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Oct. 1, 2002 | 9:36 PM

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Darryl Francis Zanuck:  His Rise to the Top as a Studio Mogul

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D. F. Z. Darryl Francis Zanuck:  His Rise to the Top as a Studio Mogul by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)
Most of the pioneers who forged Hollywood and created the studio system as we know it were Eastern European and Jewish. Louis B. Mayer of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) emigrated from Lithuania. Samuel Goldwyn came from Poland. Irving Thalberg also of MGM was born in America but he had German heritage. Nicholas Schenck who was President of MGM’s parent company Loew’s Theatrical Enterprises and his brother Joseph who ran United Artists and later was Chairman of Twentieth Century-Fox were both Russian. Adolph Zukor of Paramount was a Hungarian.  The four Warner Brothers (Harry, Jack, Samuel and Albert) were Polish. William Fox was Hungarian. David O. Selznick who presided over Radio-Keith-Orpheum (RKO) had Russian lineage. Carl Laemmle of Universal was a German. Columbia’s Harry and Jack Cohn were Americans whose parents were Russian immigrants. So what chance did a Midwestern Methodist with American-born parents and no relatives working in Hollywood have of joining this elite club of moguls? He had no chance, unless his name was Darryl Frances Zanuck. This is his story.
Against all odds, Darryl Zanuck became a mogul. The story of his rise to the top is important because he came from nowhere, knew no one in the business, and had almost nothing in common with the men who were running the major Hollywood studios at the time. He owed his success to no one. Zanuck’s ascendancy was a result of his talent for writing, his innovation and daring, his personal tastes and sensibilities, and his single-minded drive to make something of himself.
Darryl Frances Zanuck was born on September 5th, 1902, in Wahoo, Nebraska. His parents were Frank Zanuck and Louise Torpin-Zanuck. His father’s alcoholism eventually forced his mother to move him to California when he was just 8 years old.  While in California, Darryl acted as an Indian extra for the Essanay Studio, but this early exposure to the film industry was cut short. When his mother’s second marriage also soured, Darryl quit school after the eighth grade and was sent back to Nebraska where he lived with his mother’s parents.
Because his childhood was so unpredictable, Zanuck strived to make a better life for himself. Notwithstanding the fact that he quit school after the eighth grade, he distinguished himself as a writer at an early age. One of the first things he wrote was an imaginative account of his short stay in California and he got it published in a local Nebraska newspaper. He also loved to concoct fantastic adventure stories, and he desperately wanted to experience one first-hand. So on the day before his fifteenth birthday, he joined the Nebraska National Guard. But first, he had to get his braces removed and, of course, he lied about his real age. The stories he wrote about fighting Pancho Villa in the Mexican Revolution and serving in France during the First World War were printed in Stars and Stripes.
At age 17, Zanuck’s adventurous and daring spirit brought him back to California. He wanted to take on Hollywood, and his success was due in large part to his talent for writing. While working odd jobs, Darryl met A.F. Foster and convinced him to finance his first production. You’ve Never Seen a Bald Indian was a short which was more a commercial advertising Foster’s hair tonic than a narrative film and it did little to advance Zanuck’s career. But it did serve as the groundwork for Habit, which was a book that Zanuck wrote in under two weeks. Although Habit was actually a compilation of two rejected screenplays plus an overblown testimonial to the Foster short, Zanuck received rave reviews. He sold all three stories to the studios for $11,000! The book also paved the way for his entry into the business as an $150-a-week gag writer for Charlie Chaplin and Mack Sennett. While working at the Sennett studios, Darryl met a rising starlet named Virginia Fox (not related to William the studio mogul). He married her on January 24, 1924. She was his first and only wife. Five years after he returned to California, Zanuck had become a successful screenwriter and was a happily married man.
Later in 1924, Zanuck moved to the Warner Brothers studio lot. He started off as a staff writer on the Rin Tin Tin serial. Then over the next two years, the popularity and success of his work on this series persuaded the studio to give him even more assignments on many different projects. He wrote 19 scripts in just one year, 1926, so many that he used three pseudonyms in addition to his own name! In short time, Darryl also became interested in other aspects of filmmaking. He haunted the sets and editing rooms of the films which he wrote. His influence then began to grow as he started to supervise the making of his films and even those by his associates. In a little under four years, Zanuck became Warner’s most imaginative writer, craftiest editor, and most prodigious producer.
In acknowledgment of his enormous talent and his value to the studio, Jack Warner promoted Zanuck to the post of production chief. It was 1927 and Darryl was only 25 years old. He was called “The Boy Napoleon” Jack was still the boss, but it was Darryl who stamped his signature on the studio’s output.
Warner Brothers’ reputation for economy, innovation, and the social commentary in many of its films reflected Darryl Zanuck’s tastes and sensibilities.  The studio’s greatest innovation was sound, and it was Zanuck who personally supervised The Jazz Singer (1927) which was Hollywood’s first talkie.  Zanuck’s penchant for turning the day’s headlines into original stories culminated in the gangster cycle, which was the genre for which Warners was most acclaimed. Two seminal films were produced during his reign—Little Caesar (1930) and Public Enemy (1932). In addition, Darryl’s belief that the studio should be associated with serious social commentary was best exemplified in I Am a Fugitive from the Chain Gang (1932) which was based on the true story of an innocent man who was wrongfully sent to prison. Zanuck was also instrumental in the emergence and success of Hollywood musicals; his production of 42nd Street (1933) introduced the “backstage format.”
In 1933, during the depths of the Depression, Zanuck quit his job. Instead of playing production chief to Jack Warner, he wanted to be his own Jack Warner.  Thus he became a highly sought-after producer and investors were eager to support him. It took Zanuck less than four months to put the deals in place for Twentieth Century Pictures, an independent production company with its own financing. His co-founder and President of United Artists (UA) was Joseph Schenck, who was not only an investor but who also agreed that UA would act as Twentieth’s distributor. Samuel Goldwyn, who at the time was a famous UA producer and prominent stockholder, gave the new company a home by leasing it office space on his independent studio lot. Louis B. Mayer invested $1.2 million and offered to loan out MGM stars on the condition that Zanuck hire his son-in-law, William Goetz, as an executive assistant. Bank of America kicked in another $3 million. Now Zanuck had his own production company, the resources and talent to make it work, and an avenue for distribution.
As head of his own company, Darryl Zanuck was more successful than ever before. In his first year, he budgeted $4.5 million for 12 productions. The first four alone returned $3 million in profits! By the second year, he had completed 18 films and only one of those lost money. His wild success was due in part to the popularity of historical costume dramas like Moulin Rouge, The House of Rothschild, The Affairs of Cellini, Cardinal Richelieu, and Les Miserables all of which he produced in keeping with his high standards and acute sense for story.
But notwithstanding all the triumphs which he enjoyed, Darryl Zanuck was an unhappy man. He only earned 10% of the net profits from each of his films. As long as Twentieth Century was dependent upon United Artists for distribution, Samuel Goldwyn for a studio lot, and MGM for money and talent, Darryl F. Zanuck would not reap the benefits from all of his hard work, and he would not be the master of his own destiny. Indeed, Zanuck realized that he had nowhere near the same influence and power that the real moguls like Louis B. Mayer had.
Joseph Schenck was made well aware of Zanuck’s grievances. As a result, in the name of Twentieth Century Pictures, Schenck courted the Fox Film Corporation.  At that time, William Fox was in desperate need of a strong production chief. Once Zanuck caught wind of the opportunity, he gave Schenck his blessing to negotiate a merger, which occurred on May 29th, 1935. Joseph Schenck became the Chairman of Twentieth Century-Fox, and Darryl Zanuck became the Vice President in Charge of Production, a lofty title in those days when there were very few people in the executive ranks. Zanuck’s salary was $260,000 plus 10% of the gross profits plus 30% of the common stock. It was a dream come true, but he still had his work cut out for him. By combining the assets of Twentieth Century Pictures and the Fox Film Corporation, all Zanuck really had was the limited resources of a relatively small production company and the shambles of a sinking studio. Twentieth Century had a net worth of only $4 million, made $1.7 million in annual profits, and owned no studio lot, distribution apparatus or theaters. Fox had $36 million in corporate assets which included the Sunset-Western studio annex in Hollywood, the huge 96-acre Movietone City on Pico Boulevard in Beverly Hills, a massive distribution mechanism, and over 500 theaters. But this behemoth of a company was sinking fast because it only earned $1.8 million in yearly profits, which was about the same as tiny Twentieth! What Zanuck would do with the merged assets of these two corporations would determine his fate.
Zanuck’s first challenge was to reorganize his production team. He replaced the old Fox hierarchy with the people from Twentieth. Raymond Griffith, the man who first encouraged Zanuck to write Habit, was made a producer. Mal St. Clair, who introduced Zanuck to Jack Warner, also became a prominent producer. The only survivor from the previous regime was Sol Wurtzel, who was given free reign to churn out B-pictures on the Sunset-Western lot. Although he assigned individual producers to each film, Zanuck still served as the supervising producer. He held extensive story conferences, cast the lead actors, sent detailed memos to writers and directors with strict instructions regarding character and plot, watched the dailies, and supervised the editing. In some cases, he personally produced the films. There was no question as to who was the boss at Twentieth Century-Fox.
Zanuck also had to revamp the poor quality of product which Fox had been putting out. The studio’s second-rate status was due in part to its inability to develop a significant roster of stars. Fox’s most popular players were few; they included Warner Baxter, Charlie Chan, Alice Faye, Janet Gaynor, Will Rogers, and Shirley Temple. Twentieth Century Pictures also lacked significant star power; it’s roster included George Arliss, Wallace Beery, Ronald Coleman, Frederic March, Sophie Tucker, and Loretta Young. Nevertheless, Twentieth was able to produce smash hits because it starred its actors in great stories. So what did Zanuck do? He made the stories the stars at Twentieth Century-Fox. His motto was “Stars don’t make pictures, pictures make stars,” and he spared no expense at $1 million per film to pay for all the action and spectacle. In addition, he invested time and money in grooming the actors already under contract and in finding emerging talent. He added Don Ameche, Henry Fonda, Betty Grable, Gregory Peck, Tyrone Power, and Gene Tierney to his roster. John Ford, Elia Kazan, Henry King, Arthur Miller, and Otto Preminger were the directors he hired. Zanuck believed that stars, story, and talent were the measures of quality. He tempered these measures with his own tastes and sensibilities, and success after star-studded success was the result.
Under Zanuck’s command, the old Fox studio enjoyed a complete reversal of fortune. In 1933, less than one in every three films was profitable. By 1938, over one in every two films was a hit. In 1934, the Fox Film Corporation earned only $1.8 million in profits. In 1935, when Zanuck merged the old studio with his production company, the profits soared to $3.5 million. In 1936, Zanuck’s first full year as the head of Twentieth Century-Fox, the studio earned $8 million in profits! Between 1934 and 1944, the profits surged five times. Zanuck averaged 50 pictures a year. In order to keep up with his drive, the studio lot expanded from 6 to 16 soundstages.
Zanuck’s prolific experience as a producer, his talent for writing, and his keen editing skills translated into highly profitable movies. Metropolitan (1935), which was the first film produced after the merger, bombed. Zanuck learned his lesson fast. When test audiences predicted that Thanks a Million (1935), the second release, would also fail, Zanuck stepped in and personally re-edited the film. The result was Twentieth Century-Fox’s first hit! As an experienced writer, Zanuck knew that certain formulaic storylines would always be popular. For instance, the story of two people who when they were young loved each other and then when they grew apart one became successful and the other insignificant with the insignificant one making it possible for the other to succeed was the basic storyline for a string of hit films including Love is News (1937), Sweet Rosie O’Grady (1943), and That Wonderful Urge (1949). The story of two identical people who are mistaken for each other appears in Follies Bergere (1935), That Night in Rio (1942), and On the Riviera (1951). Three attractive women looking for wealthy husbands was the premise for Ladies in Love (1936), Sally, Irene, and Mary (1937), Moon Over Miami (1941), Three Little Girls in Blue (1946), and How to Marry a Millionaire (1953). These were the bread and butter films of Twentieth Century-Fox.
The films for which Zanuck and his studio are best known, however, are the ones that dealt with controversial subjects. Indeed, Zanuck had a reputation, dating back to his Warner days, as a producer who was willing to take risks by making socially conscious and sometimes even highly contentious films. He said that “We are in this business primarily to provide entertainment, but in doing so we don’t dodge the issue if we can also provide enlightenment.” In 1940, he produced an epic human drama about economic oppression in the United States. The Grapes of Wrath, directed by John Ford, based on the sweeping novel by John Steinbeck, and starring Henry Fonda, was a critical as well as box-office success. In 1941, Zanuck and Ford re-teamed to make How Green Was My Valley, which won the Academy Award for Best Picture. It featured a family’s heroic struggles in the face of a miner’s strike. The Ox-Bow Incident (1943) starred Henry Fonda in a story about lynching. There were other stirring and controversial films, too, but not all of them were as successful. It was risky to gamble on the socially conscious film. But Zanuck was prudent in his decisions to make just enough bread and butter movies to support his attempts at more serious fare. Thus Zanuck increased the economic dominance of Twentieth Century-Fox while also raising the studio’s image at the same time.
In 1919, a 17-year-old punk from Wahoo, Nebraska, decided to take on Hollywood.  It took him a quarter of a century to climb the ladder of success. But by 1950, Darryl F. Zanuck had made himself into a mogul. On June 12, 1950, he was on the cover of Time, and in that picture he was crowned as the King of Hollywood.
Zanuck remained with Twentieth Century-Fox until 1956 when he decided to resign his post as Vice President and set up a new independent production company in France. He returned to the studio in 1962 because it had fallen on hard times after he left, and he stayed with it until 1971. He died on December 22, 1979. He is buried on the grounds of the Westwood Memorial Park Cemetery, behind the Avco movie theater.
Bohn, Thomas W., and Richard L. Stromgren. Lights and Shadows: A History of Motion Pictures. 3rd ed. Mountain View, California: Mayfield Publishing Company, 1987.
Custen, George F. Twentieth Century’s Fox: Darryl F. Zanuck and the Culture of Hollywood. New York, New York: Basic Books, 1997. 
Gussow, Mel. Don’t Say Yes Until I finish Talking: A Biography of Darryl F. Zanuck. Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Company, 1971.
Harris, Marlys J. The Zanucks of Hollywood: The Dark Legacy of an American Dynasty. New York: Crown Publishers, Inc., 1989.
Mosley, Leonard. Zanuck: The Rise and Fall of Hollywood’s Last Tycoon. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1985. 
Mordden, Ethan. The Hollywood Studios: House Style in the Golden Age of Movies. New York: Simon and Schuster, Inc., 1988.
Silverman, Stephen M. The Fox That Got Away: The Last Days of the Zanuck Dynasty at Twentieth Century-Fox. Secaucus, New Jersey: Lyle Stuart, Inc., 1988.
Solomon, Aubrey. Twentieth Century-Fox: A Corporate and Financial History. Publication of the Filmmakers Series, ed. Anthony Slide, no. 20. Metuchen, New Jersey: The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 1988.
Zierold, Normen. The Moguls. New York: Avon Books, 1969.

2002 Sebastian Twardosz


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