Vanda Krefft spoke with Solzy at the Movies over the phone last month about The Man Who Made The Movies: The Meteoric Rise and Tragic Fall of William Fox.
I found The Man Who Made The Movies to be a very insightful and well-researched read. When did you first get an interest in telling William Fox’s story?
Vanda Krefft: Ages and ages ago to be honest. A good friend of mine was Angela Fox Dunn, who was William Fox’s niece. We were both freelance journalists out here in LA. She had actually known him because even though he always lived in New York, he would come out to California for several months. In her childhood, she spent a lot of time with him when he was out here because he supported her mother and her brother. He supported the family. He basically supported all his sibling’s families. She had many interesting stories to tell about him. For the longest time, I just assumed, Well, obviously, somebody has done his biography. He started a major studio and most of the other moguls had been had been covered.
Then I decided to leave journalism and I went back to school for a master’s degree in communication at the University of Pennsylvania. That’s when I decided that what I really wanted to do was write a book. I was kind of tired of journalism. That’s when the idea occurred to me, Oh, why don’t I see instead of just assuming that William Fox has been done, why don’t I actually check and see if it has been done? And lo and behold, he hadn’t. That was when I decided to do the book—to really explore and see what is the story here? Why don’t we know anything about this person who’s a major figure in film history? That’s how I got started and the more that I did the research and tried to unravel this story, the more fascinating it became to me.
Of all the early studio moguls, he seems to be the one who is long forgotten to history. I say this because when I think of Fox, I usually associate their early years with Darryl Zanuck.
Vanda Krefft: Yes—you are not alone. Most people do. In fact, that really has been the way that the studio has portrayed its history is that it really began in 1935 when Zanuck took over. But what they ignore is the previous twenty years when that studio was founded from basically nothing and had a lot of great accomplishments. They don’t really celebrate their founder, I think, as your impression is that they credit Zanuck really more. He certainly he saved the company. He saved the studio from near ruin in 1935 but he didn’t build it. He came from a company called 20th Century Productions, which didn’t have any real estate. It was just it was a production company, very successful, and Zanuck knew how to make movies that make money but that beautiful studio was William Fox’s creation.
What do think William Fox would think of seeing the landscape today and how his studio has now been absorbed into Disney and then you have the rest of Fox being associated with the conservative news channel?
Vanda Krefft: I think to address the first part of your question—the Disney takeover—I think he would be absolutely heartbroken. He put his name on the studio because he wanted his name to sort of live on into eternity. This was going to be his legacy to history. In fact, in 1935, when the merger between 20 Century Productions and the Fox Film Corporation took place giving rise to 20th Century Fox, there was some serious discussion at that point that they would just erase the Fox name. Fox, of course, was still alive and he really was very upset about that. I think the fact that it’s now been absorbed into Disney would be heartbreaking. I think he regarded the studio almost as one of his children. It would be I suppose like having one of your children sort of ripped away with a step-parent’s name slapped on it. Who knows what’s going to happen to that lovely property in West Los Angeles, adjacent to Beverly Hills? The real estate is worth an unfathomable amount of money. I think that’s an open question that nobody’s really looked at is what’s going to happen to that property?
In terms of the landscape, sort of the tone of movies today, I suspect that he would be disappointed because he and the other early movie makers really saw cinema as a chance to an opportunity to educate and uplift the masses and give them hope and inspiration. I don’t think you’re seeing too much of that. I think so much is just pandering to the lowest common denominator. I think that would be a disappointment.
As to your question about the fact that the Fox name is probably most closely associated with Fox News in the public consciousness, I think—again—that would be a big disappointment to him. He was he was quite conservative politically himself but I think he was always inclusive and very open-minded. The studio had all kinds of people working for it. The early versions of Fox News—it was actually started in 1919 as a silent newsreel, then you get the Fox Movietone News as a talking pictures newsreel in the late 20s. But they did a lot of very, I would say, socially minded features and episodes, so to speak. I think the sort of shrill partisan commentary that goes on and sort of the attack mode would be reprehensible to him. I think he was really a very fair-minded and an open-minded person.
What was the most fascinating thing that you learned about Fox through your research?
Vanda Krefft: I think for me is a big open question was who was responsible for the fact that he lost control of the studio and that happened in April 1930. The way it had always been portrayed in film history was that he had overreached himself—he had been greedy. He never should have bought the controlling share of Loew’s, Incorporated stock, which he did in early 1929—Loew’s, Incorporated being the parent company of MGM and that was a huge mistake and he was greedy and he deserved to lose his studio. Going into the project, I thought, Well, that couldn’t be true, but it just doesn’t really square with his previous actions and outlook, that being that he was always very careful with the money. The question was and he always portrayed it as he was the victim of a conspiracy. He’d been labeled as paranoid and crazy—that theory was pretty well discounted. I think the biggest surprise for me was to see that there was a lot of foundation for that interpretation of what happened. That in the chaos that ensued after the October 1929 stock market crash, his financial enemies moved in, exploited all the fear and the panic and really did mount a pretty good campaign to take over the company from him to force him to give up control. I think the portrait that that painted of America at that time was pretty grim in terms of how could that happen? This was a highly successful company—he owed money to powerful entities and basically, what I concluded is the evidence came down strongly on the side that those enemies mainly being AT&T and an investment banking firm really didn’t want their money back. What they wanted was control of the Fox companies so that they could run them to benefit their own interests. I think overall that was the biggest surprise to me. I do think he was right that it pretty much was a conspiracy.
I found it interesting how he couldn’t get that loan from Chase but once Harley Clarke gets in leadership position, that loan goes through
Vanda Krefft: $100 million, Harley Clarke got. They wouldn’t give Fox even an extension on about $400,000. The guy who started the company, who knew everything about the movie business, and they give $100 million to a utilities guy. What does that say?
If you could take a time machine to meet William Fox, what would be the main thing that you tell him?
Vanda Krefft: There was one point when the phone company was willin—I think if he would have relinquished his Tri-Ergon patents—those were the ones that the sound-on-film patents that AT&T, with its Western Electric subsidiary, wanted them just to clear the way to control sound-on-film. Remember that voting trust that the three people were running the running the Fox companies? AT&T had sided with the banking firm and they said they would come over to Fox’s side if he would just give up the sound patent and he wouldn’t do it. That’s the point. That I think was where his fate was sealed at that point. That was his last chance to turn around and had he done that, I think he would have been okay. That’s probably one of the points when I would have gone. I would have said, “Don’t make your life miserable. This isn’t worth risking the company for.” I don’t know if I would have been successful in persuading him of that because he did seem to believe in the validity of those patents. I think that might have been the time when he might have been most open to reason in that the stock market had crashed and things were in a very shaky state. I think after that point, there probably was no turning back in terms of what happened.
You launched the book in 2017. Could you imagine having to launch a book now without being able to hold a book tour?
Vanda Krefft: I think that it would require an awful lot of creativity. I feel for any author who’s got a book coming out now because so many of the plans are canceled. I don’t know how you really successfully translate those online. I have heard that a lot of book release dates are being postponed for that reason. Also, I don’t know how many people are buying books if people are struggling to pay the rent and so many people are on unemployment. I don’t know. Now that I look back, I’m glad that this book was published when it was. First of all there, there was still a Fox studio with that name on it. Secondly, as you point out, the virus was not even in anybody imagination at that point. It’s very uncertain times. What are you hearing about that?
I’ve reached out to publicists to inquire on review copies. Some said their warehouses are closed and they’re not sending it out or they’ll offer me a digital galley. I’m old school so I need a book in my hand.
Vanda Krefft: You’re being stymied as well. You can’t even do your part to help those authors by doing reviews.
I had been loading up for a number of titles on some of the other moguls. I read a book on Warner Brothers—I moved in 2018 and knew I still had the Fox book on me but it was a matter of which bin. I’m in a small studio apartment. I don’t exactly have a bookcase. I had to dig through which bin and thankfully, it was in the second one that I looked. I read it just before and all through most of Passover.
Vanda Krefft: Oh, okay. Well, thank you very much for reading it. I really enjoyed your piece online. I thought you really captured the sense of the book and very insightful so I really appreciate your doing that.
No problem. It’s been easier reading books than it is watching movies and trying to write about those. That’s been the biggest challenge by far.
Vanda Krefft: Why is that? I would think that might be a little easier.
Probably the anxiety. I keep wanting to check news for updates. At least with a book in my hand, I don’t have to worry about having a phone in my hand.
(This is where we started to talk about Chicago, Los Angeles, and getting back to work.)
What are you doing to avoid going stir crazy during this time?
Vanda Krefft: Well, I am watching movies but mostly like you, I’m just reading all kinds of things. I just finished an autobiography of Simone de Beauvoir, which was pretty interesting. I’ve got the galleys of a book by friend of mine that’s coming out, probably, I don’t know, maybe next year. Lots of reading and trying to put together some ideas for the next book. That’s it for me.