In 1894 Thomas Edison had invented a device which he called a “kinetoscope.” Out at his place in East Orange he had spent the enormous sum of $25,000 upon experiments, and had built a shanty covered with tar paper and known to his friends as “the Black Maria.” Inside this Black Maria was a huge device weighing more than a ton, a camera with a rapidly moving shutter by which you could take a series of pictures of something in motion—provided that its motion didn’t carry it away from the front of the camera. To this place came pugilists and acrobats and dancers, and they performed in front of the camera, and so there began to spring up in the cities places called nickelodeons, a sort of arcade with a row of machines having eye-pieces. You dropped a nickel into the slot and gazed into the eye-pieces, and you saw as real as life the pugilists boxing and the acrobats turning somersaults and the dancers kicking up their skirts.
Then several years later appeared another device generally called the “vitagraph” or the “bioscope,” which threw these same images upon a screen. The camera weighed somewhat less than a ton now, and it could be taken on a truck and placed, say by a railroad track, and so you could see the Twentieth Century Limited emerging from a tunnel and rushing down upon you. I well remember seeing the first pictures in a place called the Eden Musee on Twenty-third Street in New York. There were waxworks and all sorts of horrors—President Garfield being shot, and the Chicago anarchists making bombs, and a policeman who looked so lifelike that you went up and asked him the way to the labyrinth of mirrors or whatever delightful thrill you were seeking. Then you went into a little court with palm and rubber trees, and sat in rows of chairs, and there was the image of the Twentieth Century Limited. It trembled and jumped so that it almost put your eyes out, but nevertheless it was so real that you could hardly keep from ducking out of the way as it bore down upon you. A tremendous adventure!
It happened that on Fourteenth Street there was a place called the “Automat,” with phonographs, punching bags, weighing machines, chewing-gum machines and, of course, kinetoscopes. The Automat was one of the sights of the town, because no employees were needed, only a watchman. You dropped your nickels into the machines, and down in the basement there was a track running under the machines and a little car running on the track, and as it passed, the machines spilled their nickels into it, and then the car ran around to the other side of the room and dumped the nickels into a funnel, from the other end of which they emerged, all counted and wrapped and ready for deposit in the bank. It was almost as marvelous as the Chicago stock-yards, where a hog was dropped into the machine at one end, and sausages and buttons and hair-combs came out at the other end.
The Automat pleased W[illiam] F[ox]1 and he made it known that he was in the market to buy an establishment of that sort. Soon there came an agent suggesting that there was one at 700 Broadway, Brooklyn, owned by a man named J. Stewart Blackton, then president of the Vitagraph Company of America, and destined to become one of the big moving picture millionaires. W. F. made an appointment to inspect the property, and he tells this story:
“When I went there, by appointment, there was a large crowd. When I went again a little later in the week, also by appointment, there was an even larger crowd. I thought it was a good thing, and after certain negotiations, I bought the establishment. I took charge of it on the following Monday, and only about two persons dropped in all day. I realized that someone had supplied the crowd on the two former occasions when I had gone to see the place. This was somewhere around in May, and I was told that business was always bad in summer”
I asked W. F. to describe the agent who had sold him that “salted” gold mine. The answer was: “He was the handsomest man you ever saw; well built, well dressed and always immaculate.” Sometime afterwards, it appears, he came to W. F. and said he was broke, and borrowed $50 to go out West. Twenty years later, in a brokers’ board-room, he recognized his old-time victim, and came up and introduced himself, and repaid the $50. The story he told was that he had discovered land containing sulphur, and had come back and sold it to New York capitalists, and was now worth $7,000,000. He offered his old-time victim a tip, to buy the stock of the Texas Gulf and Sulphur Company; in a year or two the buyer would make millions. W. F., having bought a “salted” gold-mine from this man, declined to buy a “salted” sulphur-mine. The joke of the story is that the tip was a real one, for the stock went from $40 a share to $240.
But let us return to No. 700 Broadway, Brooklyn, in the year 1903. . . . How was the crowd to be induced to enter the Fox Automat? Quite recently he had attended a showing of the new “moving pictures”; he had seen a picture of a tree, and the leaves of the tree had moved, and the man behind him had said that it was a trick, someone was shaking the curtain. But W. F., with his inquiring mind, had talked to the operator after the performance was over, and asked to have the trick explained. No, the screen had not been shaken; the pictures actually did move of themselves. The operator showed the film, which was nearly three times as wide as it is now, and did not run on sprockets, but merely through a groove. The length of the film was then 100 feet.
W. F. investigated further. He saw the pictures of the Twentieth Century Limited, and a still more marvelous production, a little story told in front of the camera, called The Life of an American Fireman2; then another one, still more thrilling, The Great Train Robbery.3 He saw the public pouring in to witness these spectacles, and he examined the premises he had rented and noted that there were rooms upstairs used as a dwelling. It occurred to him that he might rent these premises also, and put out the tenants and turn it into a showroom for the new picture stories. If he took the people up by the front stairway, and after the show sent them down by the rear stairway, they would enter the nickelodeon at the rear and have to walk past all the machines, and very probably they would drop some nickels on the way.
With W. F. a thing is done almost as soon as he thinks of it. There was a show room with a screen, and 146 chairs, and some display posters outside informing the public that moving pictures were to be seen. But alas, the Brooklyn public didn’t know what moving pictures were, and nobody went upstairs. W. F. stood outside for a whole day, gazing anxiously at the public, and regretting that he had no personal charms to lure them into his establishment.
But then came a man who had the necessary charms. W. F. describes him as a fellow with a great big Western hat. He said: “What are you worrying about?” and W. F. told his troubles. He had the greater part of his fortune in the place, and it wasn’t so much the fortune as that he hated to fail. The fellow offered to take charge of it and run it, and told him to shut up the place that day and come back the next.
The next day he came, and had with him a coin-manipulator, a sword-swallower and a fire-eater—which did W. F. prefer? W. F. carried no fire insurance, so fire-eaters were ruled out; also swallowing swords might possibly be dangerous—there might be employers’ liability laws. But there could be no harm in a coin-manipulator. He was a little fellow, dressed in black satin breeches and a black satin coat, wearing a black mustache and a little black goatee, neither of which belonged to him. All this was in imitation of “Hermann the Great.” He set up his table and started to work in the doorway of the establishment; and when the crowd gathered, he told them that he would finish the performance upstairs, and show them yet more wonderful tricks, and that admission was free for the present. The crowd came trooping up, and there they found out what moving pictures were, and in a week there was such a crowd that the police had to be called in to control them.
So at last W. F. had found a real gold mine! Here was the way of fortune plain before him, and his one task was to get there ahead of the others. He got two friends to join him, and began renting stores on the crowded avenues of Brooklyn, and in each one of them they set up a screen and a projection machine and rows of chairs—of which the total must not exceed 299. Up to that limit you could have a “common show” license; but if you had 300 chairs or more, you were a theatre, and the fire laws took strict charge of you.
So presently here was William Fox with fifteen show places in Brooklyn and New York. I made him search his memory for all the details about those old-time pictures. There was one called The Automobile Thieves. Automobiles were then just coming into fashion, and some producer had conceived the idea of a new way of stealing. Soon after this someone did actually steal an automobile, and was arrested, and there was a great clamor in the newspapers—this new device of moving pictures was corrupting public morals and stimulating crime! The New York World, which built up its circulation by carrying on crusades, started a crusade against moving pictures.
Also there was one called The Runaway Wagon. This was a trick picture. It wasn’t an automobile, merely a wagon, yet it went running up and down hill all by itself. The trick was that the photographer had blotted out the horse. A still trickier one was a man putting on a pair of shoes and the shoes lacing themselves.
The names of the companies that made the pictures were Vitagraph, Biograph, Lubin, Pathé, and Essanay.
The clamor against these pictures continued in the newspapers. In court the lawyer would say: “Your Honor, this child never stole before. He saw stealing in a moving picture and that suggested it to him.” This clamor disturbed the associates of W. F., whose wives thought they were in a disreputable business. So W. F. bought them out, and added more places until he had twenty-five. He had his own ideas about the moral effect of pictures, for he noticed that wherever the shows were going well, the business of saloons began to dwindle.
“My conclusion was that the workingman’s wage was not large enough to buy tickets to the theatre for himself and family, so he found his recreation in drinking his glass of beer against the bar. But when the motion picture theatre came, he could buy a ticket for 10 cents, and for his wife the same, and if he had a child he could buy a ticket for 5 cents. They could be entertained anywhere from two and a half to three hours, and the man found he was getting a much bigger kick holding his kid’s hand, or the hand of his wife, than he would be getting from his drink at the bar. I have always contended that if we had never had prohibition, the motion pictures would have wiped out the saloon. We then opened a theatre at 110th and Broadway. On the corner of this property was a saloon and we tried to buy the lease of the owner but he wouldn’t sell. Within a year after that theatre opened, he could not get enough business to pay his rent.”
W. F. went on to tell me of a later experience when he leased the Star Theatre, on Lexington Avenue near 107th Street, which had been used for melodrama. They were then called “tentwenty-thirts.” On the four corners of 107th Street there were four saloons, frequently called “gin-mills,” but after this theater was converted into a moving picture theatre, one after another the gin-mills closed up, and within two or three months were occupied by other tenants.
Not since the days of the forty-niners had there been such a way for the little fellow to get rich as in this new business. Everything depended upon a location where the crowds were passing. W. F. found that in order to get the right location, it would often pay him to lease the whole building—even though the fire laws required that the upstairs tenants be turned out before moving pictures were shown in the building.
He conceived the idea of combining motion pictures and vaudeville, with the admission price of 10 cents to any seat in the house. He tried in each case to find a manager who had a good voice, and this manager would sing what were called illustrated songs. It was easy to get new songs, because the song writers wanted them popularized before the sheet music was offered to the public. The manager would sing the song and there would be lantern slides with pictures illustrating the songs. The audience would be invited to join the singing—the more the merrier. There was always a line of people waiting to get into these shows. The problem was to rent new places ahead of the other fellow. Here is the story of the first Fox theatre:
“It was located at 194 Grand Street, Brooklyn, and had been devoted to burlesque. When I went to visit the premises, it was winter and the agent told me to bring along rubber boots. I did, and we walked in snow and water up to the knees; the roof was practically gone and it was the most dilapidated structure I ever saw. When I inquired as to how the building came to be in such a deplorable condition, the agent explained that the building was fifty years old and had been unoccupied for two years. He told me that the man who owned the mortgage had it now. It was known as the Bum Theatre and I changed the name to Comedy. I think I paid about $20,000 for the land and building.
“While making extensive repairs, there arose the necessity of a campaign to acquaint the people of the neighborhood that this was to be a theatre for nice people. We made a list of 10,000 names of people living in that vicinity, and for ten weeks we sent them a weekly letter, telling them how this building was progressing. The tenth letter quoted someone as saying that the theatre had been called the ‘Bum’ because the people around there were bums. I suggested that perhaps those who resented this reference would like to form a parade in the main street of town the night my theatre opened. That night there were 10,000 people in that parade. The theatre did a terrific business, and in a short space of time we paid off the mortgage and declared hundreds of thousands of dollars of dividends.”
The next theatre was the Folly, a place which had been showing melodramas and not doing so well. W. F. went to see a member of the firm, Richard Hyde, who offered the theatre on a ten-year lease for $35,000 a year, and required a deposit of half a year’s rent to apply to the last half year. He said he would give W. F. twenty-four hours in which to make a decision. He offered to put this option into writing, but W. F. said he would take his word. The option was to expire at noon, and W. F. was on hand at 10 o’clock with a certified check in his pocket. But meanwhile, it happened some other motion picture concern had got wind of the matter, and had made Hyde an offer of $10,000 more for the lease. Apparently it was Hyde’s idea that if he could keep Fox pre-occupied until after 12 o’clock, the deal would be off. So he started telling stories, and he told one after another without stopping until 11:15. Then W. F. broke in:
“Just a minute. I wish to give you an answer. I accept your terms and here is the check.”
Hyde seemed troubled, and became solicitous concerning the welfare of his would-be tenant. “You had better not be hasty,” he said, “but listen to a man who has been in the business for half a century.”
Hyde called his bookkeeper and ordered him to tell W. F. the exact truth about the property. Said the bookkeeper: “Last year we took a loss of $7,500.”
Said W. F.: “I am not interested in all that, because the policy I am going to use in the theatre is not the same as yours, and I think I can make a go of it.”
Said Hyde: “Darn your soul, I dislike you! You are the first man who has taken my word in the last twenty-five years. I am known as a man who never keeps his word.” So Hyde told him about the offer of $10,000 more. In closing the deal, he made only one request: “Wherever you get a chance to talk, be sure to tell people I kept my word with you.”
This theatre held about 2,000 chairs, and the performance lasted two hours, with five performances a day. It was a tremendous success, and during the first ten years of the lease, it earned from five to six hundred thousand dollars in profit. At the expiration of this lease, Hyde was dead, and the sons renewed the lease to W. F., because they said: “If father were alive, he would want you to have that theatre.”
W. F. realized that the people who were leasing the films to him were making more money than he was. So he began to buy films, and became president of a concern called “The Greater New York Film Rental Company.” Two years later the manufacturers decided to form a trust, and set up a company known as “The Motion Picture Patents Company,” and claimed that they owned all the patents used in motion pictures. All the manufacturers had to have licenses, and nobody could get films anywhere but from them. It was like the old days of the Beef Trust and the butcher stores. They set out to get possession of the business from top to bottom. They would offer to buy you out, and if you refused to sell, they would cancel your license. They had 120 licensees in America, and in a short time, 119 of them had been either bought out or forced out. The only one left was William Fox, by this time thirty years of age.
This was the greatest battle of his life so far, and he is proud of the service he rendered to the motion picture industry. At that time it was completely throttled. The trust fixed all the prices everywhere. The highest price paid for a scenario was $62.50. No writer’s name ever appeared upon the screen, because they did not want anyone to become popular, and so have a chance to raise his price. Of course no writer of talent was going to work on that basis. The salaries of the actors were correspondingly low, and no actor’s name ever appeared upon the screen. So long as these conditions continued, motion pictures could make no progress whatever.
The representatives of the trust sent for W. F., and I will let him tell the story of what happened:
“They said: ‘We have been very kind to you. We have allowed you to make a large profit for the last two years by leaving you to the last. Now we have to get you out of the way—how much do you want for your plant?’ I told them I wanted $750,000. They asked me if I thought that that was what I was going to get, and I told them yes. They told me to think it over and come back later. I came back the next day and still quoted $750,000. Then they told me they had decided to cancel my license. The next day there came a cancellation of my license in the mail.”
They had a charge against W. F., whereby they justified their decision to cancel his license. They charged that he had permitted their motion pictures to be shown in a house of prostitution in Hoboken. W. F. tells a curious story about this which illustrates the method of monopolies, not merely in the moving picture industry, but in all others that I have investigated. It appears that W. F.’s concern was supplying pictures to an exhibitor in Paterson, New Jersey, and after the show the operator would bring the films back to New York and get the material for the next day’s show. It appeared that the trust had bribed this operator to take the films each night after the show to a house of prostitution in Hoboken, and the trust had caused a projection machine to be set up in this place and had run the films.
Under the terms of his contract with the trust, they had been obliged to give him fourteen days’ notice before stopping the supplies of films, and he used that period to play a shrewd trick upon them. He says:
“I went back and suggested that they tell me how much they would give me for my establishment. They said $75,000. I sold it. Then I said, ‘Now you have cancelled my license. I think you ought to reinstate the license, so that you have an active business when you take it over and not a pile of junk.’ They thought that was a good idea, and the next day I got a letter reinstating the license. A couple days after that I said I did not want to sell out, and I got another cancellation. I then had grounds, and began a legal action under the Sherman Antitrust Act.”
This controversy began in 1908 and was carried to the Court of Appeals of New York State, and was not settled until 1912.
“If successful, we were to get triple damages. We were suing for $600,000 dollars and if successful, it meant $1,800,000. One evening about 8 o’clock a man called and said that the other people were offering to settle out of court. While the decision was due soon, my lawyer thought we should settle out of court, as there was no assurance that the decision would be in our favor. We drew the settlement papers that night, working until 6 o’clock the next morning, and they paid me $350,000. The next day it was announced that the case had been settled. The judge told my lawyer that we should have waited, because they were in unanimous agreement that the judgment was to be in my favor.”
This was a suit for damages, not selling. W. F. got his money, and he still had his company and the right to do business. The manufacturers were not permitted to cancel the license, and were compelled to market their films to William Fox at the same prices as to their own company.
The result of this campaign was to put the film trust out of business. Anyone could make pictures, and many began to do so. Under competitive conditions, writers and actors could ask higher prices for their work, and could demand that their names be advertised; so reputations could be built up and talent developed. An odd circumstance is that the men who had organized the trust were unable to meet this new competition, and within five years none of those who had fought William Fox were any longer in the business.
All these four years W. F. had been going ahead with the leasing, buying and building of theatres, and turning them into motion picture “palaces.” When you were running a regular theatrical production, you had as a rule only one company, and drew your audience from all over the city. But for these 10-cent theatres, you drew the people of the neighborhood, and since you could make hundreds of prints of the film, you could have a theatre in every neighborhood; you could have a chain of theatres all over New York and Brooklyn and the suburbs—it was a series of gold mines, and the deeper you dug into these mines, the richer became the vein. The quality of the films became better, and a better class of people would come to see them. It became possible to have real “palaces”; to spend money on theatre decorations, and charge 15 cents, 25 cents, even 50 cents admission.
In the case of the City Theatre, Fourteenth Street between Third and Fourth avenues, W. F. put in one-fourth of the money; two-fourths of the remaining interest were taken by the two Timothy Sullivans, prominent leaders of Tammany Hall, known as “Big Tim” and “Little Tim.” The total amount invested was $100,000, and the building was to cost $300,000. Big Tim produced a contractor who offered to do the rest of the financing, taking 50 per cent of his money in cash each month, and taking a six months’ note for the other 50 per cent, agreeing to renew these notes for an additional six months. In this way the theatre would be making money before the first of the notes became due.
The work proceeded, and at the end of the first six months there was a note for $10,000 falling due at the Colonial Bank. W. F. received a notice from the bank, and set out to find Mahoney, the contractor, and take him to the bank to renew the note. For days W. F. hunted for Mahoney but Mahoney could not be found. Then W. F. went to Big Tim, who saw no reason to worry; it was Mahoney’s problem, not Tim’s. W. F. couldn’t understand this attitude, but realized after a while that Big Tim was accustomed to signing notes quite freely; it meant no more to him than slapping somebody on the back; it was part of his stock in trade as a politician. Nobody who wanted to go on doing business in New York City would ever dream of suing Big Tim Sullivan on a note.
But it was different with a little fellow like William Fox. He had never had a note go to protest, and it seemed to him the most terrible thing in his whole life. For a week before the note was due, he worried Big Tim, but in vain. Then he went to the Colonial Bank and presented himself to the president, Mr. Walker. W. F. laid $2,500 upon the banker’s desk and asked the banker to release him from his share of the obligation. But Walker couldn’t see it that way. Under the law, each of the signers was responsible for the full amount. As for W. F.’s statement that Mahoney had agreed to renew the note, Walker said he didn’t want to know anything about that. Probably he thought it was just a bluff. Anyhow, he refused to take the $2,500, and when W. F. insisted, he brushed it onto the floor, and when W. F. went on insisting, he pressed a button, and a man in a gray uniform appeared and gently escorted the pro֊ testor to the door.
W. F. had until 3 o’clock that afternoon to save his good name, and he was in a terrible state. He called Walker on the telephone and heard him hang up the receiver. Then he waited outside the building, hoping that Walker would come out to lunch, but 1 o’clock came, and W. F. saw a tray carried in, and, peering through a window of the bank, he saw Walker seated at his desk eating his lunch.
“Then I noticed him light his pipe. I have always known that a man with a full stomach is in a better humor than with an empty. Back to Walker’s office I went, and my presence caused the man to go into a convulsion. He yelled, ‘Get out!’ and this time two men came in and just threw me out. Mr. Walker could see me from the window standing outside, because from time to time I would rap on the window to let him know I was there. Finally I saw the clock hands turn to three. I had endorsed this note in good faith and it was to be protested. I knew of no humiliation in my whole career greater than at 3 o’clock that day.”
But it turned out all right, as Mahoney appeared the next day, and the note was renewed, and the City Theatre was completed, and opened with the Zeigfeld Follies of 1910. It was a loss from the beginning, and presently the theatre was closed, and W. F. leased it from his associates for $75,000 a year, and put moving pictures into it, and it has been making a profit of $45,000 a year ever since.
There is another story having to do with this president of the Colonial Bank; and W. F. laid stress upon this story, saying: “I want you to see that there is a difference in bankers.”
W. F. thinks that a banker is all right when he is really a banker, and the trouble only begins when he ceases to be a banker, and becomes a speculator and promoter, or a conspirator and bandit. Throughout this period of his career, W. F. dealt with bankers, who looked into his business affairs, judged his character, and loaned him money with which to buy and rent new theatres, or to put up new buildings. If the buildings cost a little more than was expected, or if it took a little longer to finish them, they cheerfully renewed his notes, and in due course he opened his theatres, and the public came pouring into them, and he paid off his notes at the banks with the agreed amount of interest. That is W. F.’s conception of what banking should be, and if all the bankers had been like that, he would never have come to Upton Sinclair to write the story of his career.
Late in 1912 and early in 1913, W. F. conceived the idea of larger and more beautiful houses for the new motion picture art. One was to be the Audubon, on Broadway near 165th Street, and the other was to be on Tremont Avenue in the Bronx. He had at this time half a million dollars in cash, and this was to be the largest venture of his career. There were to be stores in connection with the theatres, and when the construction was half completed, it was found that the cost would be nearly twice as much as had been expected. Money was very tight at this time, and W. F. found himself chasing about the city trying to borrow some. It was the story of the sandwiches and pretzels and buffalo pans all over again—if he couldn’t find the money, he would lose the buildings. Let him tell the story himself:
“One day while I was in this quandary, trying to see or find a way out, the man who had the plaster contract of these buildings called on me. He told me he was in trouble and that I could help him out. You can imagine my feelings as I realized that he must have come for his money. He said: T know I haven’t any right to ask you to pay me in advance, but if you could give me a note for four months instead of paying me on the fifteenth, I would be very grateful.’ What a load fell from my shoulders at his words! Of course I gave him the note and he gave me the receipted bill. It seemed that he must have spread the word around because one by one the contractors called and asked for notes. The same thing occurred every month until the buildings were completed and opened, which was inside of four months, and before the first payment came due on these notes.
“One day one of the contractors asked if I knew Mr. Walker, the president of the Colonial Bank, and if I had ever done any business with him. I told him I was sorry to admit I had not been successful in my attempt to do business with him. He suggested that I go around to the bank and see him, and he would say no more. I was mystified. I called on Mr. Walker. He remembered me and asked how I was getting along. I told him the whole story. He said, ‘Then you have no worries.’ I said, ‘Yes, I have, as the first notes are soon due, and I am no better off now than the day I gave them as the theatres are only just opened.’ He rang the bell (not the same bell he rang on the previous occasion to have me thrown out) and a young man brought in an envelope. He said: ‘Here are $250,000 worth of those notes. The other $150,000 worth are with the Nassau Bank. I knew you were in trouble and sent those contractors to you.’ When I asked him why he had done that, he replied: ‘I became interested in you that day three years ago when you put up such a battle to keep your name from going to protest. Now it happens that I live across the street from the Audubon Theatre and early every morning during its construction I could see you from my window watching the work in progress, and it made me dizzy to see you climbing around on the scaffolding. And many nights I saw your white roadster circling the property. I felt that a man so zealous of his good name and so untiring and conscientious in his endeavors was a good risk and a good investment. Take your time and pay it back when convenient.’
“Within a year after that I had paid that debt all off. One of those places opened Thanksgiving Eve and the other a few days before Christmas in 1913.”
Excerpted from Upton Sinclair Presents William Fox (1933). By permission of Mr. David Sinclair.
1.William Fox (1879-1952), founding father of the American film industry: the “Fox” in 20th Century-Fox.
2.Directed by Edwin S. Porter, 1902.
3.Directed by Edwin S. Porter, 1903.
I asked W[illiam] F[ox] about the authors he had dealt with in those early days, but he couldn’t remember that he had ever met one; he rarely met them at any time. The purchases were made through agents. For Life’s Shop Window $100 was paid. Later on prices rose. After some effort W. F. remembered an author—“Oh, yes, I met Zane Grey. We bought half a dozen of his stories. I don’t remember that he made any impression on me. He seemed to be a nice sort of a man.”
You can see how little the author was needed by one curious tale which W. F. tells me. “Some other film concern made a motion picture, using a musical comedy star by the name of Josie Collins. When the picture was completed, it was terrible, and there was no possible market for it. It so happened that just at this time Fox Film was behind on its schedule and in great need of a picture. Here was a chance to buy one at a bargain, so they bought it and cut it to pieces, and reconstructed it, making an entirely different story without an additional scene being shot. The aunts became grandmothers, the grandmothers became friends, and if anything was missing, we filled in the gaps with titles. It was previewed, and the trade papers all agreed that it was a fine picture. It was a success.”
I asked about the movie stars and how they were made, which brought a very interesting story to mind:
“Before making A Fool There Was,1 I consulted Robert Hilliard, who had produced it on the stage and played the leading role for years. He said, Tn my experience, I have had to change my leading lady six times. As soon as one scored a tremendous hit in the part, she believed herself to be a Sarah Bernhardt and became unmanageable, and I had to let her go. My advice would be to put the girl you choose under contract, as the part will make her.’ We made a test of a girl called Theodosia Goodman, who had no theatrical experience, and decided she would do. She was the daughter of a tailor in Cincinnati. Miss Goodman gave a very remarkable performance in this picture; and then came our problem. If we were going to continue her services, the name didn’t have quite the theatrical feeling, and we must find a stage name for her.
“One day it was conceived in our publicity department that we had had every type of woman on the screen except an Arabian; our publicity director felt that the public would like an Arabian. He conceived the story that this Miss Goodman was born in Arabia—her father was an Arab and her mother a French woman who had played the theatres in Paris. So we took ‘Arab,’ and spelling it backwards, made it ‘Bara,’ and shortened the first name Theodosia’ to ‘Theda’ and thus the name Theda Bara.’ Then the director said, ‘Now let’s not settle on this until we see if it will go over. Let me invite the newspapers to an interview and see if they will swallow this.”
“He dressed her in the regular Arabian costume, and surrounded her with the proper atmosphere, and then the newspaper boys all came in. He said, T want you to meet Miss Bara,’ and gave them her history. He said she didn’t speak a word of English. The newspaper men left that day and said that the Fox Film Corporation had discovered the greatest living actress in the world. At first when we would want to attract the attention of Miss Goodman, we would call her ‘Miss Bara,’ and she would not pay any attention. But after a short time she became used to it, and took to the name perfectly, and she still retains it. Miss Bara got $75 a week for her first picture, and when her contract expired, we were paying her $4,000 a week.”
And here is a story of genius and temperament. There was a Broadway favorite by the name of Valeska Suratt. She had the reputation that whenever she got angry, she walked out and wouldn’t appear at the studio to finish her picture; so W. F., as a precaution, took the last part of the picture first. There was a scene in a gambling house, and then a scene in which the leading lady fell downstairs. Next she was required to go up to Sing Sing and there encounter a prisoner who had once stabbed her. (They lived a varied and exciting career, the movie stars of that early decade.) Miss Suratt was supposed to be happy at the idea that the prisoner in Sing Sing prison was chopping stones into small pieces. She was supposed to sneer at him, but she said to the director, “I can do anything but sneer at a prisoner. I will laugh at him, but I will not sneer.” There was an argument, and in the end Miss Suratt said that she would go home from Sing Sing, and home she went.
They heard no more from her, so W. F. decided that they would put out the picture as it was, and it was so announced. Then Miss Suratt came to his office.
“What is this rubbish about this picture being released?”
W. F. assured her that it was a very good picture indeed.
“But there is no ending to the picture!”
“Oh, yes,” said W. F., “don’t you remember where you rolled down the flight of stairs from the gambling house? The camera photographed you as you lay on the ground, and we have now put in the title, ‘And poor Suratt died from this fall.’”
Then W. F. told her that the director had written in some more scenes. The next scene showed a hearse in front of an old house. There were four dirty bums carrying a coffin, and the hearse proceeded down Broadway with the director running ahead with a megaphone yelling, “In this hearse lies Miss Suratt.” He went on to describe a scene in the cemetery, whereupon the actress burst out laughing and gave up. She came back, and from that time on never failed to appear on time at the studio.
In the early days the studio was out on Staten Island, and the “rushes” were brought in every day. Later the studio was moved into New York, and in 1916 the production part of the enterprise was moved to Hollywood. On W. F.’s first visit to the studio at the coast, he noticed a man leaning up against a lamp post in front of the door, wearing a very loud cowboy costume.
He says: “Every morning for a week this same figure was waiting, always in a different costume, each one louder than the last, until my curiosity was aroused. One day he approached me and said: ‘My name is Tom Mix. I made up my mind I wouldn’t work for any other company until I saw you, Mr. Fox.’
“He was a very picturesque figure and I interviewed him and decided to engage him. When the subject of salary was broached, he said that the thing he was interested in was the provision for the care and feeding of his horses. We agreed on $350 a week, including feed and stables for his horses. When his last contract expired, we were paying him $7,500 a week. His first pictures were two-reelers and the audience liked them. And though Tom became the hero to the youth of the nation, the interesting thing about him is that he never changed. He was with our company for ten years or more, and to me he was no different when he got $7,500 a week than when he was getting $350.”
I think the production of which W. F. is proudest is the picture called Over the Hill, produced about 1920.2 This picture had no stars. It cost $100,000 to make, and netted over $3,000,000—which is very high praise for a picture. The story was W. F.’s own idea, and started when he heard a young man recite Will Carleton’s poem “Over the Hill to the Poor House.” The poem made a sensation, and W. F. was led to read this volume. He was always on the lookout for plots, and this poem brought to mind all the old people left in institutions through the neglect of thoughtless and selfish children.
A short time after, Mrs. Fox asked him to do her a favor. An old man had appealed to her to get him into a home. He was seventy-five years old, in broken health and great need and without a friend or relative in the world. W. F. went to see Jacob Schiff about it, and told him the sad story. A few days later Schiff sent for W. F. and, to the latter’s great embarrassment, reported the result of an investigation: the old man had six children, several of them well-to-do. W. F. brought the report back to his wife, and naturally was much annoyed.
A month passed, and Mrs. Fox told her husband the sequel to the story. She had written to each of those six sons and daughters, inviting them to her home on a certain evening. They all came. There were six brothers and sisters meeting one another after long separation, and naturally they wondered what it was about. Said Mrs. Fox:
“I am confronted with a grave problem concerning a worthy old man seventy-five years of age, who appealed to me for help and begged that I provide a home for him, as he hadn4 a soul to turn to. In my efforts to have him admitted to a home, I find he has four sons and two daughters.” At this point one of the girls was crying with embarrassment and said she knew Mrs. Fox was referring to their father. This daughter had lost her husband and the others agreed to contribute money so that the old man could live with her. They all agreed to send their remittances to Mrs. Fox, so that she could be sure the plan would be carried out.
So the story started in the mind of W. F. He worked it out himself. He says:
“We used no script for this picture. The director came to me every morning and I recited the scenes that he would photograph that day. Many times while the story was in progress, he insisted that the material he had finished could not possibly make a motion picture.”
When it was finished, it was very sad and sentimental. It was in ten reels, and nobody liked it as it “preached a sermon.” W. F. determined at least to give it a trial. It so happened that he had a lease on the Astor Theatre in New York; the lease was to expire in five days, and the picture that was showing there was not very good. W. F. decided that since he had to pay for the theatre anyway, he would put in Over the Hill for that five days and see what happened. He continues:
“The next night this picture went in, and we gave free passes to fill the theatre. I remember standing in the lobby after the show, asking this one and that one how they liked the picture. One of the last persons to come out was a man whom I wouldn’t want to meet on a dark night alone; he had the hardest face of any man I had ever seen. He was smoking his pipe, and I asked him for a light. While we smoked, I asked him how he liked the picture. He spoke with a Scotch accent and said: ‘I liked it very much, lad, but it’s had a terrible effect on me. You see, I’m a seaman—I am only fifty, but I have been out to sea forty out of those fifty years. I ran away from home when I was a lad and never returned or wrote me mither a line. Ah, but tomorrow I buy me a ticket to go home to Scotland—I am going to see me mither again.’ I suggested he had better cable first, because he had been away a long time and his mother might be dead. He said, ‘I will go home to Scotland, and if she be dead, I am going to kneel at her grave and ask her to forgive me.’”
Says W. F.: “When I realized that this man was so affected that he would travel 3,500 miles to kneel at his mother’s grave, I knew I had created a story that would do much good. Men and women by the millions poured into the theatres all over the world and came out thinking about their old parents and whether they were doing their duty. My publicity people communicated with homes for the aged to find out whether there were any old people being reclaimed from these homes; they found that in the eighteen months following the production of Over the Hill, more than 5,000 old men and women had been taken back to live with their children! When the picture was sent to England, the government revised its regulations, and for the first time permitted a moving picture to be shown in the prisons.”
Such is the power of the “movies,” and that of the “talkies” is even greater. W. F. had a full realization of this power; and in common with every other producer, he used it to uphold the established social order. The “talkies” will tell all children to be kind to their parents, and all parents to be kind to their children; but they will never tell anyone that there is anything fundamentally wrong with our social system. . . .
For the moment we have come to the war time and W. F.’s attitude to that. He tells:
“I left instructions here in California that we must do all things that would help our cause, regardless of profit and gain; that sequences should be written into our pictures that would arouse patriotism. . . . We sold Liberty bonds from the stage of every theatre we had, many times much to the annoyance of our patrons, who came there to be entertained, and not to be reminded that there was a war. They came to forget there was a war, which we never allowed them to do.”
Also he gave the greater part of his time to the raising of Red Cross funds. He was “captain” of several teams which raised millions, and would have come out ahead of all the other teams with their millionaire captains—except that courtesy required him to permit John D. Rockefeller, Jr.’s team to come out No. 1. . . .
All through the war the Fox Film Corporation prospered; it prospered even in the panic year of 1920. It broke all records in that year, and never had a loss so long as its founder was in charge. In 1925 it became a public corporation, and then it purchased the West Coast chain of theatres. Also the Fox Theatres Corporation was established, to take over all the theatres in which William Fox was interested. Ultimately he had 800 as an outlet for his productions, and his profits were growing at a rate which astounded Wall Street.
The radio had come in 1921, and had brought sharp competition to the moving picture business. W. F. first noticed it on rainy nights. “Prior to this, on a rainy night our business would be larger than it would be on a clear night. When the radio came in, I made a careful observation and found that on rainy nights we were doing little or no business.” So he began to watch the experiments being tried with talking pictures. The first efforts in America were made by means of a synchronization of a moving picture film with a phonograph disc. The film was run through a projection machine, and the disc was played by a phonograph, and the enlarged sound thrown into the theatre. But W. F. insisted from the beginning that this method was hopeless; real success would begin only when the sound track was put on the film with the pictures. He tells the basis of this conviction:
“I went to the Warner Theatre one day, to hear a man sing the introductory number of Pagliacci. Of course, I went expecting to be thrilled. This was the first person from grand opera who consented to sing for talkies. The picture started, and he was making all the gestures he used on the stage, and the sound I heard was a banjo playing, accompanied by a colored man singing T Wish I Was in Dixie/ Of course the operator had put on the wrong record! And later they ran into this difficulty—they had the problem of shipping the reels to the exhibitor, and if one record was broken, no show could be given. When film gets old you must cut out the brittle part; and of course when this was done, the record and the film did not synchronize. At one time I wrote a paper with 101 definite reasons why it was not possible to have the industry adopt records and film and make them synchronize.”
W. F. stood out for “sound on film,” and tells the very interesting story of how he got it:
“In the winter of 1925 I was in California, and in the spring I returned to New York. The first day I arrived at my office I was greeted by my brother-in-law, Jack Leo, who said he would like to show me something in the projection room. I went to the room, and to my amazement, in this projection room that I had visited for many years and that had always been silent, the machine went into operation, and there was a little canary bird in a cage and it was singing. It sang beautifully from the lowest to the highest note it was possible to sing. It sang for several minutes, and then following that came a Chinaman who had a ukelele and he sang an English song. He sang terribly and played none too well, but to me it was a marvel. At the conclusion of that the lights went up, and they said, ‘What do you think of it?’ I said it was marvelous. Leo said, ‘It is all right if you think it is marvelous, because I have incurred an expense of about $12,000 without your consent while you were away. Upstairs I have built a temporary sound-proof stage and we have been photographing sound-proof pictures. If you didn’t like it, I was prepared to pay the $12,000 out of my own pocket.’ I said, ‘Like it? This is revolutionary!’ This bird sang just as though it were in a tree, and I found that the sound had been recorded on film and that it was reproduced by light from the film to the screen. All mechanical sound was eliminated.
“I went up on this temporary stage floor and saw the temporary sound-proof room, where everything had to be done. I said that couldn’t be right. If the photographing had to be done in a sound-proof room, then you are going to rob this camera of seeing nature. They said there was only one way to record sound, and that was in sound-proof rooms. I said, ‘That can’t be so—you must be in error.’ But they were sure of their position, and it was necessary to build a perfected sound-proof room. We let a contract to build our first sound-proof stages on 54th Street and Tenth Avenue. The contractors said it would take four months to build this studio.
“I called for the inventor, Mr. Case, and said, ‘I am going to give you a million dollars, and you can spend this million dollars in the next four months, any way you like, in experimenting how to make this camera photograph on the outside without a sound-proof room.’ Shortly thereafter they brought the various things they had photographed outside. One was a rooster crowing and it sounded exactly like a pig squealing. Another was a dog barking which sounded like a cow. They recognized that they didn’t have it, because of the confusion of sound. About thirty or forty days later they said, ‘Here, this time we have it.’ On the screen there came rushing before me a train photographed on the Jersey Central tracks, and I heard the whistles blowing and the wheels turning just as though the train were with me in that room. I said, ‘Now you have it.’ . . .”
For the moment I am dealing with the cultural aspects of W. F.’s activities, and the benefits which the public got from his work. One of these was the Fox Movietone News. For the first time it was possible for the public not merely to see the crowned heads and generals of Europe marching in parades and reviewing their soldiers, but to hear the cheers of the crowds and the playing of the bands. The dwellers in remote cattle and lumber towns of the West could now leap magically over the world, and they came every week for this thrilling ten or fifteen minutes. Sound newsreels became the rage.
Also there was W. F.’s dream of educational, religious, and scientific pictures. He had been making silent pictures for schools, and was proud of them. The American Telephone and Telegraph Company claimed all the patent rights for sound pictures, and W. F. made a tie-up with them, and took Walter S. Gifford, president of the Telephone Company, to see some of his pictures in a school somewhere on the East Side of New York.
“We showed some of our silent educational pictures we had made to a classroom of boys and girls, and Mr. Gifford came and brought his little son with him. Of course, Gifford was delighted with it and thought it was wonderful. I said, ‘If you think this is wonderful, wait until you see them when we make them in sound,’ and he concurred. . . .”
He had been caught napping by the radio, which had taken away his audiences on rainy nights, and in 1928 he saw television on the way, and didn’t want to be caught napping again. “I reached a conclusion that the one thing that would make it possible to compete with television was to use a screen ten times larger than the present screen, a camera whose eye could see ten times as much as at present. For example, Roxy’s picture screen is eighteen feet wide, and the screen I proposed was about ninety feet. I believed this ‘Grandeur’ would come closer to the third dimension we hear scientists talking about.”
W. F. proceeded to form the Fox Grandeur Corporation, and ordered the making of a “Grandeur” projecting machine at his own expense. “This was an experiment William Fox was making—it was not an experiment of the Fox companies, because there was a great hazard about it, and I always took the hazards myself.”
The other motion picture producers were greatly disturbed by the development of “Fox Grandeur.” Zukor, president of Paramount, and Sarnoff, representing RKO, the all-powerful Radio Corporation of America, came to call on W. F. “They said I was about to make a great mistake: the industry had just changed from silent to sound; a great inventory had to be wiped down, and we were just about catching our breath, and here I was trying to upset it again. I was calling it progress, and they called it destruction. They said that enlarging the pictures could be done at another time, when all the companies would agree on a uniform size. Each company was claiming they had a much finer development at that time, and their purpose was to persuade me not to give the premiere performance. I described to them the necessity of it, that we could not see television destroy us. Of course, I was firm in my position, that my duty was to further the motion picture business—I hoped it would hurt no one. I was going to give my premiere, and if the public decided it was no good, that would be the end of it. Shortly thereafter, we gave the premiere of Sunny Side Up,3 and it was hailed as a great success. I ordered more pictures made.”
So here again we see William Fox, the stubborn and egotistical person, making powerful enemies. We shall see him [in later chapters of Upton Sinclair’s book] thus making one enemy after another; playing a lone hand, insisting on having his own way, regardless of how much trouble he makes for his competitors, and for the great monopolies of manufacturing and finance. We shall see exactly how they stopped him. For the moment suffice it to say that with his “ousting,” the “Grandeur” movement died, and has never been heard of since. A second picture, The Big Trail,4 which he had in production, was the last the public ever saw.
And the same thing has happened to the elaborate schemes for the making of sound pictures for churches, schools, scientific institutions and homes. W. F. had this all figured out, and had begun production. He had plans for the making of school and church equipment, at very low prices. He is still cherishing this dream.
Excerpted from Upton Sinclair Presents William Fox (1933). By permission of Mr. David Sinclair.
1. A Fool There Was (1915) directed by Frank Powell; based on the play by Porter Emerson Browne which was originally suggested by Rudyard Kipling’s poem, “The Vampire.” The term “Vamp” originated with this movie.
2.Over the Hill to the Poor House (1920) directed by Harry Millarde; starred Mary Carr, William Welch, and John Walker. The New York Times reviewer commented (Sept. 18, 1920): "Seldom has a motion picture been so deliberately sentimental as this one. Its assault upon the emotions is undisguised and sweeping. It is ruthless in its mass attack. ... It does a wholesale business in the theatrical commodities of mother-love, filial nobility, the un-gratefulness of children . . . and so on."
3.Sunny Side Up (1929) directed by David Butler; starred Janet Gaynor and Charles Farrell.
4.The Big Trail (1930) directed by Raoul Walsh; starred John Wayne, Marguerite Churchill, Tully Marshall, Tyrone Power, and Ward Bond.