Twentieth Century Fox


The 20th Century Fox merger was an instant success by any measure, especially in terms of production efficiency, quality pictures, increased revenues, and profits. The success came relatively quickly, but only after Zanuck did some extensive house-cleaning in terms of both contract talent and projects in development. Zanuck brought with him from 20th a few key artists and technicians, notably the composer Alfred Newman (1901–1970) and editor Barbara McLean (1903–1996) (essentially a coeditor with Zanuck, who directly supervised the cutting of all top productions). He retained some of Fox's top talent but invariably strengthened their departments. The veteran Fox cinematographers Ernest Palmer (1885–1978) and Arthur Miller (1895–1970) were joined by the Technicolor specialist Leon Shamroy (1901–1974), for instance, and the production designer William Sandorhazi was joined in the early Zanuck era by Boris Leven (1908–1986), Nathan Juran (1907–2002), James Basevi (1890–1962), and Lyle Wheeler (1905–1990). Zanuck's most significant efforts involved a limited pool of contract stars. Fox star Will Rogers was just reaching the very height of his career in 1935, and Shirley Temple (b. 1928), already a seasoned movie veteran at age seven, was just breaking through to top stardom (and top billing). Rogers starred in two sizable hits in 1935, the lavish period comedies Steamboat Round the Bend and In Old Kentucky , but was killed in a plane crash in August. Offsetting this unfortunate loss was Temple's emergence as Hollywood's top star in 1935 on the strength of multiple hits, including The Little Colonel and Curly Top ; and her star continued to soar in Poor Little Rich Girl (1936), Heidi (1937), and Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm (1938). Meanwhile, Zanuck quickly expanded the studio's star stable, signing a few established stars like Loretta Young (1913–2000) but relying primarily on recently or newly signed young talent like Tyrone Power (1913–1958), Alice Faye (1915–1998), Henry Fonda (1905–1982), Sonja Henie (1912–1969), and Don Ameche (1908–1993).

Zanuck supervised virtually all of the top feature production at Fox's Westwood plant, including some fifteen to twenty pictures per year that he personally produced. (From 1936 until he left for military duty in 1942, Zanuck was the credited producer on over 110 films.) Additionally, he monitored Sol Wurtzel's (1890–1958) B-movie operation on the Western Ave. lot, which accounted for nearly half of Fox's output. Thus Zanuck assumed a very different role at Fox from the one he had held as production chief at Warner Bros. Although he had been a "creative executive" at Warner's, now he was more actively engaged in production and more directly involved in shaping the rapidly emerging house style. Moreover, that style was generally brighter, more upbeat, and more technically polished at 20th Century Fox, particularly in the years just after the merger. This undoubtedly was a function of the resources available at Fox, as well as changes in the national temperament and Zanuck's own development as a filmmaker and purveyor of popular entertainment. Relying on a group of capable but undistinguished contract directors and his cadre of newly signed, would-be stars, Zanuck developed a mélange of energetic musicals, light comedy-drama, quasi-historical biopics, and adventure yarns steeped in sentimental Americana—or what Zanuck himself termed "hokum." Typical of 20th Century Fox's output in the mid-1930s were films like Lloyd's of London (1936), In Old Chicago (1937), and Alexander's Ragtime Band (1938), which may have lacked critical prestige but did excellent business.

In 1939 and 1940 Zanuck began a campaign to upgrade the studio's output, signing the top directors John Ford, Fritz Lang (1890–1976), Henry King (1886–1982), and Henry Hathaway (1898–1985), and assigning them increasingly ambitious projects. This resulted in superior product but also a growing rift in Fox's house style. Ford and Lang tended to take on more "serious" and artistically estimable films, often literary adaptations or biopics shot in black and white. Hathaway and King, conversely, directed more polished and blatantly "commercial" films—more accomplished versions, often in Technicolor, of the period musicals and quasi-historical adventures that Fox already was producing. Fox's rising stars tended to reinforce this divide. Tyrone Power, for instance, was featured in quintessential hokum like Jesse James (King, 1939), Johnny Apollo (Hathaway, 1940), and Brigham Young (Hathaway, 1940), whereas Henry Fonda starred in the Ford-directed classics Young Mr. Lincoln (1939) and The Grapes of Wrath , and in Lang's dark, offbeat sequel to the Jesse James biopic, The Return of Frank James (1940). Zanuck himself produced films on both sides of this divide, although his rapport with the more cinematically accomplished directors, particularly Ford, was often strained. Zanuck did reward Ford handsomely for his work, however, paying him a salary in 1939 of $235,000, just short of his own. And although Ford did some of his best work at this time on independent productions like Stagecoach (1939), his work with Zanuck at Fox from 1939 through 1941 was simply unparalleled, culminating in How Green Was My Valley (1941), a critically acclaimed hit that won Oscars ® for best picture and best director.

b. Grand Island, Nebraska, 16 May 1905, d. 12 August 1982

Henry Fonda appeared in fewer than a dozen films for 20th Century Fox, but those early roles effectively shaped his enduring persona—a common man of quiet decency, Midwestern stoicism, homespun virtue, and reluctant heroism. Fonda never forgave Darryl Zanuck for forcing him into a long-term contract to get the role of Tom Joad in The Grapes of Wrath (1940), but that transaction gave Fonda a career-defining role and brought 20th Century Fox precisely the kind of critical acclaim and industry prestige that Zanuck had hoped for.

Fonda spent his youth in Omaha, where he began an acting career that took him to Broadway. His role in a hit play, The Farmer Takes a Wife , brought him to Hollywood for the screen version, which was produced by Fox—as was Fonda's second picture, Way Down East —in 1935 just before the merger with 20th Century. Under contract to the independent producer Walter Wanger, Fonda worked primarily as a romantic co-star opposite leading ladies like Bette Davis, Barbara Stanwyck, and his ex-wife Margaret Sullavan. In his first two pictures for 20th Century Fox, Fonda was second-billed to Tyrone Power in Jesse James and Don Ameche in The Story of Alexander Graham Bell (both 1939). Then, at the behest of John Ford, Zanuck gave Fonda the title role in Young Mr. Lincoln (1939). This was the first of three consecutive projects with the director, who understood precisely how to make use of Fonda's reticent gallantry and resolute sense of justice, not to mention his lanky frame and angular features. Fonda was second-billed to Claudette Colbert in Drums Along the Mohawk (1939), a frontier drama that gave further weight to his epic-historic persona; but that persona took on a truly mythic dimension with his portrayal of a contemporary prairie nomad, the displaced Okie Tom Joad, in The Grapes of Wrath . Based on John Steinbeck's 1939 bestseller, the film is a masterwork of poetic realism and social conscience, with Ford's understated semidocumentary approach perfectly suited to Fonda's unaffected, natural acting style.

Zanuck cast him in more blatantly commercial pictures, but some of his best work was done in loan-out comedy roles, like Paramount's All About Eve (1941) and Warner's The Male Animal (1942). Fonda joined the Navy in 1942, his three-year hiatus bracketed by two memorable Fox westerns, The Ox-Bow Incident (1943), in which he played a drifter who tries unsuccessfully to stop a lynching, and My Darling Clementine (1946), a Ford-directed biopic of Wyatt Earp. Once his Fox contract expired in 1947, Fonda's film career slowed considerably, as he became a more selective freelance star and spent a good deal of time back on Broadway. Among his notable later performances are the besieged president in Fail-Safe (1964) and the retired professor in his last film, On Golden Pond (1981).


You Only Live Once (1937), Young Mr. Lincoln (1939), Drums Along the Mohawk (1939), The Grapes of Wrath (1940), The Lady Eve (1941), The Ox-Bow Incident (1943), My Darling Clementine (1946), Fort Apache (1948), Mister Roberts (1955), The Wrong Man (1956), 12 Angry Men (1957), How the West Was Won (1962), Fail-Safe (1964), On Golden Pond (1981)


Fonda, Henry, with Howard Teichmann. Fonda: My Life . New York: E. P. Dutton, 1984.

McBride, Joseph. Searching for John Ford: A Life . New York: St. Martin's, 2003.

Thomas Schatz

Henry Fonda.

Like all of the major studios, 20th Century Fox underwent significant changes during World War II. As revenues and profits surged, output was reduced during the war from roughly fifty releases to one-half that total, and B-movie production was phased out altogether. Fox also saw wholesale changes in the executive ranks. In 1941 Joe Schenck began serving a federal prison term (for income tax evasion related to a labor union scandal); in 1942 Zanuck joined the Signal Corps, becoming the only top studio executive to serve overseas; and Sidney Kent died suddenly of a heart attack. This created a void in the studio's executive ranks, which the Fox board filled by appointing Spyros Skouras (1893–1971), head of the company's theater operations, as company president—a position he would hold for the next twenty years.

In terms of wartime production trends, Fox sustained the prewar split between heavier drama and lightweight fare. The more ambitious, substantial films included The Ox-Bow Incident (1943), a somber western involving lynch-mob violence and social injustice; The Song of Bernadette (1943), a "fictionalized biography" about the girl who saw visions of the Virgin Mary at Lourdes; and Zanuck's pet project, Wilson (1944), a biopic that centered on Woodrow Wilson's creation of the League of Nations (and a major box-office disappointment). The more upbeat commercial films were invariably star vehicles—costume adventures and war films with Tyrone Power like The Black Swan (1942) and Crash Dive (1943), and a run of Betty Grable (1916–1973) musical hits including Springtime in the Rockies (1942), Coney Island (1943), Pin Up Girl (1944), and Diamond Horseshoe (1945). Grable emerged during the war as Fox's top star and a bona fide national icon—an unabashedly sexy, brassy blonde with "million dollar legs" whose ubiquitous pin-up became a symbol of American pluck and playful sexuality.

Fox continued to thrive in the immediate postwar era, enjoying record revenues in 1946 and then returning to wartime levels through the late 1940s. The new executive setup proved effective, with Skouras operating primarily out of New York while Zanuck ran the studio and supervised production. Zanuck continued to produce Fox's top films but handled far fewer than he had a decade earlier—only fifteen films from 1945 to 1950, including My Darling Clementine (1946), Gentleman's Agreement (1947), The Snake Pit (1948), Twelve O'Clock High (1949), and All About Eve (1950). Reducing his own producing load, Zanuck allowed some of his top writers and directors to produce their own films. The most prominent was Otto Preminger (1906–1986), who enjoyed a career breakthrough as producer-director on Laura (1944), a noir thriller that featured two fast-rising Fox stars, Gene Tierney (1920–1991) and Dana Andrews (1909–1992), and made a sudden star of the middle-aged stage actor Clifton Webb (1889–1966), who also became a fixture at Fox. After that surprise hit, Preminger became one of the busiest and most successful hyphenates on the lot, serving as producer-director on Centennial Summer (1946), Daisy Kenyon (1947), Whirlpool (1949), and Where the Sidewalk Ends (1950).

Fox's house style underwent subtle but significant adjustments in the postwar era, as the penchant for darker, heavier drama became more pronounced. To be sure, there were the occasional Grable musicals and Power costumers—films like Mother Wore Tights and Captain from Castile , two of the studio's biggest 1947 hits. But these upbeat releases were far outweighed by a steady output of realistic crime films, trenchant melodramas, stylized noir thrillers, and "social problem films." Fox started the postwar trend toward location shooting and "police procedurals" with The House on 92nd Street (1945), shot entirely on location in New York City, and then pursued the trend more vigorously than any other studio. Meanwhile, a pervasive darkness crept into nearly all of Fox's films, even Technicolor melodramas like Leave Her to Heaven (1945). Particularly dark were Fox's social problem films— Gentleman's Agreement , The Snake Pit , Pinky (1949), and others—which took on

(Left to right) Celeste Holm, Gary Merrill, Bette Davis, and Anne Baxter in All About Eve (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1950), one of RKO's best postwar films.
issues like racism and mental illness. In fact, Zanuck and Fox were still presenting bleak, probing portraits of the contemporary American condition in the late 1940s, long after the 1947 House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) investigation and conservative backlash had induced the other Hollywood studios to play it safe. That impulse culminated in 1950 with noir thrillers like Whirlpool , Night and the City , and Where the Sidewalk Ends , social dramas like Panic in the Streets and No Way Out , and even westerns like The Gunfighter and Broken Arrow , although by the early 1950s (and the second HUAC investigation), Fox too was backing away from films that might be construed as un-American.

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David Bustin
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Aug 17, 2014 @ 9:21 pm
My great grandfather was Ernest Palmer.I spent 3 summers at Pacific Palisades and Catalina. 1953, 1957 and 1963. I never did get to discuss films with him, the closest to any talks was in 1963 at Catalina and Ray Kellog came on board the boat (LADY ELIZABETH). Named after Mim my great Grandmother and Ernies loving wife. I remember them discussing Cleopatra and the ensuing problems and costs. Ernie retired after making Broken Arrow. Here is my question; I have been interested in the period around the communist cleanup in the industry.Was Ernie ever affected by this in his time or was he a player behind the scenes for Zanuck (and staying in favour with the gov't of the time). For anyone interested how Ernie got started the geneology site for the HOWSE,HOWES,HOUSE family will shed light on Ernie meeting Elizabeth Howse and the ensuing years to their deaths.

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