Sunday, January 29, 2006

MEN OF VISION - Darryl F. Zanuck

...20th Century's Foxy Mogul

How best to reflect on the unquestionably intrinsic talent of Darryl F. Zanuck? In possession of the most impassioned imagination and inquisitive desire to succeed, there was little in Zanuck’s early years that might have heralded the coming of a zeitgeist. What he lacked in formal education was compensated for with candid ambition and blind faith. Ostensibly, Zanuck knew not only what films to make but arguably how best to make them critically and financially saleable.

He drew boundless energies from his diminutive five foot six inch frame, personalizing the products of his dream factory with the Zanuck touch. That, along the way, he arguably misplaced the humility of his youth in a series of unrewarding misadventures and womanizing should remain a sidebar to the immensity of his raw talent, as producer of some of the most compelling and frank motion pictures ever made.

In retrospect Zanuck’s opportunities in life appear as lucky anomalies. Early on he learned to compensate for the shortcomings of an unhappy childhood by employing good old-fashioned and distinctly American ingenuity. At fourteen he ran away from home and entered the armed forces during World War I by lying about his age.

Using time away from the battlefield to pen a series of letters to his beloved grandfather, who made certain they were published in the local newspaper and later, in the military press – Stars & Stripes; at sixteen Zanuck convinced a hair tonic promoter to pay for the publication of his short stories as a novel, thereby earning him the credibility as an author, needed to procure his career as a scriptwriter in Hollywood.

Yet, if great good luck was part of his early mystique so too was a mass of personal contradictions. He ardently pursued actress Virginia Fox until she married him, then embarked on a string of improbable extra martial affairs with his “four o’clock girls” – hopeful starlets who would never go farther than Zanuck’s casting couch.

Desperately craving absolute control of the filmmaking process, Zanuck surrendered it twice after it had been attained; first, to adventurism in WWII, then for personal reasons in 1956. If he apparently desired the respect of his peers he was equally nonchalant about discarding their opinions along the way; for Zanuck was a man who lived life on his own terms. Such was his nature perhaps, but who was the man?

He was born Darryl Francis Zanuck in Wahoo Nebraska on Sept 5, 1902. His mother divorced his father at the age of six and remarried to a man that Darryl despised. Despite his stepfather’s attempts to instill a sense of discipline by enrolling him in Page Military Academy, young Darryl proved not to be a scholar.

All the better it seems for his preparation as a Hollywood mogul. After the briefest of tenures, writing gags for Charlie Chaplin, Fatty Arbuckle and the Keystone Cops, Zanuck and fellow writer Al St. Clair turned the German Shepard Rin Tin Tin into a national phenomenon at Warner Brothers. Both Jack and Harry Warner considered Zanuck their protégée – one they would afford every opportunity along the way except total control as Vice President in Charge of Production. After launching the studio into talkies with The Jazz Singer (1929), Zanuck went on to solidify Warner’s gritty stylized gangster/melodrama formula. In the course of six short years he oversaw 300 productions and was arguably the most consistently unbeaten producer in the business. Despite his weekly salary of $5000 the young and aspiring mogul was restless.

So, in 1933 Zanuck departed Warner Brothers to helm Joseph Schenk’s latest acquisition; 20th Century Pictures. It proved a fortuitous move, fueling Zanuck’s first burst of genius with an impressive roster of films; The Mighty Barnum, and, House of Rothchild (both in 1934); Call of the Wild, and, Born to Be Bad (1935). For the first time in Hollywood’s history, a studio was being run by a film maker. Zanuck’s involvement in these projects cannot be overstated. Although he found the activity on the set tedious at best, his forte for succinct yet dynamic narratives was ultimately proven in the editing room, and, in his ability to instill equal amounts of admiration and fear in his professional relationships.

A typical day at the studio began with a round of dictated memos. A working lunch segued into afternoon meetings with various producers, before retiring to the screening room to view rushes from his most recent batch of projects. Yet, despite Zanuck’s zeal for fifteen hour work days he did manage to maintain something of a family atmosphere at home, with weekend playtime at his Santa Monica beach house and vacation time for Virginia (right) and his three children in exotic locations around the world.

Fiscally sound in his judgments, Zanuck’s next big break came with the acquisition of William Fox Studios in 1935. The rechristened 20th Century-Fox gained $20 million in secured bank loans, a 96 acre backlot and a roster of stellar and rising stars including Janet Gaynor and Alice Faye. Zanuck knew that the strength of his fledgling studio would be measured throughout the industry by the potency of its star power. But in this respect his studio had only one surefire draw – Will Rogers.

Rogers’ death in a 1935 plane crash may have hastened Zanuck’s resolve to find new talent, but it could not have fathomed the pint size wonderment that ultimately became Shirley Temple. Thrust into a rigorous schedule of four films beginning in 1934, Temple reigned supreme as the number one box office draw during the next three years – enough time for Zanuck to round out the decade by establishing and promoting such stars as Sonja Henie, Henry Fonda, Don Ameche and Fox’s rising heartthrob, Tyrone Power to the upper echelons of superstardom.

Throughout the 1940s Zanuck and Fox entered a golden age, becoming the enviable rivals to L.B. Mayer’s MGM (the biggest and arguably the best studio in Hollywood). Fox’s output of the period veered between the polar opposites of socially conscious melodramas (the critique of anti-Semitism in Gentlemen’s Agreement 1947) and slick and glossy, light-hearted musicals (Tin Pan Alley 1940).

But Zanuck was displeased by his inability to procure at least one project that would be deemed worthy of an Academy Award. His first stab at the Oscar came in 1940 with his ambitiously mounted take on John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. In re-conceptualizing the project for the screen Zanuck decided to shift Steinbeck’s focus from politics to people – an alteration that, when coupled with Zanuck’s rewrite of the finale, as a life-affirming epitaph, infuriated purists of the novel as well as Steinbeck. Though profitable, the film ultimately lost its nomination to Selznick’s Rebecca. The following year Zanuck rectified his near miss with a qualified hit on both fronts; How Green Was My Valley (1941); the bittersweet tale of a young man’s reflections on his childhood in a Welsh mining town.

Like all moguls of his vintage, Zanuck faced the merciless onslaught of television with great defiance. However, unlike his competitors, Zanuck’s foresight proved to have a remedy for the woe that, while not conclusive was nevertheless temporarily effective at staving off the steady decline in theater attendance. With the premiere of The Robe (1953), Cinemascope revolutionized the experience of going to the movies. Under Zanuck’s personal edict to procure entertainment of “width” rather than “depth” Fox launched a robust schedule of widescreen spectacles.

Yet, while his professional career seemed secure, Zanuck’s private life was decidedly set to take a turn for the worst. While on a European holiday the Zanuck’s were introduced to aspiring Polish actress, Bayla Wegier (right). A protégée of both Darryl and Virginia, and with her name cleverly changed to Bella Darvi, the actress debuted in The Egyptian (1954), a lavishly absurd trifle that did little to bolster either Darvi’s career or the studio coffers.

After only two more films it was quite obvious that Darvi would not become a new star of the magnitude of Fox’s other recent discovery; Marilyn Monroe. Unfortunately for Virginia, Bella became Darryl’s much publicized mistress – a move that shattered Bella’s future at Fox, sent Virginia into a depression and forced Zanuck to resign at the behest of his board of directors.

Suffering from extreme burn out, Zanuck pursued Darvi and his dreams of independent filmmaking abroad. However, after six consecutive flops many in the industry speculated that Zanuck’s career was over. Worse, Darvi’s restless and erratic behavior, coupled with her Monte Carlo gambling debts convinced Zanuck to divest himself of her company. Alone and desperate for a hit, Zanuck launched into his comeback project; The Longest Day (1962). A personal triumph, the project almost did not come to pass, due in part to Fox’s exorbitant and mounting costs on Cleopatra (1963).

Determined to preserve not only his pet project but the studio from degenerating into certain bankruptcy, Zanuck made an impassioned pitch to the board that not only won him the respect of his peers but control of the studio once again.

Installing his son, Richard as Vice President in Charge of Production, Zanuck mounted an aggressive campaign of mega hits beginning with The Sound of Music (1965); and although the trend toward profitable quality entertainment continued throughout the sixties and seventies, Zanuck increasingly became a casual participant in these daily operations – choosing instead to spend his time abroad with his latest female companion, Juliet Greco.

However, when a series of high profile musical flops placed another strain on studio coffers, the board of directors once again summoned Zanuck to explain the errors in judgment. Tired and decidedly disinterested in defusing the situation, Zanuck opted for the quick fix instead - he fired Richard (right); a move that quietly prompted Virginia to side with the board and successfully oust her philandering husband from his position for the last time in May of 1971.

Professionally destroyed, Zanuck withdrew from his family and the industry until a cancer operation and declining health forced his return to the United States in 1973. Living out his last remaining years as a quiet retiree, reconciled with Virginia and his family, and usurped of all the creative energies that had once seemed so boundless, Darryl F. Zanuck succumbed to pneumonia on Dec. 22, 1979.

“Of all the big boss producers, Darryl was unquestionably the one with the greatest gifts… for the film making process itself,” eulogized Orson Welles. In the interim since Zanuck’s death those words have taken on a more profound meaning. For Zanuck was a force of nature in Hollywood during both his and its heyday. He was a man of personal vision, even if that mantra became temporarily lost under the thick haze of smoke emanating from the cigar chomped between his lips.

Prolific in his artistic sensibilities, well beyond a mere desire to simply entertain, the films of 20th Century-Fox that were produced under the aegis of Darryl F. Zanuck continue to reverberate with a profound sense of importance. Deeper, richer and with a more distinct canvas, often casting a spotlight on disquieting yet important subject matter (racism, corruption, social injustices), the films Zanuck left behind are perhaps the greatest testament that any studio mogul looking down from heaven on his own legacy could have hoped for.

Like the man himself – his celluloid creations continue to inspire and make us think, and, in the immortal words of George Gershwin: “who could ask for anything more?”

@Nick Zegarac 2006 (all rights reserved).