Motion pictures were mere novelties when William Fox entered the business, first as a nickelodeon magnate, then as the founder of the Fox Film Corporation. Fox set his product apart by emphasizing technical innovation and top-notch directors. When the famed German expressionist F.W. Murnau emigrated to America in 1926, Fox snapped him up, and encouraged his employees to pick Murnau's brain. Howard Hawks, William Wellman, and John Ford all learned from Murnau, but the Fox director arguably most affected by Murnau's presence on the lot was Frank Borzage, an already-excellent storyteller fascinated by human faces and transformative romance. Because Fox let Murnau define his studio's style, the first Academy Awards ceremony was largely dominated by three Fox films: Borzage's 7th Heaven and Street Angel, and Murnau's Sunrise.
Unlike Fox's big box set of John Ford films last year, the staggering Murnau, Borzage And Fox set is more esoteric in intent. Anchored by the title documentary—a direct, detailed history of the three men, told via interviews with critics and historians, and recitations from letters and journals—the set documents the final years of the silent era, when high art was on the verge of superceding low entertainment. Unfortunately, Fox's preoccupation with advances like synchronized sound and widescreen cinematography squelched some of the artistry. But for a time, Fox's filmmakers were winning acclaim and decent box office by exploring the human condition in primal, poetic stories of love and despair.
Murnau, Borzage And Fox contains two full Murnau features (Sunrise and City Girl) and 10 from Borzage (Lazybones, 7th Heaven, Street Angel, Lucky Star, They Had To See Paris, Song O' My Heart, Liliom, Bad Girl, After Tomorrow, and Young America). All are worth seeing, but the clear highlights are the two Murnau films and the two Oscar-nominated Borzages. 7th Heaven and Street Angel are lovely, lyrical films about hard-luck women redeemed by the attentions of good men, and both owe a debt to Murnau in their simple plots and artful, logic-defying camera moves. But really, so much of cinema owes Murnau. His Sunrise remains a magnificent tale of adultery and forgiveness, and contains more lessons in visual storytelling in any given five-minute sequence than most film schools deliver in a semester.
Key features: Commentary tracks on 7th Heaven and Sunrise, two books of archival photos, and documentaries about two lost films: Borzage's The River and Murnau's 4 Devils.