The Hollywood studios that cultivated the golden age of movies almost never got off the ground. Blame Thomas Edison. The great inventor fought to secure royalties from anyone using a film projector, which ultimately crushed many exhibitors. But one industry pioneer fought back. He was William Fox, who used much of his own money to take down Edison’s Motion Picture Patents Co. (often referred to as “The Trust”) and to secure freedom for film exhibitors to operate without legal harassment.
If not for Fox, Edison’s Trust would certainly have delayed the growth of movies.
Frequently passed over as just a footnote in mainstream cinema history, Fox deserves a place among the giants who founded what we call Hollywood. And now he gets that place in Vanda Krefft’s new biography, “The Man Who Made the Movies.” With a combination of astute archival research and personal stories from Fox’s niece, Angela Fox Dunn, Krefft weaves a tale that will engage amateur movie enthusiasts and film historians.
Like his peer moguls, Fox was a Jewish emigre who came from nothing and had big dreams. Unlike many of his peers, Fox was unequivocally loyal to his wife and often credited his success on her unwavering emotional support. Fox was one of the first in New York City to pursue movies as a business, beginning with film exhibition in 1904. His only major competitor during those early years was Marcus Loew, who would eventually own the iconic MGM studio.
As Krefft explains, those early days were tough because, while movies were interesting as a new medium, they did not have a bankable audience. Fox had to lure newcomers into a room with a carnival act to get them in front of a screen. Once inside, audiences would marvel at the moving images.
But Fox also had to battle the negative social stature of movies. For many cultural elitists, the movies were a place for criminals and degenerates. With steadfast faith in the future, Fox opened a 600-seat theater in Brooklyn. He continued to buy or rent property to open movie theaters around Manhattan on a scale unrivaled by his peers, thanks to influential New York politician “Big Tim” Sullivan, his underwriter and investor. In 1911, Fox opened the Riverside with 1,800 seats and in 1912 opened the Audubon, a 3,000-seat movie palace that ran an entire city block and came complete with a roof garden, ballroom and 25 stores. By 1913, Fox owned theaters in Manhattan, Brooklyn, New Jersey and New England.
As the medium grew, Fox organized the Motion Picture Association (MPA) to protect theater owners from Edison’s patent attorneys. Without the MPA, Krefft explains, there would have been no MGM, Paramount, Universal or Warner Bros. Taking down Edison’s Trust in 1915 changed film history forever but left Fox in a dicey financial situation. However, Fox was able to secure investors, save his assets and move from exhibition into production with the Fox Film Corp. Among his earliest feature films, “A Fool There Was” (1915) starred Theda Bara, one of cinema’s first sex symbols.
Krefft chronicles the significant shift that came about at the end of 1915, when Fox sent employees to Los Angeles to helm the Fox West Coast studio. By 1916, 80 percent of all movies were made in Southern California. Fox’s West Coast studio was responsible for many important silent films, including “A Daughter of the Gods” (1916) — an epic that trumped “Birth of a Nation” (1915) in scale and budget but is largely forgotten today because no print survives. The next film, “Cleopatra” (1917), was a star vehicle for Bara and an advertising project for the famed “Father of Public Relations” Edward Bernays.
While Fox was fortunate to have vaulted one of cinema’s first starlets to fame, Krefft argues that the mogul was more interested in housing great directors. John Ford completed “The Iron Horse” (1924) and “3 Bad Men” (1926) with Fox. The studio also brought in the celebrated F.W. Murnau, famous for directing “Nosferatu” (1922) in Germany. The Fox studio was also home to the rising talents of Raoul Walsh, Howard Hawks and Allan Dwan.
Always looking for a new investment, Fox was one of the first major moguls to invest in sound technology. While Warner Bros. substantiated the sale of talking movies with its sound-on-disk format, Fox’s venture into sound-on-film, Movietone, would ultimately become the industry standard. (Murnau’s critically acclaimed “Sunrise”  would be an early user of Movietone.)
After a horrible car accident coupled with the economic collapse of 1929, Fox was unable to keep Fox Film Corp., Fox Theaters and Fox News (a newsreel outfit that is now Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News). In what became possibly the largest legal fiasco in U.S. history, Fox was forced to sell the controlling share of his company while facing several lawsuits, constant threats of receivership and angry creditors. He went down swinging, lobbing lawsuits in every direction to keep hold of something in the film industry and solidifying his reputation as a cold, greedy business executive.
Krefft’s history gives us the whole story, one that shows us the tenacity of a titan instead of the bitter caricature left by his final years. Coupling expert scholarship and the tight prose of a seasoned journalist, “The Man Who Made the Movies” provides an overdue addition to film history. Krefft captures both the culture of the origins of cinema as a business and the many fascinating personalities at play within the narrative. No longer Hollywood’s forgotten pioneer, William Fox now has the history he deserves.
Chris Yogerst is the author of “From the Headlines to Hollywood: The Birth and Boom of Warner Bros.”
By Vanda Krefft
Harper. 944 pp. $40