Zanuck Remembered as a Hollywood Powerhouse
From Current Biography (1954):
One of Hollywood's most colorful and
controversial producers for the past twenty-seven years, Darryl F. Zanuck has
had many box office successes including Grapes of Wrath,
Gentleman's Agreement and Snows of Kilimanjaro. He is credited with
starting numerous actors such as Tyrone Power, James Cagney, Henry
Fonda and Edward G. Robinson on the road to stardom. "As a trail
blazer," Time commented, "Zanuck has no
Hollywood equal." On July 1, 1953 he was unanimously voted the
annual Screen Producers Guild Milestone award for his "historic
contributions to the American motion picture."
With the announcement that Twentieth Century-Fox would convert its entire production to a new three-dimensional process called CinemaScope, beginning February 16, 1953, Darryl F. Zanuck, vice-president in charge of production, predicted that movies were about to enter an era comparable to the transition made from silent to talking films.
The first film to be made in the new CinemaScope process, The Robe, opened at the Roxy theatre in New York on September 17, 1953, with Zanuck predicting that the motion picture industry would rise or fall on the success of this picture. However, some critics agreed with Bennett Cerf that "the case for those who envision CinemaScope as the salvation of the movie industry remains decidedly unproven" (Saturday Review, November 14, 1953). Nevertheless, according to Zanuck, The Robe is proving a big money-maker: receipts from the company's theatres showing the film in nine key cities are running four times above the weekly average business of those theatres. The weekly average gross at the Roxy in New York had been $65,000 for other pictures, but the giant screen newcomer increased that average to $150,000.
Darryl Francis Zanuck was born on September 5, 1902 in Wahoo, Nebraska, the son of Frank and Louise (Torpin) Zanuck. His father, of Swiss descent, was owner and operator of the Grand Hotel in that city. Taken to Los Angeles by his mother, who hoped to regain her health in that climate, young Darryl was sent to the Page Military Academy but he played hooky frequently, and broke into motion pictures at the age of eight, working as an extra on the old Essanay lot in Glendale, in the costume of an Indian maiden for a dollar a day. Promptly shipped back to Nebraska when his activities were discovered, Zanuck attended school until the eighth grade.
He enlisted in the Sixth Nebraska Infantry, persuaded the recruiting officers that he was eighteen (he was fourteen at the time), and was sent to the Mexican border. He served in France as a private in the 163rd Division of the A.E.F. He was used primarily as a messenger or runner, because of his small size, and saw action for nearly a year at the frontlines. He learned to box and fought in twenty-six camp shows as a bantam-weight.
Some of his letters were printed in the A.E.F. newspaper Stars and Stripes, and this determined Zanuck's career. Mustered out in 1920, he settled in New York and began to write stories. After a year of hard work he finally sold a story to Physical Culture magazine. He set out for Hollywood where he obtained odd jobs which included selling shirts and newspaper subscriptions, catching rivets in shipyards and working as a longshoreman at the San Pedro waterfront. Zanuck also organized the Darryl Poster Service, an outdoor advertising company, and it was the income from this enterprise that enabled him to return to his writing. His first sale was five hundred dollars for an original story sold to the Fox Film Company.
It was the selling of hair tonic which indirectly led to Zanuck's first important job in Hollywood. As a salesman for Yuccatone, he wrote a one hundred page testimonial for the tonic, and succeeded in persuading the maker, A. F. Foster, to publish a book entitled Habit and Other Short Stories.
Habit consisted of one short story, two scenarios, and the testimonial by Zanuck who sold all the contents of the book, and movies were made from the story and the two scenarios. Warner Brothers hired Darryl Zanuck as a writer for the dog star Rin Tin Tin in 1924, at a salary of one hundred and fifty dollars a week. Zanuck worked so hard that he got nineteen screen credits in one year.
He learned to cut and edit films, and in 1927 Warners promoted him to executive producer at a reputed salary of $5,000 a week. It was Zanuck who was responsible for the first use of sound dialogue in a full-length talking picture in 1928, The Jazz Singer, starring Al Jolson.
The young producer then began his innovations in earnest and soon made a reputation for plucking sensational drama out of the day's news. Having been made chief executive in charge of all Warner Brothers productions in 1931, Zanuck inaugurated the trend towards realistic gang warfare pictures, producing Little Caesar, Doorway to Hell and Public Enemy. In addition to these films, which were very successful, Zanuck produced the first of the "working girl" pictures, Office Wife, followed by another in the same genre, Illicit.
In 1933 Zanuck suddenly severed his relations with Warners, giving as his reason that Warners had extended a pay decrease of fifty per cent two weeks beyond the time Zanuck had promised his employees that the cut would be restored. On twenty-four hours' notice, Zanuck tore up his contract.
He joined with Joseph M. Schenck, then president of United Artists, in setting up Twentieth Century Pictures. Zanuck, who became vice-president, made their first picture, The Bowery, which starred Wallace Beery, Jackie Cooper and George Raft. This was followed by The House of Rothschild which starred George Arliss, and was widely credited with having started the biographical type of film. In May 1935, eighteen months after establishing the new company, Zanuck had made eighteen films, of which seventeen were successful.
When Schenck agreed to merge with the Fox Films Company to form a new combine called Twentieth Century-Fox, Zanuck, at the age of thirty-three assumed charge of all production at their Movietone City plant. At the end of the first year of operation, Twentieth Century-Fox showed a profit of $3,500,000 the first year and $16,000,000 the next two years.
Schenck was chairman of the corporation, while Zanuck was named a vice-president at a salary of $260,000 per year, a position and stipend he has continued to hold. It is said that the original contract between Zanuck and Schenck was drawn up on one sheet of paper, without legal advice. In 1949 Zanuck signed a ten-year contract at the $260,000 figure, with an option to advise for another ten years, at $150,000.
In 1941, Zanuck was commissioned a lieutenant-colonel in the United States Signal Corps, to make training films and combat documentary pictures for the War Department. Advanced to colonel in 1942, he accompanied the Allied Command in the invasion of Africa, of which he made a photographic record.
Upon leaving the service in 1943, Zanuck returned to his post in the Twentieth Century-Fox studios, where he continued his unorthodox moviemaking ways. Although he lost money with The Ox-Bow Incident in 1943 and $2,000,000 in 1944 on Wilson (which had for its theme the need to guard against postwar isolationism), Zanuck more than made up for these with a list of successful and well-remembered films.
Among these were The Grapes of Wrath, which won the New York Film Critics award in 1940; Winged Victory, made for the Air Force in 1944; The Razor's Edge, in 1946 starring Tyrone Power, and Gentleman's Agreement, which dealt with anti-semitism.
The latter film drew this comment from Alton Cook, of the New York World-Telegram on November 11, 1947: "Gentleman's Agreement is a rousing, memorable experience, a climax to a lifetime of moviegoing. Not a single calm person will emerge from the Mayfair these next few months that the picture remains there." The film set a new opening-day mark at the 1700-seat Mayfair by grossing $12,549.
Other distinguished pictures which Zanuck has produced are Pinky, starring Ethel Waters and Jeanne Crain; Twelve O'Clock High, an Air Force picture starring Gregory Peck, and Snows of Kilimanjaro, an outstanding box-office success of the 1952 season, which dramatized a story by Ernest Hemingway.
He pioneered by using authentic locations in foreign countries (such as in his films Prince of Foxes, The Big Lift, and Snows of Kilimanjaro) and "melting Hollywood's frozen funds abroad." Since the war, Zanuck's company has "consistently led the field in the quality of its films, by the verdict of both the box office and the critics" (Time, June 12, 1950).
He usually holds two long story conferences each day. According to Niven Busch's portrait of him in Life (April 14, 1941), Zanuck was "never a good writer himself. He was and still is, a great idea man. At his best his conference ideas are brilliant, rapid and powerful; he is capable of contributing characterizations and structural changes which add immensely to a picture's success." His revisions of Irving Berlin's Alexander's Ragtime Band resulted "in this picture making more money than anything else he has produced."
When Twentieth Century-Fox announced that it would convert its entire output of films to a process called Cinema Scope, once again it was apparent that Zanuck had blazed another trail. Cinema Scope is a process by which images are photographed with a special wide-angle lens attached to a regular camera. This results in a distortion, but when the films are put onto a projector, the projector being equipped with a special compensating lens, this lens corrects the distortion and gives the filmed images additional size and depth when they are projected onto a concave screen two and a half times larger than the regular screen which has been heretofore used. Zanuck speaks enthusiastically of the new "3-D" process. "It never fails to impress me, every time, that suddenly I'm right up there with the people on the screen. They're not off in the distance somewhere but up close! Everything on that screen seems to be really happening."
Although the total of sixteen pictures scheduled by Twentieth Century-Fox for 1954 is 50 per cent under the studio's average annual output before it adopted the CinemaScope process, Zanuck stated that his employment requirement would be practically the same as when he was making thirty-two pictures. "The pictures we make from now on will be twice as big and twice as costly," he explained. Commenting on the extraordinary earnings of The Robe and How to Marry a Millionaire (the second Cinema Scope picture introduced), he said, "I knew I was right from the very start in going into Cinema Scope. Now the public has shown me just how right I was."
Twentieth Century-Fox's production of The Egyptian cost $5,000,000, and although it received praise for its opulence, the critics generally agreed that "the pomp of the Pharaohs does not live again in this ... pageant of Egypt's great age" (New York Herald Tribune, August 25, 1954). On the other hand, Three Coins in the Fountain, also made in Cinema Scope, received the critics' acclaim for its magnificent scenes of Rome and for its "glorious sightseeing adventure." Otis L. Guernsey, Jr. wrote in the New York Herald Tribune, May 21, 1954: "CinemaScope is still in its tryout stage as far as its esthetics are concerned, and one of its happiest experiments is Three Coins in the Fountain...."
On July 16, 1954 Zanuck announced plans to make twenty-four Cinema Scope pictures in the next twelve months at a cost of more than $55,000,000. Among these are The Greatest Story Ever Told, the life of Christ written by the late Fulton Oursler.
Zanuck helped to establish a department at Twentieth Century-Fox for making Cinema Scope nonfiction short subjects which will be shown along with the Cinema Scope full-length films.
Zanuck was the first producer to receive the coveted Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Trophy, awarded in 1937. He has also received the Legion of Merit for his services during World War II. He is the author of the book Tunis Expedition (Random House, 1943), which is an account of his experiences in the African landings. The five feet six inch tall producer weighs 142 pounds, has medium blonde hair and blue eyes. In addition to being fond of big game hunting he enjoys skiing and polo. Zanuck married Virginia Fox, a former actress, on January 14, 1924. They have three children, Darrylin, Susan and Richard.
From Current Biography (1941):
Hollywood is divided into two camps on
the subject of Darryl Zanuck: "those who think he is a genius and those who
think he is a menace." The year 1941 gave both sides a chance to
revise or confirm their convictions, for that was the year in which
new policies were inaugurated at 20th Century-Fox, of which Zanuck is vice-president in charge of
In January 1941 the company finished its most disastrous year since it was started, with a net loss of more than one-half million dollars. Part of this was due to the loss of European markets; part to flops like Brigham Young, The Blue Bird, Little old New York. And this last, some whispered, could be traced to Zanuck's strongly centralized hold over 20th Century-Fox. True or not, after April 1941 drastic moves toward decentralization were made: there were to be three new producers who would pick and cast their own stories; Zanuck himself, whose contract has been renewed until 1943, was to concentrate on only eight out of twenty-four pictures that year.
This may have meant a change in opinion about Zanuck's genius. It certainly meant a change from the "kind of combination army post and metropolitan newspaper office" that Zanuck has perfected at 20th Century-Fox. Up to this time he has been producing 25 class-A pictures a year, and as much as 90 per cent of each picture as it appears on the screen is usually Zanuck's own work. When he produces a film, he works on the story, holding as many as two conferences a day, in them ad libbing dialogue, acting out parts, directing scenes, producing whole sequences at top speed; then he okays the casting, supervises the costuming and scenery, looks over the daily rushes, cuts the finished film foot by foot--does everything but act in it himself. People under him are consulted (he is the producer who once told an executive, "For God's sake don't say yes until I finish talking"), and they are given details to carry out. But the initiative and responsibility for the entire output of 20th Century-Fox have, until now, been Zanuck's.
This producer, who has been a "wonder boy" for so many years, started his career in the motion pictures much younger than most. He was born in Wahoo, Nebraska, where his father, Frank Zanuck, owned and operated the Grand Hotel. At eight he was taken by his mother, Louise (Torpin) Zanuck, to Los Angeles and placed in the Page Military Academy while she tried to regain her health. He did go to school occasionally; much of the time he was playing hooky to work as an extra on the old Essanay lot in Glendale. When his mother discovered his film career she determinedly cut it short by shipping him back to Nebraska and warning him to study faithfully.
He heeded her warning only until he reached the eighth grade, and fellow workers now nod understandingly when they hear him saying things like "more time for betterment and correctment" or uttering Goldwynisms without the accent. At the age of 14, prompted by "a love of firearms and itch to travel," he enlisted in the Sixth Nebraska Infantry and went down to the Mexican border. From Mexico he went to France, where he served with the 163rd Division of the A. E. F., acted as runner, saw front-line service for nearly a year and boxed in the bantam class. He was mustered out in 1920, still a private. He had, however, already determined on his career. Some letters to his grandfather in Nebraska about life in the A. E. F. had been printed in the local papers and some of them had even been reprinted in the Stars and Stripes. Zanuck knew he was going to be a writer.
He began to write furiously--two stories a week. And after a year of this, success came when he sold Mad Desire to Physical Culture Magazine. He immediately set out for Hollywood, "a slender youth with buck teeth, a hope-chest mustache and a Nebraska accent," sent in a card to William Russell, then acting for Fox Films, and sold him an original story. When he learned that the man who adapted his story got almost three times as much money as he had, he became an adapter and filled in his next opus with technical terms like close-up and fade-in. For the next couple of years he did a brisk business in both originals and adaptations.
Then, in 1923, the tide receded. The studios decided that big names were necessary, proceeded to corner all the important authors they could line up and let the unimportant ones go. Zanuck found himself catching rivets in a San Pedro shipyard, organizing the Darryl Poster Service and selling hair tonic. It was this last occupation that got him back into the motion picture business, for he persuaded the manufacturer to pay for the printing of his book, Habit and Other Short Stories (1923). It contained one short story, two rejected scenarios and a one hundred-page hair tonic testimonial, more or less disguised. It was an impressive work in which "Zanuck's characters never looked at things when they might as well rivet jet orbs on them. They never walked through doors when they might as well stride through portals."
And Zanuck sold it, piece by piece, to the film studios: the story, the two rejected scenarios and the hair tonic ad. He got $11,000 for the lot. He also got himself a job. A steady income was useful now that he was married to Virginia Fox, whom he had met on a blind date. She gave up her career as leading lady for Buster Keaton to settle down, raise a family of three children and act as guinea pig for her husband's work. "She has the attitude of a typical movie fan from Omaha," Zanuck says proudly.
For a while Zanuck was scenario editor to Mack Sennett until he was hired by the Fox Film Corporation. After a year in which he wrote almost one picture a week, he was taken over in 1924 by Warners at $150 a week to do scripts for Rin Tin Tin. He soon established himself as "the greatest dog-script writer in history." At the same time he was learning how to cut, direct and produce pictures, so thoroughly that by 1927 he had been given his own production unit with a share of the profits. That was the year in which he made the Jazz Singer with Al Jolson, the first full-length talkie, and Noah's Ark, the first and biggest catastrophe of his career. By 1929 he was Warner's general production chief; by 1931 chief executive in charge of all the productions of the combined Warner and First National Companies.
He had already made a reputation for plucking sensational drama out of the day's news. First there was gang warfare pure and simple--Doorway to Hell, Little Caesar and others. Then, when the trend he started was beginning to fade out, there came gang warfare enlivened and heightened by the magnificent stroke of having a man sock a woman--Public Enemy. "Every other underworld picture has had a thug with a little bit of good in him," Zanuck explained. "He reforms before the fade-out. This guy is no good at all. It'll go big." It did. So did his I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, another example of moving picture journalism in which every box-office rule was violated: the boy didn't get the girl, the fugitive remained a fugitive, the ending was tragic.
It was a success and, like most of the other films he produced, it had been cheap to make. Zanuck wasn't content, though, merely to stick to the day's news. He started the musical film cycle with 42nd Street and a series on the problems of the working girl with The Office Wife. And then, after he had made hundreds of pictures for them, he quit Warner Brothers in 1933 on 24 hours' notice, tearing up a $5,000-a-week contract. His reason was that the company had failed to restore a 50 per cent pay cut to the employees two weeks after the date it had been promised.
He went over to United Artists, where independent producers work independently and market their pictures through a cooperative sales organization, and with the help of Joseph Schenck he set up 20th Century Pictures. Schenck, the president of United Artists, became president of the new company and Zanuck its vice-president. Zanuck's first picture was The Bowery; shortly after, announcing that the front-page news was dead as a source for films, he started the biographical cycle with The House of Rothschild, starring George Arliss. He had taken Arliss over from his former employers along with Constance Bennett, Loretta Young and other stars.
This success was followed by Lloyds of London and other historical films, as well as by pictures which retained much of his former melodramatic verve. By May 1935 Zanuck had completed eighteen pictures, of which only one, Born To Be Bad, was a failure. His company was flourishing. One month later it had been withdrawn from United Artists and merged with debt-laden Fox Films. Schenck, who had resigned from the head of United Artists, was to be chairman; Zanuck was to be a vice-president at $260,000 a year. Hollywood was skeptical. Yet after Zanuck had thrown out most of the Fox scripts, stopped shooting on others, installed his own production manager, re-inventoried studio properties, cut down the payroll ten thousand dollars a week and really set to work, the company of 20th Century-Fox showed a profit of three and one-half millions the first year, sixteen million the next two.
Zanuck continued in the new firm his old attitude toward the making of films. "I believe in gearing up a studio to produce pictures for today's audience and not for the Smithsonian Institution," he once said. "A motion picture lives three months at most. There is no use pretending we are making pictures for the ages." Polish to him is unimportant; if the entertainment is strong enough the flaws won't be noticed. And four weeks, he feels, is shooting time enough for an average picture. That this policy works seems to be demonstrated by hits like Alexander's Ragtime Band, In Old Chicago, Jesse James and The Great American Broadcast and by his winning the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award for "the most consistent high quality of production achievement for 1937." (Later it was his company which produced the honest, realistic Grapes of Wrath, which won the New York Film Critics' Award as an outstanding production of 1940.) Even the United States Government was impressed by the record. In the beginning of 1941 he was commissioned a lieutenant colonel of the Signal Corps Reserve with the assignment to produce educational shorts which the War Department is circulating throughout the Army camps. That same year he produced A Yank in the R. A. F.
The record, however, hasn't been completely perfect. Although Zanuck has made box-office sensations out of a long list of male actors--Tyrone Power, James Cagney, Henry Fonda, Edward G. Robinson, to mention only a few--his history with women actresses has been less spectacular. Sonja Henie and Alice Faye are his only real triumphs. Shirley Temple, too, is considered a Zanuck failure, for he took her out of cheap pictures to star her in expensive ones, at a loss. In general there have been objections to his handling of stars, accusations that he "puts his brand on them in much the same manner that he put his initials in neon tubing on his former Beverly Hills home."
Also on the debit side, to some, is his complete control over his company's outfit; to even more, there is the evidence of the state of his company's finances as of January 1941. This last may be changed under the new organization. What was more certainly changed were Zanuck's work habits. Until then he had been working from 16 to 18 hours a day, up at 8, at the studio at 10.30, work until 7 p. m.; home for dinner; then back at 8.30 to keep at it until 2 or 3 in the morning. In his lush inner office, decorated with large stuffed heads on the wall, a zebra-skin bench and screen and a dead lion on the floor, and in his home, there are dictaphones all over--and Zanuck dictates into them "on any pretext." With more leisure it is expected that he will spend more time riding, boxing, skiing, playing polo (he is an enthusiast at this sport, in which he has a two-goal rating) and swimming in the small basement pool at the studio, in which lumps of ice are kept floating. Many of the people who know this small, thin, light-haired "jumping jack executive" are skeptical, however. Energy like his, they feel, can never be sublimated in chasing polo balls or shooting tigers, or even in teaching soldiers the fine points of hygiene and warfare. After 20 years in the film business, they warn, Zanuck is still a "wonder boy."