20th Century Fox
21st Century Fox
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Yes, but who or what was Fox? We know a lot about such giants of the early film business as Louis B. Mayer, Samuel Goldwyn, Adolph Zukor, Cecil B. DeMille, D.W. Griffith, Mack Sennett. But William Fox?
Yet William Fox, according to Vanda Krefft in an enormous recent biography called The Man Who Made the Movies, was…the man who made the movies. And if her hyperbole is counterproductive, as hyperbole tends to be, she does make a strong case for Fox’s crucial contribution to how the movies as we know them happened, along the way revealing a life of amazing accomplishment that moved inexorably into the realm of tragedy.
“The Meteoric Rise and Tragic Fall of William Fox,” Krefft’s subtitle, isn’t hyperbolic. Fox’s rise was indeed spectacular. In less than a dozen years beginning in 1904, when he acquired his first nickelodeon, he amassed a formidable chain of theaters and then created the Fox Film Corporation—why just exhibit movies when you could make them yourself? But where, Krefft asks, did he find the money to successfully compete with the giants of the business: Zukor’s Famous Players–Lasky, Griffith’s Biograph, Marcus Loew? As she convincingly demonstrates, he found it less by hook than by crook—primarily through his ugly dealings with Tammany Hall.
William Fox was the least colorful of the early moguls. He had no interest in the glamour of the industry—he operated from New York, never having a home in California, rarely visiting his imposing studio in Los Angeles. Personal scandal never touched him—he was a family man with one (adored) wife and two (beloved) daughters. He had few social ambitions, other than the hope of eventually being seen not merely as a triumphant movie mogul but as a great American entrepreneur—a Rockefeller, a Vanderbilt. When he was just launching his Fox Film Corporation, he announced that he “intended to become the ‘monarch of the movies,’ equal in stature to ‘lumber kings, wheat kings, coal barons, cotton kings, steel magnates, railway magnates.’” And he almost pulled it off.
Fox seems to have been impeccably honest in his direct dealings with people, despite his almost diabolical connection with Big Tim Sullivan, the kingpin of New York City politics. (As Krefft puts it, “As an underwriter for Fox’s nascent film empire, Big Tim had a unique, vital advantage. He could provide large amounts of cash instantly with no paperwork to fill out and no further approval needed.”) From the start, the problem of how to finance his huge ambitions was Fox’s greatest challenge, and would eventually lead him to ruin.
The Foxes—the Fuchses until they were renamed on arriving in America from Hungary in 1879, only months after William was born—were bottom-of-the-barrel poor, barely surviving in the worst slums of New York’s Lower East Side. The saintly (of course) mother, Anna, lost seven of her thirteen children to the usual slum diseases. William always revered her, and by extension all mothers. But the dominant psychic influence on the boy was his father, Michael—indolent, incompetent, parasitical—whom William hated with an uncommon violence. On the first page of her first chapter, Krefft tells us that at Michael’s funeral, in 1936, William spat on the coffin and muttered, “You son of a bitch.”
He blamed his father for the family’s dire poverty, and specifically for sending him out to earn the money Michael himself should have been earning. By the time the boy was nine, he was selling candy (“Lozengers”) in the streets. Within a year he had recruited a bunch of neighborhood boys to work on commission for him, selling to a richer crowd up in Central Park; during the summer he could bring in up to twelve dollars a week. “I do not remember anything about play,” Krefft quotes him as saying, “because I never remember playing.”
His education was, to put it politely, scanty—the only subject he was good at was math—and he dropped out of the third grade at the age of ten to take a job at a small clothing company. His mother, Krefft tells us, was horrified: “She had given her eldest child the Hebrew name Melech, meaning ‘king,’ and she’d hoped he would become a doctor or a lawyer.” She made him promise to take night classes, which he did until he was about fourteen. He also was obliged to study Hebrew.
The young Fox wandered into a variety of occupations, including a stint as half of a comedy vaudeville act. (He had always harbored notions of becoming an actor.) He tried being a salesman. He tried real estate, and had no stomach for being a landlord. He flirted for a while with socialism. And when he was twenty, he married Eva Leo, whom he had decided was the wife for him when she was nine or ten and he was fourteen or fifteen. (The Leos lived downstairs from the Foxes.) His family was furious: not only did they look down on the Leos, but they feared that their meal ticket was gone—William was supporting his parents and five younger siblings on his income of seventeen dollars a week. They needn’t have worried; he went on supporting them for the rest of their lives.
Eva, he recognized, was the great luck of his life. Not only did she care for him tenderly, she created a haven for him: “From the beginning, Mrs. Fox made our home, no matter how simple, a heaven for me; her artistic fingers made everything she touched beautiful.” He never forgot the decor of their first apartment, on Myrtle Avenue in Brooklyn: the “dainty Swiss curtains and cretonne hangings at the windows, with cushions here and there to match, and beautiful panels, reproductions of great masterpieces given away with coupons of Babbit’s soap, which she had framed to adorn our walls.”
And in time she became his silent partner in the Fox enterprises: “Mrs. Fox hasn’t just been a wife to me and a mother to my children, but the mainstay of my career.” When he started making movies, she was his first reader and adviser, silently indicating her approval or disapproval of his decisions in front of his colleagues. He had absolute trust in her judgment. And because she was an integral part of his affairs, she never resented his eighteen-hour workdays or the absence of normal social activity from her life. She had him and their two daughters and their work. There was no time for anything else.
In his early twenties, despite his ambition and drive, Fox had still not found the path to the success and wealth he knew were within his grasp. Then one day in 1904—he was twenty-five—he realized that moving pictures were the answer. He and two partners had acquired a slot-machine arcade, and he convinced them to let him convert the second floor of their far-from-thriving workplace to a small space in which to show movies. It had 146 seats, a projector, a screen, and a $30 secondhand piano. There was no other such place in Brooklyn—one had recently gone bust.
Renting cheap films was easy, attracting an audience wasn’t, but a passing stranger convinced him to hire a “ballyhoo man”—a coin manipulator, a sword-swallower, a fire-eater—to stand outside on the street and proclaim to passersby that he would finish his act upstairs. It worked. Estimates of the theater’s first-year profits range from $40,000 to $75,000, and this was only the beginning. Immediately Fox began acquiring other venues, as large as he could afford—the 1,600-seat Unique Theater in Brooklyn, for instance. He had bought out his nervous partners, but they now asked to be let back in, and he welcomed them back. “Throughout his career,” Krefft tells us, “Fox would display a remarkable ability to forgive those who had disappointed him in business, regarding their lapses less as personal affronts than as the result of limited vision.”
The entire movie business was booming, and so was the competition—brilliant entrepreneurs like the ex-furrier Marcus Loew were as ambitious and farsighted as Fox was, although he always did things his own way. Unlike most of his competitors, he catered to a family audience: his theaters were clean, well ventilated, well managed. “It meant twenty-four hours work out of the twenty-four but it was worth it.” And, says Krefft, “While many other exhibitors ran shabby theaters that matched the circumstances of their patrons’ lives, Fox aimed to touch their dreams.”
Most important to his success, of course, was that moviegoing was swiftly becoming a national phenomenon. By 1907, Moving Picture World could point out that all the average owner had to do, once a theater was up and running, was to “open the doors, start the phonograph [for musical accompaniment] and carry the money to the bank. The public does the rest.”
The following years were years of dynamic expansion for Fox, and also the period during which he was instrumental in fighting a titanic battle against Thomas Edison’s Motion Picture Patents Company (MPPC), which through its patents on cameras and other equipment had a stranglehold on film production. The antitrust war wasn’t formally laid to rest by the Supreme Court until 1917, but Fox and his allies had already for all practical purposes prevailed. “The end of the MPPC,” writes Krefft, “opened a new chapter in film history. Now, anyone in the United States who wished to make movies could do so legally. Thanks largely to Fox, the foundation had been laid for the American studio system.” And he was quick to claim credit: in a full-page ad in a trade publication, he announced, “I fought in the United States Courts and won.”
His way was now clear. The crucial appellate court decision had come down on October 1, 1915, but Fox Film Corporation had already been in production for most of the year, having attracted $400,000 from a group of not exactly snow-white investors. The foundations of the company were, indeed, murky. As Krefft puts it:
A founder who had made his name by allying himself with the most corrupt political machine in American history, a general manager who had helped run a multimillion-dollar police graft scheme and who was probably involved in a murder plot, seed money from corporate stock manipulators—these were the people who launched the Fox Film Corporation. It wasn’t the way Fox wanted to do business, but it was, he believed, the way he had to do business. For the next fifteen years, he would work with superhuman energy to scrub away those stains and to create a clean, bright, new life for himself and his namesake company.
From the start of his career as a moviemaker, Fox was far more focused on quality directors than on stars, discovering or encouraging Herbert Brennon, Frank Borzage, Frank Lloyd, Raoul Walsh, Howard Hawks, John Ford, and the revered F.W. Murnau, whose Sunrise (1927), hardly a typical Fox feature, remains one of the world’s most admired films. His directors—until they couldn’t take it any longer—put up with his eternal, obsessive interference in their work. “Fox,” Krefft tells us,
chose all the stories, sometimes coming up with ideas himself; he collaborated with writers, selected actors, and assigned directors. Every night…he watched the day’s rushes. As images filled the screen, Fox fired suggestions at the stenographer and the film editor, who sat nearby huddled over a small table taking notes in the light of a green-shaded lamp. After that, into the early morning hours, he met at length with each director about reshoots.
When filming was complete, [he] helped edit the footage, wrote inter-titles, and oversaw publicity campaigns…. Watching up to fifty reels of film per week, Fox approved every foot of film that the studio released.
What were these movies? Most of them were the standard melodramatic and comic fare of the time, but Fox was also aspiring to art, to culture; he wanted tremendous profits, but he also wanted respectability, and to educate and inspire. He spent great sums of money to film the classics—A Tale of Two Cities, Les Misérables, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. He imported the famous Norwegian actress Betty Nansen—Ibsen’s original Hedda Gabler—who arrived in New York wearing a sable cape and “trailing a retinue of servants” carrying “forty-six trunks containing $50,000 worth of costumes.” (Nobody came to her movies, and none of them survives today.)
And then lightning struck. Someone decided to star a would-be actress named Theodosia Goodman in a film called A Fool There Was, based on a notorious play that had introduced the concept of “The Vamp” (short for Vampire)—the woman whose sexual allure is so great and destructive that the men who fall for her are doomed, doomed, doomed. Theodosia Goodman became Theda Bara (anagram: Arab Death). Fox launched the film and star with an unprecedented national campaign, and A Fool There Was burned up the box office. (Its most famous intertitle, after Theda has reduced one of her lovers to slavish adoration, was “Kiss me, my Fool!” Instead, he shoots himself.) This early 1915 release was the first movie to make a million-dollar profit.
After the sweetness and pluck of Mary Pickford and the Gish sisters and the other ingénues of the day, the moment had arrived in America for “The Vamp.” Theda Bara seized the moment, despite being (aptly) described by Krefft as a thirty-year-old with
little to recommend her. With her broad, flat face, asymmetrical features, strong jawline, and thick-waisted, chubby-legged figure, she looked mostly like what she actually was: a middle-class, Jewish tailor’s daughter from Cincinnati, Ohio.
By the end of 1916, Fox had released eighteen Theda Bara vehicles, all immensely successful except when they deviated from the Vamp genre. (No one wanted to see Arab Death in something called The Two Orphans, so she had to go on saying things like “My heart is ice, my passion consuming fire.”) Ambitious and serious about her work, she would sometimes finish one movie and start the next one on the same day. It all paid off: she was 1916’s third most popular star, after Pickford and Charlie Chaplin.
Luckily, Bara was a sensible person with a sense of humor, and she did her bit to help things along. Where was she born? “You might just as well tell them I was born on the desert of the Sahara.” Could she be a little more specific? “Very well,” she supposedly said, “make it two blocks from the Sphinx.” When a woman wrote to her, accusing her of breaking up happy homes, she wrote back, “I am working for a living, dear friend, and if I were the kind of woman you seem to think I am, I wouldn’t have to.”
She was Juliet (Fox improved on Shakespeare’s final scene). She was Salome. Most of all, she was Cleopatra. Fox ballyhooed this extravaganza for years, and by 1918 it had been seen by 5.2 million people—about 200,000 more, Krefft remarks, than the entire population of Egypt in Cleopatra’s day. Alas, Cleopatra is lost to us, but the many ludicrous stills tell you all you need to know.
Bara and Fox got along well—they admired each other’s work ethic and respected each other’s professionalism—but there was no romance: he was a one-woman man, and she at that time was a no-man woman. The only romance in her early life was the romance of acting. She read a lot (Nietzsche and Conrad, her fans were informed), staying quietly at home every night with her parents, until in 1921 she married a well-known director and lived happily and in luxury for the next thirty-five years.
Krefft has a lot of fun with Theda Bara, and how not? But she’s not really invested in movie history or, for that matter, in movies. For instance, she has nothing penetrating to say about Fox’s next great female star, the enchanting Janet Gaynor, winner of the first Best Actress Oscar, heroine of the acclaimed Borzage films 7th Heaven, Street Angel, and Lucky Star, of the great Sunrise, and—long after her Fox days—of the original A Star Is Born. By the mid-1920s, with production shifted from New York to California, Fox was focused on building his movie house empire, having receded from overseeing the product. “I only met him to say how do you do,” Gaynor said. “He didn’t seem to have anything to do with the running of the studio.”
Krefft does give us the first Fox male star—the manly, noble William Farnum, whose original fame came from playing Ben-Hur on stages across America. And we learn about Tom Mix, the tremendous western star (he made eight or nine feature films a year for Fox), though Krefft neglects to tell us that not only are Mix’s boot-prints set in cement at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, but so are the hoof-prints of his famous sidekick, Tony the Wonder Horse.
Given Fox’s withdrawal from personally supervising the making of his movies, the studio’s output of the early 1920s was less distinguished and less successful than its predecessors. Its actors grew disillusioned. John Gilbert, for one, told his wife, the actress Leatrice Joy, “Fox doesn’t have a friend in the world, because he is mean, cheap, vulgar, and he’s notorious for breaking his word.” Do we accept Gilbert’s word? He was extravagantly emotional and a lifelong hater of authority, but he was honest.
Clearly, Fox’s attention was elsewhere. He had come to realize the great disadvantage he was under by not owning a significant enough number of movie theaters—he had, for instance, no choice exhibition venues on the West Coast—and he flung himself into an orgy of acquisition and construction. To raise money for this radical expansion, the Fox Film Corporation went public, though Fox retained control: from the start, he had shown an obsessive need to exert absolute control, refusing to relinquish the slightest scrap of authority.
In the mid-1920s, he began revitalizing artistic operations, bringing back experienced directors like Raoul Walsh and Allan Dwan and featuring a new group of talented ones: Howard Hawks, for one, and most importantly the young John Ford, to whom, in 1924, he entrusted his most ambitious project to date, The Iron Horse, a major critical and financial triumph. He had big hits like What Price Glory and eventually The Big Trail. And he threw himself into the race to convert the movies to sound—a race not only to develop the best technology but to defeat his rivals for both the profit and the glory. Krefft makes a good case for him as the true pioneer of talking pictures, rather than the Warner Brothers with their Jazz Singer.
Perhaps his most conspicuous success during this period was the creation of Fox Movietone News. In a major coup, on May 20, 1927, Fox filmed—with sound—Charles Lindbergh’s take-off from Roosevelt Field, Long Island, on his solo flight across the Atlantic. Movietone News brought the world the Prince of Wales, Mussolini (“I salute the noble government of the United States”), George Bernard Shaw, Herbert Hoover’s acceptance speech after the 1928 election, and an eruption of Mount Etna, complete with the sound of houses collapsing. By the end of 1928, Fox had fifty news crews dispersed around the world. He was again a creative force to be reckoned with.
Over the years, Fox’s outside interests—and lifestyle—had been changing. Now he and Eva and the girls were living on an opulent estate on Long Island. For a while he was seriously involved in philanthropies: the Red Cross, the United Jewish Campaign. And annually he gave $250,000 in personal charity, with Eva personally distributing the money.
None of this activity, however, interfered with his old determination to assume a commanding situation within the movie world. This meant primarily the continued expansion of his theater ownerships, a goal he pursued with reckless intensity. In 1927, for instance, he acquired for millions of dollars the newly opened Roxy Theater in New York, the largest movie house in the world—the “Cathedral of the Motion Picture.”
In his obsession, he grew increasingly out of control—and there was no one to restrain him. In a telling profile written in 1929, a razor-sharp young reporter, Allene Talmey, described him as tormented by “his relentless lust for power…. It is absurd to say that he is conceited. It is too puny a word. Megalomania afflicted with elephantiasis, that is the state of his self-esteem.”
By then, he was facing both tremendous opportunities and profound dangers. The problem, as always, was money—how to support his grandiose schemes without losing control of his company. In the fall of 1929, he was on the verge of claiming the greatest prize—acquiring the late Marcus Loew’s properties (including MGM) for $50 million, which would have made him the unchallenged leader of the industry—when Black Tuesday changed everything. He had failed by a matter of days.
The heart of Krefft’s book lies in her almost 250-page, brilliantly researched, and almost unreadable account of his subsequent struggles, first to prevail, then to survive—struggles with his enemies, with the unsympathetic money people he finally was forced to reach out to, with the government’s latest antitrust activities, with a corrupt court system, with his blind conviction that he could save himself. These pages are so dense with legal and financial detail that they’re impossible for a layperson like myself to parse, but we get the point.
Fox lost the struggle—and his studio and his theaters—although he emerged with some $20 million in personal assets, or assets he had transferred to Eva. But his occupation was gone, as well as his position as a giant of the film industry. He was reduced to being a bystander. Far worse, in the struggle, he had resorted to illegal activities—not only desperate financial manipulations but actual crimes. Eventually he confessed to conspiring to obstruct justice and defraud the United States, and was sentenced to a year and a day in prison. After exhausting every possible legal resource, he entered Lewisburg federal penitentiary on November 20, 1942, and was released on parole after serving five months and seventeen days. In 1947, President Truman granted him a full and unconditional pardon.
It was not only Fox’s professional life that had collapsed; his personal life had as well. Eva had not only grown physically ill, she had become the victim of grave emotional disorders. The two Fox daughters, having experienced disastrous marriages—and with one unimpressive son each to show for them—had never escaped their father’s overwhelming need to rule their lives. The family was trapped in a siege mentality, clinging to one another because there was no one else. Fox died in 1952, at the age of seventy-three, and was buried privately. No one from the film industry attended, because no one was invited.
Until the end, Fox remained bitter, angry, and convinced that others had destroyed him. Vanda Krefft’s remarkable book makes it inescapably clear that he had destroyed himself.
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