MARCH 15, 2018
TODAY, SCREENS SHAPE the world. How that came to be is, in part, the subject of Vanda Krefft’s magisterial The Man Who Made the Movies. More specifically, the subject is William Fox, the Hungarian-Jewish founder of the Fox movie and TV empire. Krefft is fascinated by the construction of the cinema and the central father-son psychodrama that drove Fox to achieve what he did. In a book that mostly eschews speculation, she insists on Fox’s contempt for his immigrant father Michael, who held on to romantic views of the old country and blamed his failure on his adopted home.
But there is more to Fox’s story than a family drama. We live in an era when the Fox cinema company is being sold to Disney for over $50 billion, and when Fox News reaches through the screen to shape the thoughts of a president. Krefft presents William Fox as a great immigrant success eventually crushed by the machinations of Wall Street finance; it seems a missed opportunity not to delve deeper into his legacy in the present day.
Krefft tells the story of Fox, the founder of Fox Theaters and Fox Film Corporation (from which came the merged Twentieth Century Fox), in exhaustive detail. By her account, Fox was central to the development of American film art as well as the American movie industry. Pioneered in its recognizable form by the Lumière Brothers in the 1890s and superseded by the internet in the 21st century, film was the quintessential art form of the 20th century. But its ascent was not assured.
Fox’s emergence from poverty on the Lower East Side of Manhattan to become one of the world’s most important movie moguls is inspiring. Through a series of jobs in the garment industry, he began providing for his family as a young teen, before finding his way into entertainment. From an investment in slot machine arcades he stumbled into the nascent world of cinema, surviving wrangles with the corrupt politics of Tammany Hall and the more established players in the world of movies.
Krefft’s thesis is that, over decades, and unlike other cinema titans, Fox established and maintained control of his company, never ceding it to the banks, and was deeply involved in both the production and distribution of his films. He made money from movies but also did much more. From editing scripts to choosing actors; from the use of nationwide marketing campaigns to the standardization and installation of sound reproduction technology; and from choosing movie theater locations to the details of their interior designs, it was Fox, more than any other single human in the first half of the 20th century, who determined what movies you saw and how you saw them. This meant that his influence on both movies and the movie industry was vast.
Other moguls might have endured longer or made more money, but none were as deeply involved with the construction of the movie industry as we know it. Examples include making Theda Bara Hollywood’s first “vamp,” producing many of John Ford’s early Westerns, and making it a maxim that movie theaters — previously viewed as tawdry venues — should always be as luxurious as possible.
The power of his achievement is evidenced in part by absence — more precisely, by our inability to imagine the movie-making and -going experiences in a radically different way. Obviously it wasn’t Fox alone who made movies the way they are, and the tale of his fall is testament to his limitations, but it’s also difficult to overestimate his influence on our current ways of seeing.
The tragedy of Fox’s final, abject loss of control to bigger financial players — partly as a result of the Wall Street Crash of 1929, well beyond his control — meant that the technical, dramatic, and theatrical knowhow Fox had obtained through a quarter century of top-level experience was lost to a trade increasingly run by unscrupulous money men, disinterested in art or truth. Though the two organizations bearing his name have only a tenuous connection to his actual work, they preserve the legacy of a man who shaped the silver screen.
And what is that legacy? More on that later.
While Krefft could have done even more to address Fox’s significance for today — that is, why it matters to have been the man who made the movies — she does offer a penetrating psychological analysis of his motivations, namely, his repudiation of his father Michael in favor of his idealized mother:
Michael Fox had always blamed his failure to provide for his family on the difficulties that America set up against the immigrant outsider. Still, he seemed neither to acknowledge the burden he’d placed on his son nor to appreciate the rewards of his son’s efforts.
Michael Fox romanticized his past, claiming that he had left a picturesque Hungarian village in order to find a better future for his family. William despised this myth and was disgusted with his father’s personal ineffectiveness. Years later, Fox sent his news team to film Hungarian villages, and Krefft speculates that he told them to find the most squalid ones, to give the lie to his father’s self-pitying fantasy. “The most visible symbol of Fox’s conflict between past and present,” Krefft writes, “was his father”:
One evening at Fox Hall, Fox escorted his father and other family members into the estate’s private theater, with its red damask-upholstered Louis XV fauteuils lined up in rows, its tapestry-covered walls, and long red-velvet draperies. “Here is your village,” he told his father, indicating the screen. “Just as you left it.” As the gruesome images cascaded onto the screen, Michael Fox shrank into his chair. When the segment ended, he stood up and walked out silently. It was ruthless of Fox to shatter the one idea that, although a delusion, gave his father a sense of dignity. Ruthless, but effective — Michael Fox never again spoke to anyone in the family about his beloved homeland.
This brings us back to our present situation. For Fox himself, there may have been a clear distinction between features and newsreels, such as the Hungarian footage, but he was already using that footage for manipulative ends. While Krefft mentions the news project, she does not treat it with the same scrutiny as she does other parts of Fox’s empire. She records the creation of Fox News in October 11, 1919, as an attempt to redeem the studio’s flagging reputation and discusses how Fox put an exclusive interview with Mussolini on the same bill as his expensive and ambitious 1927 feature Sunrise (directed by F. W. Murnau) to try to boost viewers. But we aren’t shown Fox’s involvement in the news (or his deliberate lack of involvement, if that was the case) apart from the Hungarian village reel.
By 1929, when the finances began to come crashing down, Fox had already written quite a story for himself. It was “one over which Fox continually marveled,” Krefft tells us. “Twenty-five years before he had been a nobody. Now he was shaping American culture.” Krefft’s scholarship will provide an invaluable future resource for those more inclined to draw further conclusions, and she is convincing about Fox’s central role in “making the movies.” But the significance of the “man who made the movies” and shaped American culture lies well beyond 1929 or even May 8, 1952, the day of Fox’s death, where Krefft ends her story.
In fact, from Nixon’s television speech in September of that year, to Facebook’s effect on the 2016 presidential election, screens and the powerful — heavily manipulated and manipulative — stories they tell have been central to American and global politics. As 21st Century Fox discusses its proposed merger with Disney, one of the original “big six” studios will probably adopt a name that is synonymous with cartoonish fantasy. And Fox News, which for the past two decades has been building a spectacular bullshit mountain, has reached a pinnacle now that its particular brand of propa-tainment is taken as true by the president of the United States. William Fox shaped the screen, and today the fantasies of the screen are shaping our world.
Decades ago, when I was teaching high school, I offered a compulsory seminar with a module called “Frames.” The idea was to explore context. We looked for objects and framed them with our attention. We took that attention and made photographs. We took those photographs and made large physical frames for them. We took those framed photographs and told stories about them. With each new framing, the object changed, the world around it changed, and, sometimes, the students changed.
When we talk about frames, we are not engaged in some abstract conversation about art or theory — we are talking about the crucial contexts that make content meaningful for our own life. Krefft’s point about Fox is that the “man who made the movies” was more involved in the framing of movies than any other. A sense of the larger issues at stake would have helped readers frame the importance of the facts Krefft lays out with such mastery.