Joseph Schenck and Nicholas - Writer

JOSEPH. Producer. Nationality: American. Born: Rybinsk, Russia, 25 December 1878; emigrated to the United States with his family, 1893. Family: Married the actress Norma Talmadge, 1916 (divorced 1934). Career: 1919—left Loew's to become independent producer; 1924—chairman of the board of United Artists; 1933—co-founded, with Darryl F. Zanuck, 20th Century Pictures; 1935—20th Century merged with Fox; 1941—resigned after being sentenced to a year in prison for tax offenses (served four months), then executive producer with the company. Awards: Special Academy Award, 1952. Died: 22 October 1961.

NICHOLAS. Producer. Nationality: American. Born: Rybinsk, 14 November 1881; emigrated to the United States, 1893. Family: Married Pansy Wilcox, three daughters. Career: 1919—became chief lieutenant in charge of Loew's theaters; 1924—vice president and general manager of Loew's; 1927—president of Loew's Inc. on Marcus Loew's death; 1956—resigned. Died: Of a stroke in Miami, Florida, 5 March 1969.

After Joseph worked his way up from being an errand boy, the brothers acquired drug stores in New York; 1908—opened amusement park, Fort George, New York; 1912—bought Palisades Amusement Park, Fort Lee, New Jersey; partnered Marcus Loew in movie theater chain (to become MGM).

Films as Producer and Executive Producer—Joseph:


Butcher Boy ; Panthea


The Forbidden City (Franklin); Salome (Edwards)


The Way of a Woman (Leonard)


The Right of Way (Dillon)


The Passion Flower (Brenon); Lessons in Love (Withey); The Sign on the Door (Brenon); Mama's Affair (Fleming); Wedding Bells (Withey); The Wonderful Thing (Brenon); Woman's Place (Fleming); Love's Redemption (Parker)


Polly of the Follies (Emerson); Smilin' Through (Franklin); The Primitive Lover (Franklin); The Eternal Flame (Lloyd); East Is West (Franklin); Cops (Keaton)


Within the Law (Lloyd); Our Hospitality (Keaton and Blystone); Ashes of Vengeance (Lloyd); The Dangerous Maid (Heerman); Three Ages (Keaton and Cline); The Voice from the Minaret (Franklin); The Song of Love (Franklin and Marion)


The Goldfish (Storm); The Only Woman (Olcott); Secrets (Borzage); Sherlock, Jr. (Keaton); The Navigator (Crisp and Keaton); Her Night of Romance (Franklin)


The Lady (Borzage); Learning to Love (Franklin); Seven Chances (Keaton); Graustark (Buchowetzki); Her Sister from Paris (Franklin); Go West (Keaton)


Kiki (Brown); Battling Butler (Keaton); The Duchess of Buffalo (Franklin)

Nicholas Schenck (right) with Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Basil O'Connor
Nicholas Schenck (right) with Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Basil O'Connor


The General (Keaton and Bruckman); Venus of Venice (Neilan); Breakfast at Sunrise (St. Clair); Camille (Niblo); College (Horne); Sorrell and Son (Brenon); The Dove (West)


Steamboat Bill, Jr. (Reisner); The Woman Disputed (H. King and Taylor); The Battle of the Sexes (Griffith)


Lady of the Pavements (Griffith); Alibi (West); Eternal Love (Lubitsch); New York Nights (Milestone)


Be Yourself! (Freeland); The Bad One (Fitzmaurice); One Romantic Night (Stein); The Lottery Bride (Stein); Puttin' on the Ritz (Sloman); Lummox (Brenon); Abraham Lincoln (Griffith); Du Barry—Woman of Passion (Taylor); The Bat Whispers (West)


As You Like It (Czinner) (co)


On SCHENCK (Joseph): articles—

Zierold, Norman, in The Moguls , New York, 1969.

Cinématographe (Paris), May 1984.

On SCHENCK (Nicholas): articles—

Giles, D., "The Ghost of Thalberg: MGM 1946–1951," in Velvet Light Trap (Austin), no. 18, Spring 1978.

* * *

No two siblings ever acquired more power in the American film industry than the brothers Schenck. One might make the case for the brothers Warner, but in their heyday Joseph Schenck functioned as the chief operating officer of Twentieth Century-Fox while his younger brother Nicholas lorded over the Loew's, Inc. empire, that had as one subsidiary, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, the most famous moviemaking operation in the world. The Warners may have had a mighty empire, but the Schencks ran two.

Joseph Schenck was the more famous of the two, as the mentor of noted movie stars from Buster Keaton to Marilyn Monroe. He first entered independent film production in the 1910s, from a base in the vaudeville industry. (Indeed, both Schenck brothers began as assistants to Marcus Loew.) By the early 1920s Joseph began to manage the careers and produce the films of Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle, Buster Keaton, and the Talmadge sisters, one of whom he married. Since United Artists was the company through which many of these stars distributed their films, Joseph Schenck became the head of the then floundering company in the mid-1920s and therefore one of the more powerful studio heads based in Hollywood.

Joseph was known widely to the general public as spokesman and co-founder of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. But for pure economic power, in the 1920s, his brother, Nicholas, had much, much more economic might. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, with its internationally famous symbol of a roaring "Leo the Lion," stood for a more famous studio than United Artists. But in a business sense MGM simply functioned as one successful unit in a larger enterprise, Loew's Inc., a fully integrated movie company, controlling not only a movie studio, but also a network for international distribution, and a highly profitable theater chain.

Nicholas Schenck ran a tight corporate empire from his office high atop the Loew's State Theater building in the heart of Times Square in New York City. Known as "the General," Nicholas Schenck took over from founder Marcus Loew in the days just before the coming of sound. A trusted team of assistants, many of whom remained loyal to "the General" for almost 30 years, executed his every order. Louis B. Mayer, head of production at the Hollywood lot, may have been more famous to the public at large, but he did not execute any more than the most trivial decision without first checking with "the General" in New York.

Loew's Inc.'s longtime fiscally conservative business practices provided the company with few costly mortgages during the Great Depression, and thus Loew's Inc. never experienced any of the red ink its competitors did during that economic calamity. During the early 1930s Loew's Inc. stood at the top of the world's movie business. Indeed MGM's very method of film production reflected Schenck's conservative business philosophy. Schenck played it close to the vest. During the early 1930s the studio created only top-drawer feature films as well as distributing high-class series from the Hal Roach studio (short subjects), and the Hearst enterprises (newsreels).

One Schenck brother always sought to help the other. In the early 1930s Joseph Schenck grew tired of bickering with the founding partners of United Artists, and created his own production company Twentieth Century Pictures, with partner Darryl F. Zanuck. This he did with the financial backing of Loew's Inc. In 1935 the ailing Fox film company sought out new management, and merged with Twentieth Century Pictures to bring Joseph Schenck and Zanuck on board. To help brother Joseph take over Fox, Nicholas Schenck put up monies from Loew's and his own personal fortune.

Thereafter, as Zanuck handled the chief of production chores at the new Twentieth Century-Fox, Joseph Schenck took up the role his brother had long established at Loew's, operating as chief executive officer, always from behind the scenes, hidden from public view. Joseph Schenck coordinated production with distribution and ran Twentieth Century-Fox's chain of theaters.

The two Schencks would have remained beloved figures had they retired in the late 1940s. Instead, both hung on in the movie business until the changing economic climate of the 1950s made the methods that they had employed for nearly 30 years obsolete. With new audiences and television as a serious competitor, the Schencks lost their positions of power. Joseph never gave up and during the 1950s plunged again into independent production with Todd-AO business. Nicholas Schenck was forced to retire in 1956 after a bitter proxy battle for the very corporation many considered his brainchild. It is unfortunate that with their ignominious endings, neither is granted the praise for helping build Hollywood into the most powerful film business in the world during the 1930s and 1940s.

—Douglas Gomery

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