Sunday, January 01, 2006

The Founding Fox


Film executive William Fox, founder of the Fox Film Corporation (later 20th Century-Fox), was born Wilhelm Fried in Tulchva, Hungary on this day in 1879.

The convicted felon whose name today adorns the media empire of Rupert Murdoch was, appropriately enough, a shrewd industry upstart -- a gambling pirate with a solid sense of public taste who ultimately gambled once too often.

Fox worked in the garment industry before buying his first nickelodeon for $1,666.66 in 1904, and within a few years had opened his own chain of theaters. Thomas Edison attempted to hijack the entire film distribution sector with his Motion Picture Patents Company, buying out rival theater owners, but Fox resisted Edison's muscle move and filed suit against him for restraint of trade. Soon he formed his own film rental company to compete with Edison, leading to the defeat of Edison's cartel well before the court decided in Fox's favor in 1917.

By 1915, Fox had established his own movie production company, scoring successes with A Fool There Was (1915, with Theda Bara) and Daughter of the Gods (1916, with swimming star Annette Kellerman). Along with Universal Studios' Carl Laemmle, Fox must be given credit (or blame, take your pick) for the establishment of the star system, for like Laemmle he chose to take the novel step of marketing his films with the names and likenesses of his most popular players. And in his theaters, he incorporated such innovative amenities as organ accompaniment, faux-palatial interiors and noiseless projectors.

By the 1920s, Fox Pictures was one of the most successful Hollywood studios, and Fox capitalized on the success by becoming the first studio (after Warner Brothers) to begin making sound movies. In 1935, William Fox lost a patent case on which he had staked much of his company's future, and despite the fact that he was in charge of a $44 million film empire, his operations had become overextended during the Depression and he was forced to take Fox Films into bankruptcy. Fox Film then merged into Joseph Schenck's 20th Century Pictures to form 20th Century-Fox.

In 1941, Fox was sentenced to (and served) a year and one day in prison for conspiring to obstruct justice and defraud the U.S. government during the Fox Films bankruptcy. His business comeback attempts after serving time were unsuccessful, and he was estranged from the industry he helped to start when he died on May 8, 1952.

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