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Zanuck, Darryl - Overview, Personal Life, Career Details, Social and Economic Impact, Chronology: Darryl Zanuck

production fox century twentieth

(1902-1979)
Twentieth Century-Fox, Inc.

Overview

As the head of two major Hollywood studios during its golden age, Darryl F. Zanuck was the youngest, fiercest, and most flamboyant of the tycoons who helped shape the American film industry. “As a trail blazer,” Time magazine declared, “Zanuck has no Hollywood equal.” During his reign in Hollywood Zanuck played a pivotal role in the two major developments in motion picture technology, sound films in the 1920s and wide-screen films in the 1950s. He was the last of the infamous Hollywood moguls who controlled every aspect of film production including discovering and hiring actors and directors, supervising scripts, and overseeing every detail of movie making.

Personal Life

Darryl F. Zanuck was born September 5, 1902, in Wahoo, Nebraska, a small town of 2,000, west of Omaha. His mother, Louise, was the daughter of Henry Torpin, the owner of Wahoo’s only hotel. His father, Frank, of Swiss descent, was a former Iowa farm boy who worked as a night clerk in the Wahoo hotel. Alcohol and gambling drove Zanuck’s mother from his father to Los Angeles where she remarried. Zanuck alternated living with his mother and stepfather, with whom he did not get along, in California and with his grandparents in Nebraska until 1916. Having lied about his age, he was able to pass the army physical one day before his 14th birthday. During World War I, he served at the frontlines in France for almost a year. He was used primarily as a messenger or runner because of his small size.

During the war, some of his letters were printed in the American Expeditionary Force newspaper, Stars and Stripes, which helped to determine his later career. He left the army in 1920 and went to New York. He began to write stories, making his first sale to a magazine after a year. He left for Hollywood where he worked odd jobs as a salesman, selling shirts and newspaper subscriptions; as a longshoreman; and as a shipyard worker. While selling hair tonic, he wrote a hundred-page testimonial for the tonic and convinced the maker to publish a book, Habit and Other Short Stories, consisting of the testimonial, a short story, and two scenarios. Movies were made out of the short story and scenarios, and Warner Brothers hired Zanuck as a writer. Zanuck had seen a German shepherd named Rinty in the film Where the North Begins and convinced Jack and Harry Warner that he could make the dog a star. Renamed Rin Tin Tin, the dog was featured in a successful series of films that Zanuck wrote. In 1927 Zanuck was appointed head of production at Warner Brothers and his Hollywood career as a studio executive had begun.

Zanuck married actress Virginia Fox in 1924. They had three children, Darrylin, Susan, and Richard. An avid polo player during the 1930s, Zanuck took to carrying a sawed-off polo mallet that became his trademark. During World War II, Zanuck was commissioned as a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Signal Corps to make training films and combat documentaries. He was promoted to colonel in 1942, and he accompanied the Allied command during the invasion of Africa to make a photographic record of the event. Zanuck became the first producer to receive the prestigious Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award in 1937. He also received the Legion of Merit for his services during World War II. In 1956, Zanuck moved to Paris. He left his wife and family to start his own company, DFZ productions. He later reunited with his wife in 1974 on the occasion of their 50th anniversary. Following a heart attack in 1979, he died of pneumonia.

Career Details

When Zanuck went to work at Warner Brothers in 1924, he learned to edit, direct, cast, and produce movies with such skill and speed that by 1927 he was given his own production unit and a share of the profits. It was Zanuck who urged the use of spoken dialogue in The Jazz Singer that caused a sensation and initiated the “talkies.” Zanuck also originated the series of gangster films, such as Little Caesar (1930) and The Public Enemy that became a Warner Brothers trademark. By 1929 Zanuck was Warner’s general production chief, and by 1931 he was chief executive in charge of all productions. He is credited with making stars of Tyrone Powers, James Cagney, Henry Fonda, Betty Grable, Edward G. Robinson, and Gregory Peck.

A quarrel with Jack L. Warner about the necessity of salary cuts during the Depression caused Zanuck to leave Warner Brothers in 1933. He joined Joseph M. Schenck, then president of United Artists, in creating Twentieth Century Pictures, which eventually merged with Fox Films to become Twentieth Century-Fox. At the age of 33, Zanuck was in charge of every aspect of filmmaking as vice president of production. He held this position until 1956. During his years at Twentieth Century-Fox, Zanuck pioneered the use of authentic locations in foreign countries and produced films such as The Grapes of Wrath (1940) and How Green Was My Valley (1941), which many in the industry considered too radical for a major Hollywood studio. Under Zanuck’s leadership, Twentieth Century-Fox became known as the studio that was not afraid to address contemporary problems such as anti-Semitism in Gentleman’s Agreement (1947), insanity and mental institutions in The Snake Pit (1948), racial prejudice in No Way Out (1950), and the psychological pressures of war in Twelve O’Clock High (1949). At story conferences, Zanuck would help supply characterizations and structural changes that provided focus and momentum to the films.

When television began to erode movie receipts in the 1950s, Zanuck introduced CinemaScope or the wide-screen film to help restore the movies’ magic. As Zanuck declared, “The pictures we make from now on will be twice as big and twice as costly.” In 1956 Zanuck resigned as head of production to start his own independent company, one of his productions was the epic treatment of the Normandy landing in World War II, The Longest Day (1962). Meanwhile, Twentieth Century-Fox was on the brink of bankruptcy caused by the escalating costs in its production of Cleopatra (1963). The company’s board of directors ousted the incumbent president and elected Zanuck as his replacement. Zanuck named his son, Richard, as head of production. Under Richard Zanuck’s guidance Twentieth Century-Fox had a number of box office hits such as The Sound of Music (1965) and Planet of the Apes (1968). Darryl Zanuck, working in New York as chairman, missed the creative side of the studio and, perhaps out of jealousy over his son’s success, fired Richard and took control of the studio in 1970. The move backfired, however, and several major stockholders forced Zanuck to resign as chairman in 1971. He kept the honorary title of president emeritus.

Social and Economic Impact

Zanuck was one of the last in a generation of Hollywood tycoons who ruled every aspect of their studios. His style was like that of men such as Louis B. Mayer, Jack L. Warner, and Adolph Zukor, who dominated the production of their films. Running his studio with an iron hand and dictating every aspect of a films production from scripts to casting, Zanuck put his individual stamp on a host of classic Hollywood films that have entertained audiences around the world and in many cases have helped to define America abroad.

Chronology: Darryl Zanuck

1902: Born.

1916: Joined army at the age of 14.

1924: Hired by Warner Brothers as a writer.

1927: Appointed Warner Brothers’ head of studio production.

1933: Co-founded The Twentieth Century Co. (later Twentieth Century-Fox).

1937: Received the Irving G. Thalberg Award.

1953: Introduced CinemaScope.

1956: Resigned as head of production at Twentieth Century-Fox.

1962: Elected as president of Twentieth Century-Fox.

1971: Forced to resign as chairman of Twentieth Century-Fox.

1979: Died.

As an innovator in sound and wide-screen technology, Zanuck was one of the pioneers in the modern film business that defined the industry’s standards. Throughout Zanuck’s long career he had the courage of his convictions. As his son Richard remarked, “He had guts. He was willing to take the responsibility and the blame. He would say yes or no. They would ask is it any good, and if he thought it was, that was enough to put it into production.” Although the modern film industry has now long since changed away from the control of a single individual, Zanuck’s career offers an important lesson in the power of initiative and intuition to create lasting entertainment and art.

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