For 50 years, Scott Eyman’s been collecting string. The author of over a dozen books on Hollywood history has a deep collection of research and interviews, not to mention connections with the right people. So when it came time for Eyman to write his pandemic book, the story of 20th Century-Fox made the most sense. He had interviewed Richard Zanuck 25-30 years ago, had plenty of research on Fox’s major players and movies from his other books, and has access to transcripts of story conferences. Even better, Eyman knew the story of Fox had a defined beginning, middle, and end. And it had an ideal leading man: Darryl F. Zanuck.
“The difference between the studio system and how Zanuck practiced it, and what came after, is permanence,” Eyman says. “Zanuck ran 20th Century-Fox for 30 years. Then he went to independent production for six or seven years and then came back and as chairman of the board for another six or seven years. So you’re talking about almost a 40-year run, running 20th Century-Fox. So nobody, other than Rupert Murdoch, runs anything anymore for 40 years.”
And it was Murdoch who last owned the studio. The Australian-born media mogul bought Fox from Denver oil executive Marvin Davis in 1985 for $575 million and then sold the studio and the majority of its assets to Disney in 2019 for $71.3 billion.
But before all that, there was Hungarian-born William Fox, who formed the Fox Film Corporation in 1915, and had an ego even Murdoch would envy: “It is absurd to say that he is conceited,” journalist Allene Talmey wrote at the time. “It is too puny a word. Megalomania afflicted with elephantiasis, that is the state of his self-esteem.”
Twenty years later, Fox merged with the most successful independent studio at the time, 20th Century Pictures, ran by Zanuck, to form 20th Century-Fox, with Zanuck in charge of a less-than-top-shelf studio.
“His stars are Will Rogers and Shirley Temple and Warner Baxter,” Eyman says. “Didn’t have a lot to work with. And Will Rogers got killed six weeks after Zanuck takes the studio over. So he’s out of the equation. So [Zanuck] is starting basically from ground zero.”
But Zanuck was a movie guy who cut his teeth at Warner Bros. “He found a way to make it work,” Eyman says. “And he didn’t plow the same turf.”
Eyman devotes the majority of 20th Century-Fox: Darryl F. Zanuck and the Creation of the Modern Film Studio to the story of Zanuck, his ruthless drive, and “his intellectual plasticity.”
“It’s an amorphous thing, being a studio head because it gives you a wide latitude to define the job as you want it defined,” Eyman says.
“For one thing, these guys did mass production. They did 30 movies a year, 40 movies a year,” Eyman says. “It was a wide menu of product that they put out. They didn’t put out one kind of movie: They put up some love stories, they put out some noirs, they put out westerns, they put out musicals, it was a fairly wide range of materials.”
And not only was the range of the material wide, so were the pictures. In 1953, to combat the loss of the audience turning from movies to television, Zanuck snapped up a new format of motion pictures, Cinemascope: a massive widescreen aspect ratio that transformed movies from box to rectangle.
“So that pulled the audience back in and lured them away from television,” Eyman explains. “Because you had to give them what they couldn’t get for free on television…Which was the main problem because they lost almost 50 percent of their audience in six or seven years. Between 1946 and 1953.”
And that wasn’t the only time Zanuck had to navigate the studio through troubled waters. Eyman’s 20th Century-Fox is the story of a movie studio run by movie lovers and moviemakers. It chronicles the golden age of Hollywood and the not-so-golden activities behind the scenes. It explains how we got the movies we cherish and the inner workings of a business that’s simultaneously fascinating and infuriating. But, more than anything, it shows that there never was before, and there will never be again, a mogul quite like Darryl F. Zanuck.
ON THE BILL: 20th Century-Fox: Darryl F. Zanuck and the Creation of the Modern Film Studio is available now in hardback from Running Press/TCM.