William Fox (1879-1952), was a creative businessman whose films influenced the lives of millions of people around the world.
William Fox was born in Tulchva, Hungary on January 1, 1879. His parents, Michael Fox, a machinist, and Anna Fried Fox, brought their son to the United States as an infant. He was educated in New York City schools. On his twenty-first birthday, Fox married Eva Leo; they had two daughters. After working for a few years in the garment industry, Fox started his motion picture career in 1904 by buying a nickelodeon in Brooklyn, New York, for $1,666.66. Within a few years he had organized a chain of movie theaters and a production company.
One of Fox's first critical decisions was to challenge the monopoly established by Thomas A. Edison and his associates, who sought to control the production, distribution, and exhibition of films on the basis of their possession of existing patents. Their organization, the Motion Picture Patents Company, formed the General Film Company in April 1910 specifically to absorb all licensed film exchanges. By January 1912, fifty-seven of fifty-eight exchanges were bought out, but Fox refused to surrender. His firm, The Greater New York Film Rental Company, initiated a lawsuit against the Patents Company as an unlawful conspiracy in restraint of trade, which had the immediate result of deterring his opponent. Fox had been quick to realize that showing one film many times over throughout the United States (or throughout the world) would produce considerable income on a relatively small investment. In 1913 he organized the Box Office Attractions Company, a film-rental company. Thus, for all practical purposes, Edison's trust had been broken long before the final court decision was made in 1917.
The successful outcome of Fox's legal battle greatly affected the motion picture industry. Free competition forced improvement in the quality of productions, the star system was established, and Hollywood eventually became the mecca for aspiring actors and actresses. While some companies, including Biograph and Pathe, under the Patents Company aegis, refused to give screen credits, Fox and other producers, among them Carl Laemmle, used credits to attract the best performers, who thereby gained public recognition. Although this attitude was a source of future trouble for the film magnates, it also brought them success. Fox, Laemmle, Adolph Zukor, Jesse L. Lasky, and others gained incredible power. As Fox remarked, the local cinema replaced the corner saloon as a social center. Fox charged as much as twenty cents' admission to his theaters in the early days and introduced such niceties as organ accompaniment, ornate interiors, vaudeville novelties, noiseless projection, and improved service.
Fox produced his first movie in a rented studio at Fort Lee, New Jersey. It was called Life's Shop Window and was well received. The Fox Film Corporation was organized in 1915, and the same year Fox produced Carmen at Fort Lee with Theda Bara. (Another early star in his stable was Annette Kellerman.) During World War I, Fox served as chairman of the theatrical American Red Cross drive and of the United War Work Campaign Fund drive. Although he was motivated by patriotism and goodwill, these activities also brought valuable publicity to his films and stars.
In 1919 Fox acquired a studio on Tenth Avenue in New York City; he produced dozens of pictures there on a comparatively large scale. Later he moved to Sunset Studios in Hollywood, where he had established a production unit around 1917. Fox showed imagination in selecting stories, film writers, directors, and players. Among others, he hired Frank Borzage, the best of the sentimentalists and proponents of gauzed photography, who directed Seventh Heaven (1927) and Street Angel (1928). He also employed the brilliant German scriptwriter Carl Mayer and signed up Janet Gaynor, later one of his most successful stars.
In the films he made after World War I, Fox created sentiment with children, wicked men, sensual vamps, and white-haired mothers. Over the Hill (1921), The Custard Cup (1922), and The Four Devils (1928) typified the style of that period. Some critics claimed that Fox spent lavishly on "art" for second-rate productions. A number of his pictures were based on classics, with the obvious intent of achieving popular appeal and increasing profits. His films were a product of their times, but he continually sought new techniques to improve photography, scripts, and acting for the screen. Among his better-known productions were What Price Glory? (1927), Evangeline (1929), Cleopatra (1934), Les Miserables (1935), and A Tale of Two Cities (1935).
In 1925, a year before any Hollywood studio showed a commercial interest in sound, Fox spent $60,000 to acquire 90 percent of western hemisphere rights to Tri-Ergon, which included important flywheel patents for talking pictures. The following year he bought Movietone, a sound-on-film process invented by Theodore Case and Earl I. Sponable. Fox Movietone News became famous for its excellent camera work and sound reproduction. For several years Warner Brothers and Fox were the only two studios in the field of sound pictures. By 1930, however, Fox began to claim innumerable infringements on his flywheel patent rights and went to great legal expense to protect his position. Nonetheless, in 1935 the Supreme Court annulled the decisions of all the lower courts that had decided in his favor. Fox had gambled heavily on collecting large sums in damages and, in the midst of a worldwide economic depression, he suddenly found himself financially overextended.
Fox had vast holdings that included the Fox Film Corporation; Loews, Incorporated, which he had bought for about $44 million; and an interest in Gaumont-British. The total value of his properties was estimated to be about $300 million. After the 1929 stock market crash almost every Hollywood studio was in financial trouble, and the Fox empire gradually fell apart. In 1930 Fox had sold his controlling interest in the production, distribution, and theater holdings in the United States and abroad for a reported $18 million. When the Fox Film Corporation merged with Twentieth Century Pictures, another producing organization, in 1935, the new company became known as Twentieth Century-Fox.
For years Fox was in and out of courts in connection with complicated bankruptcy proceedings. On October 20, 1941, he was sentenced to a year and a day in jail (which he served) and $3,000 for conspiring to obstruct justice and defraud the United States in relation to the bankruptcy. In 1944 he tried to stage a comeback in the film industry, but without apparent success. Four years later he offered a public-service documentary on Sister Elizabeth Kenny's concept of the treatment of poliomyelitis that was shown at Town Hall in New York City.
Fox spent his last years in Woodmere, Long Island. Although he had lost much of his material wealth and faced the disgrace of a jail sentence, no one could detract from his achievements as a creative businessman who produced films that influenced the lives of millions of Americans. He died in New York City on May 8, 1952.
Geduld, Harry M., The Birth of the Talkies, 1975.
Jacobs, Lewis, The Rise of the American Film—A Critical History, 1939.
Jarvie, I. C., Movies and Society, 1970.
Lahue, Karlton C., Bound and Gagged, 1968.
Rotha, Paul and Richard Griffith, The Film Till Now—A Survey of World Cinema, 1967.
Sinclair, Upton, Upton Sinclair Presents William Fox, 1933.
Wright, Basil, The Long View, 1974.
New York Times, May 9, 1952.