Twentieth Century Fox began as a chain of penny arcades and nickelodeons operated in the early 1900s by William Fox, a young Jewish immigrant (born in Tulchva, Hungary, in 1879) with enormous entrepreneurial drive and vision. Like other industry pioneers, most notably Universal's Carl Laemmle (1867–1939), Fox moved into production and distribution to ensure a flow of product for his growing theater chain and soon came into conflict with the Motion Picture Patents Company, also known as the Edison Trust. Fox was one of the Trust's most aggressive combatants, challenging its hegemony in the courts and in the marketplace. Fox, Laemmle, and the other so-called independents prevailed, and soon they were creating a vertically integrated oligopoly of their own. In 1915 Fox, already a leading exhibitor, formally created the Fox Film Company via the merger of his established production and distribution
Among Hollywood's pioneering producers and studio heads, Darryl Zanuck was unique for his longevity at the helm of the studio he co-founded, 20th Century Fox, as well as for his intense involvement in the filmmaking process. Along with Irving Thalberg and David Selznick, Zanuck was one of Hollywood's first-generation boy wonders, supervising production at a major studio (Warner Bros.) while still in his twenties. But Zanuck alone among top Hollywood executives rose through the creative ranks (as a writer at Warner), and he alone not only approved and supervised all A-class production on his lot but was also actively engaged in production. In some three decades atop Fox, it was not uncommon for Zanuck to take a script home and rewrite it over a weekend or to substantially rework a screenplay. Zanuck closely supervised post-production, often writing and even directing retakes or added scenes (including sequences in both The Grapes of Wrath , 1940, and My Darling Clementine , 1946). Zanuck took well-deserved producer credit on scores of 20th Century Fox films, including many of its top hits and now-canonized classics.
Zanuck was the most dynamic and colorful of the early studio heads. Diminutive, hyper aggressive, and supremely confident, he was a bantam battler and a control freak, a polo-field assailant and casting-couch predator. He was also a rare Midwestern WASP with creative talent within a generation of studio bosses dominated by first- and second-generation eastern European Jews with retail trade experience. Zanuck learned the business, of course, and he remained an astute student of cinema both as a commercial industry and an art form—one of those rare Hollywood executives able, in F. Scott Fitzgerald's famous phrase, "to keep the whole equation of pictures in their heads."
Zanuck helped create several important movie cycles, notably the gangster films and historical biopics of the 1930s and the social problem dramas of the 1940s, and he proved equally adept at producing Fox's dual output of entertaining "hokum" (his term) and "serious" pictures. He was the only top studio executive to join the military and to see active duty (as a colonel in the Signal Corps) during World War II, and his pet wartime project was the biopic Wilson (1944), which dramatized Woodrow Wilson's League of Nations to implicitly proclaim Zanuck's own support of the nascent United Nations. His postwar commitment to social problem dramas drew fire from the House Un-American Activities Committee as "un-American," and although he sustained that production cycle, Zanuck also joined the other studio bosses in capitulating to the blacklist.
Zanuck was an inveterate risk taker throughout his career. Examples are Fox's gamble on CinemaScope and Zanuck's subsequent venture into independent production in the 1950s and his blockbuster-scale productions after returning to Fox in the 1960s.
Lloyd's of London (1936), Jesse James (1939), How Green Was My Valley (1941), Wilson (1944), Gentleman's Agreement (1947), All About Eve (1950), The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit (1956), The Longest Day (1962), The Agony and the Ecstasy (1965)
Behlmer, Rudy, ed. Memo From Darry F. Zanuck: The Golden Years at Twentieth Century Fox . New York: Grove Press, 1993.
Custen, George F. Twentieth Century's Fox: Darryl F. Zanuck and the Culture of Hollywood . New York: Basic Books, 1997.
Mosley, Leonard. Zanuck: The Rise and Fall of Hollywood's Last Tycoon . Boston: Little, Brown, 1984.
Zanuck, Darryl F., with Mel Gussow. Don't Say Yes Until I Finish Talking . New York: Doubleday, 1971.
companies. The following year he moved his modest production operation to Hollywood, opening a studio on the corner of Sunset and Western. That began a period of tremendous growth for Fox, spurred by its two recent star discoveries, Theda Bara (1885–1955) and William Farnum (1876–1953). Under longtime production chief Winfield Sheehan (1883–1945), the studio turned out a winning combination of A-class star vehicles, most notably its exotic Bara pictures directed by J. Gordon Edwards (1867–1925), such as Salome (1918) and The Siren's Song (1919), alongside popular two-reel westerns starring Tom Mix (1880–1940) and Buck Jones (1889–1942).
The Fox Film Company reached a peak of sorts in the late silent era when, though it had few top stars under contract, its roster of staff directors included Raoul Walsh (1887–1980), Frank Borzage (1893–1962), John Ford (1894–1973), Howard Hawks (1896–1977), and F. W. Murnau (1888–1931). Sheehan tended to be a hands-off executive, so these directors enjoyed considerable control of their projects, which included such masterworks as Walsh's What Price Glory (1926), Borzage's Seventh Heaven (1927), and Murnau's Sunrise (1927), along with solid genre work like Ford's Three Bad Men (1926) and Hawks's A Girl in Every Port (1928). Most of these films contained a musical score and sound effects, as Fox in 1926 and 1927 was vying with Warner Bros. to crack the sound barrier via its Movietone sound-on-film system. In 1928 Fox completed construction on its new studio in Westwood (West Hollywood), dubbed "Movietone City," and also began experimenting with widescreen and 70mm pictures—most notably for The Big Trail (1930), a spectacular western directed by Walsh and starring John Wayne (1907–1979) in his first significant leading role. The film flopped, weakening the market for A-class westerns and relegating Wayne to a decade of B-western roles, while also adding to Fox's growing list of woes.
It was in 1930, in fact, that William Fox's chronic overreaching finally caught up with him. As his company flourished in 1928 and 1929, Fox borrowed heavily to further upgrade production and expand theater operations, to promote Fox's sound and widescreen technologies, and also, remarkably enough, to finance a hostile take-over bid to acquire Loew's/MGM. But then a series of events in 1929, including a near-fatal car accident, a threatened federal antitrust suit (over the Loew's take-over), and the stock market crash, devastated Fox both physically and financially. Overextended, incapacitated, and vulnerable to hostile creditors, Fox was ousted in 1930 and replaced as president by one of those creditors, Harley Clarke, while Sheehan remained head of production. There were some upbeat developments in the early sound era, especially on the talent front. Janet Gaynor (1906–1984), who burst to stardom in Seventh Heaven and Sunrise , enjoyed a successful transition to sound via two 1929 musical hits, Happy Days and Sunny Side Up , while the recently signed Will Rogers (1879–1935), longtime film (and vaudeville) personality, suddenly surged to top stardom in the sound era. But these rising stars could not stem the impact of the Depression, and the studio's fortunes faded badly after Fox's ouster. In 1932 Clarke was replaced by Sidney Kent, who proved to be a capable chief executive but could not forestall the inevitable. In 1933 Fox West Coast Theaters, the studio's exhibition arm—and, in effect, its parent company—went into receivership.
That same year, Darryl F. Zanuck left his position as production chief at Warner Bros. to join forces with Joseph Schenck (1878–1961) (brother of Nick Schenck, president of Loew's, Inc.) to create 20th Century Pictures, an independent production company designed to release A-class pictures through United Artists (UA). 20th Century was an immediate success, turning out some twenty films in the next two years, including Moulin Rouge (1934), The House of Rothschild (1934), Les Misérables (1935), and The Call of the Wild (1935). Although 20th supplied the bulk of UA's output, repeated efforts by Schenck and Zanuck to form a partnership with UA were thwarted by two of its cofounders, Charlie Chaplin (1889–1977) and Mary Pickford (1892–1979), who still controlled the company. So Schenck and Zanuck were receptive to Sidney Kent's suggestion in early 1935 that they realign 20th with Fox, which had continued to produce after declaring bankruptcy but was still in disarray. What Kent wanted was a studio executive team, but Schenck and Zanuck saw a far greater opportunity for their newly created company. They not only maneuvered the deal into a veritable merger, they made it one in which 20th Century took the lead in terms of the corporate title, the logo, the remuneration, and corporate control. In a deal executed in May 1935, the two companies formed 20th Century Fox. Kent remained president, handling sales and theater operations out of New York, and Schenck became board chairman and nominal head of the studio, but 20th Century Fox clearly was Darryl Zanuck's domain. He replaced Sheehan as vice president in charge of production at a salary of $5,000 per week (the highest salary of the three top executives) plus 10 percent of the gross, and he assumed complete control of the studio—a position he would retain for most of the next thirty-five years.