Review by C.J. Bunce
For a century, 20th Century Fox was a production machine, churning out volumes of motion pictures annually, but never achieving the greatness seen by the likes of MGM and Paramount. Yet its key movie star assets, its box office successes, and award-winning films were few and far between. In 20th Century-Fox: Darryl F. Zanuck and the Creation of the Modern Film Studio, writer Scott Eyman takes movie fans back to the beginning and introduces readers to sometimes successful, sometimes not successful businessmen who built theaters and the movies to screen in them, keying in on the mergers that brought William Fox, formerly immigrant Wilhelm Fuchs, to build a corporation that Darryl F. Zanuck would take through important decades of the 21st century. Both film buffs and historians of the era of film’s Golden Age will find a history in Turner Classic Movies/TCM’s latest film production chronicle, connected by memorable films from its first Oscar-winner, 1927’s Sunrise, to its last, 2019’s Ford v. Ferrari, telling a story of the rise and fall of a movie empire. TCM’s 20th Century-Fox is just out from publisher Running Press and available here at Amazon.
Truth isn’t always stranger than fiction, as can be found in the television adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Last Tycoon (reviewed here), and another story of the rise and fall of a business giant in Mr. Selfridge (reviewed here). Fans of those shows and the real-life history of 20th century big business will be familiar with how the cycle of building movie studios from the ground up is like building any large business. As writer Eyman shares, it includes the rare new idea, the overly ambitious executive, and plenty of scandals along the way. For 20th Century-Fox it began with William Fuchs, an abusive, brow-beating type whose greatest successes were spring-boarding directors John Ford and Howard Hawks into household names, showcasing Tom Mix, one of the most famous movie star cowboys, and discovering John Wayne, while adding Theda Bara as a brief but interesting early female film star. Fuchs was a real estate man, not a movie guy, who had a distaste for actors and let others make the movies. But keying in on hiring great directors would keep the studio moving forward, until his spending exceeded their feats. It wasn’t helped any with Fuchs going to jail for fraud, or the arrival of the Great Depression.
For most who lived movies during the middle of the 20th century, the studio was synonymous with Nebraska-born Darryl F. Zanuck, a movie mogul on par, even if a step or two down, with the studio greats like Mayer, Goldwyn, Selznick, and Warner, who was first a production chief at Warner Bros. before he’d merge his studio, Twentieth Century, in a lop-sided deal with Fuchs’ worldwide production and distribution empire to become 20th Century-Fox. The bulk of Eyman’s book is a detailed look at the history of Zanuck before and during his empire building, as well as his last hoorah as studio exec before handing the studio to his competent son Richard Zanuck, who would go on to do great things in his own right.
Darryl Zanuck came out swinging (and not just in the pervasive sport of his circle of moguls: croquet) with films that are now considered classics, like John Ford’s Drums Along the Mohawk, Young Mr. Lincoln, and The Grapes of Wrath, all starring Henry Fonda. The rise of the studio can be seen in the quality of the films it produced next: Ford’s How Green Was My Valley and My Darling Clementine, Gentleman’s Agreement, All About Eve, and The Ox-Bow Incident. Dana Andrews, Victor Mature, and Richard Widmark would lead noir films, with successes like Laura. World War II would bring unlikely European creators Fritz Lang and Jean Renoir to Fox.
Later films Call Northside 777, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, Twelve O’ Clock High, The Day the Earth Stood Still, Ford’s Mister Roberts, South Pacific, The Sound of Music, The Sand Pebbles, The Planet of the Apes, M*A*S*H, and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid all still stand the test of time, as do the works of stars from the post-war Zanuck era like Robert Wagner and Gene Tierney. The epic movie disaster Cleopatra and ho-hum films of the 1960s set up the studio for its slow demise over the coming decades. The 1970s would only find hits with pictures like The Poseidon Adventure and The French Connection. The elder Zanuck left direct management of the studio, for all intents and purposes, as part of his strange and twisted later years of excess, only to return in his final years to oust son Richard from the studio, who–happily for movie goers–would go on to produce blockbusters like The Sting, Cocoon, Driving Miss Daisy, and Jaws, earning returns in excess of all his father’s films.
Notable are the four years of Alan Ladd, Jr., who arrived to lead some successes after years of bad investments: Young Frankenstein, The Omen, Silver Streak, and then a really big fish: Star Wars. The 1980s would see hits with Romancing the Stone, Bachelor Party, The Man with One Red Shoe, Turk 182, and bigger hits Aliens, The Fly, Die Hard, and Predator. Jon Landau and James Cameron would build the wealth of the studio back with The Abyss, True Lies, Titanic, and Avatar. Kevin Feige’s Marvel movies would queue up the studio for its big sale to Disney. All those big movies listed above don’t speak to the thousands of flops and misfires Eyman discusses throughout the studio’s century as a player in the industry.
Along its journey the studio had to be nimble enough to adapt to changing technologies, new cameras, new film like the studio’s CinemaScope, moving from the silent era to talkies, and the development of television. There was also changing content, including the rise and fall of musicals and Westerns, the success and failure of war movies and historical pictures, and new focuses like science fiction and horror.
For some this narrative may be bogged down with details of a seemingly endless stream of business negotiations, loans, and the failure to pay them back on time. But readers will likely be pulled in from the opening chapter, recounting the history and detail of the studio’s most famous symbol and trademark, the 20th Century-Fox Fanfare composed by Neil Brand, which opened movie houses for decades, revised once along the way, by Alfred Newman, to return to fame in 1977 when used at the beginning of Star Wars.
The year 2021 has seen an impressive volume of content from the TCM library from publisher Running Press. Eyman’s addition of TCM’s 20th Century-Fox: Darryl F. Zanuck and the Creation of the Modern Film Studio is no exception, and a worthy addition to any film aficionado’s library. Note: This book includes a section of black and white photographs featuring key studio executives, and actors. Unlike other volumes in the TCM library, it is being released in a hardcover edition.
Don’t forget to check out other books in the TCM library reviewed here at borg: TCM’s Essential Directors, Dark City: The Lost World of Film Noir, 52 Must-See Movies That Matter, 52 More Must-See Movies That Matter, Must-See Sci-Fi, Dynamic Dames, Forbidden Hollywood, Christmas in the Movies, Fright Favorites, and Summer Movies: 30 Sun-Drenched Classics.