The Man Who Made The Movies: The Meteoric Rise And Tragic Fall Of William Fox
By Vanda Krefft
Harper Collins, on sale November 28th, $40.00
The FOX movie studio and its offspring, the FOX television network and its sports and news coverage, can trace its origins back to the early 1900s and its founder, William Fox.
Fox was a fascinating, flawed, and brilliant man who risked everything to realize his bold dream of a Hollywood empire.
Fox has largely been overlooked by history compared to other media moguls like Louis Mayer or Jack Warner.
Vanda Krefft, a former journalist who covered entertainment for Elle, Women’s Day. and the Los Angeles Times, aims to correct the record and make the case that Fox’s legacy is central to the rise of Hollywood.
Krefft draws on a decade of original research to piece together a compelling narrative about Fox’s contributions to the art, technology, and business of motion pictures during one of the most transformative eras in American history, from the Gilded Age through the Roaring Twenties.
Fox’s life was motivated by the American dream and is intertwined with the fate of the 19th-century poor immigrants who flooded into New York City’s Lower East Side.
Krefft writes of Fox’s father bringing his family to New York in the 1889, “Whatever he had promised, whatever he has believed himself capable of accomplishing, Michael had in fact little to offer his young family in New York. Collecting his wife and child, he took them back along the path of so many other newly arrived immigrants to settle into tenement housing on the Lower East Side, which was then a frightful accretion of poverty, dirt, disease, and crime. Between 1880 and 1890, the year after the Fox family’s arrival, the city’s population exploded from 60,515 to 1.2 million, making New York the first U.S. city with more than a million residents. To accommodate the flood of newcomers, most of them impoverished and uneducated, landlords and real estate agents had chopped up once-fashionable houses into smaller and smaller quarters in order to pack in as many tenants as possible.”
Fox’s story is also a part of the city’s vibrant and ruthlessly dynamic history, and with the birth of America’s movie industry. Fox was forced to leave school at age ten to support his family by working in garment industry sweatshops and that developed his entrepreneurial ambitions.
Fox owned a clothes shrinking company but that did not fulfill him, so he entered the fledgling motion picture industry by starting a small Brooklyn movie theater.
Krefft writes of Fox being in prime position when the movie industry was set to expand, “Motion picture exhibitionism was about to undergo a transformation, and Fox knew it. A bellwether event occurred in late May 1908, when the Bijou Theatre on Broadway became Manhattan’s first dramatic first-class house to play motion pictures.The nickelodeons were on their way out, Fox understood. The future would belong to those with the vision and courage to take large-scale action.
“So far, other than the Comedy Theater in Brooklyn, Fox had only a string of five-cent theaters. To move forward, he had to get large venues in Manhattan. That presented a formidable challenge…
“Never inclined to do anything by half measures, he aimed for the top. In late June 1908, he found his opportunity in the declining health of George Kraus, who had run Sullivan & Kraus on a day-to-day basis. Kraus was no longer up to the job: he’d just had his diseased left eye removed and was heading toward a nervous breakdown in 1910. Fox approached Kraus with an offer to take a long-term lease on Sullivan & Kraus’s Dewey Theatre, which seated nearly one thousand, on Fourteenth Street. Fox had been renting the Dewey since the end of May on a ten-week lease for $50 a day, presenting a profitable program of movies and light vaudeville.”
Fox loved the movies from the start, but he also understood the practical necessity of getting and keeping money in early twentieth century America.
To expand his theater holdings, he partnered with the colorful, charismatic, and corrupt Tammany Hall politician Big Tim Sullivan.
Krefft writes of Fox and Tammany Hall, “As he built the foundation of his motion picture career, Fox ran right into “the most powerful, efficient, corrupt political machine in the history of urban America” – Tammany Hall. By the early twentieth century, Tammany had come to rule New York City politics so thoroughly, to have is hands on all the important levers of power, that it effectively controlled the growth and development of the city. If there were money to be made here, Tammany would have its share. Even the rich and powerful had to tip their hats to the so-called Tammany Tigers; an ambitious small-time entrepreneur like Fox had little choice except to shake hands with the devil.”
Fox Film was started in 1915, as he joined forces with manipulative corporate financiers. Although he is largely uncredited, he made pivotal contributions to motion pictures. He was the driving force behind the US Justice Department’s antitrust lawsuit that broke the monopolist hold on the Motion Picture Patents Company and laid the foundation for the studio system.
Fox built the career of the first screen sex goddess, transforming a struggling actress named Theodosia Goodman into the brazen, exotic vamp Theda Bara.
During World War I, he led the American motion picture industry’s conquest of foreign markets. In the 1920s, he championed sound-on-film technology, which quickly replaced Warner Bros.’ sound-on-disk system to become the industry standard.
Fox discovered directors like John Ford, Frank Borzage, and Howard Hawks, and produced one of the greatest silent pictures, F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise.
Krefft writes of Fox’s inner turmoil at that time his career was hitting its stride, “Despite all he had – money, power, a happy marriage, dutiful daughters, reasonably good health, and work he loved – Fox wasn’t content. He seemed unable either to control his restless, simmering explosive anger or to step back from the pressures that drove him to it. He was not yet who he wanted to be. He had not left the past behind. This was clear when, on March 29, 1927, he addressed Harvard Business School students as part of an eleven-session motion picture industry lecture series organized by alumnus and Fil Booking Office of America president Joseph P. Kennedy. It should have been a proud moment. Fox was supposed to discuss the industry’s foreign development, which he had pioneered. Instead, for about fifty minutes, he mainly reminisced about his hard-won triumphs, using language suffused with class resentment…
“The most visible symbol of Fox’s conflict between past and present was his father. Michael Fox had always blamed his failure to provide provide for his family on the difficulties that America set up against the immigrant outsider. Still, he seemed neither to acknowledge the burden he’d placed on his son nor to appreciate the rewards of his son’s efforts.”
1929 would begin the downfall of Fox when he bought a controlling stake in Loew’s, Inc,. the parent company of MGM. Krefft has the view contrary to most film history research that this wasn’t a bad move because it made Fox the most powerful person in the global film industry at the time.
It was followed by a series of unfortunate events, starting with a freak car accident in July 1929 in which he suffered severe injuries, and three months later, the stock market crashed. Amid the chaos, he was targeted by a Wall Street alliance that threatened to destroy his empire unless he ceded control. To save them, he ultimately did.
Fox’s Wall Street adversaries ultimately destroyed them anyway, forcing Fox to merge with Twentieth Century Picture in 1935. Fox responded by fraudulently filing for personal bankruptcy and bribing a judge. He ended up in Lewisburg federal penitentiary and became virtually invisible.
This work is incredibly well-researched and is the story of early-20th century America as it is about a titan of the movie industry. A perfect Christmas gift for any movie lover.