Tuesday, December 13

20th Century Fox

One of my greatest childhood pleasures was sneaking into 20th Century Fox.  I admit it.  Again.  I had opportunity because not only did I live only a mile or so away, but there was a great makeshift entrance off a back lot on Little Santa Monica Blvd.  I didn't originate the cutting of the fence but I do recall enlarging it once through sheer brute force. After a couple of visits I got the feeling I would go undetected if I dressed in some sort of crazy getup and acted as though I knew what I was doing.  My plan produced the results I wanted for about 10 visits.

The main idea, of course, was to see movie stars and I saw quite a number although never the one I wanted to see the most... Marilyn Monroe.  I visited after many of the great stars at Fox had left and omigod did this studio have great stars, my favorite assemblage.  I loved watching movies being made around the lot and several times even managed to get into the cavernous sound stages and watch the action.  The most fun was eating in the commissary, looking like I belonged there, usually sitting right next to others so as to look like I was part of their group and trying to get my eyes to ogle as fast as they could.

I had business to conduct on my trips to MGM, visited friends once at Disney and twice at Paramount and I worked at Universal, but 20th, my first, was the most fun... no doubt because of the forbidden nature of my visits and how greatly that appealed to my young spirit. 

It began a long, long time before I first slipped through that fence. It started with William Fox who sold his New York garment business and made another fortune when he went into the nickelodeon business.  Always successful at everything he touched, he soon went into the independent film distribution business.  He soon questioned why he should just distribute someone else's films... why not make his own?  So he opened up studios in New York and went into production.

William Fox

By 1916, and only 37 years old, he opted for the warmer climate in Southern California and opened Fox Studios in Los Angeles on the corner of Sunset Blvd. and Western Ave.  As he gained a foothold in the business, movie-making was taking shape all over the city. He wanted his studio to be as vital as any other and he felt he could make it the most important.  He knew he certainly couldn't do it alone and as he gathered a couple of producers, a director or two, writers and other behind-the-scenes craftsmen, he went looking for some acting talent. Cowboy star Tom Mix joined the ranks. Soon Fox brought aboard Ohio-born Theodosia Goodman and turned her into an exotic, alluring vamp re-named Theda Bara.  Along with an established actor, William Farnum, Fox Studios in sunny California was on its way.

Fox realized there was a European market ripe for the picking and he set branches of his studios in a number of key cities.  Winfield Sheehan had been with Fox since the New York days and as the business grew he handled more of the day-to-day business and became entirely responsible for distribution.  Up and coming directors seemed to flock to the studio... John Ford, Howard Hawks, Raoul Walsh, Irving Cummings, Leo McCarey, Frank Borzage, Henry King, Henry Hathaway, Otto Preminger and Jean Negulesco.  

By the end of the 1920, Mix, Bara and Farnum had departed and new faces appeared, chief among them were Warner Baxter, Edmund Lowe, Victor McLaglen and also Janet Gaynor and Charles Farrell who might be considered filmland's first screen team. She would win the first best actress Oscar.

In 1926 Fox Studios came up with one of the first sound systems, which they called Movietone.  Sound, of course, shook up the movie business like it had never been shaken, sending folks back to the drawing boards to rethink how they were going to make movies.  People would talk!  Pretty crazy idea.  Fox himself just
kept rolling along and rolling in the dough.  His movie theater chain was now a thousand strong.

In 1928 Fox moved his studio to its still current location on Pico Blvd. in West Los Angeles. More on this later.

In 1929 he hired humorist, stage performer and already a movie actor of 10 years or so, Will Rogers, who became the most popular star and biggest moneymaker the studio had since it opened. Rogers was a leader in a genre that Fox Pictures was already known by... the rural, corn-fed, folksy stuff.  This is the studio that not only made State Fair but did so three times.  Fox dismissed some derision but also what some of the other studios capitalized on.  Let Warner Bros. have its sordid crime dramas, let MGM do all that glamour stuff, let Paramount brag about its directors.  Fox was gonna be known for down-home sentimentality.  He certainly didn't live like the average American but he thought the public wanted stories on families and the land and he was gonna give 'em all they could take.  After lambasting MGM for its glamour stars, he proudly admitted that he wanted ordinary-looking people in his ranks. And let Paramount have its Marlene Dietrich and Mae West. There would be no place for them at Fox Studios.  He wanted to show off country folk... yeah, like Janet Gaynor. 

Hollywood suffered in its way as the Depression took over and Fox was looking for all kinds of ways to keep his studio afloat and continue to live the way he wanted.  Not all of his business dealings outside the studio were on the up and up.  Many were legitimate but he got in a little over his head. By 1930 Fox was ousted by a coup and by 1936 the multi-millionaire filed for bankruptcy. During those first five years of the 1930s, as the Depression raged, the studio continued to be run by Sheehan.

He is responsible for bringing aboard Fox's other big draw... Little Miss Adorable Herself, Shirley Temple.  In no time at all, she would assume her place next to Rogers and in the studio's estimation, her rehashed stories (often the little motherless moppet looking for her missing father) would bring in many dollars and few would be required to make them.  Many of her stories were reworkings of old Mary Pickford pictures, and it didn't get much cornier than that. And it was thought that Temple's adult fans were largely unsophisticated and would buy most anything the studio did with the curly-haired little charmer.

Fox's biggest 1930s stars, Rogers and Temple

The five-year old's first Fox film, Bright Eyes (1934), featured the song On the Good Ship Lollipop... and it certainly was.  Shirley made it through the upcoming regime change as well.  Not everyone did.  And she was needed more than ever when the cash cow, Rogers, was killed in a plane crash in 1935.

Also punching the time clock was a young Henry Fonda, flapping his acting wings and with his aw-shucks manner, a perfect addition to the homey studio.  They would do all they could to turn him into Will Rogers' successor.  For the most part it worked but Fonda was never as cooperative as Rogers was.  In his autobiography, he said he hated working at Fox.

Darryl F. Zanuck

Darryl F. Zanuck came to the studio in 1935 as its fearless (and that's no hype) leader. He had been the production chief at Warner Bros.  He oversaw everything in his day and even managed some writing.  But there was a fallout over pay and Zanuck left the studio. He and another mogul, Joe Schenck, started Twentieth Century Pictures and had United Artists distribute their films. Soon that arrangement didn't suit them and Zanuck wanted to head his own studio... the production, the distribution, the works.  He heard things were shaky at Fox Studios.  A merger quickly came about, Zanuck was installed, Sheehan was history and a new name was acquired, 20th Century-Fox.  Note the hyphen... it was used from 1935 until 1985.

I have always regarded the 20th Century Fox logo to be on par with MGMs lion.  Maybe it's just me.  There is a magnificence about it... a rather Egyptian monument motif in the middle of Tinseltown with spotlights caressing the skies.  Adding to it Alfred Newman's stirring score, there was never any doubt in my mind, my child's mind or my mind today (such as it is), that an event was being announced. My partner has the music on his phone to announce my calls. 

Zanuck brought what stars he had with him... Loretta Young, Fredric March, Ronald Colman, Wallace Beery, Constance Bennett and George Arliss.  There were going to be some changes.  This was a man who was without question in charge of everything at the studio.  When comparing him with the other studio moguls, the thing that sets Zanuck apart was that he was less a businessman and more of an actual movie-maker.  He knew how to make movies. If you recall our piece on MGM, Louis B. Mayer was the studio head and Irving Thalberg its chief production guy.  At 20th Century Fox, Zanuck was both.

He wanted to keep the Americana flavor of the studio's past but he wanted more.  He would open things up.  He looked for urban settings and darker stories.  I heartily applaud him for his deft attention to film noir.  His studio made some of the best.  He wanted to say something about important matters.  He was a lover of good books and was determined to buy as many popular novels as he could and have them developed by his staff of professionals.  

And then there were the musicals.  Zanuck liked his musicals, seeing them as simple stories, able to be retold and retold and not always costing a lot of money.  Probably as a result of his time at Warner Bros. where the steady rhythm was what was called backstage musicals (peppered with smart-mouthed dialogue), Zanuck knew he could do it again. I thought 20th's musicals were as much fun as MGMs.  Like Mayer, Zanuck wanted glamour. He wanted beautiful women (he thought his studio's Gene Tierney was the most beautiful woman he'd ever seen) and men who acted like gentlemen (the perfect one would be coming along very soon). Also like Mayer, Zanuck got too involved in his stars' personal lives.  I regard him as the best leader of any Hollywood studio ever. He loved 20th Century Fox as much as he loved his cigars, the ponies and those 3 p.m. afternoon visits from... oh, dear, just about anyone could show up.

The camera loved him; so did everyone else

The year after Zanuck's arrival, in his quest to develop his own talent at his new digs, he took a chance that Tyrone Power could act. He came from an acting family so it was surely in the DNA. There was no question this was the most photogenic male to ever grace the silver screen, at least up to that time.  But the clincher was that young Power was eager to please and was obedient.  He would respond to direction.  What nobody knew at the time was that he would become the biggest star 20th Century Fox ever had. Zanuck did know that Power was bisexual but he couldn't care less as long as the actor was circumspect.  No problem there... Power felt the same.  In 1936 he was given the lead in the studio's most ambitious production, Lloyd's of London.

In 1936 came another find... Norwegian ice skater and Olympian Sonja Henie.  I italicize the word because I thought she was awful. She couldn't act, she couldn't sing and she wasn't good-looking. But Zanuck thought she was the right one to join his family and the ticket sales on her 11 films proved he obviously knew more than I do.  Her popularity plummeted, however, when a photograph was published of her shaking hands with Adolf Hitler.

Henie was not the female star of the lot... that honor belonged to Alice Faye. This was no farm girl and she must have been cradled in God's arms to get a voice like that. This was a glamour queen, alright, and she would grace one musical after another.  I thought her films with Power (In Old Chicago, Alexander's Ragtime Band and Rose of Washington Square) rocked... in their 1937-38 way. She made 32 films in her 11 years at the studio but was never in step with the fame game.  She also intensely disliked Zanuck and told him what he could do with her contract when she walked off the lot in 1945.

Faye & Grable and their Shiek of Araby

In 1940 Faye made Tin Pan Alley with a studio newcomer Betty Grable playing her sister.  Grable had been knocking around in movies for years but it wasn't until she came to 20th that someone took a second look at her.  He was Darryl F. Zanuck.  It may very well be true that she was hired mainly as a threat to Faye.  The two became fast friends despite the fact that Grable not only usurped Faye's position at the studio but went on to become Hollywood's most popular star of the 1940s, male or female.  She would maintain her lofty studio ranking until she herself would be replaced by another blonde costar in 1953.  It was only sensible that Zanuck would costar his golden pair, Grable and Power, in a patriotic war film, A Yank in the R.A.F. (1941).  

Novelty stars were popular at most studios that could afford the luxury and Zanuck arguably had the best in South American songstress Carmen Miranda.  There were other delights in Jack Oakie, Vincent Price, Edward Everett Horton, Cesar Romero, Charlotte Greenwood, Paul Douglas and Thelma Ritter.  Zanuck brought haughty character actor, Clifton Webb, into the family for Laura (1944) and he stayed and became a surprise star.

Fox had the luxury of having singer Dick Haymes on the payroll and later Perry Como and dancer Dan Dailey.  John Payne was around and while not in the singing league of Haymes or Como, he was all he needed to be in numerous Faye and Grable musicals. Ditto Don Ameche.  Second-string blondes such as Vivian Blaine and June Haver sang well but Fox never built them up.

On the drama side in the 1940s were Victor Mature, Dana Andrews, George Montgomery, Richard Greene, Cornel Wilde, Richard Widmark and Gregory Peck.  Those beautiful women Zanuck hired, besides Tierney, were Linda Darnell, Anne Baxter, Jeanne Crain, Jean Peters, Maureen O'Hara and Dorothy McGuire.

Some of the films from this fabulous decade include The Grapes of Wrath, How Green Was My Valley, Tobacco Road, Orchestra Wives, Heaven Can Wait, Hello Frisco Hello, The Ox-Bow Incident, The Song of Bernadette, Jane Eyre, The Keys of the Kingdom, Lifeboat, Kiss of Death, Miracle on 34th Street, The Snake Pit, House of Strangers, Twelve O'Clock High and Yellow Sky.  

Beginning in late 40s and continuing for a period into the 50s and in some ways forever more, troubles hit Hollywood and 20th Century Fox.  The blacklisting period was dreadful and unhealthy with mistrust robbing people of creativity and security.  A huge step backward for the studios occurred when the government outlawed the practice of block booking... the automatic distribution of a film through a chain of theaters.  Anti-trust laws forced all studios to give up their theater chains.  And just as lasting and more serious was television. 

Adding to it, Tyrone Power left.  It was mutual.  He was tired of doing silly costume pictures and the studio probably took a dim view of his going from heart-stoppingly gorgeous to just very handsome.   Most of the old guard was gone or in the process of leaving either the studio or earth.  

So someone decided to come up with an invention.  They needed something that the movies could give the public that television could not. All studios looked for something. At Fox that would be Cinemascope... a new photographic process that gave a bigger, wider, better look at that silver screen. And the film that launched the big event was 1953s The Robe.  

The other big event that took off in 1953 was Marilyn Monroe.  She been under contract to the studio for awhile and had appeared in a number of films including Fox mega-hit All About Eve and the respected noir Asphalt Jungle.  Zanuck thought he saw something in her that had megawatt in the description.  So he groomed her for the ascent... some sessions no doubt happening around 3 p.m.

These two rang that cash register

The skies opened in 1953 with three certifiable hits for Fox and Monroe... Niagara, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and How to Marry a Millionaire, the latter being the film where Grable knew to turn over the reins to the dazzling newcomer.  Blondes, costarring brunette Jane Russell, in her own three-picture contract with the studio, was one of the biggest hits 20th Century Fox had ever had.

Ultimately, of course, Monroe's time at the studio turned dark, involving attorneys, threats, tantrums and firings.  In her time there she became so famous she became known simply as MM.  Add a few more and you get mmmmmmmm.  

Zanuck also brought a new bumper-crop of young talent to the studio in the 1950s. Most of them couldn't touch the 40s gang but I still went gaga.  Both Sheree North and Jayne Mansfield were originally hired to bring the recalcitrant Monroe into line, although North, a sensuous dancer, turned into a fine actress.  Mitzi Gaynor handled some musical-comedy chores, Joan Collins the sexy ones and acting laurels could be bestowed on Susan Hayward and Jean Simmons. Debra Paget and Terry Moore could do whatever was needed. Joanne Dru graced a few early 50s Fox flicks.

Robert Wagner and Jeffrey Hunter were paired in numerous Fox hits and Jeff Chandler, Dale Robertson, Rory Calhoun, Scott Brady, Stephen Boyd, Michael Rennie, Richard Boone, Richard Egan, Cameron Mitchell, Karl Malden and Tony Franciosa collected paychecks as well.

I loved the output of this studio in the 1950s. Consider Broken Arrow, Cheaper by the Dozen, The Gunfighter, Night and the City, No Way Out, The Day the Earth Stood Still, David and Bathsheba, The Snows of Kilimanjaro, Viva Zapata, With a Song in My Heart, Pickup on South Street, Carmen Jones, Three Coins in the Fountain, The Seven-Year Itch, Anastasia, Bus Stop, The King and I, An Affair to Remember, Heaven Knows Mr. Allison, Island in the Sun, Peyton Place, The Three Faces of Eve, Inn of the Sixth Happiness, The Long Hot Summer, The Best of Everything and The Diary of Anne Frank, to name a few.

Zanuck left in 1956 to pursue independent production although he would still release his films through Fox,  While eager for his new position, he wanted to give up the leadership at the studio because too many things were going wrong.  It became too much.  His expensive European mistresses kept him away from the studio too much anyway. New York chairman of the board, Spyros Skouras, hired Buddy Adler (who died a year later) to replace him.

For a year or so the studio was run in a shoot-from-the-hip fashion. After making the highly-successful The Longest Day (1962), Zanuck returned to Fox in 1961 as its president and installed his son Richard as head of production. 

It was around this time that MM was fired from Something's Got to Give, plunging the studio into a lot of unsavory publicity.  It got worse when Cleopatra (1963) nearly closed the studio down with its out-of-control costs. Things got so bad that a great deal of the studio land was sold off, including the back lot and that fence I sneaked through.  In its place came glamorous Century City.

It took one English future Dame to nearly sink Fox's fortunes and another one to restore them.  
The Sound of Music (1965) put 20th Century Fox back in the black.

For Zanuck, things did not turn out so well. He fired his son in a publicly humiliating way which, in turn, infuriated the elder's wife, who had most likely had it with her husband and his public embarrassments. She was one of the largest stockholders and she signed over her cache to a group of others and they gave Zanuck the boot. He was the last Hollywood mogul to go.

20th Century Fox is still up and running. Over the years it has had a gaggle of folks and conglomerates running it and while successful, is a whole other animal from the studio we've been discussing.  In 2015 it celebrated its 80th anniversary.  

Next posting:
A review of my most highly-anticipated 
movie of the year


  1. Wow...what a good read. All the time we've known each other, I can't remember the "sneaking in" story. Of course it has been 40+ years. What fun that must have been!

  2. What a wonderful experience must have been visiting the Fox studios with the hope that you might have stumbled in MM.
    I dreamt something like that when I was very young. My biggest dream was going to USA; MM came after.
    My first dream came true many years later. Before that when my sister got married with an American member of USA GVT, for a few years she lived in a town north of Italy and I went to visit her very often. I had great fun going with her to the USA Base and have lunch in the inside restaurant. Of course it was full of soldiers, wives with children, students and so on and of course they all spoke English. I couldn't understand a single word but, wow, I was breathing an american atmosphere: In my mind I made believe that I was somewhere in USA.
    I just realized that what I said has nothing to do with Your wonderful post, but it came natural.
    Hope you'll forgive me. Ciao.