William Fox, born Vilmos Fried, was a pioneering American motion picture executive who founded the Fox Film Corporation in 1915 and the Fox West Coast Theatres chain in the 1920s. Although Fox sold his interest in these companies in a 1936 bankruptcy settlement, his name lives on as the namesake of the Fox Television Network and the 20th Century Fox film studio. He was among the pioneers of the motion-picture and entertainment industry.
Fox was born Vilmos Fried in Tolcsva, Hungary, then part of Austria-Hungary. The house he was born in was identified in 2008. He came to America at the age of 9 months, where his name was anglicized to William Fox after his mother’s family name. He had many jobs starting at the age of 8. In 1900 he started his own company which he sold in 1904 to purchase his first nickelodeon. In 1915, he started Fox Film Corporation.
In 1925-26, Fox purchased the rights to the work of Freeman Harrison Owens, the U.S. rights to the Tri-Ergon system invented by three German inventors, and the work of Theodore Case to create the Fox Movietone sound-on-film system, introduced in 1927 with the release of F. W. Murnau’s Sunrise. Sound-on-film systems such as Movietone and RCA Photophone soon became the standard, and competing sound-on-disc technologies, such as Warner Brothers’ Vitaphone, fell into disuse. From 1928 to 1963, Fox Movietone News was one of the major newsreel series in the U.S., along with The March of Time and Universal Newsreel. In 1927, Marcus Loew, head of rival studio Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer died, and control of MGM passed to his longtime associate, Nicholas Schenck. Fox saw an opportunity to expand his empire, and in 1929, with Schenck’s assent, bought the Loew family’s holdings in MGM. However, MGM studio bosses Louis B. Mayer and Irving Thalberg were outraged, since, despite their high posts in MGM, they were not shareholders. Mayer used his political connections to persuade the Justice Department to sue Fox for violating federal antitrust law. During this time, in the middle of 1929, Fox was badly hurt in an automobile accident. By the time he recovered, the stock market crash in the fall of 1929 had virtually wiped out his financial holdings, ending any chance of the Loews-Fox merger going through even if the Justice Department had given its blessing.