the sincerity of its emotion (always a King strength) and the rare chances it gives to some classic pre-Code players. If you ever wondered what the point of Warner Baxter was, asides from barking and growling (and, in Capra's Broadway Bill, beating his black servant, poor Clarence Muse, in a manner supposed to amuse us), here is one answer, for his easy-going homeless salesman is a startling study in placid optimism. He plays a man who has already suffered the worst calamity he can imagine (the loss of his business) before the film begins, and spends the rest of it in a kind of benign wonder that he still exists, his purpose for doing so having evaporated. 
City Girl (F.W. Murnau, 1930)
The dialogue, which would qualify as snappy pre-Code stuff if it didn’t have to linger onscreen long enough to be read, is presumably from Elliott Lester’s play, with adaptation by H.H. Caldwell and Katherine Hilliker (Sunrise, 7th Heaven), credited with titles. But I was excited to see Bertholdt Viertel credited with co-adaptation and scenario (with Marion Orth). His later films as director include two, The Passing of the Third Floor Back and Little Friend, of which I am exceptionally fond.
To return to the scene’s effectiveness, Murnau also crams as many actors into shot as possible, and crowds the frames with moving parts, like those fans. Filming along the diner counter he creates serried rows of humanity, all stuffing their faces with the doubtful hash, and by setting the joint below street level, the view outside actually contributes to our feeling of suffocation, with a high window displaying only legs, legs, all of them going somewhere.
The Red Dance (Raoul Walsh, 1928)
Walsh serves up spectacular set-piece scenes by the score, aided by gigantic sets and dramatically sweeping camera movements: was this his biggest film other than Thief of Bagdad? It’s certainly more fluidly and dynamically handled. The leading man is Charles Farrell, looking chunkier than I’ve ever seen him, as a Russian commander torn between loyalty to the Tsar (that well-meaning fathead!) and love of a humble schoolteacher’s daughter, played by Dolores Del Rio, a quite passable Russian since she doesn’t have to speak. Although her rather flamboyant body language does suggest a Latin temperament rather than a Slavic one..
Still, the impressive spectacle and striking design compensate for the banality of the conception, and in Linow’s lovable brute you can see Walsh beginning to figure out what really interests him in movies.
Transatlantic (William K. Howard, 1930)
This one has a camera that swoops and sweeps around its vast ocean liner sets, craning around the engine rooms, transforming a sort of “Grand Hotel at sea meets The Saint” into something genuinely, excessively cinematic. We get to enjoy a young Myrna Loy, a heavily disguised Jean Hersholt, and a couple of obscure beauties—Lois Moran in the boring nice girl role and Greta Nissen as the much more exciting bad girl, dancing frenetically in a top hat. The film seems like a B-movie (perhaps a Saint one) made on a super-A budget, and the new restoration is gorgeous, all Art Deco white and sweep and dash.
Sherlock Homes (William K. Howard, 1932)
A complete farrago—as one friend said, if you introduce Holmes preparing for his upcoming nuptials while putting the finishing touches on a ray gun, while a “Canadian” boy assistant comments admiringly in an atrocious Cockney accent, you know what you’re in for. The film sports a fine Watson in Reginald Owen, who anticipates Nigel Bruce’s interp (“By Jove, Holmes, it’s a positive ambuscade!”) and a transcendent Moriarty in Ernest Torrence (also visible at Bologna in Steamboat Bill, Jr.) The stagey talking scenes are one thing, but Howard shows his creativity between scenes, as with a dazzling montage introducing a fun fair straight out of Lynchland.
Also: Clive Brook in drag.
Caravan (Erik Charrell, 1934)
When Charrel, who was Jewish, quit UFA for Fox, the studio gave him vast resources for his Hollywood debut, in which glamorous stars Charles Boyer, Loretta Young, Phillips Holmes and Jean Parker are engulfed by a sea of gypsies, soldiers, servants, as the camera whisks them all up into an outsize souffle.
Here, his mobile camera is so unrelenting he doesn't even break a shot to go into flashback, simply panning over to reveal that Loretta is now a tiny child. This kind of film fantasy is pure Max Ophüls, but Ophüls had barely begun his career, and wouldn't start tracking through time until La ronde in 1950.
Fig Leaves (Howard Hawks, 1926)
We open in the Garden of Eden, envisaged as part of stone age times, so Darwin and Biblical Creation co-exist happily. The scene-setter is a cave-man getting walloped by a giant chimpanzee, leant height by forced perspective sets courtesy of William Cameron Menzies.
From there we go to Adam’s love shack, where he (George Sunrise O’Brien) and Eve (Olive “the Joy Girl” Borden) snooze in their twin beds, a trickling sand device eventually tipping a coconut onto George’s noggin to wake him. This delightful prelapsarian Flintstones fantasy world segues into a slightly less interesting contemporary section, essaying standard domestic comedy situations with a pronounced sexist slant surprising and disappointing in Hawks (and his male and female writing partners).
I kind of wish they’d kept it all stone age—the main advantage of the modern stuff is some snazzy fashion show bits of catwalk finery by Adrian. I guess Cro-Magnon times offered fewer opportunities for flapper garb, although I did admire George’s fur mankini.
Fazil (Howard Hawks, 1928)
Fazil is an unapologetic dose of Orientalism, and a late silent/soundie—it has a recorded music score and occasional roughly-synched representations of sound effects such as horses’ hooves, plus a bit of vocalization—a vague stab at the Muslim call to prayer, and a gondolier’s song, complete with superimposed music and lyrics (as a guide for cinemas which can’t play sound yet?)
Fazil stars the quite un-Hawksian Charles Farrell, best-known for his Borzage collaborations, as an unlikely sheikh, with all the barbarity such romantic figures are supposed to have. The culture-clash plot sends him to Venice, so even the film’s representation of the west is exotic and romantic. My fuzzy, grainy copy is just barely good enough to let you see that this is a beautifully photographed film: lots of soft lighting and soft focus and shallow focus. It’s shot by L. William O’Connell, who lensed A Girl in Every Port for Hawks the same year, alongside Murnau’s now-lost Four Devils. Yet he seems to slide into B-pictures as soon as sound arrives, his only big picture being Scarface, where he’s paired with Lee Garmes who usually gets credit for the more interesting stuff (Hawks certainly stressed Garmes’ inventiveness in interviews).
That gondolier’s song has a plot role to play, accompanying the central lovers’ first glimpse of one another, from opposite windows across a canal. Hawks crosscuts reverse angles, moving closer as the love-at-first-sight builds, and throws in tracking shots drifting past each lead from the gondolier’s point of view. It’s a very elaborate set-piece, quite removed from his later low-key, apparently effortless mode of presentation. Very interesting to seen him stretch himself, as with the expressionist effects in Scarface.
Hollywood has already caught on to the idea of selling sheet music—so that gondolier’s ditty follows the characters about from canal to soirée. where a dissolve sweeps all the other dancers from the floor, leaving Farrell and Greta Nissen alone at last. Then the dance ends and the surrounding throng fades back into existence. There’s nothing else like this in Hawks, so it’s very interesting indeed: what one wants to balance it is some trace of the filmmaker to come.
Censor-baiting screen narrative—we go from Farrell & Nissen on a gondola to her lying in bed in what’s obviously his apartment or hotel suite at dawn. Quelle scandale! Some dialogue, some kisses, and then an intertitle tells us we’ve slid from Venice to Paris during the fade-out and a newspaper headline informs us that the lovers are newly wed. Sex happens during fade-outs, but a lot more than that can go on, it seems. (“At least I had some fun with that.”)
It’s interesting that these Arab barbarian lover types are never played by actual movie tough guys—from Valentino to Novarro to Farrell, they’re all elegant rather than rugged. Farrell is a great big hunk of man, but we know he’s a softy from his other movies, and though he begins this one by having an insubordinate head scimitared off, his attempts to play the master of the house come across as petulant, the result of weakness rather than strength, and I suspect Hawks saw it that way too, frowning from behind the camera. (Actual quote from Hawks on Hawks: “Christ Almighty, can you imagine Charlie Farrell as an Arabian sheikh?”)
Big harem scene, staged as a proto-Busby Berkeley sex fantasy of flesh and art direction. The lovely Nissen—vivacious in Transatlantic but merely decorous here—comes close to swooning at the perfumed horror of all those diaphanous scanties. Remember, exoticism is racism’s sexy sister. You wouldn’t be seduced by racism… but the sexy sister? You might weaken. And be lost.
Paid to Love (Howard Hawks, 1927)
Just as the hero of Fazil (Charles Farrell) prefers camels to women, the hero of Paid to Love, another silent Hawks, prefers automobiles.
The film deals with a cash-strapped Mediterranean Ruritania and an arranged marriage intended to solve its cash problems and also features some good TINY INTERTITLES, minute lettering suggesting a hushed conversation between an American banker and the King: “Your shirt’s out.” “I know it.” “Then why the hell don’t you fix it?” “How the hell can I?” The use of a miniature font size is very funny in itself, and I felt I could hear Hawks’ tone of voice in this.
We also get William Powell, very funny as a skirt-chasing duke. Here’s his POV as he applies the monocle to a passing maid:
This is a Fox film—the study of smoky atmosphere and crumbling walls. Our first view of Paris is a crumbling wall with girls walking by in front of it. This is meant to represent Montmartre. It seems to get the job done.
Lots of fun in this film! It’s the kind of movie where a Montmartre apache hides his knitting when the tourists appear.
More on this astounding retrospective soon...


Erik CharellF.W. MurnauHenry KingHoward HawksLong ReadsRaoul WalshWilliam FoxWilliam K. Howard
Please sign up to add a new comment.


Notebook is a daily, international film publication. Our mission is to guide film lovers searching, lost or adrift in an overwhelming sea of content. We offer text, images, sounds and video as critical maps, passways and illuminations to the worlds of contemporary and classic film. Notebook is a MUBI publication.


If you're interested in contributing to Notebook, please see our pitching guidelines. For all other inquiries, contact the editorial team.