August 01, 2004

Fox and friend

So, imagine, for a moment, that Rupert Murdoch of NewsCorp and, more familiarly, the Fox network, was forced out of his company after a market downturn exposed some of his shakier investments, and that his fate was bemoaned by, say, Michael Moore, who suggests that Murdoch, honest entrepreneur, was done in by the evil machinations of the capitalist powers-that-be. Far-fetched? Read on.

The mails last week brought a slim volume to ideofact headquarters, William Fox, Sol M. Wurtzel and the Early Fox Film Corporation: Letters, 1917-1923. Back in the long ago silent era, Wurtzel ran Fox's California studio operations (William Fox, the corporation's head, refused to move out west, preferring Gotham to Hollywood), and regularly wrote his boss about the studio's operations. It's a fascinating read, and includes tales of uncompromising directors, tempermantal actresses, starlets on benders and the neverending battles of commercial men struggling with an artistic enterprise. (In my youth, my sympathies would have been with the former; now, I find the latter's arguments to be far more compelling). There's Fox himself, for example, who wrote to Wurzel in one letter,

The final judgment with reference to any picture made by the Fox Film Corporation, you ought to know, is left with me and not with you or Mr. Franklin [one of the directers--ideofact]. I am awfully sorry you saw fit to wire me or write me a letter or discuss it with Mr. Franklin, which cause[d] him to send the wire he did. You know my practice here in New York. You know that there never was a scene that I ever cut out of a picture that met with the director's approval. Each director thinks the scenes he photographs are the most wonderful in the world, and I never followed the policy of consulting a director when I thought a scene should be eliminated. If I had done that, the Fox Film Corporation would have been on the rocks long ago. The only reason the Fox Film Corporation has made progress is because the power as to what will or will not remain in the film, has been entirely left with me, and I have used it in such a way as to make possible the progress of the Fox Film Corporation.

That progress was fantastic -- Theda Bara and the cowboy Tom Mix were among Fox's stars, and, as for business, let's let the book's introduction explain:

The dimes and quarters that kept rolling into Fox box-offices made it possible for William Fox to build an empire worth $300 million. By 1929, he was the most powerful and threatening figure in the entire motion picture industry. He owned fifteen hundred theaters in the United States, three hundred in Great Britain, three major studios and the basic patents for sound on film.

And how did Fox use that power? Throughout the First World War, he made films -- now lost -- with titles like The Prussian Cur and Why America Will Win the War -- his only regret, about the latter two, was that the war ended too soon for his corporation to make much of a profit off them. Fox quite openly refers to them, in his correspondence with Wurtzel, as propaganda films. (Note: I certainly think it was propaganda in a worthy cause; the allies had to win the First World War, because the alternative was unthinkable; and the Americans had to enter it, to guarantee same.)

As with many of the silent stars that Fox developed into blockbuster talents, the talkies proved to be his undoing. His company spent a small fortune -- going deeply into debt -- converting those 1,500 theaters to sound, and the timing couldn't have been worse -- there followed the Great Depression. By 1930, Fox's financial backers and investors forced him out of the company; by 1936, as bills mounted for an antitrust lawsuit he was still fighting, he declared personal bankruptcy; in 1942, he ended up being sentenced to jail for trying to bribe a judge in the case. A typical, Fitzgerald-esque Last Tycoon story, a life as unfinished as the novel. What's unusual, though, is that the novelist (best known for The Jungle), socialist social critic, rabble rouser and muckraker Upton Sinclair came to Fox's defense in a 1933 work called, appropiately enough, Upton Sinclair Presents William Fox. In the prologue, Sinclair wrote,

For thirty years I have been "presenting" to the public the princes, dukes and barons of our industrial feudalism. As a rule I have "presented" them under the guise of fiction. Sometimes my critics have said "Good melodrama" and sometimes "Bad melodrama," but always they have agreed that "Sinclair exaggerates." Learned book reviewers in Siam and Tasmania declare: "Such things are impossible." Living as far away as it is possible to get on this earth, they still feel safe in asserting: "America cannot be like that."

So this time I am presenting a living man. This time I am telling a story which happened in New York City less than three years ago. This time there are names, places, recent dates and an appendix full of documents and court records. This time even Siam and Tasmania will have to admit that "America is like that"; for no melodrama that I have been able to invent in my thirty years of inventing has been more packed with crimes and betrayals, perils and escapes, than the story of William Fox. No thriller among the 750 feature pictures which Fox himself produced during twenty-five years as a producer was ever so perfectly constructed, with its humble hero battling his way to power, its polished villains, conspirators of high estate, each with a carnation in his buttonhole; its complications of intrigue, its mysteries, some of them never solved to this day, its cruel suffering and its grand climax--the hero escaping with the greater part of his fortune, and the villains dragged down to ruin by the judgment of an implacable Providence.

Regrettably, the Sinclair book is out of print -- and I don't think I could read the whole thing online (even if I had time for it). Still, it's an interesting tale -- and perhaps one day some worthy will make the documentary about how poor Rupert Murdoch was done in by Octopi and Vultures and that most insidious of all creatures, the banker who has made a loan and expects the borrower to make good.

Posted by Ideofact at August 1, 2004 10:45 PM