This sweeping and vivid history presents the innovative studio from its initial merger to the enormous success of The Sound of Music, combining film analysis with the interconnected histories of the studio, its executives, and the industry at large.
When the Fox Film Corporation merged with Twentieth Century Pictures in 1935, the company posed little threat to industry juggernauts such as Paramount and MGM. In the years that followed however, guided by executives Darryl F. Zanuck and Spyros Skouras, it soon emerged as one of the most important studios. Though working from separate offices in New York and Los Angeles and often of two different minds, the two men navigated Twentieth Century-Fox through the trials of the World War II boom, the birth of television, the Hollywood Blacklist, and more to an era of exceptional success, which included what was then the highest grossing movie of all time, The Sound of Music.
Twentieth Century-Fox is a comprehensive examination of the studio’s transformation during the Zanuck-Skouras era. Instead of limiting his scope to the Hollywood production studio, Lev also delves into the corporate strategies, distribution models, government relations, and technological innovations that were the responsibilities of the New York headquarters. Moving chronologically, he examines the corporate history before analyzing individual films produced by Twentieth Century-Fox during that period. Drawn largely from original archival research, Twentieth Century-Fox offers not only enlightening analyses and new insights into the films and the history of the company, but also affords the reader a unique perspective from which to view the evolution of the entire film industry.
- Chapter 1: The Merger, 1935–1939
- Chapter 2: Wartime Prosperity, 1940–1945
- Chapter 3: Peak Achievements, 1946–1950
- Chapter 4: A Slow Decline, 1951–1960
- Chapter 5: Bust and Boom, 1961–1965
- Epilogue, 1966–2011
My preparation for this project began about the year 2002, when I was writing a book on Hollywood in the 1950s. I noticed that among the studios Twentieth Century-Fox had the best story to tell—huge triumphs and failures, excellent films, extraordinary characters. With a little research I found that Twentieth Century-Fox’s first thirty years covered a great sweep of film history, from the Shirley Temple years to the World War II boom, the challenge of television, the Hollywood Blacklist, and the expensive and scandalous production of Cleopatra. Dozens of interesting characters were involved—the actors Tyrone Power, Betty Grable, Gregory Peck, and Marilyn Monroe; the directors John Ford, Henry King, Elia Kazan, Otto Preminger, and Joseph L. Mankiewicz; the writers John Steinbeck, Nunnally Johnson, Lamar Trotti, Philip Dunne, and Ring Lardner Jr.; the producers Jerry Wald and Walter Wanger; and so on. The story goes from the specific to the general, following the thoroughly connected histories of Twentieth Century-Fox, the Hollywood film industry, and the United States of America. But most of all the story is about two powerful executives, Darryl F. Zanuck and Spyros Skouras, who represent two distinct aspects of the film industry.
Twentieth Century-Fox was created by the merger of Fox Film Corporation and Twentieth Century Pictures in 1935. Fox Film was a pioneer film company, tracing its roots to William Fox’s purchase of a Brooklyn nickelodeon in 1904. Sidney Kent, President of Fox Film, merged his company with the much smaller Twentieth Century Pictures in 1935 because Twentieth Century had shown a consistent ability to make high-quality films while controlling costs. The major assets of Twentieth Century were its executives, film industry veteran Joseph Schenck and young but gifted head of production Darryl F. Zanuck. The new Twentieth Century-Fox was no threat to MGM or Paramount in its first few years, but Kent, Zanuck, and Schenck quickly built it into one of the most important Hollywood studios. In 1942 Sidney Kent died; Spyros Skouras, his replacement as president, would with Zanuck guide the company for the next few decades.
My history of Twentieth Century-Fox begins with the 1935 merger and ends with the great success of The Sound of Music in 1965. Then there is a brief epilogue because peer reviewers and my students at Towson University wanted to see the rest of the story. Any studio history is challenging since it must deal with economic, political, and social history as well as describe the production of hundreds or thousands of films. My history of Fox is more original and more challenging than most studio histories because it describes and analyzes the activities of both the New York office and the Hollywood production studio. In the 1930s and 1940s Twentieth Century-Fox included a New York–based distribution and exhibition business and a Los Angeles–based production business. In the 1950s, after the consent decree that forced the divestiture of the exhibition chain, these two operations were uncomfortably blended.
American film history has heavily focused on Hollywood studio activities rather than on the New York headquarters functions of the largest film companies. That is understandable because historians, like the general public, are strongly attracted to the motion pictures themselves—the stars, the stories, the visual styles, the social issues. However, the Hollywood studios of MGM, Paramount, Fox, Warner Bros., and RKO were not autonomous units. These five companies integrated production, distribution, and exhibition, and most of the high-level corporate decisions were handled in New York. At Fox, for example, the New York office took charge of corporate strategy, finances, government relations, distribution, exhibition, new technologies, and international relations. How could one write a history of a “Hollywood” film company without including these functions?
The organization charts of the biggest companies provide further evidence of the power of “New York.” Louis B. Mayer, the “mogul” who ran the MGM studio, had a boss—Nicholas Schenck, president of Loew’s Incorporated, MGM’s parent company. This is very clear in Lillian Ross’s 1952 book Picture, where we learn that Schenck is firmly in control of everything that goes on in Hollywood as well as in New York. It is less clear in later books about MGM and Mayer. Scott Eyman’s 2005 biography of Mayer concedes that Nicholas Schenck had power but does not adequately describe his responsibilities. At Twentieth Century-Fox, the respected and feared studio head Darryl Zanuck was only a vice president of the corporation; the president from 1942 to 1962 was Spyros Skouras, based in New York. Yet many accounts of Fox’s history concentrate on Zanuck and barely mention Skouras. Glendon Allvine is unique in saying that for two decades, Twentieth Century-Fox’s “product and policies reflected the personality of Spyros Panagiotis Skouras.”
My study aims to restore a balance to American film history by presenting the history of both Hollywood and New York operations. After much research and reflection, I have decided that it is too simple to say that Spyros Skouras was Darryl Zanuck’s boss because Zanuck had a great deal of autonomy and, in many ways, he was the most influential man in the company. Zanuck deserves his reputation as a major figure in film history; he was one of the most important producers and executives of all time. This book discusses Zanuck’s achievements through both a chronological narrative and detailed analyses of a number of films. But Zanuck’s achievements should be seen as part of a larger corporate history that includes such factors as government relations, exhibition needs, and new technologies. At times even the studies of individual films show interventions from Skouras and from industry-wide organizations such as the Motion Picture Association of America and its self-regulation (censorship) arm, the Production Code Administration. The corporate history of course discusses the many initiatives of Skouras, who from the late 1940s to about 1960 was arguably the most forward-looking of the top film industry executives. For example, Skouras was the driving force behind CinemaScope, Fox’s key technological innovation of the 1950s, which was quickly adopted by most of the film industry. I would amend Allvine’s statement above to say that Twentieth Century-Fox, from 1935 to 1965, was greatly influenced by the achievements and personalities of Darryl Zanuck and Spyros Skouras. Zanuck was the more important of the two, but Skouras should not be forgotten.
Film historians have often favored the “studio,” or “classic,” period of American film history because of its relative stability. In the 1930s and 1940s eight companies (the five listed above plus Columbia, Universal, and United Artists) had established control over production, distribution, and exhibition in order to maximize profits. In this period one can talk about the film industry as a “system” (a term favored by Thomas Schatz, Douglas Gomery, David Bordwell, and others) and describe it as a relatively simple, rational structure. My study discusses Twentieth Century-Fox in the studio era: the Fox stars, directors, and producers; favored genres, such as the war film and the musical; the boom-and-bust cycles of the theater chain; and so on. But I will also analyze the less-examined “transition period” of the 1950s and early 1960s. The studio period’s twenty years of stability now seem to be the exception rather than the rule; most decades of American film history are marked by wrenching technological, economic, social, and political change. The transition period, marked by a threat from television, an antitrust suit, and huge alterations in the film-going audience, may be a far more typical moment in film history. In the twentieth and now the twenty-first century, media have changed with remarkable rapidity. Why not study that change, instead of insisting on a stable system?
The transition period actually brings into clearer focus the varying functions of the Los Angeles– and New York–based units of Twentieth Century-Fox. Zanuck’s job as head of production at Fox (1935–1956) and then as a semi-independent producer distributing through Fox (1956–1962) was to make good movies that would attract the public and therefore ensure the profitability of Fox’s production, distribution, and exhibition businesses. This is a crucial responsibility but not the be-all and end-all of the corporation. Skouras’s job during the studio period—for example, the boom years of the early 1940s—was to manage all components of Fox for smooth and profitable operation. But as the boom years ended, Skouras’s job became much more difficult; he had to reinvent the company to adjust to the new and unpleasant realities of technological competition, threats from government, and declining admissions. Skouras skillfully kept Fox afloat, and profitable, for a number of years. Then about 1960 his management of the company faltered because of a number of factors, including the deaths of key associates and his own bad judgment. In 1962 Skouras resigned as president of Fox (he became a figurehead chairman of the board) and was replaced by Zanuck. It was only at this point that Zanuck became the sole leader and visionary of Twentieth Century-Fox.
Relatively little has been written about Fox. Aubrey Solomon’s Twentieth Century-Fox: A Corporate and Financial History is only about the Hollywood studio—much of the corporate history is left out. Solomon’s book gives a good overview of the production side of the business, and its appendices on “Domestic Rentals” and “Production Costs” are invaluable. This book’s figures on rentals and production costs come from Solomon unless otherwise noted. Allvine’s The Greatest Fox of Them All has interesting sections on people he knew but is weak on facts and dates. Aubrey Solomon’s recent Fox Film Corporation, 1915–1935: A History and Filmography covers Fox Film’s early years. John Gregory Dunne’s The Studio is a first-person account of Fox’s production activities in the late 1960s, just after the period I cover, while Stephen M. Silverman’s The Fox That Got Away focuses on a power struggle circa 1970. There are several books about Zanuck, and three of them are very good: Mel Gussow, Don’t Say Yes Until I Finish Talking (largely based on Gussow’s conversations with Zanuck); George Custen, Twentieth Century’s Fox: Darryl F. Zanuck and American Culture; and the Rudy Behlmer–edited Memo from Darryl F. Zanuck. However, neither Gussow nor Custen shows much interest in the New York side of the business. Behlmer’s compilation of memos gives an occasional glimpse of Zanuck’s relationship to Skouras. The one biography of Spyros Skouras, Carlo Curti’s Skouras, King of Fox Studios, is a terrible book, badly written and often inaccurate. The best sources on Skouras are two unpublished memoirs that he dictated; both are in the Spyros Skouras Collection at Stanford University Libraries Special Collections. Since published works do not really cover my topic, I have made extensive use of archival sources, including the Skouras Collection at Stanford, the Twentieth Century Fox script collections at UCLA and USC, the Walter Wanger Collection at the Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research, and many collections at the Margaret Herrick Library, Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (see “Acknowledgments” for more detail).
The organization of this volume is very simple: five long chapters cover corporate history and the individual films produced in a specific period. For Chapters 1–4, the history of both Hollywood and New York units comes first, followed by analysis of the films. In Chapter 5 this becomes more of a back-and-forth between corporate history and discussions of individual films because Fox made relatively few films in the early 1960s, but three of them were absolutely crucial to the survival of the business. In the film analyses, which I think is an important part of any cinema history, I have chosen to write about selected films instead of attempting to cover every film made in a thirty-year period. Many films are discussed in detail, and Chapters 1–4 end with a particularly thorough case study. Chapter 5 includes thorough studies of The Longest Day and Cleopatra, but these are intertwined with other narrative threads and so are not exactly case studies. Though most of Fox’s best-known films of the era are included, along with a number of less-familiar titles, I do regret several omissions: Tales of Manhattan (1942), The Foxes of Harrow (1947), No Way Out (1950), The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), Niagara (1953), The King and I (1956), Wild River (1961), and so on. However, I do not think that film history should be encyclopedic, and in this case the task of commenting on every Fox film made between 1935 and 1965 would have been almost superhuman.
When I began research on Twentieth Century-Fox, I did not realize how large and multidimensional the topic would be. After years of research and writing, I don’t know that I have tamed or solved the subject—many histories of Fox remain to be written. Nevertheless, I hope that I have risen to the challenge of writing an innovative studio history.
“...Lev's consistently illuminating book joins the first rank of Hollywood studio histories. Summing up: Highly recommended.”
“This is a terrific book—wide-ranging, informative, and accessible—that brings together a group of subjects and strengths that are rarely joined in film studies. . . . Lev unfolds a vivid, dramatic story of Fox’s triumphs and vicissitudes over a thirty-year period, emphasizing at different points every aspect of the studio’s history from its shifting financial fortunes to the distribution of its products. . . . Film scholars will find that Lev consistently engages earlier work on the studio without duplicating it; nonspecialists approaching the subject for the first time will find Lev an accessible and reliable guide.”
Thomas Leitch, Professor of English, University of Delaware; author of Film Adaptation and Its Discontents: From Gone With the Wind to The Passion of the Christ
“This is a carefully researched, well-written book—a valuable historical resource for information on the business end of Twentieth Century-Fox and for an analysis of some of the studio’s major films. . . . Although there are some good books on Darryl Zanuck, and some histories of Fox, no one has written as comprehensively as Lev has, nor has anyone emphasized the New York business side along with the LA production side.”
Joanna E. Rapf, Professor of English and Film, University of Oklahoma; coeditor of The Blackwell Companion to Film Comedy