Sunday, February 5, 2012

Fox's Fantastic Forays into the Far-Flung Future (part 1)

WF with FW (Murnau, that is)
There wasn't a single studio in the 1920's that cornered the market on the just-emerging horror genre, and science fiction couldn't even really be called a genre yet.  But beginning in the 1920's, Fox Films had an interesting string of forward-thinking productions that are worth revisiting.

William Fox ran his studio with his own distinct business model; Rather than paying high salaries to lure successful actors to the Fox Films lot, he opted to create stars from scratch.  W.F., as he was called by friends and business associates, also thought that if he continued to own the rights to a story, it made good business sense to regularly remake those films.  Fox Films were more than able to successfully hold their own against competing studios, often producing quantity over quality, but at times creating highly artistic, imaginative productions.

While an overwhelming number of films from the first few decades of Hollywood are lost today, Fox's money saving device of revisiting their properties allows occasional glimpses today into what might have been. 
A still from THE WIZARD (1927)

Fox Films produced THE WIZARD (1927), starring Gustav Von Seyffertitz and George Kotsonaros, who was made up as an almost Chaney-esque gorilla/monster!  Sadly, all that remains of this film are striking stills.  But due to the business model put in place by William Fox, and continued after the merger with 20th Century Films, the movie can still -arguably- be experienced via 20th Century Fox's remake of the same story, retitled DR. RENAULT'S SECRET (1942).

A similar situation occurred for another story acquired by Fox Films, John D. Swain's novelette, The Last Man on Earth, which appeared in Munsey's Magazine in 1923.  Fox began production on THE LAST MAN ON EARTH (1924) almost immediately.   The source material involves the 1920's projecting what the far-flung future of the 1960's would resemble, but of particular note was that the future lacked any adult males!

The following comes from an original 1924 New York Times review:

"The Last Man on Earth (1924)

THE SCREEN; A Boisterous Fantasy.

Published: December 13, 1924
A boisterous and frivolous fantasy, concerned with a world of women and the sudden discovery of a solitary man is the present film attraction at the Central Theatre. It bears the title of "The Last Man on Earth" and is pictured rather in the Mack Sennett vein, ladened with the pulchritude of the Hollywood studio variety.
It is in the year 1960, when, through some curious plague, all males over 14 become victims and die. The women do not seem grief-stricken as they go about their respective duties with bright faces and weird costumes. The fashions are given to transparent hoopskirts and pantaloons or the simpler mode of the one-piece bathing suit. The Presidentess of the United States has permitted the White House to become a ruin, with towering weeds and high grass on the hitherto beautiful lawns. She is very fond of black cats, but does become unusually interested in the finding of a male of the species who is 34 years old. Being the first lady of the land, she insists that the last man on earth be sent to the White House. The discoverer, however, has an eye for money and holds that the man is worth at least $10,000,000.
The Senatoress from Massachusetts and the Senatoress from California agree that there shall be a prizefight between two women to see who wins the lone man.
The boys under 14 are pampered like weak girls, especially after the discovery of a serum which readers them immune from the plague. When Greenwich Gertie, a clever crook and leader of the much-feared Tea House Gang, comes across Elmer (Earl Foxe) hiding in the backwoods she believes that she has done more than the discoverer of the serum. Here you see Elmer being lugged into a hospital and examined by the physicians, while scores of women throng the passages outside. He is deprived of his beard and long hair and made to appear respectable, with trousers that flare and silk insertions in the bell-shaped extremities. He has to go to Washington to see the two political leaders, in bathing suits, fighting to win him. The Presidentess even permits him to sit in her chair. Elmer is the most petted man that has ever stepped on earth, and yet he does not appear to enjoy all the attention he receives.
Merchants announce their appointment to dress, manicure and barber The Man and newspapers follow his every move. As an entertainment for the brain-weary this may achieve its purpose.

A Boisterous Fantasy.

THE LAST MAN ON EARTH, with Earle Foxe, Derelys Perdue, Grace Cunard, Gladys Tennyson, Maryon Aye, Clarissa Selwynne, Pauline French, Marie Astair, Jean Johnson, Buck Black, Maurice Murphy, William Steele, Jean Dumas, Harry Dunkinson and Fay Holderness. Directed by J. G. Blystone, Special music score by Erno Rapee. "Nlp o' Scotch," an Imperial comedy. At the Central."

Original NY Times page

Earle Foxe, the last man on earth, in the flesh.
Some of the original 1924 taglines advertising the film:

  • There were women to the right of him, women to the left of him, women everywhere, that wanted to beg, borrow or steal him---
  • You've Heard About the Battle of the Century -- and the Great World War -- But Wait Until You See the Battle of All Time That the Girls Put Up for THE LAST MAN ON EARTH
  • A fantastic novelty with 1000 beautiful girls assembled from all parts of the world.
  • He's all there is -- there isn't any more!
  • Laugh? Mah-mah! You'll hold your sides and shriek until the heavens ring! You'll howl with joy until you choke. WOW! Oh, sweet, singing elephants. Oh, dancing, prancing nightingales, wait till you see the greatest comedy sensation of the season, but don't -- for the love of pink-toed sea-serpents -- miss "THE LAST MAN ON EARTH."
  • A fantastic novelty with one thousand beautiful girls assembled from all parts of the world. It's different. See it.
  • Derelys Perdue, starred as "Hattie"
  • He Had So Many Sweethearts He Did Not Know What to Do

Comparing the novelette to the NY Times review of the film, it is interesting how much comedic, and exploitative, artistic license was taken by Fox Films!  It is also worth noting how the early 1920's envisioned the future.  A relatively quick internet search was unable to find any online examples, but a full set of still photography from the film exists today in the 20th Century Fox Photo Archives.  From memory, the images display a meager production, but not unlike many of the films of its day.  It is possible that limited directorial vision hindered the scale of the production.  The only particularly noteworthy visual aspects were that the 1920's wardrobe department guessed correctly by costuming the women of the 1960's in miniskirts!

Gladys Tennyson, starred as the gangster, "Frisco Kate"
It is not entirely fair to judge the shortcomings of a futuristic film that preceded METROPOLIS (1927).  The German Expressionist masterpiece is easily the most influential science fiction film ever, defining through to the present day, what the future would look like.  Also, William Fox, ever the businessman, must have known that there was no clear example that scientifiction, as it would have been called in the 1920's, would create a stir at the box office.  Investing a large amount of money in unproven thematic territory was not the Fox Films way of doing business.  Even METROPOLIS (1927) was a box office bomb, and science fiction films didn't have their heyday for decades to come.

THE WIZARD (1927) lives on today in a remade, and easily available film, as DR. RENAULT'S SECRET (1942).  THE LAST MAN ON EARTH (1924) was given the same chance for survival when William Fox decided to revisit the source material for an all talking, all singing, all dancing, sci-fi, musical comedy extravaganza: IT'S GREAT TO BE ALIVE (1933)!  Sadly, this film shares the same fate as its earlier silent version, but there are even more tantalizing pieces of that production still available today!