Darryl F. Zanuck (1902-1979) produced some of the most important and controversial films in Hollywood. He co-founded 20th Century-Fox studios and helped entertain moviegoers as a producer for over 50 years. Three of his films won Academy Awards for best motion picture and many more received nominations.
Zanuck was born on September 5, 1902 in Wahoo, Nebraska, the son of an alcoholic hotel clerk, Frank Zanuck, and Louise Torpin. His parents quarreled often about Frank's drinking and gambling. Soon after a huge fight with his father over her promiscuity with a traveling salesman, Louise Zanuck left the family and moved to Arizona. Her son moved in with his grandparents, the Torpins. After his mother remarried and moved to California, his father left town without telling young Zanuck. Rejoining his mother and new stepfather, Joseph Norton, in California, Zanuck became part of an abusive, dysfunctional family. Norton was a violent alcoholic who beat his wife and flung Zanuck across the room when he tried to protect his mother. Norton insisted that Zanuck be enrolled at a military academy. The boy was eight years old. Zanuck was so bored and lonely there that he began running away. On the streets of Los Angeles he ran into his father, who convinced him to return to the academy and began taking him to movies twice a week. But one day his father failed to show up for their visit. Zanuck never saw or heard from him again.
Wandering the streets of Los Angeles looking for his father, Zanuck was picked up by the police and brought to his mother. She made it clear she did not want her 12-year-old son around and shipped him back to Nebraska to be raised by his Torpin grandparents. When he was 15, Zanuck lied about his age and joined the U.S. Army. There he began boxing as a flyweight, but never saw battle. Returning to Nebraska after the war, Zanuck told his grandmother that he was going to California to rejoin his mother. She bought him a bus ticket and gave him a hundred dollars for emergencies. At the age of 17, Zanuck arrived in Pasadena with no intention of seeing his mother. He had one goal in mind: to become a writer.
A Dream Come True
Zanuck sold his first story to a pulp fiction magazine and then decided to sell the story to a film studio. His girlfriend suggested he join the Los Angeles Athletic Club to make contacts with movie people. When Zanuck attempted to join, however, he was rejected. He had been blackballed because people thought he was Jewish (he was not), and the club did not admit Jews. Zanuck later used the experience to produce the Academy Award winning, Gentleman's Agreement, Hollywood's first film dealing with anti-Semitism.
At the age of 19, Zanuck wrote and sold his first Hollywood screenplay. At age 20 he became a gag writer for Mack Sennet and later for Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd. Working for Warner Brothers, Zanuck wrote the scripts for the highly popular Rin Tin Tin movies, which starred a German shepherd. At 23, Zanuck became head of production for Warner Brothers. Two years later he produced the movie The Jazz Singer, often called the first "talkie" or movie with sound. In reality it was a silent movie with several sound musical and talking sequences, but it brought about the end of the silent film era and changed the nature of the film industry forever. Leonard Mosley, author of Zanuck: The Rise and Fall of Hollywood's Last Tycoon, called the movie, "probably the most momentous movie in the history of the motion picture industry." Zanuck added sound to all his subsequent movies. The new talking pictures made Warner Brothers the most successful studio in Hollywood.
Zanuck made another wise choice when he cast James Cagney, a song-and-dance man, in the starring role in The Public Enemy, a gangster movie released in 1931. Zanuck came up with the idea for the famous "grapefruit scene" in which Cagney pushes half a grapefruit into his girlfriend's face. Although very successful, critics attacked the film as immoral.
Zanuck married an actress named Virginia Fox in 1924. The couple's new financial security led Virginia Zanuck to decide that the time was now right for starting a family. In 1931, she gave birth to Darrylin and had a second daughter, Susan, two years later. Richard was born in 1934. Although it was very unusual at the time, Darryl Zanuck was present at the birth of all his children, whom he adored. Marriage, for Zanuck, did not include fidelity. He is said to have had numerous affairs with actresses.
A New Venture
In April 1933, after Zanuck realized he would never be more than an employee at Warner Brothers, he left to form 20th Century Films with Joseph Schenck and William Goetz. The new studio made many successful films such as The Bowery and Call of the Wild.. The studio's biggest money-maker was The House of Rothschild, about a wealthy Jewish family from Vienna, and the anti-Semitism they experienced. The movie was controversial at the time because the Nazis had just come to power in Germany. The House of Rothschild cemented Zanuck's reputation as Hollywood's boldest and most enterprising producer.
The Birth of 20th Century-Fox
Feeling frustrated with the distribution of their films, Schenck and Zanuck engineered the merger of their studio with Fox Films, which had the best distribution in the industry and a chain of movie theaters across the U.S. The new studio was called 20th Century-Fox, and Zanuck was vice president in charge of production. Through the merger Zanuck gained some big-name stars, such as Shirley Temple, Will Rogers, and Janet Gaynor. Zanuck was considered the most hands-on of the major studio moguls, exhibiting great talent in re-making movies in the cutting room. Besides making hundreds of routine pictures, Zanuck also produced several films based on liberal causes, such as The Grapes of Wrathand Wilson. He continued making films on controversial subjects, such as Gentlemen's Agreement and Pinky. Many of his movies were sentimental, content-rich dramas such as the Academy Award winning, How Green Was My Valley and Twelve O'Clock High.
After more than three decades together, Zanuck's wife threw him out of the house when she learned he was having an affair with Bella Darvi. Zanuck gave up day-to-day control of the studio and went to Paris with Darvi. There he started an independent film company. Many of his later films made in Europe were produced in part to help the careers of his mistresses-Darvi, Juliette Greco, Irina Demick and Genevieve Gilles. None of these actresses were popular with directors, critics, or audiences and most of the movies he made there failed, with the exception of The Longest Day. Darvi accumulated large gambling debts and eventually committed suicide. Zanuck had a stroke in Paris and was depressed and alone.
In 1962, Zanuck returned as president of 20th Century-Fox. He appointed his son, Richard, head of production at the Hollywood studio. Although the headquarters of the company was in New York, Zanuck continued living in France. Tensions arose between father and son over the making of the movie Patton. In 1969, the board of 20th Century-Fox suggested that Richard become president of the company and Darryl become chairman of the board. Zanuck agreed to the change, but later felt he had been manipulated. In December 1970, Zanuck got his revenge. He coldly and cruelly humiliated his son at a board of directors meeting and replaced Richard as president of the company with himself. Virginia Zanuck, outraged at her husband's behavior, threw her support and 100,000 shares of stock behind a group of dissident shareholders, who had grown tired of Zanuck's penchant for mingling business with pleasure.
The Bitter End
In May 1971, the board of directors of 20th Century-Fox forced Zanuck out. His health deteriorated, leading to hospitalization. Richard began visiting his father and the two reconciled. Zanuck and his girlfriend, Genevieve Gilles, went to his home in Palm Springs so that he could recover. Much to their surprise, Virginia Zanuck had left her Santa Monica home and had gone to Palm Springs to await the return of her husband. Gilles was thrown out. Virginia and Darryl celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary in January 1974 with a few friends and family members.
Zanuck's death on December 22, 1979 in Palm Springs, California, ignited a feud over his will. Gilles was outraged to learn that she would inherit nothing and tried to fight the will in court. In October 1982, Virginia Zanuck died of a lung infection complicated by emphysema. Richard was shocked to learn that she had virtually cut his two sons out of her will. Richard tried to fight the will, but he and his sister settled the matter out of court.
Milton Sperling, one of Zanuck's employees, wrote in a letter, "His vulgarity made me laugh, as it was intended to. His cruelty impressed me with its manliness. His insatiable appetites awed me. … He was a role model and in unconsciously emulating him, I caused myself no end of trouble.… He loved film, made instant decisions, encouraged talent. He'd deride today's committee-ridden, computer-oriented, agent-accountant management apparatus." Darryl Zanuck's death ended the era of the all-powerful Hollywood movie mogul.
Further Reading on Darryl F. Zanuck
Mosley, Leonard, Zanuck: The Rise and Fall of Hollywood's Last Tycoon, Little Brown, 1984.
Money, July 1985.
"Biography for Darryl F. Zanuck," Internet Movie Database, http://us.imdb.com (February 24, 1999).