William Fox’s name lives on today as a cable news brand, while the movie studio he founded has disappeared into the shadows of Hollywood history.
Fox, who died May 8, 1952, at 73, came from Hungary to NY as a child and worked in the garment business before buying into a Brooklyn nickelodeon in 1904. He soon owned 15 nickelodeons and began distributing films.
The major studios, operating under licenses from movie technology inventor Thomas Edison, formed the Motion Picture Patents Co. in 1908 and the General Film Co. in 1910 as monopolies to produce and distribute films. Fox refused to sell out to them and sued under the Sherman Antitrust Act, winning a $370,000 settlement and changing how the fledgling movie business developed.
He formed Fox Film Corp. Feb. 1, 1915, moving into production and enjoying great success with his first star, Theda Bara, known as “The Vamp” for her 1915 drama A FOOL THERE WAS. Fox purchased German patents in 1925 & ’26 that led to the Fox Movietone sound-on-film system first heard on F.W. Murnau’s 1927 drama SUNRISE. Movietone caught on, replacing Warner Bros.’ sound-on-disc system Vitaphone.
An opportunity to dramatically increase Fox’s movie holdings presented itself after Marcus Loew’s untimely death at 57 in September 1927. His theatre chain, Loew’s, Inc., had 1924 formed MGM, which became Hollywood’s top studio. Fox met in 1928 with Loew’s successor, Nicholas Schenck, and proposed buying the Loew Family’s large shareholdings so he could merge MGM into Fox.
Schenck had already had proposals from Paramount & Warner Bros., but Fox sweetened his $50M deal by offering Schenck a $10M fee. After about six months of secret negotiations, Schenck and Fox announced a deal on Feb. 24, 1929. This was a very unpleasant surprise to MGM studio chief Louis B. Mayer, who used his friendship with then-President Herbert Hoover to give Fox anti-trust problems. Trying to work things out, Fox was going to play golf with Schenck on Long Island, where they both lived, but fate intervened.
Fox’s chauffeur got lost and was killed after he hit another car. Fox was seriously hurt and out of action for three months — during which the stock market crashed, wiping him out. He lost control of his company, which was taken over in May 1935 by the hot two-year-old studio 20th Century Pictures, creating 20th Century-Fox. In 2019, as part of a $71.3B deal with Rupert Murdoch, Disney acquired 20th Century-Fox, turning it into a production label called 20th Century Studios.
“I always bragged of the fact that no second of those contained in the twenty-four hours ever passed but that the name of William Fox was on the screen, being exhibited in some theatre in some part of the world.”
– William Fox