The Man Who Made the Movies: The Meteoric Rise and Tragic Fall of William Fox by Vanda Krefft, Harper, US $40.00, Pp 930, November 2017, ISBN 978-0061136061
William Fox was one of the most important of the early movie moguls. Although a major studio is still named after him, he is largely written off as a failure. In The Man Who Made the Movies, Vanda Krefft reassesses his role in the rise of Hollywood. Vanda Krefft argues that he played a central role in creating a space for American motion pictures. Fox died believing himself a failure. In the late 1920s, he had said, “The only thing worthwhile (sic) in this world, aside from the love of God and family, is an honorable achievement. And to be entirely successful, in my opinion, a man must keep on achieving until the end.” He hadn’t done that. His motion picture career had lasted only twenty-five years and left him two more decades to go on without a purpose.
Vanda Krefft tells us that William Fox was the driving force behind the US Justice Department’s anti-trust lawsuit that broke the monopolist hold of the Motion Picture Patents Company and laid the foundation for the studio system. He also built the career of the first screen sex goddess, transforming a struggling Theodosia Goodman into the brazen, exotic vamp Theda Bara. During the World War I, he led the American motion picture industry’s conquest of foreign markets. He also championed sound-on-film technology, which quickly replaced Warner Bros’ sound-on-disk system to become the industry standard.
Born in Hungry in 1856, he moved to New York along with his wife and firstborn infant son in 1879 to pursue his American dream in motion pictures. In New York, he changed his family name — The Fuchses — to Fox in New York. His story is the story of the 19th-century poor immigrants who flooded into New York’s Lower East Side tenements and the story of the birth of America’s movie industry. It is ironic that he considered himself a failure. Vanda Krefft says that the reason was that he had failed to live up to his own standards of integrity. In 1932 he told Upton Sinclair that, at his funeral, he hoped the rabbi would say, he wasn’t a bad man. He lived a righteous life.” But he later committed a serious crime for which he was imprisoned, and although Truman’s pardon lessened the social stigma, nothing could erase the stain on his character.
Vanda Krefft writes, “If Fox wasn’t – as film history has portrayed him – a coarse, greedy egotist, neither was he – as he tended to think of himself – entirely a victim of hostile, conspiratorial forces.” While the facts do show that after the stock market crash, he was targeted by a financial alliance that forced him to relinquish his companies, he had made himself vulnerable. Vanda Krefft says that he had misunderstood history. He had seen himself as a heroic captain of industry and believed that because he’d been able to build his empire in sole command, he would be able to hold on to it even while Wall Street finance capitalism increasingly subsumed the nation’s entrepreneurial functions. He had believed in a vision of America that was never as true as he’d wanted it to be.
Vanda Krefft rightly argues that Fox’s life wasn’t a failure. The thriving existence of the studio testifies to that. So do Fox’s less immediately visible achievements like the countless creative careers he encouraged and his many heartfelt, ambitious movies whose influence shaped the contours of the emerging art form – among them, ‘A Daughter of the Gods,’ ‘Cleopatra, A Tale of Two Cities,’ ‘The Iron Horse,’ and ‘Sunrise.’ No one in his generation, or arguably thereafter, matched him in the breadth and depth of his contributions to the motion picture industry. If the title can be given to anyone, it belongs to William Fox: the man who made the movies.
The Man Who Made the Movies is the first comprehensive biography of William Fox who played a major role in building America’s movie industry. Vanda Krefft shines a light on previously unknown or ignored corners of his life and brings out the real man without whose efforts Hollywood would not have gained the status of the Mecca of international cinema. This meticulously researched book is virtually the previously ignored history of the Hollywood. It is an important book to understand how the American cinema began and evolved and gained the present status in the world of world cinema.