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Darryl F. Zanuck and the Creation of the Modern Film Studio
By Scott Eyman
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WILLIAM FOX’S PROFESSIONAL AND PERSONAL APOGEE arrived in March 1929, when he announced his purchase from the estate of Marcus Loew of a controlling interest in Loew’s Inc. He paid $50 million (1929 dollars) for 400,000 shares whose market value was about $33 million. Carrie, Arthur, and David Loew would receive $40 million, and the remaining $10 million would go to Nicholas Schenck, who had taken over Loew’s Inc.—the parent company of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer—when Marcus Loew died in 1927, and managed the deal for the estate. Fox also agreed to buy an additional 37,500 shares of Loew’s stock that was held by Schenck and the retired actor David Warfield, who had been a good friend of Marcus Loew.
Fox was paying slightly less than double the market value for the Loew’s stock, but as far as he was concerned the deal was a bargain. The worm in this particular apple was the fact that most of the money Fox was using was borrowed. Specifically, of the $50 million, $27 million had been borrowed: $15 million from AT&T and $12 million from the banking firm of Halsey Stuart. Both loans would fall due in April 1930. Fox planned to pay off the loans by merging Fox with Loew’s, slashing payroll, and then selling stock in the new company.
What made it particularly maddening to Louis B. Mayer and his partners Irving Thalberg and J. Robert Rubin was that Schenck had sold the company and its employees down the river without so much as a by-your-leave. This was going to cost them a great deal of money. (Mayer’s group split 20 percent of MGM’s yearly profits among themselves.) Mayer’s private name for Schenck had always been “Nick Skunk,” but he had finally been given a specific reason for his distrust and dislike. As for Fox, he had never had much use for friends so long as he had his family.
Money was cheap in the spring of 1929, so nobody seemed concerned about the vast amount of debt Fox was taking on. Before completing the original deal, Fox had checked with President Calvin Coolidge’s attorney general, William Donovan, later to be known as “Wild Bill” Donovan, the creator of the Office of Strategic Services during World War II. Donovan told him that he didn’t see the amalgamation of Loew’s/MGM and Fox as an antitrust problem.
The purchase of Loew’s would have made Fox the unquestioned czar of Hollywood. Besides the Loew’s chain, generally regarded as the best theaters on the best corners in the country, Fox would own MGM—a Loew’s subsidiary and the most successful studio in Hollywood, with an unparalleled roster of stars: Greta Garbo, John Gilbert, Joan Crawford, Lon Chaney, et cetera.
And that wasn’t all. Beginning in 1927, Fox had begun investing in a process he would call Grandeur, a system for making and exhibiting 70mm movies. The 70mm film, twice as wide as 35mm, produced a screen image twice as wide as it was high—perfectly calculated for showcasing spectacle. The Mitchell Camera Company—another Fox subsidiary—was hired to build the 70mm Grandeur cameras and projectors.
Besides that, Fox had spent $60,000 to buy the patent on the German sound-on-film system known as Tri-Ergon, which had the distinct possibility of making Fox the owner of all workable sound-on-film systems throughout the world. It was the purchase of the Tri-Ergon patents that had led Fox to exclaim, “Now I’ve got the sons of bitches by the balls, and don’t think I won’t twist them!”
The purchase would theoretically entitle him to collect damages from every company who exhibited sound pictures that violated the Tri-Ergon patents, or nearly everybody besides the Fox studio. Not only that, it would make him the de facto part owner of the fourteen thousand theaters in America that had been equipped for sound.
In short, William Fox had cornered the American movie industry.
It wasn’t Fox’s fault that it all came crashing down. In March 1929, Herbert Hoover was about to be inaugurated president, and William Donovan’s opinion was irrelevant. Louis B. Mayer had been friendly with Hoover through Mayer’s executive secretary, Ida Koverman, who was a power in the California Republican Party. Between Mayer and Koverman, Hoover listened, and the word went out. The Justice Department began investigating Fox for antitrust activities.
“You must have known that I have moved heaven and earth to prevent this consolidation,” Mayer told Fox. “Surely you felt that someone used his influence to have the government change its opinion with reference to these shares. I was responsible.”
In July, Fox barely survived a car accident that killed his chauffeur. The accident laid him up for three months, but he maintained his buying spree; from August through early October, he bought more than a hundred additional theaters in America and was negotiating to buy the UFA circuit in Germany. In October 1929, he owned 54 percent of the Fox Film Corporation and 93 percent of Fox theaters, all one thousand of them.
William Fox was a very rich man, and a very satisfied one, so much so that he felt comfortable referring to himself in the third person. “When a man reaches fifty,” he told a group of reporters on October 12, “three courses lie ahead. He may dream of his past accomplishments, he may rest on his oars, or may make ambitious plans for the future. The latter of these possibilities appeals to William Fox.”
The general tone of self-approbation would shortly be banished, for Fox was blissfully unaware that the stock market crash that arrived at the end of October was not a correction, but a generational catastrophe that would devastate the world economy and destroy his empire. The studio and theaters he had bought with borrowed money were now worth much less than he had paid for them—the value of the Loew’s shares alone dropped to about $24 million, less than half of what he had paid. Within a year, the indebtedness of the Fox empire was in the vicinity of $100,000,000, and its shares were worth less than half of their pre-crash levels and dropping.
William Fox had risen out of poverty because of a relentless appetite for work, for property, for money, for status, for more. He had been focused, he had been relentless, and he had been lucky. Suddenly, permanently, his luck had run out.
On November 27, 1929, a few weeks after the cataclysm on Wall Street, the United States Attorney General filed suit against the Fox Film Corporation as well as Warner Bros. for restraint of trade, the latter because Warners had recently purchased First National Pictures from Fox.
In a sense, the antitrust business was irrelevant. The stock market crash had ravaged the value of the shares Fox had bought for a premium price, and they would be worth even less over the next several years. He still owed about $70 million for his purchases, and the banks that had loaned him the money were attempting to stave off their own failure. And so the slow-motion collapse of the Fox empire began.
It wasn’t until July 1931 that the courts ordered Fox Film Corporation to divest itself of the Loew’s stock. But before that, the Fox Film Corporation had divested itself of the man who had founded it, brought it to international status, and made it one of the two or three leading studios in Hollywood.
William Fox was now that saddest of men: a movie mogul without a studio.
As for Fox’s Tri-Ergon patents, in 1935, only twenty-two weeks after it decided that Fox’s patents were indeed valid, the Supreme Court would revisit its initial decision and decide that the Tri-Ergon patents were no longer valid.
Game, set, match.
As an example of immigrant daring undone by hubris and malevolent fate, you can’t do better than the story of William Fox.
Wilhelm Fuchs was born in Tolcsva, Hungary, in 1879, and came to America at the age of nine months. He was a child of the Lower East Side, with a dialect to match—he always pronounced “films” as “fill-ums.” The defining characteristic of his life was early poverty—Fox’s father, a machinist, never earned more than $1,000 a year. Fox despised his father, believed him to be fatally passive and ineffectual. “All I remember of those early years,” he said, “is my father slurping up Mama’s chicken soup at the dinner table. There was no talking allowed at meals unless my father said something, which he rarely did.” The result of all this was a man determined to obliterate his father by exceeding his father’s meager accomplishments. The most succinct way of doing that would be a relentless focus on money and property.
He began his schooling at the age of six and ended it when he was eleven, because he had to go to work to help support the family. He had dozens of jobs during his adolescence. For a time he sold candy in Central Park, or stove polish for five cents a can. Other times he would hire other children to work for him. In the summer he would earn as much as $11 or $12 a week. It was in this period that he fell off the back of a truck and broke his left arm in three places. The family could not afford a doctor, so a dentist removed the boy’s elbow joint, leaving his arm permanently bent—a constant reminder of the burdens imposed on him by his father.
By the time he was thirteen he was pretending to be sixteen and was a foreman supervising a dozen men and boys sewing linings in coats for S. Cohen & Son in the garment district. He was paid $17 a week and worked eleven hours a day, six days a week. On the seventh day, he only worked five hours.
Wilhelm adored his mother and came to regard his father as a parasite. It was a psychological tic shared by a number of the first-generation movie moguls: Louis B. Mayer and Jack Warner were also fervent mama’s boys, if only because their fathers abdicated any kind of responsibility for their own or their children’s lives. When his father died in 1936, Fox spat on the coffin and muttered, “You son of a bitch.”
Practically speaking, Wilhelm was the family breadwinner by the time he hit puberty. In his successful middle years, he would say, “I do not remember anything about play, because I never remember playing.” When the date of his bar mitzvah arrived, he took a sick day in order to become a man.
When he requested a raise, he was informed that at $17 a week, he was already overpaid. Years later, when he was worth many millions of dollars, Fox would pat his vest in satisfaction at the workings of fate and opine that Mr. S. Cohen just might have been right. “It would have been so easy to spend all that I saved in those days,” he said. “Every penny was something that I denied myself, with the thought in mind that if I was going forward I had to have money. I saw that capital was what I needed. Either I had to be content to work for someone else all my life, or fight for independence. The latter course made it necessary to deny myself everything I could possibly contrive to do without until I had accomplished my aim and could afford to permit myself the things I missed.”
Wilhelm Fuchs embodied the classic immigrant mindset: if he wasn’t hustling, he was losing. By the time he was twenty, he had $580 in his bank account—a man of means, if not property. He married Eva Leo on December 31, 1899, one day before his twenty-first birthday. It was a big wedding—more than forty guests, and it reduced Fox’s bank account to $325. They moved into a five-room flat on Myrtle Avenue in Brooklyn for a monthly rent of $11. Because of Wilhelm’s experience in the garment district, he opened a cloth examining and shrinking business, mostly because it didn’t require much capital. The mills would ship their cloth to Fox and he would examine it for imperfections and control any shrinkage before the fabric was sewn into suits. After two years in business, he was ahead by $10,000. He eventually sold the Knickerbocker Cloth Examining and Shrinking Company for $50,000.
The money came at considerable cost. His life and experience combined to produce a grinding personality with little time for sentiment, kindness, or empathy, if only because he had no experience of them. Environment and character had combined to create a loner, a man described by his niece as someone who “invited enemies.” In time, he would boast that if he died, all the executives in his company put together would be helpless to run the business.
A brief, incongruous spell in vaudeville as part of a comedy team called The Schmaltz Brothers led to arcades, which led to theaters. In 1904, Fox invested in a Brooklyn nickelodeon with 146 seats. He bought one-third of the business for $1,666.67.
He opened his theater and… nobody came.
“All of it was in this one thing,” he remembered in 1927. “I saw beautiful visions of going back and asking for my job, in which the maximum salary I had ever earned before I went into business for myself was $17 a week. I saw visions of that and leaving this thing that held out the world to me and I wondered what to do and why the thing was not doing business.”
Fox knew an advance man for Barnum & Bailey’s circus, who suggested publicity, ballyhoo, something that would make the public sit up and take notice. A sword swallower ran $2 a night, a fire-eater $3 a night; a sleight-of-hand magician, however, could pocket as many coins as he could filch. Fox contracted for one of each, and it worked. The sword swallower was particularly potent; his act began in the street and concluded inside the theater, and the public dutifully anted up their nickels and followed him in.
The result, as Fox remembered, was that “this little bit of a theater into which I had put $1,600 brought in, in five years, approximately $250,000.… It was that little establishment that made it possible for me to build the organization we now have and it was that method that had to be employed to convince the people of this country ultimately that the motion picture was not just something that might run along but something that would prove worthwhile and something that the nation at large would accept.”
Fox began what would be more than two decades of relentless expansion. “Every time we got $1,600 more we opened another just like it. Under the law, the maximum number of chairs at that time was two hundred and ninety nine. The minute you had more than two hundred and ninety nine seats, you were obliged to build under certain fire regulations and you had to have a modern, fireproof building. We kept investing our money in these two hundred and ninety nine seat theaters until one day they passed a law permitting us to seat six hundred people in a building that was semi-fireproof. The day after that law was passed these theaters were obsolete and we could not use them anymore. Later we built theaters seating a thousand or fifteen hundred people.”
Fox was slightly shading his narrative, which was typical. The impetus to build larger theaters involved profit—the more seats, the more money Fox could make. With the exception of the occasional business downturn—the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918, for instance—the story of silent film would be one of constant aesthetic and business expansion. Fox’s chain of nickelodeons spread throughout Brooklyn, ending up with fifteen establishments. He would often configure the route through the building so that patrons would exit through a Kinetoscope parlor, which made it likely that they would spend more money before they hit the street. When he got enough money, he would buy out any partners. The first theater he purchased outright was the Gaiety, an old seven-hundred-seat vaudeville house at 194 Grand Street in Brooklyn. He paid $20,000 for the land and building.
Fox was not New York born, but he was New York bred. He knew how to go along to get along, and he seems to have ingested with his mother’s milk a knowledge of power and how to use it. A lot of Fox’s expansion over the years was because of a money stream that exceeded his profits from theaters. It largely derived from Tammany Hall, the Democratic political machine that ran the five boroughs. Tammany could easily launder money through Fox’s expanding empire, and get a percentage in return—a win-win. His patron at Tammany was Big Tim Sullivan, who had already formed the Sullivan & Considine vaudeville circuit, which involved 140 theaters nationwide. The result of Fox’s management and Tammany’s money was that by 1914, Fox owned fourteen movie theaters in New York City and had spent more than $4 million on property and construction.
Fox’s estimation of his patrons was blunt: “The motion picture did not appeal to the native born. He had other forms of recreation and entertainment. The motion picture appealed mainly to the foreign born, who could not speak or understand our tongue, who had no theater where he could hear his own tongue. He was a Pole, a Russian, a Slav or of some other foreign nationality. He wanted a diversion and found it in the motion picture.”
All this illustrates the logical, businesslike progression of Fox’s mind and career, which was duplicated in the early careers of most of the first generation of movie moguls, most of whom began as exhibitors. Louis B. Mayer and the Warner brothers all began with a single theater, then methodically expanded as theatrical entrepreneurs, then expanded further by moving into production, which made more sense than renting other people’s hit-and-miss films. If they made their own movies, they could own both ends of the business, the production end feeding the exhibition end. Result: profits from both sides of the equation. The difference was that Fuchs was willing to walk on the shady side of the street in return for the capital he needed.
William Fox began producing movies toward the end of 1914; his first film was Life’s Shop Window, based on a novel by one Victoria Cross, the rights to which cost Fox $100. The entire picture cost $6,000. It was a neo-Dickensian story about an impoverished orphan who marries and almost betrays her husband before returning to her loyal spouse. Life’s Shop Window made money. And just like that, William Fox was a movie producer.
In these early years, Fox’s wife, Eva, worked hand in hand with her husband. She was a compulsive reader and acted as his story editor, telling him what stories and novels to buy. Fox gave little thought to art; he was in a commercial medium and his ambition revolved around making money. When D. W. Griffith made The Birth of a Nation in 1915, Fox rushed out The Nigger within a week of the Griffith film’s release. Based on a play by Edward Sheldon, a good friend of John Barrymore’s, the Fox film told a relatively progressive story about a partly Black Southerner who passes for white and runs for governor. After business interests threaten him with exposure if he passes a bill hostile to their interests, he signs the bill, resigns his position, and moves up north.
Fox officially formed the Fox Film Corporation on February 1, 1915, with a capital investment of $400,000. That same year he hit the ground running with A Fool There Was, starring Theda Bara. By the end of the first year of Fox Film, the company had released twenty-six features at a cost of $767,000. Those twenty-six features brought back rentals of $3.2 million, which would have left Fox with a net profit in the vicinity of a million dollars.
While all this was going on, Fox was also engaged in another battle, with the Patents Company that had been created by Thomas Edison and allied companies to protect its patents on cameras and other equipment. The Patents Company demanded large license fees, which made it, in essence, a protection racket that strangled competition. The Supreme Court issued an antitrust ruling in 1917 that ended the stranglehold of the Patents Company and made it possible for anyone who wanted to make a movie to go ahead and do it without paying a bounty to anybody.
Fox took the victory personally, placing full-page ads in trade journals, proclaiming: “I fought in the United States courts and won.” Fox, of course, had a bountiful supply of skeletons well hidden in the closet. As Vanda Krefft, his best biographer, wrote, “A founder who had made his name by allying himself with the most corrupt political machine in America… these were the people who launched the Fox Film Corporation. It wasn’t the way Fox wanted to do business, but it was, he believed, the way he had to do business.”
William Fox had chosen the perfect time to go into the movie business. Within fourteen years, the company would issue $10,000,000 in dividends.
For the first five years of its existence, Fox Film focused on a steady stream of programmers, five- and six-reel pictures produced at a reasonable cost that were almost guaranteed to bring in a profit from a world crazy for movies. Fox chose the stories, assigned directors, and watched the rushes closely while dictating notes to the editor. When the shoot was done, he helped write the titles and ginned up publicity instructions. A fair number of his films were adaptations of classics, such as A Tale of Two Cities and Les Miserables, partially because they were famous titles, partially because they were in the public domain and he didn’t have to pay for the rights.
The film that turned Fox’s head was called Over the Hill to the Poorhouse, a tear-jerker based on a poem that brought in rentals of more than $2 million, for a profit of $1.25 million.
Success didn’t gentle Fox’s character. Glendon Allvine worked for Fox for a number of years, and he characterized his boss bluntly: “Among the early pioneers, William Fox was not a loveable character, like Uncle Carl Laemmle or Joe Schenck.”
That was putting it mildly. “He didn’t want money for pleasure or for egotistical display,” Fox’s niece said. “He wanted money because he believed it gave him control.” His press agents referred to him as “the lone eagle” of the movie business, but Angela Fox Dunn believed that “a notoriously savage lone wolf” was closer to the truth.
To a remarkable extent, it was a one-man organization—Fox delegated only what bored him, which was very little. There were very few conferences or meetings to decide policy or production plans. He didn’t wear a watch because as far as he was concerned time was irrelevant; he only left his office when his desk was cleared of paper, and if that meant he had to stay till ten p.m. or later, so be it.
Every so often, he would explode in a burst of self-aggrandizement: “I knew the condition of every nation we traded with. No question could arise that by the push of a button could not be answered in the extensive files that I had adjoining my office. I had it completely systematized, so that I knew every move that was made throughout the organization…
“Again and again I didn’t go to bed at all during the twenty four hours. There was work to do. I was working not only for myself, but to help others. I had an ambition to build this monumental institution.”
Within his frankly commercial instincts, Fox wanted to make films for the family, assuming that the family in question was not averse to strong emotional components—filial devotion, sexual attraction, et cetera. He was sensitive about one thing: he was homely and knew it, so disliked being photographed. He was especially sensitive about his crooked arm. He hated to use the telephone, preferring to put everything in writing. Therefore he dealt mainly in telegrams and night letters. Like Michael Corleone, he settled all family—and company—business. He would send his sister a peremptory telegram one month in advance of every visit he made to the West Coast, and that was the only notice he gave.
In slightly more than twenty years, William Fox ran a $1,600 investment in a single nickelodeon into a film empire he estimated to be worth $300 million. It was an overstatement—we’re dealing with the movie business here—but not an unreasonable one.
Fox’s roster of stars was initially a majority of one: Theda Bara, real name Theodosia Goodman from Cincinnati. She was a pleasant woman who had been a jobbing actress of no renown whatever until Fox’s publicists got hold of her. They proclaimed her to be the former leading lady of the Théâtre Antoine in Paris, said she had won acclaim in Vienna and Berlin. In reality she had never been to Europe, let alone acted there, and had never achieved any level of fame anywhere until Fox hired her for $75 a week to play the vamp in A Fool There Was.
The idea of a woman who drained men of both their money and their—ahem—vitality until the woebegone husk had little option but suicide hit a latently misogynist nerve in the population. A Fool There Was became a huge hit, and Bara ground out forty pictures for Fox in the next three years, the destructive yang to the wholesome yin of Mary Pickford and Lillian Gish.
Bara propelled Fox Film to revenues of $3.21 million in 1915, compared with $272,401 that Box Office Attraction Company, Fox’s corporate predecessor, had earned the year before. Net profits amounted to $523,000.
Bara played a procession of fictional as well as historical vamps (Cleopatra, Salome, Madame Du Barry). Fox occasionally broke up the monotony with something different—Bara also played Juliet in an adaptation of Romeo and Juliet, and Esmerelda in a film called The Darling of Paris, a riff on The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Bara’s publicity was every bit as exotic as her screen image. As one film historian noted, “She wore indigo makeup to emphasize her pallor; surrounded herself with symbols of death, such as human skulls, ravens, etc; rode in a white limousine; was served by ‘Nubian slaves’; and received the press while stroking a snake in a room permeated with incense.”
For a culture only recently emerged from the Victorian era, Bara’s projection of evil carnality was a stunning, erotic corrective to Dickens’s doomed ingénues. In 1919, Bara was making $4,000 a week, which seemed insufficient to counter her exhaustion and her boredom with a predominantly repetitive characterization. She quit the Fox studio, only to find that the public was every bit as exhausted as she was. Her last film was a two-reeler for Hal Roach in 1926 called Madame Mystery. After that, she lived out her years in apparently contented retirement in Beverly Hills as the wife of the director Charles Brabin. Only one complete Bara film has survived (A Fool There Was), and it does her no favors—it’s flatly directed and she’s small, squat, and lacks anything approaching subtlety.1
Fox’s primary leading man of this period was William Farnum, a short, barrel-chested actor who proved exceedingly successful and exceedingly versatile. Farnum played the dual parts of Charles Darnay and Sydney Carton in A Tale of Two Cities, he played Jean Valjean in Les Miserables, he played François Villon in the movie of the same name, and when the tank of classic literature grew empty, he played western heroes in Riders of the Purple Sage and Drag Harlan.
An actor with that kind of versatility is prized by his employers, which helped William Fox overlook the fact that Farnum was a showy actor who did most of his acting with his flashing eyes and massive chest. Farnum held down the fort at Fox for close to ten years, and his career continued with smaller parts in the sound era. Although his chest slid inexorably into his stomach, Farnum’s acting technique remained tied to the silent era. One of his last appearances was in Cecil B. DeMille’s 1949 Samson and Delilah, where his flashing eyes got yet another workout. Since silent film acting was not merely valued by DeMille, but required, Farnum fit right in.
“There have been many studies of the great American film studios, so any new entry in the field has to supply something new — and that is precisely what Scott Eyman provides in his fascinating and well-researched volume on 20th Century Fox”
—Barry Forshaw, Crime Time
“Film historian and bestselling author Scott Eyman has done it again with 20th Century-Fox.”
—Danielle Solzman, Solzy At The Movies
"This is a lot to cover in 300 pages...but Mr. Eyman is aided immensely by his gift for pithy observation and his ability to draw a portrait with a few deft strokes."
—Wall Street Journal
- "There is not, in my estimation, a better way to describe the essence of Darryl F. Zanuck than Eyman accomplishes here, as he widens the lens on Zanuck's drives, vision, and personal philosophy of life, all of which lives on in the dreams of the cinema created under his dedicated and fantastical mind."—EDGE Media Network
- On Sale
- Sep 21, 2021
- Page Count
- 304 pages
- Running Press