“The Mightiest of All” William Fox sets up shop in Fort Lee a hundred years ago

You can find a wealth of movie history sites in a town near me, places where the movies and movie genres were born and the players who spearheaded the dawn of film laid the groundwork for an industry.  If you find yourself anywhere near Northeast New Jersey you should take time to visit Fort Lee.  That’s true all the time, but it’s especially true this year because the Fort Lee Film Commission is sponsoring several tributes in celebration of the centennial of Fox Studios, which set up shop in that city upon its incorporation in 1915.

Among the celebratory Fox Film Corporation tributes planned in Fort Lee this year are an exhibit in the Fort Lee Museum, ‘Fox Studio Centennial: From Fort Lee to Century City,’ an outdoors film series that will screen Fox movies on Saturday nights throughout the summer and a special jitney tour that will visit historical sites related to Fox.  More events are planned for the fall.  Since all of this is happening in my own backyard it’s natural that I’ve had Fox on my mind and therefore take this opportunity to dedicate this to Fox Film Corporation and the man who made it happen, William Fox.

William Fox
William Fox

By anyone’s standard forming a film studio would be enough of a reason to go down in history as a pioneer, as one of the people who paved the way for tinsel town and all it would come to represent.  But for some reason William Fox is rarely mentioned among the pioneering moguls of note.  That’s what makes the Fort Lee dedications and activities so special as they are spotlighting one of the film industry’s first movers and shakers.

Born in 1879, the eldest son in a family of thirteen children William Fox grew up in the slums of New York’s Lower East Side and left school at the age of eleven to go to work.  He started out in the garment business and before long started his own successful fur business, which he later sold to start the Greater New York Film Rental Company.  Fox ran his fur business out of a run-down Nickelodeon in Brooklyn, NY.  Noticing the growing public interest in nickelodeons by the lines he’d see each day William Fox decided to make a career change from furs to exhibiting movies.  Fox’s Nickelodeon caught on and before long he was able to open more theaters and shift his focus to the distribution end of the movie business, which was a good move since the Nickelodeon boom waned by 1911.

It was while he was still an exhibitor that William Fox made the first significant move toward shaping the film industry when he launched and largely paid for the antitrust lawsuit against the Motion Pictures Patent Company (also known as the Edison Trust).  The Motion Picture Patents Company was owned by Thomas Edison who had tried unsuccessfully to get Fox to sell his company many times.  William Fox’s efforts resulted in breaking up the monopoly held by Edison and others, which meant that anyone with the means and opportunity could legally make movies from that point on.  And make movies he did as of mid-1914, forming the Fox Film Corporation in early 1915 with the first Fox Studios building rented from a man named C. A. “Doc” Willat in Fort Lee, New Jersey.  It should be noted that Champion Studios and Universal studios were the first to set up permanent filmmaking spaces in Fort Lee, but competitors soon followed.  If you’re asking why Fort Lee, New Jersey, which sits just across the George Washington Bridge from Manhattan, it’s simple – with easy access from the city for film studios already established there Fort Lee offered more space to build and more outdoor locations to shoot.

Allow me to back up a moment – as it turns out the space that William Fox leased is significant in the history of film as a whole in that the facility included two glass buildings, which allowed use of natural light, rather than the glaring lamps used at the time.  This was innovative and allowed for a different, more natural look to early movies.  That space remained Fox’s principal studio for the next several years until production was shifted to New York City and Los Angeles in 1919. (Fort Lee Film Commission)

Fox rented this space and produced his first picture, Life's Shop Window (1914)
Fox rented this space in Fort Lee, New Jersey and produced his first picture, Life’s Shop Window (1914)

What many are not aware of these days is that Fox Film Corporation and the other fledgling motion picture companies that established roots in Fort Lee, New Jersey produced hundreds of films in that town between 1903 and 1927 with the bulk produced during the early heyday of film production starting in 1908.  In all there were seven major film studios in Fort Lee with twenty-one other film companies using the town for location shooting on a regular basis.  While Fort Lee’s role as a central player in the history of early moviemaking may have lasted only about ten years I’m barely scratching the surface of what happened in the then sleepy North Jersey town.  Take a look at this brief clip that aired on the Smithsonian Channel, “Without Fort Lee, There’d be no Hollywood.”  I might add that if you do visit Fort Lee and run into Tom Meyers, the Executive director of the Fort Lee Film Commission be sure to stop and talk movie history.  He possesses not only an encyclopedic knowledge of film history, but a deep love for the movies.

Back to William Fox – Business acumen is not the only thing that catapulted Fox to the top during the early days of motion pictures.  To put it mildly William Fox was a driven man.  Consider, for instance, that he started making movies in 1914 and by 1916 he was turning out one feature film per week.  I read that the man was shameless as far as what type of movies he made – amoral tales, sex-themed melodramas and so forth, but audiences loved his pictures so who could blame him?  In addition Fox had a keen eye for talent giving early breaks to the likes of John Ford and Howard Hawks.  So Fox was doing quite well, but he really cemented Fox Film Corporation as a serious player in the movie industry with A Fool There Was (1915), the film that introduced the first ever sex-symbol Theda Bara.

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A Fool There Was made William Fox millions and former, struggling actress Theodosia Goodman (as Theda Bara) became an overnight sensation.  At first William Fox promoted Bara as a European stage actress, an exotic artist if you will.  The official studio biography stated that Theda Bara was born in the Sahara to a French artiste and his Egyptian concubine and possessed supernatural powers.  In reality Bara was the daughter of a tailor and a housewife from Cincinnati, Ohio.  Audiences, however, didn’t want either of those backgrounds ascribed to the woman they saw on-screen.  They wanted to believe Theda Bara was just like the scantily dressed vampire she’d played in A Fool There Was.  So, naturally that’s what they were given by William Fox who created a phenomenon, “the first mass-produced celebrity instantly familiar to millions of people through the images seen on the screen.” (Fort Lee Film Commission)

“The public be pleased” is what William Fox said during a 1916 interview in response to the increasingly weird stories that circulated in connection to Theda Bara.  The one that was once hailed as an artist shifted to “the vamp” who owned strange pets, leaned toward the occult and had a different background depending on the day.  Some may have minded, but audiences ate it up.

Theda Bara made more than forty pictures in the four years following A Fool There Was and portrayed such notable roles as Juliet (1916), Cleopatra (1917), Madame Du Barry (1917) and Salome (1918).  Despite her mega-hits for William Fox her popularity began to wane and her contract with Fox Film Corporation was terminated in 1919.  Her career never recovered, but she must go down in history as one of moviedom’s first superstars.

Theda Bara as Cleopatra
Theda Bara as Cleopatra

William Fox and the Fox Film Corporation continued to make important contributions to the film industry outside of the Theda Bara phenomenon and long after his move from Fort Lee to Hollywood.  The Fox had banked on the movies and the Fox had won.

By 1927 William Fox had amassed ownership of a film studio, a film distribution company, well over 1,000 theaters, had an impressive array of stars working for him and was making films with lasting artistic appeal like F. W. Murnau’s Sunrise (that same year).  Not bad for a man considered an “outlaw,” or independent by the more “established” early moguls.

The rising stars of Fox Pictures in 1927
The rising stars of Fox Pictures in 1927

It’s difficult to fathom that William Fox would be out as a player in the movie industry by 1930.  Power struggles with other moguls, a serious car accident and the stock market crash all lead to his Hollywood demise.  In no time Fox went from having a net worth of over $400 million to being in debt for $100 million. The Fox empire collapsed and in early 1930 the man who’d built it was leveraged out of his position at Fox Film Corporation.  Bankruptcy followed, his theaters were handed over to Loews, Inc. to settle a debt and in 1935 the Fox Film Corporation was sold to Darryl F. Zanuck who, along with Joseph Schenck merged Twentieth Century Films with Fox to form Twentieth Century – Fox Films, which has gone through a few other, minor name adjustments through the years.  Ironically when the Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation became a division of News Corporation owned by Rupert Murdoch and named Fox, Incorporated the film production unit was renamed the Fox Film Corporation, what William Fox had named his studio in 1915.

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William Fox’s motto, “the mightiest of all” may not have proved true in a long-term sense from a filmmaking perspective, but given his name is consistently present in media one hundred years after he took those first steps toward Hollywood in Fort Lee the words ring true.  That’s a hell of a legacy for a lone wolf in the cut-throat world of moviemaking when powerful, determined men were bent on making history.

For the Classic Movie History Project Blogathon this is a look back to a hundred years ago, to a man and his studio.

UPDATE:  A few minutes after I published this post the announcement was made – William Fox is listed among the new inductees into the New Jersey Hall of Fame.

This is the first of my two contributions to the Classic Movie History Project Blogathon, an event I am proud to be co-hosting with Fritzi of Movies, Silently and Ruth of Silver Screenings.  Today the focus is on the silent era so be sure to visit Fritzi at Movies Silently to access the submissions dedicated to early film history.  I will host the Golden Age tomorrow and Ruth will follow on Sunday with modern times.

In addition to the over ninety write-ups expected for this event there’s also a fantastic giveaway opportunity thanks to our sponsor Flicker Alley, which is supporting the event in honor of its release of Dziga Vertov: The Man with the Movie Camera and Other Newly-Restored Works and 3-D Rarities (did you know it is the centenary of 3D film?) a large portion of which I got to see when the compilation premiered at MoMA a couple of weeks ago.  For details and the full roster of entries go here.

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20 thoughts

  1. Thanks so much for the fab post! Fox was definitely a scrappy studio, wasn’t it? And Theda Bara… wow! Not a lot of her work has survived but I would love to have met her. She sounded like a lovely woman (as Theodosia, the tailor’s daughter). Loved all the background detail on this fascinating studio.

    1. Thanks to you, Fritzi for spearheading this event!! Poor Theodosia struggled with the vamp image after a while and her efforts to prove she was a “nice” woman fell on deaf ears. I too wish I could get my hands on some of her movies.

  2. As always, an awesome post (from my hostess). Every time I go over the GW Bridge and see the sign for Fort Lee I think – this was the birthplace of the movies? I cry routinely over the loss of the Theda Bara films and always scratch my head at how fast this mogul fell from power. Wonderful article, girl. Thanks for co-hosting a great event.

  3. Is it too obvious or did you miss the punch line: Bara spelled backwards is Arab. And, “The Mightiest if All” was the motto William Fox used for Fox News at its launch in 1919 as a silent newsreel. With addition of the Movietone sound process it became Fox Movietine News, the most successful – mightiest – of all. Newsreels. The wonderful exhibit in Fort Lee includes this history.

  4. Sold! If I’m anywhere near NE New Jersey – or NYC – I will definitely make Fort Lee a priority. It should almost be a place of pilgrimage, no?, for the classic movie fan.

    Thanks for this guide to William Fox and this pre-Hollywood movie “colony”.

  5. That was great. Early film books I read often talked about the rise and fall of William Fox, but later books largely ignored him. What a great story. I used to read about Fort Lee and wonder where it was. It was hard to find a map that showed it. We’re lucky to have the internet. Thanks for a good story

  6. Very interesting post Aurora. I had a friend in Fort Lee, a real classic movie buff that unfortunately died just last year. He would have loved the festivities of the centennial. As a side note, here in Coronado CA we had Lubin studio, Lubin was another pioneer, but had joined the Motion Picture Trust and lost loads in the lawsuirs and also in a fire of his plant in Philly. Thus the Coronado lot closed in 1916. No doubt though, Fox was a great one. Thanks for co-hosting this great blogathon.

    1. Thanks, Christian! Your friend would have loved these tributes and small treasures available so close by. There are few entire relics left, but simply knowing where some of these early filmmakers and stars stood is enough for a bit of excitement. Thanks for sharing the Lubin Studio story too. Something else I need to read up on. 🙂

      Aurora

  7. There’s a street in Fort Lee (about six blocks west of the George Washington Bridge) which has been partially renamed Theda Bara Way.

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