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Zanuck the Great

TWENTIETH CENTURY'S FOX: Darryl F. Zanuck and the Culture of Hollywood. By George F. Custen . Basic Books: 435 pp., $27.50

January 11, 1998|THOMAS SCHATZ | Thomas Schatz is the author of "The Genius of the System: Hollywood Filmmaking in the Studio Era." His most recent book, "Boom and Bust: The American Cinema in the 1940s," has just been published by Scribners. He is a professor of film at the University of Texas at Austin

A rather remarkable development over the past decade or so has been the ongoing rehabilitation--indeed resurrection--of the Hollywood studio system and its chief architects, the once-reviled moguls, studio executives and producers. This is not at all surprising because both the blockbuster-driven New Hollywood and the proliferation of movie classics on cable TV continually remind us that Hollywood's studio era of the 1930s and '40s was indeed a Golden Age. And the more we learn about the "studio system" of old, the more obvious it becomes that the producer was its signal figure, the one who maintained the delicate balance between commerce and art, and the one who orchestrated the vastly complex filmmaking process.

Among Hollywood producers, Darryl Zanuck was both exemplary and utterly unique. When F. Scott Fitzgerald asserted in his oft-quoted opening to "The Last Tycoon" that only a half-dozen men in Hollywood could keep "the whole equation of pictures in their heads," he may have been thinking primarily of Irving Thalberg, but he most certainly had Zanuck in mind as well. What made Zanuck so unique among that elect few was not only his longevity in the industry but his relentless (if not ruthless) control of the filmmaking process.

Along with Thalberg and David Selznick, Zanuck was among the "boy wonders" of the industry, rising rapidly through the writers ranks at Warners in the 1920s to become head of production while still in his 20s. After a falling out with Harry Warner in 1933, Zanuck and Joe Schenck formed Twentieth Century Pictures, which merged with the recently bankrupt Fox in 1935. For the next two decades, Zanuck ran the Twentieth Century-Fox studio, personally supervising production of dozens of feature films per year. In 1956 with the movie industry in serious turmoil, Zanuck set himself up as an independent producer in France, returning to Fox for an ill-advised comeback in the 1960s, when neither he nor anyone else could get Hollywood back on track.

With George F. Custen's "Twentieth Century's Fox," Zanuck's rehabilitation reaches a crescendo of sorts: the producer biography (or "mogul book," as Custen calls it) as hagiography. The author's aim is no less than to canonize Zanuck as "the greatest and most influential producer in the history of Hollywood." After positioning Zanuck in the producers' pantheon alongside Thalberg and Selznick, two filmmakers with whom he is repeatedly (and favorably) compared, Custen eventually asserts Zanuck's singular status due to the sheer quantity and indisputable quality of his output: from the birth of talkies with "The Jazz Singer" in 1927, through such masterpieces and breakthrough films as "I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang," "Les Miserables," "The Grapes of Wrath," "How Green Was My Valley," "Gentlemen's Agreement," "All About Eve," "The Robe" and "The Longest Day." As Custen's title indicates, Zanuck's greatest "creation" was Twentieth Century-Fox itself. Through Zanuck's "absolute mastery" and "virtuosic manipulation" of the studio system, he fashioned Fox's distinctive "house style," and thus was "the major architect of the destiny of every single Fox film."

Zanuck's story has been told before, although scarcely in such upbeat terms. Mel Gussow's "Don't Say Yes Until I Finish Talking," published in 1971, portrayed Zanuck as ranting randy tyrant with a cigar clenched in his teeth, a starlet on his arm (or sprawled on his desk), his trademark polo mallet ever poised to strike and surrounded by fawning sycophants. Published when Zanuck's career was at its nadir and the disdain for the studio system was at its height, the portrait was colorful, if grossly unfair and distorted. Leonard Mosley's "Zanuck: The Rise and Fall of Hollywood's Last Tycoon" was published in 1984, five years after Zanuck's death, providing a more balanced, if not altogether positive view. Two subsequent books, Stephen Silverman's "The Fox That Got Away: The Last Days of The Zanuck Dynasty" and Marlys J. Harris's "The Zanucks of Hollywood: The Dark Legacy of an American Dynasty," focus on the near collapse of Fox under an aging Zanuck and his then-inexperienced son, Richard.

Now comes George F. Custen, whose portrait of Zanuck is distinctive and most welcome for several reasons. Most important, perhaps, is Custen's decision to focus on Zanuck's career during Hollywood's "studio era," that is, from the 1920s until his initial retirement in 1956. Indeed, Zanuck's later efforts are dispensed with in a brief epilogue. Thus the "arc" of both Zanuck's career and Hollywood's classical era are presented not only as coincident but crucially interrelated. Equally important is Custen's reliance on archival materials: interoffice correspondence, story conference memos, editing records, and so on, which show Zanuck in his element, developing story and script for production and then shaping the footage into a finished product.

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