Adolph Zukor (1873-1976) was known as the "father of the feature film in America." From running penny arcades to creating Paramount Pictures Corporation, Zukor had a hand in the development of every aspect of the film industry. He worked at Paramount every day until his 100th birthday, and held the title of chairman emeritus until his death at the age of 103.
Adolph Zukor was born in the rural village of Risce, Hungary on January 7, 1873. His parents ran a small store and grew crops. Zukor did not remember his father, who died when the boy was one year old and his brother Arthur was three. Their mother was the daughter of a rabbi. She remarried, but died when Zukor was eight. The two brothers went to live with an uncle. Zukor was an unexceptional student. At the age of 12, he was apprenticed to a store owner for whom he swept, ran errands, and did chores. He attended night school twice a week. Zukor got paid nothing for his work, but received clothes and shoes from an orphans' fund. Learning of America from letters sent by immigrants, Zukor decided that he wanted to travel there. In 1888, he asked the orphans' fund for the money to travel to America. He received enough for a steamship ticket and $40, which he sewed inside his vest.
In New York, Zukor found work as an apprentice in a fur shop for $4 a week. With other immigrant boys, he boxed, played baseball, and sang Hungarian songs. He also attended night school. Over the years he saved several thousand dollars. Around age 21, he returned to Hungary for a visit and saw some of Europe. He married Lottie Kaufman, also a Hungarian immigrant, in 1897. The couple had two children, Mildred and Eugene. Zukor started a fur business with his wife's uncle, Morris Kohn. The partners, with two other men, started a penny arcade, complete with peep machines, a shooting gallery, punching bags, stationary bicycles, and candy. The business did very well, bringing in $500 to $700 a day. Zukor decided to get out of the fur business and devote all his time to the arcade. He worked closely with Marcus Loew at this time, becoming treasurer of his company.
Zukor put in a motion picture theater on the floor above the arcade. Called the Crystal Hall, it had a glass staircase with water cascading inside it over colored lights. It cost five cents to see a movie. Zukor developed his own brand of "talking" pictures. He had actors stand behind the movie screen and say their lines in synchronization with the silent action on the screen, which they could see in reverse.
Film Finds an Audience
At this time, movies, or "flickers" as they were called, were very short, no more than about 12 minutes. People in the industry felt that American audiences would not want to see anything longer. Zukor disagreed. He felt that audiences would sit through a movie for an hour or more, if it had a good story. Zukor tested his theory by buying the rights to a three-reel European religious movie, Passion Play. Zukor described the audience's reaction in his autobiography: "The scene was one of the most remarkable I have ever witnessed. Many women viewed the picture with religious awe. Some fell to their knees. I was struck by the moral potentialities of the screen." The film had a good run and proved to Zukor that Americans would sit through longer pictures.
Zukor learned of a French producer, Louis Mercanton, who wanted to make a four-reel movie starring the famous French actress Sarah Bernhardt, in her successful play Queen Elizabeth. Mercanton's project was being delayed for lack of funds. Zukor advanced Mercanton $40,000 to secure the North American rights to the movie. He was taking a great risk, but he wanted to see how American audiences reacted to a film of this length. On July 12, 1912, the movie premiered. Zukor noted, "To begin with, the audience had not been restless despite the hour and a half running time.… The performance was of historical importance because it went a long way toward breaking down the prejudice of theatrical people toward the screen."
While he had waited for the French film to be made, Zukor tried producing feature films in the U.S. His idea was to make movies of "Famous Players in Famous Plays." However, he had difficulty raising money for the venture. To do so, in 1912 he sold part of his stock in Loew's company and stepped down as treasurer. His other problem was finding stage actors who would appear in films. Zukor discussed the matter with Daniel Frohman, a theatrical producer, who seemed open to the idea of bringing stage actors to the screen. Zukor wrote, "Frohman made no commitments. But I have always placed that night as one of the most important in the history of motion pictures. Thereafter Frohman was a powerful advocate of the movies in the theatrical world." Frohman joined Zukor in business and helped set up the opening of Queen Elizabeth.
Famous Players Film Company
Zukor formed a partnership with Edwin S. Porter, a screen director who agreed to furnish his experience, talent, and prestige, but no money. With him, in their Manhattan studio, the Famous Players Film Company made America's first feature-length film. The Prisoner of Zenda, opened successfully in 1914.
Mary Pickford, a famous stage actress, began working for Zukor. She, her mother, and Zukor opened a film studio in California to take advantage of the sunny winters. "Why Hollywood? There was no particular reason. It was an undeveloped suburb of Los Angeles, mostly orange and lemon groves. The chief attraction was a rentable farmhouse suitable for dressing rooms, a small laboratory, and offices. We threw up a rude stage at what is now the corner of Sunset and Hollywood Boulevards." Many movies were still made in the New York studio to be near the stage players, but Zukor spent much time in Hollywood.
In 1916, Famous Players merged with the Jesse L. Lasky Feature Play Company to form the Famous Players-Lasky Corporation, with Samuel Goldwyn as chairman of the board, Cecil De Mille as director-general, Zukor as president, and Lasky as vice-president. In 1914, W.W. Hodkinson founded Paramount Pictures Corporation, whose purpose was to distribute films. When disagreements over policy arose, the stockholders chose Zukor to head the company, feeling that he was best equipped to guide features to success. Once in control, Zukor arranged for a loan of ten million dollars to improve and buy theaters, thus giving Paramount control over the creation, distribution, and exhibition of movies. In the 1920s, Famous Players-Lasky began releasing their films under the Paramount name.
Zukor built the modern film industry using the star system. Players with star potential were tried out in small parts. By studying audience reaction, box-office figures, and fan mail, the studio attempted to determine which player people wanted to see on the screen. If the audience liked a player, the studio would supply the right roles and publicity. Often the audience surprised the studio by favoring an actor not thought to be star material. Zukor noted that the idea of a producer "discovering" a star is "nonsense." "Stardom is a matter over which only audiences have any real control."
To keep an eye on things, Zukor made a habit of visiting movie sets every morning. This way he got to know the players and technicians. "Besides putting me closer to production, I hoped that such visits would make everybody feel that the business office was more than a place where we made contracts and counted the money. The fact was that we kept as close tabs on the human element as on box-office receipts. Also, I was secretly envious of those who had an intimate hand in production. … "
In 1928, the first all-talking movie was released. Paramount began using a sound system called Photophone for some of its films. Since it took a while for movie theaters to acquire and install sound systems, Paramount continued to make silent pictures, which were often made into talkies later. In the 1929 Film Daily Year Book, Zukor stated, "The year will be memorable for the proper development of the talking picture. The year will see the balance struck between talking pictures, sound pictures, and silent pictures. By no means is the silent picture gone or even diminished in importance. Yet there is no doubt that sound pictures have entered permanently to serve as a vital screen force.… There have always been subjects which could not be augmented in value and strength by the addition of sound and dialogue. Such subjects will always continue to be made in their natural form: -Silence."
Guided Paramount Through Hard Times
During the Depression, the company fell on hard times and many failed attempts were made to get rid of Zukor. In 1932, he restructured the company. Four years later, he became the chairman of the board. He retained that honorary title until his death. In 1948, Zukor received a special Academy Award for his services to the industry over a period of 40 years. He died in Los Angeles on June 10, 1976, at the age of 103.
Further Reading on Adolph Zukor
Zukor, Adolph, with Dale Kramer, The Public is Never Wrong:The Autobiography of Adolph Zukor, G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1953.
Cornell Hotel & Restaurant Administration Quarterly, April 1995.
New York Times, July 10, 1987.
"Successful Soundtracks to Accompany Silent Films," Silent Soundtrack Success Stories, http://www.zzapp.org/freepark/sss.htm (March 9, 1999).
"Unequalled Distribution: Adolph Zukor," The Film 100, http://www.film100.com/cgi/direct.cgi?v.zuko (March 9, 1999).