By Jim Gilles
Los Angeles, CA (The Hollywood Times) 9/10/21 – Noted film historian Scott Eyman’s new book 20th Century Fox: Darryl F. Zanuck and the Creation of the Modern Film Studio, published by Running Press, is due out in bookstores in September 2021. Eyman relates the fascinating story of legendary producer Darryl F. Zanuck and the movie empire known simply as Fox. For 85 years, the creative powerhouse of 20th Century Fox was one of the preeminent producers of films, stars, and filmmakers in the world. The studio’s unique identity in the industry and place in movie history is unparalleled, and it’s one of the greatest stories to come out of Hollywood. Since Disney took ownership of 20th Century Fox in 2019, that story can now be told in its entirety. Most of us are familiar with the eight-bar fanfare and logo that were created in 1933, for Daryl Zanuck’s new company, called Twentieth Century Picture. After the merger of Twentieth Century with Fox Pictures in 1935, that log and fanfare introduced nearly every Fox film. For more than fifty years of its existence, the Fox studio was dominated by two alpha males: first, William Fox, the founder of the studio who Eyman describes as “a feral, single-minded character who saw himself less as a movie mogul and more as a vaultingly ambitious American legend in the making a Jewish Vanderbilt.” The other was Darryl Zanuck, who combined Fox’s company with his own and ran the result “like a Swiss watch.” Zanuck was a writer by nature and a voracious reader of screenplays who “had a Geiger counter in his head” for what worked in any scene in a movie.
William Fox was born Wilhelm Fuchs in Hungary in 1978 and grew up in poverty in the Lower East Side of New York City, were learned early on to make money with nickelodeons and eventually acquired theatres that would show silent films. His focus was always on money and status. He created a chain of movie theaters and purchased film prints from major film companies at the time. Eventually, he began making movies because he could keep more of the money from the films for himself. Over time, he raised the level of his films incrementally from a production policy on themes of mother love and blatant exploitation to more complex stories. Eyman notes that Fox “neither liked nor trusted most actors. Instead, he bet on directors.” So, he cultivated new directors like John Ford, F.W. Murnau, Frank Borzage, Raul Walsh, and Howard Hawks. His greatest respect was for John Ford, whose silent film Iron Horse was his favorite. Having only a fifth-grade education, he was less interested in stories than in production value. One of his early stars was Tom Mix, the actor who played the Western cowboy and had his own studio on Allesandro Street in Silver Lake (then known as Edendale). Theda Bara was launched as an actress supposedly from Paris but she was actually from Cincinnati and had never been to Europe. She was cast as a historical vamp in a series of films including A Fool There Was (1915), the famous but lost Cleopatra (1917), Salomé (1918), and the She-Devil (1918). His other major stars were William Farnum and Janet Gaynor who starred in Murnau’s Sunrise (1927). He also discovered a young John Wayne (Duke Morrison) from Glendale High School who he put in Raoul Walsh’s Big Trail, shot in experimental 70 mm format.
In 1925–1926, 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 Theodor 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 Bros.’ Vitaphone, became obsolete. Fox Movietone News became the major newsreel series in the U.S. along with The March of Time and Universal Newsreel. Despite the fact that his film studio was based in Hollywood, Fox opted to instead remain in New York and was more familiar with his financiers than with either his movie makers or movie stars.
Following the 1927 death of Marcus Loew, head of the parent company of rival studio Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 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 MGM holdings, unbeknownst to MGM studio bosses Louis B. Mayer and Irving Thalberg who were outraged, since, despite their high posts at MGM, they were not shareholders. Mayer used his strong political connections to persuade the Justice Department to sue Fox for violating federal antitrust laws. The stock market crash in October 1929 had wiped out virtually his entire fortune, ending any chance of the Loews-Fox merger going through even if the Justice Department had approved it.
Fox lost control of his organization in 1930 during a hostile takeover. In 1935, Fox Film Corporation would merge with 20th Century Pictures, becoming 20th Century-Fox, and, after the 2019 purchase of the firm from Fox Corporation by the Walt Disney Company, “20th Century Studios.” William Fox never had any involvement with the film studio that famously bore his name. At his bankruptcy hearing in 1936, he attempted to bribe judge John Warren Davis and committed perjury. In 1943, Fox served a five-month and seventeen-day sentence on charges of conspiring to obstruct justice and defraud the United States, in connection with his bankruptcy. Years after his prison release, U.S. President Harry Truman granted Fox a Presidential pardon. He died in 1952.
The majority of Scott Eyman’s new book is focused on the arrival of the brilliant but controlling film producer and studio executive, Darryl F. Zanuck. Zanuck, who grew up in Nebraska, eventually became the only non-Jewish major studio head in the movie industry. In the late 1920s, Zanuck worked for Warner Bros, originally as a publicist and later as a scriptwriter (often under a pseudonym). His films there featured characters full of ambition and rage, such a Public Enemy, Little Caesar and I Was a Fugitive from a Chain Gang – starring a young James Cagney. He also introduced the musical in 1932 with 42th Street, Footlight Parade, Gold Diggers of 1933, Busby Berkeley choreography, and lots of tap-dancing. He liked tough characters played by the likes of James Cagney, Edgar J. Robinson, and Barbara Stanwyck. When the issue of pay cuts to all the employees at Warner Bros. arose in 1933 (due to federal Depression guidelines), Zanuck left Warner Bros. and in April 1933, formed Twentieth Century Pictures, with Joseph Schenck. This was the depth of the Depression and Fox Studios was a mess, due to a weak story department and few good actors other than Janet Gaynor and Will Rogers. At the time, MGM was the biggest company and had Garbo as their top star. Paramount had Marlene Dietrich. There was only Elissa Landi, a loan-out to Paramount, who was the lead actress in pre-code The Sign of the Cross (1933).
During that short time (1933–1935), 20th Century became the most successful independent movie studio of its time, breaking box-office records with 18 of its 19 films, all profitable, including Clive of India (starring Ronald Colman), Les Miserables, and The House of Rothschild. After a dispute with United Artists over stock ownership, Schenck and Zanuck negotiated and bought out the bankrupt Fox Studios in 1935 to form Twentieth Century-Fox Film Corporation. Zanuck was Vice President of Production of this new studio and took a firm, hands-on approach, closely involving himself in scripts, film editing, and producing. One of his stars was a cute, tap-dancing little darling, Shirley Temple, who at just 5 is signed to a $150-a-week, seven-year contract. Her star rose so quickly at the studio, she got a bump just six months later to $1,000 a week (and was assigned a team of no fewer than 19 writers). Twentieth Century-Fox continued to dance its way through the war years with movies like Busby Berkeley’s Technicolor extravaganza The Gang’s All Here, starring the exotic Carmen Miranda, who ended up making nine films for the studio. Billed as “the Brazilian bombshell,” her diminutive 5-foot frame was always topped by towering fruit-filled headdresses. She drew criticism from some for playing up a stereotype but also became the first Latin-American star to leave her handprints in Sid Grauman’s forecourt. Just before World War II, Zanuck produced some of the best films of the early 1940s that addressed major social issues: Grapes of Wrath (1940), exploring the issue of poverty during the Great Depression; Tobacco Road (1941), about unfair labor exploitation; and How Green Was My Valley (1941), where greed leads to the destruction of the environment.
When the U.S. entered World War II at the end of 1941, Zanuck was commissioned as a colonel in the Army Signal Corps but was frustrated to find himself posted to the Astoria Studios Queens, New York, and even worse, serving alongside the spoiled son of Universal’s founder, Carl Laemmle Jr. Appalled by such privileged cosseting, Zanuck demanded a riskier assignment from General George C. Marshall. He headed to London where he studying army training films while under Nazi bombardment by Hitler’s Luftwaffe in the still-ongoing Blitz. While Zanuck was on duty, 20th Century-Fox, like the other studios, contributed to the war effort by releasing a large number of their male stars for overseas service and many of their female stars for USO and war bond tours – while creating patriotic films under the often-contentious supervision of a fledgling Office of War Information. Zanuck, who pleaded with the War Department, as soon as American troops were posted for action in North Africa, and was rewarded with the assignment of covering the invasion for the Signal Corps where he shot live footage of battles.
Zanuck returned to 20th Century-Fox in 1944 a changed man. He avoided the studio and instead read books at home, surrounded by his growing family, and caught up on all the films he had missed while overseas in his private screening room. He did not return to take the reins until William Goetz, the man Zanuck had left in charge when he went off to war, left for a job at Universal. Zanuck’s tenure in the 1940s and ’50s resonated with his astute choices. He first personally rescued a cumbersome cut of The Song of Bernadette (1943) which won the Oscar. He relented to actor Otto Preminger’s fervent wish to direct a modest thriller called Laura (1944), casting Clifton Webb in his Oscar-nominated role as Gene Tierney’s controlling mentor, with David Raksin’s haunting score.
Leading theater director Eliz Kazan was carefully nurtured through his first film, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945), based on a popular novel. It did so well, he chose Kazan to direct the first studio film on anti-Semitism, Gentleman’s Agreement (1947), with Gregory Peck playing a Gentile reporter whose life falls apart due to implacable antisemitism emerging from friends and family when he pretends to be Jewish for an exposé. After Kazan triumphed in Tennessee Williams’ Broadway hit, A Streetcar Named Desire, he brought Kazan back to direct Pinky (1949), another film about prejudice, this time racial. Two years later, he followed up with a film starring Gregory Peck as a bomber squadron leader in Twelve O’Clock High (1949), which challenged wartime patriotism. The scathing theater world of Bette Davis’ aging actress in All About Eve (1950) went on to win six Oscars at the Academy Awards, although Davis was famously snubbed from winning the Best Actress Award. Both showed Zanuck’s ability to create box-office hits via brilliant films with unflinching examinations of demanding, hierarchical worlds. Zanuck continued to tackle social issues other studios would not touch.
As television began to erode Hollywood’s audiences in the early 1950s, the widescreen presentation was thought to be a potential solution. The 1950 television set duplicated the near-square shape of the 35 mm format in which all movies were shot – and this was no accident. Standardization of film size meant all theaters everywhere could play all films. Even the projection of film formats – i.e., any attempt to break out of the 35 mm format was under the control of the Hays Office, which limited any wide-screen experiments to the 10 largest cities in America. This severely limited the future of any widescreen format. Zanuck was an early advocate of widescreen projection. One of the first things Zanuck did when he returned to Fox in 1944 was to restart the research on a 50 mm film, shelved in the early 1930s as a cost-cutting measure (a larger-sized film print in the projector meant higher resolution). Impressed by a screening in Cinerama, a three-projector widescreen process, unveiled in 1952 that promised to envelop the viewer in a wrap-around image, Zanuck wrote an essay extolling widescreen’s virtues, seeing the new formats as a “participatory” form of recreation, rather than mere passive entertainment, such as television.
Zanuck now urged the studio to keep the same principle, but find a more feasible approach. He approved a massive investment into a system that would be called CinemaScope – 10 million in its first year alone. The Robe (1953), a Biblical epic, starring Richard Burton, was its first released feature film. The Fox engineers pulled it together – widescreen, Cinerama-like picture projected using merely one projector, not three. Zanuck carried out presentations of CinemaScope to the press in cities across the country throughout April, as Spyros Skouras and he gathered their forces for the proxy fight. Soon there followed How to Marry a Millionaire (also 1953), a glossy star package with Marilyn Monroe and Laureen Bacall. Zanuck personally loathed Marilyn Monroe (“He thought I was a freak,” Monroe once said) and nearly tore up her first contract after her nude Playboy cover came out. But by 1953, Monroe had three of the studio’s biggest hits – Niagara, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and How to Marry a Millionaire – and re-negotiated a new contract paying $100,000 a picture and giving her creative approval. Her first film under the new deal was 1956’s Bus Stop, co-starring Don Murray.
The Battle of the Screens seemed to have left Zanuck emotionally exhausted. He began an affair with a young Polish woman, who was actually a guest of his wife and changed her name to Bella Darvi. In 1956, Zanuck withdrew from the studio and left his wife, Virginia Fox, to move to Europe and concentrate on independent producing with a generous contract from Fox that gave him directing and casting control on any projects Fox financed. Eventually, in his absence, Fox began to fall to pieces due to the ballooning budget of Cleopatra (1963) whose entire set constructed at Pinewood Studios in London had to be scrapped before shooting even started. Producer Buddy Adler took over as head of Fox but dropped dead within a year. Skouras, who had frequently clashed with Zanuck, brought in a series of successors, but the studio floundered. In 1958, however, hopes on the lot were riding high for a just-greenlighted $2 million historical drama that was to star Joan Collins as Cleopatra.
Elizabeth Taylor was given $1 million to replace Collins as the Queen of the Nile after one of the producers offered the star the then-outrageous sum as a publicity stunt. Another $7 million was eaten up by the film’s first director, Rouben Mamoulian, who shot only 10 minutes of footage over the first 16 weeks of production before getting replaced by Joseph L. Mankiewicz. In the end, the $2 million Cleopatra ends ended up costing Fox $44 million ($350 million in today’s dollars). It put Fox in such a deep hole, the board of directors brought Zanuck back from Paris in 1962 to save the studio. Zanuck shuts down the lot, laying off nearly everyone while rushing Cleopatra to completion. The film ended up winning four Oscars and became 1963’s highest grosser, taking in $48 million domestically ($390 million today), but nearly capsized the company.
Later Zanuck plucked Rogers and Hammerstein’s least successful Broadway show from obscurity and turned it into the highly successful The Sound of Music (1965), which Christopher Plummer sneeringly referred to as “S&M.” It smashed box-office records ($159 million domestic gross, or $1.3 billion, adjusted for inflation) and put Fox back in business. Zanuck committed to the science-fiction hit Planet of the Apes (1968), after first rejecting Rod Serling’s script as too expensive. But Franklin Schaffner’s adaptation of Pierre Boulle’s novel about a simian-run society, produced for $5.8 million ($42 million in today’s dollars) became a hit, grossing $32.6 million domestically ($236 million today), and launched one of the studio’s most enduring franchises. He unleashed Robert Altman to create his antiwar comedy MASH (1970) and hired little-known Francis Ford Coppola to write Patton (1970) into a project for George C. Scott.
Hello, Dolly! (1968) was the most expensive musical of its time – $25 million – but Barbra Streisand knew it would be a stinker before she shot a single frame. “I thought I was too young to play Dolly. I thought they should’ve used an older woman, and I talked to Marty [Erlichman, Streisand’s longtime manager] and said, ‘Can I get out of this? ’Cause I don’t even understand the pairing of me and Walter Matthau. It’s not romantic. Nobody’s gonna root for us to be together.’” The film ended up losing $10 million. Another bomb was Myra Breckinridge (1970), a desperate effort by the studio head at the time by his son Richard, to film a taboo-busting adaptation of Gore Vidal’s satiric novel about a transsexual bent on revenge. Film critic Rex Reed played the pre-op Myron, while Myra was played by Raquel Welch, who feuded on set with Mae West, who had come out of retirement to play lascivious agent Leticia Van Allen. Outraged critics proclaimed the X-rated film one of the worst movies ever made.
By the decade’s end, Zanuck Sr. was spending millions on expensive vehicles in Europe for his new girlfriend, Genevieve Gilles. Barely 20 years old, she had her own contract to produce and star in Zanuck’s films. Her first acting effort, Hello-Goodbye (1970), died on release. The studio lost $4 million. He had left his son Robert in charge of the studio, with disastrous results. Eventually, Virginia Zanuck intervened and, being the largest shareholder in Twentieth-Century Fox, ousted her husband from the company. Zanuck returned to California to live with his wife Virginia; his son moved to Universal Pictures, where he gave 26-year-old Steven Spielberg his first feature. Darryl Zanuck only lived a few more years and passed away in 1979.
Twentieth Century-Fox has had its successes since that time and the end of Zanuck’s leadership. Alan Ladd, Jr., then the studio chief, backed George Lucas’ space fantasy Star Wars (1977), which had been turned down by United Artists, Universal, and Disney. Costs for Star Wars, initially budgeted at about $8 million, rose to $11 million ($45 million in today’s dollars). But audiences flocked to the movie, which through its original and subsequent re-releases has grossed more than $775 million worldwide. In 1984, Denver-based oilman Marvin Davis and financier Marc Rich bought Fox for $722 million but that arrangement did not last long. Rich was charged by U.S. prosecutors with racketeering and illegally trading with Iran during the hostage crisis. Davis was at odds with his own executives. He bought our Rich’s shares and got out of the business. Then Davis sold out to Australian media mogul Rupert Murdoch and his News Corp. in a series of deals amounting to $575 million. Murdoch was overextended with bank debt ($7.6 billion) and things were looking bleak.
In the 1990s, Fox licensed the rights to X-Men comics from the then-struggling Marvel Studios. In 2000, the first X-Men film, starring Patrick Steward and Ian McKellen, hit the big screen and earned $290 million in revenue, setting up a franchise that has since grown to encompass 11 movies, including Wolverine and Deadpool stand-alone. With $5.7 billion in worldwide grosses, it’s the sixth most successful movie franchise of all time and has several more films, including X-Men: Dark Phoenix and The New Mutants, hit the theatres in 2019 and 2020, respectively.
James Cameron’s dream project, Titanic (1997), which he sold to the studio as a Romeo and Juliet story, was greenlighted by then-Fox Group chairman Peter Chernin and then-studio chief Bill Mechanic for $109 million. But as the obsessive director filmed Titanic in a gigantic tank in Rosarito Beach, Mexico, the budget begins to rise to more than $200 million. To protect its downside, Fox struck a deal with Paramount, which chipped in $65 million and handled domestic distribution. Eight years later Cameron wanted to make Avatar (2009) and the studio initially balked at Cameron’s proposal to film an original sci-fi movie using cutting-edge performance-capture technology, but when it learned that the director was pitching the project to Disney, it exercised its right of first refusal and backed the effort, which eventually cost $237 million (plus another $150 million to promote). The film topped $2 billion at the worldwide box office.
The end of the story: In 2018, shareholders for The Walt Disney Co. and 20th Century Fox’s parent corporation, 21st Century Fox, approved the $71.3 billion sales of the bulk of Fox’s entertainment assets. This marked the beginning of the end of the storied Pico Boulevard studio as an independent entity. 20th Century Fox is now called 20th Century Studios. It’s hard to blame Disney’s executives for disconnecting the studio’s productions from the Murdoch-run company that spun it off, though it’s unfortunate that the move involves eliminating the reference to William Fox when it’s precisely as the founder of a great studio that he entered history.
Scott Eyman is the former book editor and art critic of The Palm Beach Post. His books specialize in the Golden Age of Hollywood, including Cary Grant: A Brilliant Disguise (2020), Hank & Jim: The Fifty-Year Friendship of Henry Fonda and James Stewart (2017), John Wayne: The Life and Legend (2014), Empire of Dreams: The Epic Life of Cecil B. DeMille (2010), Louis B. Mayer: Lion of Hollywood (2005), Print the Legend: The Life and Times of John Ford (2001), Ernst Lubitsch: Laughter in Paradise (1993), Mary Pickford: America’s Sweetheart (1990).