How Fox TV Got Its Name: From an Immigrant in the Movie Biz


In 1904, a Hungarian Jewish immigrant named William Fox bought an arcade in Brooklyn and hired circus performers to attract customers for a new form of entertainment: moving pictures.

Movies were such a novelty that viewers “went up to the screen after watching the moving images of trees shaking in the wind to examine whether the screen itself had moved,” writes Professor Frederick Wasser (Brooklyn College) in his new book, Twentieth Century Fox.

Wasser’s book is the first scholarly history of the empire that William Fox built. The immigrant entrepreneur turned that first arcade into a chain of 15 theaters, then created a distribution company, followed by a production studio in Southern California where the film industry was coalescing.

Wasser charts the company’s ups and downs through the Great Depression, two World Wars, and the turmoil of the 1960s. He examines how changing leisure habits and technology–TV, home video, the internet, and streaming services–upended Hollywood. And he shows how Twentieth Century Fox,  like so many other companies, became nothing more than a corporate asset to be bought, sold, and carved up by moguls, banks, and rivals. Rupert Murdoch’s news corporation acquired the business in 1985, then sold its film operations to Disney in 2019. Today, Fox is best known as the brand name for Murdoch’s politically conservative TV network.

But the heart of Wasser’s book lies not with the company’s present incarnation, but with the film studio’s history as a mirror and shaper of American culture. Wasser shows how audiences used what they saw on the big screen as distraction, entertainment, affirmation, and education through good times and bad, and how William Fox himself conceived of his films as storytelling for ordinary people, reflecting their travails, aspirations, and experiences. A dimpled, effervescent and brilliantly talented young star named Shirley Temple cheered Americans through tough times in the 1930s, for example. Later, as postwar sexual morés loosened, Marilyn Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor captivated audiences with their sex appeal.

Movie buffs will love Wasser’s behind-the-scenes look at legendary Fox films like The Grapes of Wrath, Cleopatra, The Longest Day, The Sound of Music, and Planet of the Apes. Wasser also shows how, in recent decades, Fox blockbusters like Star Wars and Avatar maintained their box-office holds in part through technology and special effects. The experience of seeing those movies in theaters could not be replicated on living room TVs or laptops. Directors like George Lucas and James Cameron also created stories with universal appeal to capitalize on global audiences, while negotiating deals that ensured their share of profits.

But decades before any of that, William Fox himself was sidelined and forgotten. When he died in 1952, he was buried in Brooklyn, not far from his first arcade. But nobody from Hollywood attended, Wasser writes. As a metaphor for Fox’s unceremonious demise, Wasser invokes a line from the movie Sunset Boulevard: “I’m big. It’s the pictures that got small.”