The Least Glamorous Mogul

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William Fox with his wife, Eva, and one of his daughters, 1920s

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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 industryhe 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 entrepreneura 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…

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