Fox, William

views updated May 18 2018

FOX, William

Producer. Nationality: American. Born: Wilhelm Fried in Tulchva, Hungary, 1 January 1879; family moved to New York when Fox was nine months old. Career: Peddler in the garment industry; 1904—went into the penny arcade business; bought cinemas in New York; moved into distribution with the Greater New York Film Rental Co.; launched the Fox production studio in New York with the one-reeler Life's Show Window; 1912—succeeded in bringing legal action against the Motion Picture Trust for restraint of trade; 1915—merged his production, distribution and exhibition interests; 1917—Fox Studio moved to Los Angeles; 1925—pioneered Movietone Sound for newsreels, bought out Loew's Inc. and its production wing, MGM; bought the Gaumont Theatre Chain in Britain; 1929—taken to court on the grounds that his purchase of Loew's constituted restraint of trade; 1930—seriously injured in car crash; sold his interests in Fox, and retired from film production; 1942–43—imprisoned for bribing a judge in bankruptcy proceedings. Died: Of heart disease in New York, 8 May 1952.

Films as Producer:


A Fool There Was (Powell)


The Silent Lie (Walsh)


Should a Husband Forgive? (Walsh)


The Strongest (Walsh)


Beyond Price (Dawley); The Big Punch (Ford); The Blushing Bride (Furthman); Bucking the Line (Harbaugh); The Cheater Reformed (Dunlap); Children of the Night (Dillon); Cinderella of the Hills (Mitchell); A Connecticut Yankee at King Arthur's Court (Flynn); Desert Blossoms (Rosson); Dynamite Allen (Henderson); Ever Since Eve (Mitchell); Footfalls (Brabin)


Arabia (Reynolds); Arabian Love (Storm); The Boss of Camp Four (Van Dyke); The Broadway Peacock (Brabin); A California Romance (Storm); Calvert's Valley (Dillon); Catch My Smoke (Beaudine); Chasing the Moon (Sedgwick); The Crusader (Mitchell); Do and Dare (Sedgwick); Elope If You Must (Wallace); The Fighting Streak (Rosson); A Fool There Was (Flynn); For Big Stakes (Reynolds); A Friendly Husband (Blystone); The Fast Mail (Durning)


The Face on the Barroom Floor (Ford); The Footlight Ranger (Dunlap); Big Dan (Wellman); Boston Blackie (Dunlap); Brass Commandments (Reynolds); Bucking the Barrier (Campbell); The Buster (Campbell); Cameo Kirby (Ford); Cupid's Fireman (Wellman); The Custard Cup (Brenon); Does It Pay? (Horan); The Eleventh Hour (Durning); Eyes of the Forest (Hillyer)


The Arizona Express (Buckingham); The Brass Bowl (Storm); Circus Cowboy (Wellman); Curlytop (Elvey); Dante's Inferno (Otto); Darwin Was Right (Seiler); Daughters of the Night (Clifton); The Deadwood Coach (Reynolds); The Desert Outlaw (Mortimer); Flames of Desire (Clift); The Folly of Vanity (Elvey)


The Road to Glory (Hawks); East Lynne (Flynn); The Arizona Romeo (Mortimer); The Dancers (Flynn); The Desert's Price (Van Dyke); Dick Turpin (Blystone); Durand of the Badlands (Reynolds); The Everlasting Whisper (Blystone); Every Man's Wife (Elvey); The Fighting Heart (Ford); The Fool (Millarde)


Bertha, the Sewing Machine Girl (Cummings); Black Paradise (Neill); The Blue Eagle (Ford); The Canyon of Light (Stoloff); The City (Neill); The Country Beyond (Cummings); The Cowboy and the Countess (Neill); Desert Valley (Dunlap); The Dixie Merchant (Borzage); The Silver Treasure (Lee); Early to Wed (Borzage); The Family Upstairs (Blystone); Fig Leaves (Hawks); The Fighting Buckaroo (Neill); The First Year (Borzage); The Flying Horseman (Dull)


The Arizona Wildcat (Neill); The Auctioneer (Green); Black Jack (Dull); Blood Will Tell (Flynn); The Broncho Twister (Dull); Chain Lightning (Hillyer); The Circus Ace (Stoloff); Colleen (O'Connor); Come to My House (Green); The Cradle Snatchers (Hawks); East Side, West Side (Dwan); The Gay Retreat (Stoloff)


Fazil (Hawks); Blindfold (Klein); The Branded Sombrero (Hillyer); Chicken à la King (Lehrman); The Cowboy Kid (Carruth); Daredevil's Reward (Forde); Don't Marry (Tinling); Dressed to Kill (Cummings); Dry Martini (D'Arrast); The Farmer's Daughter (Taurog); Fleetwing (Hillyer); Four Sons (Ford); The Gateway of the Moon (Wray)


The River (Borzage); Four Devils (Murnau); Behind That Curtain (Cummings); Big Time (K. Hawks); Black Magic(Seitz); The Black Watch (Ford); Blue Skies (Werker); Cameo Kirby (Cummings); Captain Lash (Blystone); Chasing Through Europe (Butler); Christina (Howard); The Cock-Eyed World (Walsh); The Exalted Flapper (Tinling); The Far Call (Dwan); Frozen Justice (Dwan); Fugitives (Beaudine); Fox Movietone Follies of 1929 (Butler)


The Arizona Kid (Santell); The Big Party (Blystone); Born Reckless (Ford); Cheer Up and Smile (Lanfield); City Girl (Murnau); Common Clay (Fleming); Crazy That Way (MacFadden); A Devil with Women (Cummings); Double Cross Roads (Werker); Fox Movietone Follies of 1930 (Stoloff)


On FOX: books—

Sinclair, Upton, Upton Sinclair Presents William Fox, 1933.

Allvine, Glendon, The Greatest Fox of Them All, 1969.

On FOX: articles—

Obituary in Motion Picture Herald (Hollywood), vol. 187, no.7, 17 May 1952.

Cinématographe (Paris), no. 100, May 1984.

Classic Images (Muscatine, Iowa), no. 111, September 1984.

Zierold, Norman, "The Film's Forgotten Man: William Fox," in The First Tycoons, edited by Richard Dyer MacCann, London, 1987.

Woods, R., "Over the Hill Put William Fox over the Top," in Classic Images (Muscatine, Iowa), no. 222, December 1993.

* * *

William Fox was one of the true pioneers of the American motion picture industry. From his base in New York City, he established a chain of early movie and vaudeville theaters. He stubbornly defied the takeover attempts of the Motion Picture Patents Company. Thereafter he prospered. During the 1910s Fox set up a film production unit to feed his growing number of theaters, eventually incorporating as the Fox Film Corporation.

In 1914 the Fox Company made its first film in Los Angeles; three years later it set up a permanent operation in California, eventually building a studio lot complex located at Sunset and Western. By 1920 the Fox company had offices for distribution throughout the world, and an ever expanding chain of movie palaces. Indeed, in the mid-1920s, Fox personally sought to create a set of the greatest movie palaces in the world, each bearing his name. Soon thousands each day sought movie fun at several thousand-seat Fox theaters in Brooklyn, Detroit, St. Louis, Philadelphia, San Francisco, and Atlanta. By the late 1920s, the Fox theater chain had movie houses in almost every major town west of the Rocky mountains.

But it was the coming of sound that established Fox as a major player in the American motion picture business. During the early days of talkies, from 1925 through 1928, William Fox and his assistants adapted a version of AT&T's pioneering technology for recording and playing back sound-on-film. Others continued to use sound-on-disc, but by the early 1930s, the sound-on-film technology had become the world film industry standard.

In 1926, Fox signed to help pioneer sound because he felt such a technical change might improve his company's newsreel business. Like the Warner Bros., at first Fox did not believe in a future for feature-length talkies, but reasoned that the public certainly might prefer newsreels with sound. Fox never made a better business decision. Skillfully Fox Film engineers labored to integrate sound-on-film with accepted silent newsreel techniques. On the final day of April 1927, five months before the opening of The Jazz Singer, Fox Film presented its first sound newsreel at the ornate, 5000 seat Roxy Theater located at the crossroads of the entertainment world in Times Square. The process of innovation was off and running.

Less than a month later Fox stumbled across the publicity coup of the decade when he was able to tender the only footage with sound of the takeoff and triumphant return of aviator Charles Lindbergh. Fox newsreel cameramen soon travelled all over the globe in search of stories "with a voice." Theater owners queued up to wire their houses simply to be able to show Fox Movietone newsreels. To movie fans of the day Fox Movietone News offered as much an attraction as any feature-length talkie.

But the coming of the Great Depression did not prove kind to the fortunes of Fox. In 1925 Fox had gone so far as to borrow millions to temporarily take over Loew's, Inc., and its noted filmmaking unit, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. But this investment, coupled with the existing mortgages on the Fox movie palaces and the financing he took on to innovate sound-on-film meant William Fox and his corporation owed millions. With the Depression came a decline in movie attendance, and Fox was not able to pay his loans back. Soon he lost his company; it was merged with 20th Century Pictures in 1935. Fox thereafter attempted to make a grand return to the film business, but a conviction on court tampering charges, time in jail, and advancing age prevented him from ever doing so.

—Douglas Gomery

William Fox

views updated May 18 2018

William Fox

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.

Challenged Edison

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.

Early Film Productions

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).

Talking Pictures

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.

Jail Sentence

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. □