William Fox

Active - 1915 - 1933  |   Born - Jan 1, 1879 in Tulchva, Austria-Hungary  |   Died - May 8, 1952 in New York, NY  |   Genres - Drama, Romance, Comedy, Western

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Filmmaker William Fox was the oldest of a large family of immigrants from Austria-Hungary, where he was born. Growing up on New York's Lower East Side, Fox held down a series of jobs before setting up his own business in 1900: the Knickerbocker Cloth Examining and Shrinking Company. When his profits reached $50,000 in 1904, Fox sold the company in order to realize even more capital. Two years later, he bought a failing nickelodeon from British film pioneer J. Stuart Blackton, bolstering business by hiring live acts to entertain the audience between movies. He then set up his own film exchange, the Greater New York Rental Company, in defiance of the monopolistic Motion Pictures Patent Company; he earned the respect of his fellow exchange executives by winning a long legal battle against the Patents trusts.

Entering the production end of the business with Box Office Attractions in 1913, Fox eventually merged his theatrical, exchange and studio operations into the Fox Film Corporation, which opened for business in 1914. Banking on the popularity of his biggest stars, including Theda Bara and Tom Mix, Fox maintained one of the most successful and prolific studios in Hollywood; he also accumulated a theatre chain numbering 1000 movie houses by 1927. His bread-and-butter product, directed by such dependables as John Ford and Frank Borzage, enabled Fox to engage such "artistic" directors as F. W. Murnau, who wouldn't bring in much at the box office but could be counted upon for the prestige items which won awards and gained critical adulation. In 1927, Fox acquired the Movietone sound-on-film process, far superior to the competing sound-on-disc Vitaphone, which enabled his studio to make a smooth transition to talkies. He also pioneered the wide-screen film with such productions as The Big Trail, but this innovation was not as successful as Movietone.

Ever expanding his empire, Fox acquired a controlling interest in Gaumont-British; when he tried to purchase MGM, however, he over-extended his credit. In dire financial straits thanks to the Wall Street crash, Fox came under attack from many of those in Hollywood who resented his megalomania; this, coupled with the financial mismanagement of certain studio executives, resulted in Fox's ouster from the company which bore his name in 1930. He would bitterly recount his travails in the self-aggrandizing 1933 book Upton Sinclair Presents William Fox. In 1936, one year after his old studio merged with 20th Century, William Fox declared bankruptcy. During the subsequent legal proceedings, Fox tried to bribe a judge and was sentenced to a year in prison in 1941. Paroled in 1943, he tried to set up his own production firm, but no backer was interested in bankrolling the ex-mogul. Though comfortably off thanks to his many patent holdings, William Fox remained "persona non grata" in Hollywood until the time of his death in 1952.

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Factsheet

  • Quit school at the age of 11.
  • Owned a New York-based garment business before entering the motion picture industry.
  • Founded Fox Film Corporation in 1915. 
  • Was forced out of his corporation after suffering financial losses caused by the 1929 stock-market crash.
  • Although the studio he'd founded got a second chance, merging with 20th Century to become 20th Century Fox, he never recovered his cachet in Hollywood after declaring bankruptcy in 1936.