The Man Who Made the Movies: The Mete­oric Rise and Trag­ic Fall of William Fox

Van­da Krefft
  • Review
By – April 6, 2018

Billed as the biog­ra­phy of movie mag­nate William Fox, this metic­u­lous­ly researched vol­ume could serve as a biog­ra­phy of the movie indus­try itself. Van­da Krefft uses Fox’s life sto­ry, from his boy­hood on the streets to his cre­ation of a motion pic­ture empire, to describe the devel­op­ment of this icon­ic, mod­ern Amer­i­can industry.

William Fox, born in 1879, start­ed work­ing in the gar­ment indus­try as a child to sup­port his fam­i­ly when his father wouldn’t — a pater­fa­mil­ias role he con­tin­ued into his old age (and a plot he favored in his films). The pur­chase of a nick­elodeon par­lor marked his first for­ay into the enter­tain­ment indus­try, fol­lowed by a sol­id career pro­duc­ing silent films, before pio­neer­ing the pro­duc­tion of sound films. As an ear­ly pro­duc­er, Fox con­trolled key aes­thet­ic issues — what mate­r­i­al to film, which direc­tors and actors to hire, and what size bud­get to spend. He also took the lead in the orga­ni­za­tion of motion pic­ture exhi­bi­tion — the leas­ing, pur­chas­ing, and build­ing of the­aters, and the licens­ing agree­ments deter­min­ing the films a the­ater could show. By the end of his career, Fox had become a key play­er in the evolv­ing motion pic­ture indus­try, com­pet­ing with oth­er stu­dios and inte­grat­ing with the finan­cial indus­try to lever­age fund­ing for larg­er and larg­er pro­duc­tion budgets.

While cov­er­ing Fox’s major accom­plish­ments, Krefft includes less­er-known, intrigu­ing diver­sions. An ear­ly exper­i­menter with on loca­tion” film­ing (his 1916 A Daugh­ter of the Gods, filmed in Jamaica, has its own chap­ter), Fox also pio­neered the world­wide dis­tri­b­u­tion of Amer­i­can films. To intro­duce sound films to audi­ences, he devel­oped his immense­ly pop­u­lar news­reels, which played before the silent fea­ture. He even filmed sur­gi­cal pro­ce­dures for doc­tors in training.

For the first half of the book, Krefft focus­es on Fox’s bud­ding entre­pre­neur­ship. Since his ear­ly films are lost, she includes plot sum­maries, as well as pro­duc­tion gos­sip and back­sto­ries on the actors. She gives a sense of the themes Fox favored — bad fathers, saint­ly moth­ers, true love reign­ing supreme — and how he dealt with his asso­ciates (he pre­ferred to take the high ground, when pos­si­ble). But as Fox’s role shift­ed from hands-on film pro­duc­tion to run­ning a mul­ti­mil­lion dol­lar busi­ness, Krefft’s focus shifts to the bank­ing sys­tem and the stock mar­ket. As the Great Crash of 1929 loomed, clouds of bank­rupt­cy gath­ered around the heav­i­ly-lever­aged firms of the movie industry.

Like Fox, read­ers start drown­ing in red ink. To her cred­it, Krefft gives deft expla­na­tions of var­i­ous finan­cial maneu­vers — short sell­ing, mar­gin calls, etc. Yet, like Fox, we might wish we were still focused on the movies.

In Fox’s last, sad years, his young niece asked him how he could still believe in God. Fox told her the sto­ry of the kid who tells his friend that God has answered his prayers for the bike, the skates, and the pony he want­ed. So where’s the stuff?” his friend asks. The answer was no,’” the boy says. It’s a small sto­ry that cap­tures Fox perfectly.

Bet­ti­na Berch, author of the recent biog­ra­phy, From Hes­ter Street to Hol­ly­wood: The Life and Work of Anzia Yezier­s­ka, teach­es part-time at the Bor­ough of Man­hat­tan Com­mu­ni­ty College.

Discussion Questions