The Hungarian Pioneers of Hollywood – Part Two

Apr 29, 2020

In quarantine we need exciting stories more than ever, so today let’s learn about another founding father of Hollywood, who is also someone with an immigrant background from Hungary. The life of William Fox, the founder of 20th Century Fox, is one about entrepreneurial spirit, huge turning points, and big lessons. Let’s get into it!

William Fox – the founder of 20th Century Fox

The film pioneer was born as Vilmos Fried, in 1879, January 1st to a Jewish family. His home town is Tolcsva (North-East Hungary), with a small population of 1800 today – it’s a historic part of Hungary, which is also known as ‘wine district’. He was only 9 months old when his family emigrated to the US. They found their new home in New York City, Lower East Side, which was also home to many new immigrants, therefore, it was a very poor neighbourhood.

He was 11 when he dropped out of school, after that he worked briefly as a newspaper boy, then he moved to the textile business. It was a successful venture: in 1904 it was already making him 50 thousand dollars profit. But it didn’t make him complacent – he sold it so he could buy an old movie theatre in Brooklyn. The audience there didn’t really go to the cinema, but William found ways to create a new habit for the residents – he used criers to promote the screenings, and he was mixing up the films with live performances.

After a few years, he became the owner of the biggest film distribution network. After a long period of litigation in 1913, he achieved the right to produce movies, not just the Motion Pictures Patent Company which was holding a monopoly position until then. The New York Studio of Fox Film Corporation moved to Hollywood in 1919 which soon became the capital of the movie industry.

The famous Fox Hills Studios was built in 1923 which is the home of the network to this day. The studio created many stars and archetypes: Theda Bara as the vamp, Tom Mix as the cowboy. These stars brought in enormous profit for the company. But it was not only the stars: Fox owned thousands of movie theaters, which screened the movies of his studio. The box office hits could finance the more artsy movies, which he knew he needed in order to establish a certain image and prestige for the company.

He was famous for always being two steps ahead: he was the first one to get the Movietone sound system and use it in all of his theaters. The 20s was his golden era: he was the biggest and the richest man in the industry. He only carried 100 dollar notes in his pocket, he didn’t wear a watch because he wanted to stop the time so badly.

But not all stories are fairy tales: he had a really unfortunate car accident (just before he was about to buy MGM), and by the time he recovered, the 1929 Great Depression hit him and his company hard. He had to fight his creditors, industry enemies, antitrust committees of the government and also his own employees who handled the company’s finances catastrophically. In 1930 he had to sell his shares of 18 million dollars, in 1936 he filed for bankruptcy after his company merged with 20th Century. In the process, he was trying to bribe a judge, which turned out to be a disastrous decision. He had to go to jail for a short period of time, but by the time he returned, he was already an outcast. He wasn’t poor (his own fortune was still huge), but he could never get a position in the industry anymore. He died in 1952, with no one to commemorate him in any way.

His plaque was made by Herend Porcelain and it was unveiled in 1999. There is a quote on it which was the opening sentence from his 1927 movie 7th Heaven, which he produced:

For those who will climb it, there is a ladder leading from the depths to the heights – from the sewer to the stars – the ladder of Courage.