Friday, February 2, 2018

Willam Fox: Twentieth-Century Man

When I was growing up in West L.A., Twentieth Century-Fox Studio was just down the road from my suburban neighborhood. It always seemed incredibly glamorous to me to pass the studio gates, catching a glimpse of the make-believe inside. (For the longest time, you could see the Old New York sets used in Hello, Dolly!, an overblown musical in which many of my neighbors got hired to fill out the ranks of parade-watchers for a humongous production number.)

For all my interest in the studio, I was never clear on the Fox part of its name. Now, however, I feel like an expert. Of course, the REAL expert is Vanda Krefft, a fellow Santa Monican who’s my colleague in BIO, the Biographers International Organization. Vanda, a longtime entertainment journalist, was lucky enough to know Angela Fox Dunn, a niece of William Fox and what Vanda describes as “the keeper of the flame.” Dunn was the one who started Vanda on her quest to discover everything about William Fox—how he lived, how he worked, what he contributed.  In Vanda’s telling, Fox was so important to the early development of the film industry that she calls her book The Man Who Made the Movies. That’s a big claim, given that Fox was part of the era that also included such major figures as Adolph Zukor and Louis B. Mayer. But the list of his accomplishments, as the head of the Fox Film Corporation, is remarkable. Among other achievements, he introduced the first Hollywood sex symbol, Theda Bara, gave a start to director John Ford, and produced the first Hollywood feature with an (almost) all-black cast,  He also controlled a vast chain of Fox theatres, pioneered the development of foreign markets for American movies, and  spearheaded the development of sound-on-film, a technique that (in preference to the sound-on-disk method used by Warner Bros. for The Jazz Singer) quickly became the industry standard. At the very first Academy Awards event, five of  the twelve honors handed out were connected with such Fox films as Sunrise and Seventh Heaven.

Despite all his grand successes within the film industry (he personally received an Academy Award for producing Sunrise), Fox was not a contented man. Like the other  early moguls of the film industry, he was a Jewish immigrant who had overcome poverty, anti-semitism, and family misfortune by dint of a fiercely competitive spirit. Though he adored his wife, he ruled his household with an iron fist. Among his fellow filmmakers he made lifelong enemies. The same energy that led him to high achievements also drove him to overreach, and ultimately landed him in deep financial trouble. Though he had always been a man of strong moral and religious conviction, his desperate efforts to right his sinking ship resulted in actions that were frankly dishonest. In 1942, at the age of 64, he was sentenced to prison, while other equally guilty parties apparently got off scot-free. In the meantime, his namesake companies passed into the hands of others, shysters who knew nothing about the movie business and quickly drove them into the ground. (One of many short-sighted goofs: refusing to extend the contract of the young John Wayne) . Fox Films finally survived only by linking with an upstart company, Twentieth Century Pictures. 

 If the story of Fox’s rise is an exhilarating one, his fall is sad indeed. But Vanda Krefft (through her diligent research and her lucid writing style) makes us care about this flawed but memorable man. Her book’s subtitle—The Meteoric Rise and Tragic Fall of William Fox—is apt indeed

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