I don't often go out on a limb and review books, but this one was just too irresistible to keep to myself. With a long, nonfiction, reference-y title like you see above, I wasn't exactly expecting entertainment when I picked up this book. What a nice surprise! While I'm guessing you're familiar with the name William Fox (as in the Fox Film Corporation), I'm also guessing you've never even heard the name "Sol M. Wurtzel." And why would you? After all, he was just a lowly personal assistant... or so Fox would have liked us to believe. This book, which is a collection of the actual letters that were exchanged between Mr. Fox and his "personal assistant" (nowadays, Wurtzel would be known as CEO, or "studio head"), paint a dramatic, cartoonish, sometimes hilarious, sometimes pitiable view of what it was like to work in the film industry in 1917. That was the year when Fox, whose office was in New York, decided he needed a presence in Los Angeles. He didn't want to travel, though, so he sent Wurtzel. Fox wasn't exactly a generous boss; although his "precious" letters were always addressed "My Dear Sol," the pretentiousness of his formal and contrived language is quickly recognizable as just that. Not far below the surface was a demanding, moody, penny-pinching, nearly un-pleasable man who needed a scapegoat to blame whenever things didn't go perfectly. He couldn't have picked a better punching bag. Wurtzel did backflips to please his boss; always catering to his every whim, apologizing for things that weren't his fault, trying to be everything to everyone while receiving no credit and only one-third of the salary of the man he replaced. This book again proves the idea that fact is often more interesting than fiction. The scandals, the deceit, the nepotism... pampered stars who ask for advances for their "mothers' operations" and then skip town, sons of studio owners who steal raw film... it's all here, and every piece of it is piled onto Wutzel's overburdened shoulders. Only once is he brave enough to ask his boss for a little help; he talks about the family he hasn't been allowed to visit for three years, and the fact that Fox himself hasn't met with him the entire time he's been there. But he's quickly put in his place by the man who demands to know if his ego has "grown too big for his position." I'm not sure if I was supposed to laugh out loud, but I did, through many parts of this book. The passive-aggressive comments (along the lines of "You've given me no other choice but to blame you for this,") along with the laughable scenarios in which Fox's New York secretary would pretend he was out of town whenever trouble arose, made this book feel like satire. But I suppose the stereotypes have to come from somewhere! I couldn't help but to picture Ebenezer Scrooge and Bob Cratchit, and I kept waiting for the Ghosts of Christmas to come knocking on Fox's door. In a sense, I suppose they did. Fox was eventually ousted from his own corporation, and Wurtzel stayed on, producing successful B movies and launching many careers. This book, brought to publication by Wurtzel's daughter and grand-niece, is a compelling and fascinating character study. So, ignore the clunky title and read the book as the editors originally wanted it titled: "My Dear Sol."...
Carla Winter should be highly congratulated for bringing surviving correspondance between her uncle, Hollywood mini-mogul Sol M. Wurtzel, and William Fox to the attention of silent film scholars. And McFarland deserves equal credit for publishing this series of letters, which are entertainingly annotated by (I assume) Wurtzel's late daughter, Lillian Wurtzel Semenov. In his foreword, film historian Scott Eyman expresses the wish that correspondance between the two pertaining to the later 1920s -- when Fox made several classic epics -- also had survived and I obviously agree. But if I absolutely had to chose between the two periods, I would pick the earlier and much less documented years. I actually expected a series of interesting but rather dry discussions of costs, bookings, etc. But "William Fox, Sol M. Wurtzel and the Early Fox Film Corporation" (McFarland's most cumbersome title yet?) is instead a vastly entertaining series of harangues from the penny-pinching Mr. Fox to the sometimes defenseless but at other times crafty Mr. Wurtzel. As the author of the annotations so correctly states at one point, it is no wonder that poor Sol Wurtzel spent his life afflicted with troublesome digestion and various facial tics. Anyone remotely interested in silent film ought to read this volume of letters which, amazingly enough, becomes a true page-turner where, as Harry Ritz reportedly once said, things tend to go "from bad to Wurtzel."
In 1917, William Fox hired Sol Wurtzel to run the west-coach branch of the Fox movie studios. Fox was a demanding task-master, but he hated to leave New York. He met with Wurtzel for one weekend, and then sent him off to Los Angeles. You would think that a book consisting of a bunch of business letters and telegrams would be dry and boring, but that is certainly not the case. Wurtzel immediately has to deal with employees who are stealing large amounts of film stock, an actress who skipped out of town with a salary advance, and uncooperative directors who spend the studio's money extravagantly. Over and over, Fox browbeats Wurtzel for spending too much money and making lousy films. Wurtzel fires back apologetic letters and telegrams defending himself.
One of the best things about the book is that you get to see how Wurtzel blossoms from a simple businessman to an artistic producer who really cares about his films. If you've always wondered about what went on behind-the-scenes of a silent movie studio, ignore the clunky title and pick up this book. How often to you get to read direct sources who tell things exactly how they happened 80+ years ago?
This is an enthralling behind-the-scenes look at the early years in the film business. This book is a gem for anyone interested in how Hollywood and the movie industry came about. It also tells a personal evolutionary story of Sol Wurtzel who started out as a mere secretary and developed into a mover and shaker inside a movie empire. It's an eloquent, touching and well-told account by the people who were closest to him.