“I feel like it’s inexhaustible”: An Interview with MoMA’s Dave Kehr on Fox Films and Rediscovered Treasures from Classic Hollywood

As I’ve attended film festivals over the years, Fox movies from the early 1930s have surprised and intrigued me. Rare Fox films—ranging from the bizarrely poignant sci-fi diplomatic thriller Six Hours to Live to the silly yet sultry tropical melodrama The Painted Woman to the pert, frothy Lillian Harvey musical My Weakness—top my personal list of “I sure wish I could see that again.”

Fox pre-Codes pushed the envelope with a panache and inventiveness that matched and often surpassed what other studios were doing at the time. However, movies made by Fox in the early 1930s rarely turn up on TCM. Comparatively few have made it to DVD or Blu-ray.

In 2019 a massive merger gave Disney control over Fox’s library. Like many classic film fans, I was concerned about what the merger would mean for Fox’s vibrant swath of film history and our access to it. Would our niche dollars matter to a corporate behemoth?

It was a heartening sign for cinephiles when Dave Kehr, a curator in MoMA’s Department of Film, announced that a trio of pre-Code Fox rarities would be streaming on MoMA’s Virtual Cinema (available to MoMA members in the U.S.). Even better, the beauty and sophistication of these films shine in 4K digital reproductions of MoMA’s own nitrate prints. After watching these wonderful films, streaming until May 20, I wanted to know more.

Kehr graciously agreed to answer my questions about Fox Film, MoMA’s nitrate holdings, the museum’s new streaming platform, and what it takes to get films on there. 

First off, tell me a little about MoMA’s Virtual Cinema streaming platform.

Dave Kehr: Well, this was something we started in response to the pandemic. A lot of archives and museums in our position have done this, to try to stay in touch with our audience during the shutdown. It’s hopefully something we’ll be able to keep doing, because it does expand our reach quite a bit. 

It’s a great way of getting our restorations out across the country. That’s my main interest, but the annual New Directors, New Films series was all online this year. We have a pretty steady beat of experimental films, documentaries, and such like. And the older stuff is where I concentrate my fading energies. It’s a nice way of getting beyond Midtown Manhattan, which is kind of what our audience had been restricted to for a while now.

Distribution is not what it used to be. We don’t have the same circuits to get films to revival theaters. DVD kind of disappeared. I know there are a lot of people, particularly outside of New York, interested in classic film. And it’s nice to bring some variety into that community, so I’m glad for the opportunity.

Fox films from the 1920s and 1930s aren’t in circulation the way some other studios’ output from the period is. What are cinephiles missing in that Fox availability gap? 

DK: By and large, this stuff has not been seen for reasons that are mysterious to me. They were briefly on television in the 1970s, a few of them. There were actually some theatrical distribution of a few of them in the 1970s, and then it just stopped. Even though Fox has all the rights, they never have turned up on TCM, with maybe one or two exceptions. Very little on disc. They’ve just dropped out, and it’s such an important part of film history.

Particularly since Fox was developing Movietone at this time, which was the much better sound system than the now more famous Vitaphone at Warner Brothers. Movietone was recording sound on film. Vitaphone was recording sound on disk. You could record sound on film in the camera, so you didn’t have to have all these cables running out the sound truck, with the disk and the needle, which is what Warner Brothers had to do. We know the Warner Brothers films, because those survive, those are on TV constantly.

But the Movietone film was a much better technology that allowed the camera almost perfect freedom from the beginning. Some 1929 Movietone film might begin with a 5-minute single take on a crane. I’ve always thought they were kind of thumbing their noses at Warners, like, “you guys can’t do this,” you know? “But look what we can do over here.” 

I think the history of film sound would be a lot different if historians had had access to these titles. I just feel part of my mission in life really is to get this stuff back out so people can see it so it can become part of the history. And it’s very gratifying.

What would you say to classic film fans whose idea of pre-Code content is defined mostly by what they’ve seen on TCM?

DK: You ain’t seen nothing yet! Raoul Walsh pre-Code is like nothing you’ve ever seen! You could not believe what he was getting away with. Jaw-dropping. If you like that kind of ribald, basic, dirty jokes sensibility, there’s some wonderful stuff that was never on TV, I’m sure, because you couldn’t show it on TV. It was too much. I’d love to get some of that stuff up [on Virtual Cinema], and I’m sure we will.

Unfortunately, people have the impression that only Warner Brothers and MGM, and maybe RKO, that constitutes Hollywood. But that’s just a very small portion of what was going on. Getting Fox back and Colombia back and Universal back… it would just create a much fuller picture. 

I’ve spent many, many years working on this and I’ve got to say, I feel like it’s inexhaustible, with so much there, and so much that people haven’t seen.

How did you select the 3 titles for the current collection of Fox pre-Code rarities? 

DK: I picked them out of these larger series that we’ve shown at the theater in MoMA, because these were good audience films, because I know that people like them. They’re unknown titles or lesser-known titles that are tremendously entertaining and engage people and hopefully arouse their curiosity to see more of that.

Sherlock Holmes was directed by William K Howard. Almost completely forgotten because his Fox films were just lost for so long. Very inventive, very stylish, lots of fun visual touches, interesting use of sound in 1932.

Quick Millions is a gangster film starring Spencer Tracy. The director, Rowland Brown, was an interesting character in his own right, who apparently had some gangland associations and a very hot temper that meant he only completed three films in his entire career. You see Quick Millions next to the Warner Brothers gangster films, which are more well known, obviously, and this one has no sentiment at all. There’s no lovable mamma. Everybody is as hard as nails and these decisions are, “Just kill him, just kill him.” It’s brutal, it’s so cold.

Again, the direction is very interesting, unique in that this guy was not a trained filmmaker, and he’s kind of making it up as he went along. He found some really interesting and unusual things to do. It’s nice to bring it back into the conversation.

Me and My Gal is one of my favorite Raoul Walsh films. Just one of those rollicking Raoul Walsh comedies, full of movement and action. Wonderful relationship between Joan Bennett and Spencer Tracy.

Raoul Walsh is your Twitter avatar, so he’s a director I do associate with you! For those who mostly know Walsh as the director of Warner Brothers films, like The Roaring Twenties and High Sierra, what should people know about this earlier stage of his career at Fox?

DK: The Warner Brothers films are great, but that’s one 10-year period in a career that lasted 50 years. He was one of the pioneers. He started directing in 1915. Tragically, most of that went up in the Fox fire. We’ve only got a couple of those early silents, but by the mid-1920s, with What Price Glory?, he’s a major director. He’s discovered his style, which is this sense of life in his films. The tempo, the movement, the forward propulsion, the way he uses background action to play down the sides of the frame, the sense of life happening all around.

Yeah, he’s one of the great masters to me. A very distinctive way of filming. And you can tell it’s so natural to him. He’s not sitting down and scratching his head and saying, “Where do I put the camera next?” He just knows. That kind of utter assurance is very rare. And easy to take for granted because it’s not calling attention to itself. Which is one of the reasons why it’s great: because it feels so natural and invisible, and that’s very hard to do.

I love the way he sees people. He really enjoys people. He likes being around them. He likes their company, and he shares that with you. I like being in his company. It’s such a great world to me. I don’t think I really want to live in a world full of drunken Irish mobs but in the movies? It’s just terrific.

All three of the Fox titles on Virtual Cinema were scanned from nitrate prints in MoMA’s collection. How did MoMA come into possession of so many Fox nitrate prints?

DK: MoMA has a particular history with the Fox Film Corporation, which was what 20th Century Fox was before Darryl Zanuck, when William Fox was running the company. And it was one of the earliest [film] companies, started in 1915, very prosperous until Fox got into some financial shenanigans in the early thirties, surrounding sound processes. 

In 1937, after it passed to 20th Century Fox, there was a catastrophic vault fire in the Fox warehouse, which was at Little Ferry, New Jersey. It destroyed absolutely everything, all the negatives there, all the surviving prints, basically all of the Fox Film Corporation. It is the worst fire that I know of, and there are a lot of them in Hollywood history. Entire careers vanished.

We have two of Theda Bara’s films that survive out of 30, I think. Some stars, we have no trace of them. George Walsh, Raoul’s younger brother, was a major star. Not one of his silent films survives.

It’s particularly tragic for people interested in directors. Because Fox was known as the directors’ studio. Directors got a lot of leeway there, a lot of freedom to make things they wanted to make, in the way they wanted to make them. It was the cradle for John Ford, for Howard Hawks, for Frank Borzage, for Raoul Walsh. William Dieterle worked there. Famously Murnau worked there for a while. It just goes on and on.

And these films were thought to be gone until the early 1970s. It turned out there was still a bunch of nitrate sitting around the Fox Studio in Los Angeles, and a guy named William K. Everson, who was a famous film collector and film buff, he got wind of this and went to Eileen Bowser, who was then the head of our collections at the museum. And between the two of them, they got all of these prints out of Fox.

This was at a time when people were just destroying nitrate, because they thought it was dangerous, which it is, but they just had no sense of what they were destroying when they’re getting rid of this stuff.

So this meant rescuing 7th Heaven and Iron Horse, stuff that we take for granted now, But back then people thought it was lost. And you can imagine the excitement when, suddenly, there was this trove of a couple of hundred titles. Movies no one ever thought they would see, suddenly available.

MoMA made safety film backups for all of this. Fox got a copy in return. They’ve got most of them out there. Some went to Eastman House, some went to UCLA, but we kind of made sure we got the best ones. The museum has been working on restoring these ever since.

What kind of restoration was involved for these Fox titles?

DK: Some are just impeccable with your perfect, mint condition prints like the print of Sherlock Holmes that’s up now. Not a single issue. Just scanned it, and, wow, it looks great. And others are in tatters. Some films where we had the domestic negative and only the foreign language soundtrack. Films would have a whole scratch down the whole print, like John Ford’s The Brat, and we had to digitally remove that scratch from every frame.

It took a lot of work to get Transatlantic. We had the foreign versions and no domestic version. So we had to piece it all together from the French and the Spanish. We had the English soundtrack, thank goodness, but no, they don’t really match up, using different takes and things.

That was a lot of very tricky work, but it came up magnificent, and it looks like an Orson Welles Film from 1931 with the deep focus stuff. Those super long takes, it really is exceptional. Now you can see it really really well for the first time.

As we continue to work through this big body of films, new stuff is turning up all the time. 

After all the archives spent most of the latter part of the 20th century preserving that stuff photochemically, suddenly, we’ve got to do it all over again. Because digital is just replacing it. Attached as we all are to film, it isn’t the way most people see movies anymore, and if you want to be able to share your libraries, you’re going to have to start digitizing them.

And that’s very expensive. Very slow process. We were able to do the last batch, about eight or so, thanks to support from 20th Century Fox. But in the meantime, 20th Century Fox got sold to Disney. So, we’re kind of starting over. We started a relationship with Disney, hopefully we can continue to do this kind of work. It’s very early. Hollywood is going under a very serious transformation right now. And worrying about deep library titles is something they are just not doing. It’s a transitional period, but hopefully it will pay off in terms of much greater access and much better copies for these films.

Are MoMA’s Fox nitrate prints projectable? Could they ever show up at something like Nitrate Picture Show?

I would not project them anywhere, even if they are in perfect condition. Every time you run a nitrate print through a projector, you’re damaging it, and these are just too valuable. They’re unique. I think at Nitrate Picture Show, they usually show stuff that exists in multiple prints, but these don’t. It’s just one copy. If anything happens to that, there’s no recourse. 

So we don’t lend those out ever to be shown, unlike some of the Warner Brothers titles. We have a beautiful nitrate Casablanca that gets shown every once in a while, super special conditions. 

But even so, I’m kind of reluctant to let those out of our clutches, just because we need to know what the films are supposed to look like. Our best record of what that movie looked like in 1942 are those first-generation prints from 1942. And you need that standard to compare and make sure the contrast is right. The right timing in the lab, this was very delicate work, and a lot of what you see now is just a straight scan. Not too sharp, which happens a lot with digital restoration. People over-restore. 

The idea of digital is to try to create the sense of a film print, not make it look like a TV show which happens all too often when people go too far with the digital restoration process. When they take out the dust particles and the scratches, they also take out a lot of the grain. So it looks like video. It doesn’t look like film anymore. The trick is to preserve enough of that grain to make it seem like a movie, to keep the pixels kind of alive on the screen instead of just video, dead, soulless, cold! [laughs]

NF: Is there anything else about Virtual Cinema or the Fox films that you’d want people to know?

Just that they exist. And we’re trying to get them out there. There’s a lot of good stuff in those films [within our collection] that have not even been restored yet. 

The more response we get, the more viewership we get for the work, it encourages our donors to support this work, so it’s important for us.

We’ll continue. Absolutely, there will be more Fox stuff, in the future, hopefully the near future.

A preview of what might be coming to Virtual Cinema… Kehr plans to offer MoMA’s restorations of several Fox silents, including Borzage romances 7th Heaven and Street Angel as well as John Ford’s Three Bad Men. “It’s such a good movie,” Kehr says of the latter. “Ford is 90% there already by 1926.” Beyond Fox, a new restoration of pre-Code dazzler Her Man will be available to stream in late May. Another rarity that Kehr dreams of premiering on Virtual Cinema is Universal’s recent restoration of By Candlelight, a James Whale film that Kehr describes as “a musical in which nobody is singing.” 

For what it’s worth, I have zero plans to get to NYC in the next year, but I bought a MoMA membership just to access Virtual Cinema. To the surprise of probably no one, I’d recommend it.

This interview has been lightly edited for organization and flow.

2 thoughts on ““I feel like it’s inexhaustible”: An Interview with MoMA’s Dave Kehr on Fox Films and Rediscovered Treasures from Classic Hollywood

  1. We’ve run a lot of rare Fox titles over the years at Cinecon. Two that especially went over like gangbusters were THE INFERNAL MACHINE (1933), a time-bomb-on-an-ocean-liner thriller that’s played like a screwball comedy, and ASEGURE A SU MUJER (iNSURE YOUR WIFE, 1935), a Spanish-language farce so racy they didn’t even make an English version. And of course the inestimable BULLDOG DRUMMOND STRIKES BACK. But like everyone, I fear for their long-range survival at the hands of Disney, which doesn’t even allow its short cartoons to be shown in theatres anymore.

  2. Nitrate Diva,

    Thank you for a wonderful interview and précis of these old nitrates. I’m a film buff but all of that was new to me.

    Keep up the good work.

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