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20th Century Fox Was My Family’s Jewish Success Story. Will Disney Destroy Our Legacy?

Disney’s impending takeover of 20th Century Fox film studio feels like a death in the family. Why? Because I carry Wurtzel blood. Three generations of my family toiled to make Fox a Hollywood powerhouse. Just over 100 years ago, New York Jewish movie mogul William Fox dispatched my great-grandfather Sol M. Wurtzel from the Lower East Side’s Jewish tenements to Los Angeles to supervise production at Fox’s new West Coast studio.

In 1917, when 27-year-old Sol boarded the transcontinental train destined for California paradise, he’d never been west of the Hudson River and didn’t know much about the technical details of filmmaking. He became a Hollywood pioneer — staking Fox’s claim on silver nitrate film.

Fox dubbed my great-grandfather General Superintendent of his studio. Despite this unglamorous job title and a modest salary, Sol worked 60-hour weeks to keep the cameras cranking at the fledgling movie factory. The studio thrived — producing hundreds of silent shorts; then fuller-length silent melodramas starring Jewish femme fatale/vamp Theda Bara and Westerns featuring Tom Mix and Buck Jones. Sol launched the stellar career of John Ford when he hired him to direct the groundbreaking silent “The Iron Horse.” With his gut-level genius for recognizing untapped potential, Sol created silver screen legends by plugging Shirley Temple, Will Rogers and Marilyn Monroe into their first big parts.

His success as a Hollywood workhorse enabled him to bring his father, four brothers (Henry, Harry, Ben and Sam) and their families out to Los Angeles to join the family business. From 1917 through the 1980s, a total of 21 Wurtzel relatives (including my beloved grandmother Lillian Wurtzel Semenov — a script advisor in Fox’s Spanish language film unit) worked in studio jobs moving up the ladder from entry-level script clerks and grips to become heads of construction and special effects, production managers and first assistant directors. They slaved away behind the scenes on Academy Award winning Fox hits including “How Green Was My Valley” and “The Sound of Music.”

Wurtzel Offspring circa 1927. Most of these kids later worked on 20th Century Fox lot Image by Courtesy

In the 1930s, when Darryl Zanuck’s 20th Century studio merged with Fox, Zanuck kept Sol on to run the B-unit at Fox’s original Western Avenue studio. Sol churned out dozens of low-budget pictures (“Charlie Chan,” “Mr. Moto,” early Alice Faye musicals, etc.). These modest films netted enough money to keep the entire Fox operation afloat in lean Depression-era years. But then, like now, technology disrupted the film industry. As televisions populated American homes, B movies became redundant. The American public could watch similar low-budget fare on their TVs. Sol’s filmmaking career slowly wound down and ended after he suffered a debilitating stroke in 1952.

When I first read reports of Disney subsuming 20th Century Fox film and television, I had a physical reaction — hollowness deep in my core. I feared an erasure of the pioneering studio and the Wurtzel family’s legacy. Now I feel a grief-like melancholy. I’ve accepted that time and technology march ever forward.

I hope Disney doesn’t devour the 20th Century Fox brand or relegate it to Hollywood history’s dustbin. Such nullification would be a crying shame considering Fox’s immense contributions bridging 20th to 21st century Hollywood.

Disney’s proposed mega-purchase of Fox pushed me to parse the meaning of my family’s Hollywood legacy. The arc of my great-grandfather’s career demonstrates the fleeting nature of film-land power, fame and fortune. However, his strong work ethic, family loyalty, frugality and disdain for pretense remain embedded in my psyche. I strive to transmit these admirable character traits (in lieu of the legendary vices he developed during his Hollywood career) to my three daughters.

The Wurtzel family’s lengthy, prolific history at Fox represents the power of visual storytelling to create entertainment reflecting the human experience while turning a profit. That’s something to take pride in whether or not the mighty Disney mouse roars so loudly it silences Fox. Ultimately, I’ve come to realize we all serve as stewards of our family legacies — and not even Disney can buy that out.

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