“20th Century-Fox: Darryl F. Zanuck and the Making of the Modern Motion Picture Studio,” by Scott Eyman, Running Press, 295 pages, $28.
A reader raised in the middle of the 20th century will recognize the influence of films on the culture and social development of our country. People like this reviewer spent hours in air-conditioned, popcorn-scented comfort in the stately theaters providing entertainment for citizens recovering from the trauma of a world war. Hollywood moguls who controlled the film industry also determined the American psyche. One of the dreammakers was Darryl F. Zanuck, the boss of 20th Century-Fox.
Few realize that Zanuck, who was born in 1902, spent his childhood just 30 miles north of Lincoln in Wahoo. Hall of Fame baseball player Sam Crawford was also born in the hamlet with a population of 2,500 20 years earlier (see “Wahoo Sam Crawford” review, June 20).
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Zanuck’s film company, Twentieth Century Pictures, merged with Hungarian immigrant Wilhelm Fuchs, studio Fox in 1935. Fuchs, who had changed his name to William Fox, also owned a chain of movie theaters and eventually lost control of his company due to bankruptcy. Zanuck was named head of the merged studios, and for the next 20 years made all business and creative decisions for the company. Every minute aspect of the film production, including the actors, directors, editing, and choice of content, bore his personal stamp of approval.
The success of his decisions was measured by studio profit and the three Best Picture Oscars won between 1941 and 1950. One of the Oscars now resides in the Saunders County Historical Society Museum in Wahoo.
Zanuck fostered the careers of Hollywood icons such as Henry Fonda, Cary Grant, Tyrone Power, Betty Grable and John Ford, while introducing widescreen cinemascope to his productions. Movies like “How Green Was My Valley,” “Gentleman’s Agreement,” and “The Grapes of Wrath” added social commentary to Hollywood glitz.
Meanwhile, Zanuck’s personal life embodied the omnipotence of tycoons who ran giant movie studios. His mastery of the casting couch made Harvey Weinstein look like an altar boy. The fierce matches of polo and croquet on the lawn of his mansion became notorious. Although he remained married for more than 50 years, his alliances with the beautiful but semi-talented actresses he tried to make stars were well known but accepted.
Finally, the aggravation of the dementia of his last years makes him replaced by his son Richard with whom he maintains an ambiguous relationship. Eventually, the son proved he inherited some of his father’s creative genes by producing the hit movie “Jaws.”
As television and cable changed the movie industry, Disney eventually bought the company, and Fox News became an offshoot of the change. As a film historian, author Eyman is careful to document his sources, including Richard Zanuck and actor Robert Wagner.
In summary, this book is recommended for anyone who enjoys films from the Golden Age of Hollywood and is enhanced with a brilliant 16-page section of photos from Turner’s Classic Movies Library.
J. Kemper Campbell, MD, is a perfectly cromulant former ophthalmologist from Lincoln who is currently a book reviewer enjoying his opportunity to enrich the reader’s vocabulary.