Recommended Reading

"The Man Who Made the Movies: The Meteoric Rise and Tragic Fall of William Fox"

by Vanda Krefft (Harper Collins, Publishers 2017, 944 pages) -

Review by James L. Neibaur

When a book runs over 900 pages one can pretty much be guaranteed to get all of the necessary information about the subject contained therein.  Vanda Krefft's book "The Man Who Made the Movies" is subtitled "The Meteoric Rise and Tragic Fall of William Fox," and it not only functions as a remarkably thorough biography, it also offers an encyclopedic knowledge of cinema's early history.

The history portion reaches several levels ­ the financial, the technological, the aesthetic, and the entertainingly trivial, combining all of these as central to the development of Fox's autobiography.  The immediate business inspiration, blending with creative aspiration that led Fox into motion picture production is fully covered.  We journey through his initial experiments, impressive successes, building of early movie stars, conflicts with producers like Sol Wurtzel, rivalry with the likes of Adolph Zukor, and eventual downfall with no detail overlooked.  It is the story of a man, of an industry, of a creative evolution, and of a cultural revolution.

William Fox was unhappy in the garment industry, as he was filled with too much creative ambition to remain.  When he got into the movie industry during early part of the 20th century, moving pictures were just beginning to explore the concept of using editing to present narrative cinema.   Fox was active as the nickelodeons became movie houses that Fox bought and redesigned according to his own vision.  When he entered motion picture production, it was via a series of forgettable flops, save for having the foresight to secure the rights to release Windsor McCay's groundbreaking animated short "Gertie the Dinosaur" (1914). 

One of the most interesting discussions in the early portion of this book is the rise of actress Theda Bara, one of Fox's first big stars, who had the lead in "A Fool There Was" (1915).  That film became the first motion picture to make a one million dollar profit.  The book extends to examining Bara's impact on the moviegoing culture, how her roles as a vamp were greatly successful, while her attempts to extend beyond that type netted poor box office results.  Bara was, and remains, defined by her performance in the title role of the Fox film "Cleopatra" (1917), but despite her stardom with Fox continuing for several years, she allowed her contract to lapse by the end of the decade so she could pursue more varied roles.  While this book is about William Fox, it is so detailed that it also explores Theda Bara's career with the studio, her screen triumphs, and how she was, in reality, quite different from the screen image by which she was known.

In an effort to also have a flagship male star, Fox hired stage performer William Farnum.  A versatile actor who was capable of effectively playing a variety of roles, Fox helped build an image for the actor.  And while none of his films reached the box office level of Theda Bara's biggest hits, Farnum worked hard, persevering during dangerous stunts without complaint, and remained one of Fox's biggest stars. 

Krefft's book carefully and completely examines this very important period in Fox's early career as a producer, not only discussing the films and the actors, but also the impact the movies had on moviegoers, how they responded to the culture, and how they also shaped it. 

An entire chapter is devoted to "A Daughter of the Gods" (1916), Fox's attempt to create an epic film at the level of D.W. Griffith's "Birth of a Nation" (1915).  Krefft's chapter on this film is especially fascinating as it examines the relationship between Fox and writer-director Herbert Brenon, the creative process of making the movie, the then-large costs, the difficulties as Brenon and Fox went from comrades to conflict.  The story becomes compelling when the director is forced to attend the invitation-only premiere in disguise, the triumph of the film as an acclaimed epic, and how Fox stemmed from this success into further ventures.

The 1920s brought John Ford to the studio.  Considered one of the finest directors in the history of American cinema, Ford helmed one of his true classics, "The Iron Horse" (1924) for Fox.  While it is generally considered the film that catapulted John Ford to the front ranks of American filmmakers, "The Iron Horse" was made after the director had already helmed nearly fifty B-movies and short subjects for Universal. During this apprenticeship, Ford not only honed his understanding of the filmmaking process, he was also able to prepare himself for expanding his vision in presenting history through the cinema. He did this at Fox with this classic feature.

"The Iron Horse" employed 5000 extras; constructed two whole towns; 100 cooks to feed the crew; 2000 rail layers; a cavalry regiment; 800 Indians; 1300 buffalo; 2000 horses; 10,000 cattle; 50,000 properties; 116 locomotives that had met the Promontory Point May 10, 1869; Wild Bill Hickock's derringer; and the original stagecoach used by Horace Greeley.  It cost $400,000 to produce and made millions.  Krefft's very detailed account of the director and this film shows how it helped make 1925 Fox's most financially successful year to date.

Krefft's book ventures on to discuss German director F.W. Murnau's moving and atmospheric "Sunrise" (1927).  The director who had helmed the amazing "Nosferatu" (1922) and "The Last Laugh" ("Der Letze Mann," 1924) in his native Germany, offered one some of his best and most lasting work with this movie for Fox.  George O'Brien, whose stardom had been firmly established with "The Iron Horse," starred with Janet Gaynor in a film that netted Ms. Gaynor an Oscar for Best Actress.  Krefft discusses the film's impact, as well as Murnau's relationship with Fox, continuing to offer fascinating details that give the reader greater insight into the creative process.

The 1920s concluded as Fox ushered in talking pictures and eventually made decisions that led to his ruin by the end of that decade.  And while the name William Fox may not be as well known as it should, Krefft argues his significance to the development of motion pictures most convincingly.

The aforementioned information as culled from Vanda Krefft's book is only scratching the surface.  She explores so much more, with details about each.  The only thing that appears to have received lesser coverage in the book is the comedy short subjects Fox released.  Not much is mentioned regarding Henry Lehrman, and the Sunshine comedies, while Fox comedians like Lloyd Hamilton and Al St. John aren't discussed at all.  But this is a trifling quibble that does not take away from the thoroughness of this brilliant book.  Along with all of the text, it also offers several excellent graphics to further illustrate the story.

It is difficult to articulate this massive biography's level of importance.  It is an absolute must for anyone with an interest in film history, in cultural history, in biographical studies; and should find a place in every library and research center, as well as the personal home libraries of every individual whose collection hopes to be at all comprehensive.

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