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Wednesday, 22 April 2015

Why do Star Wars fans care so much about that 20th Century-Fox fanfare?

The 20th Century-Fox logo: a great curtain-raiser to Star Wars

When the Star Wars films were made available to download earlier this month, many fans were disappointed at yet another change to their treasured movies.

The films may be beyond George Lucas’s tinkering since he sold his company to Disney. But the sale had led to one more change: The 20th Century-Fox logo and fanfare had disappeared from the Star Wars sequels and prequels, in favour of a new fanfare edited together from the last moments of the end title music from The Empire Strikes Back.

The Fox logo is still on the original, 1977 Star Wars, which is the one film in the series that the studio fully bankrolled by itself. But the outcry about the change to the other movies shows just how important those few seconds of film are.

Why do fans care so much about having the Fox searchlights and fanfare in their proper place at the start of the movie? One reason, I’ll admit, could be that many of them are obsessives like me, who can’t stand it when they don’t experience the original film from the first moment to the last.  But another is that those opening moments were an important part of the Star Wars experience.

The Fox ‘monolith’ and the searchlights surrounding it were painted in 1933 by Emil Kosa Jr, who – as this Hollywood Reporter article notes – later created the ruined Statue of Liberty for another Fox science fiction classic, Planet of the Apes. The monolith originally bore the words ‘20th Century Pictures, Inc’, until the company merged with the Fox Film Corporation. 

The 20th Century (later 20th Century-Fox)
logo as designed in 1933

The music accompanying the animation was written by Alfred Newman, who would become one of Hollywood’s greatest and most prolific composers, and who as head of Fox’s music department would help nurture a new generation of composers, including John Williams.

Both the logo and the music had an overhaul in the 1950s with the advent of the CinemaScope widescreen process. Rocky Longo of Pacific Title repainted the logo, tilting the ‘0’ in ‘20th' in the process, and Newman would compose a few more seconds of music to accompany the CinemaScope credit.

The widescreen Fox logo which
appeared from the 1950s to
the early 1980s

Surprisingly, the Fox fanfare was dropping out of use before Star Wars came along.  As Mike Matessino notes in his liner notes for the 1997 release of the Star Wars soundtrack, “other widescreen formats had superseded CinemaScope, and the fanfare was not used consistently”.  It’s a surprise to watch Fox films of the late 1960s and 1970s and often see the Fox searchlights appear in silence, or to the accompaniment of the particular film’s opening title music. (For a while, in 1970-71, the logo itself disappeared.)

River of No Return, from
which Star Wars 'borrowed'
its Fox Fanfare

As Matessino says of the fanfare: "It was George Lucas’s inspired creative stroke to reintroduce it when Fox released Star Wars in 1977.”  However, according to Chris Malone’s excellent account of the Star Wars recording sessions, no one could find a master recording of the fanfare to use in the movie’s Dolby Stereo soundtrack. Instead, the fanfare was copied from the four-track soundtrack to River of No Return and remixed for two-channel stereo.  

Both the Fox Fanfare and John Williams’ Star Wars Main Title are in the key of B flat major, and Malone notes that the difference in recording quality between the fanfare and Williams’ music only made the opening of the film more dramatic.

Since the Fox Fanfare had pretty much fallen out of use by 1977, I’m sure lots of young cinema goers, like me, only knew it through TV. What’s more, I had never seen the Fox searchlights on a big screen, and had usually only seen them in black and white. So when I saw Star Wars in early 1978, those opening moments were something special. An image I associated with the glamour and excitement of old Hollywood was suddenly projected in front of me on a huge screen, in vivid colour. It was the perfect prelude to a movie that drew on that classical Hollywood tradition and rendered it big and exciting again for a new audience.

To some, it might seem that fans are overreacting to the Fox fanfare business. But, brief though it is, that little bit of animation and music is powerfully bound up with the life-changing excitement of seeing Star Wars for the fist time.


Rory Cobb said...

Wow! Didnt realize the Fox Fanfare was missing from the downloadable films (although, upon reflection, I guess it makes sense with the sale and all). Im sure it sounds and "feels" odd without the Fox Fanfare (like when a TV show goes on to dvd and the theme is changed due to licensing).
Just another reason I dont plan on getting them this way...

Darren Slade said...

Hi Rory. Thanks for the comment.
You can take a listen to the 'new' fanfare here:
It's taken from the last moments of the Empire Strikes Back score, and personally I don't think it works, partly because of the slightly jarring edit. I think they might as well have had the Lucasfilm logo appear in silence if they had to dispense with the Fox music.
I should stress the fanfare remains on the download of the '77 film, but it's a shame that it's gone from the others, especially since Williams recorded it afresh for Empire - the first new recording of it that there had been since the 1950s.

steve said...

I haven't seen the films via download so haven't experienced the missing Fox logo/fanfare on the films past the original Star Wars. However, when I saw Force Awakens in the theaters last December and I knew the Fox logo/fanfare would be gone it did feel like something was missing. Honestly, when I was young I always thought that second half of the fanfare that would play under the Lucasfilm title/logo wasn't part of the Fox theme. I thought it was the Lucasfilm "theme." It wasn't until later some time when I saw some other Fox film that had the full theme that I realized Oh that's all the Fox theme not part of a Lucasfilm theme.

Darren Slade said...

Thanks Steve. The absence of the Fox fanfare in The Force Awakens was sort of odd, but at least we were expecting that, and it worked to have a lengthy silence before the music crashed in.

Trying to replace the fanfare with something else, as was done on these digital releases, is just jarring, I think.

Francis Dollarhyde said...

I can't account for other countries, but in Australia at least there was a maddening tendency for 1980s/1990s VHS editions of the Star Wars films to skip the Fox ident/fanfare. Most of them begin with the A LUCASFILM LIMITED PRODUCTION screen in silence. The CBS/Fox editions in the 1980s did this, and when Fox Home Video released the trilogy on VHS in 1995, only the first film retained the Fox fanfare opening.

Darren Slade said...

Thanks for commenting, Francis.
I remember, in the UK, an early home sale edition in the 1980s included a British voice-over saying the words "20th Century-Fox Video presents" over the fanfare, which was hugely frustrating.
The 1995 edition, the "last chance to own", certainly omitted the fanfare from The Empire Strikes Back. I didn't get the other two films separately on that occasion, but had the Executor Edition boxed set, which was issued simultaneously and kept the fanfares. Go figure!

Francis Dollarhyde said...

It was annoying because for years when I was a kid the only copies of the films I had were recorded off TV - with commercial breaks, but the full and unobstructed Fox ident at the start. Then when I got "proper" versions of the film on VHS, the idents were gone! To me, the Fox fanfare was as integral to the film as the opening crash of the title theme.

Regarding the 1995 VHS release, I'm positive there was a moment of sloppy editing on either Empire or Jedi - the Fox ident is almost entirely excised but you can actually catch a fleeting glimpse of it just before it fades completely.

Darren Slade said...

Wow,that glimpse in the 1995 release sounds maddening.
Those of us who recorded the 1977 film on TV in the UK should never have wiped our tapes anyway, because those ITV transmissions were of the mono version which disappeared afterwards.