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Darryl F. Zanuck, Hollywood's Last Dictator

Updated on September 30, 2014

This is the story of a quite extraordinary man. A man who, without any formal education became a brilliant and innovative writer, and who, although an American Protestant, succeeded in an industry dominated by East European Jews.

He had no inherited fortune or family connections. He was abrasive and coarse and well known amongst young Hollywood actresses as a user of the Hollywood casting couch.

He started with nothing and ended up a multi-millionaire magnate, all-powerful in his chosen industry.

Darryl F. Zanuck was one of the most unusual and gifted men ever to work in Hollywood.


Early Days

Darryl F. Zanuck was born Darryl Simon Michael Barnes on September 5, 1902 in Wahoo, Nebraska. He had a stormy and unhappy childhood. His father, Frank, was a gambler and a drinker and split up from Darryl's mother, Louise when Darryl was very young. His mother married again to a Joseph Norton and and moved to California. Darryl, after a period living with his grandparents, joined her, but his new family was as dysfunctional as the one he had left. His stepfather was a violent alcoholic who beat his mother and beat Darryl when he interfered.

When he was 12 he was effectively abandoned by his mother who took him back to Nebraska to live with her parents. After 4 years in a cold, loveless environment, Darryl took the dramatic step of changing his name to Darryl F. Zanuck, made a false declaration about his age, and joined the United States Army. He served as a combat soldier with the Nebraska National Guard in France and Belgium at the end of the First World War. His wartime experiences gave him an insight into the lives of fighting men which would serve him well in his later career.

Zanuck was rejected by the Los Angeles Athletic Club because they wrongly assumed he was Jewish. He later used it to produce the Academy Award winning, 'Gentleman's Agreement', Hollywood's first film dealing with anti-Semitism.

The Young Writer

On his return from the army Zanuck made his way to California. He had decided on his future career. He wanted to be a writer. After 2 years working in temporary jobs such as a steelworker, then in a clothes factory, whilst writing in his spare time, he managed to sell his first story to a pulp fiction magazine. He saw the growing market for writers in films and he tried to join the Los Angeles Athletic Club to make contacts with movie people but was rejected because the members thought he was Jewish (he was not).

Zanuck persevered with movie writing and in 1921, at the age of 19, he wrote and sold his first Hollywood screenplay. It got him noticed and a year later he was employed as a gag writer with Mack Sennet writing for Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd. He also wrote some piecework scripts for Carl Laemmle, the founder of Universal Pictures, and he finally achieved recognition with Warner Bros, writing scripts and plots for 'Rin Tin Tin', the police-dog movie series. He was a prolific writer and in the five years between 1924 and 1929 he wrote over 40 movie scripts.

1930 - In the Exalted Company of United Artists

Back row: Charles Chaplin, Darryl Zanuck, Samuel Goldwyn;
Front row Mary Pickford, Joseph Schenck and Douglas Fairbanks

Rise to Power - The start of the Talkies era

Zanuck had a natural gift for inventing off-beat movie plots and with his disciplined approach and understanding of the film making process, he soon became an integral part of the Warner Bros. team acting as right hand man to studio head, Jack Warner. By the time he was 25 he was not only head of production at Warners, he was also earning $260,000 a year. By 1927 it was Zanuck, as production chief, who helped guide the studio into the era of Talkies as executive producer of 'The Jazz Singer'. His skill was recognised by the fledgling Academy of Movie Sciences who awarded him an Oscar for producing an "outstanding talking picture, which has revolutionized the industry".

Zanuck had the confidence and the ability to spot and approve winning movies and to assign the right talents to them. He was responsible for a number of blockbuster hit movies for Warner Bros., such as 'Little Caesar' in 1930, 'The Public Enemy' the following year, another violent gangster movie that made a star out of James Cagney, and 'I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang' in 1932, a biting social drama. He was still only in his late twenties but was already one of the most respected men in Hollywood.

His uncanny ability to spot social trends was a major factor in his mercurial rise. In the early 1930s during the Great Depression he realised the need for light but realistic musical films. the result was two more hit movies with 'Footlight Parade' and '42nd Street'. Warner Brothers' reputation was firmly established with these successes but Zanuck, at the height of his success with the studio made the decision to leave.

Zanuck had a special gift for understanding public taste and visualizing the right actor in the right role. For instance, he cast Basil Rathbone, previously known for his villainous roles, as Sherlock Holmes in 'The Hound of the Baskervilles' in 1939.


Twentieth Century-Fox

Although he was valued highly by Warners after his many successes, Zanuck's relationship with Harry M. Warner, who largely controlled the studio's finances, deteriorated and his request for a financial stake in the company was refused. He had many offers from rival studios but he chose to go his own way by forming his own studio. In 1933 he formed Twentieth Century Pictures, in partnership with Joseph Schenck, the former president of United Artists, and William Goetz from Fox Films.

Schenck became the president of the new company with Zanuck as vice-president and head of production and they achieved success in their first full year with 'The House of Rothschild' in 1934, starring Loretta Young and Boris Karloff, which received an Academy Award nomination for Best Picture.

Zanuck had made a winning start but his new organization lacked its own production facilities. In 1935 that problem was solved when the company merged with Fox Studios, which, although virtually bankrupt, had its own production lot. The new company which emerged from the merger was Twentieth Century-Fox, with Zanuck continuing as chief of production, overseeing an extremely ambitious production schedule.

Darryl F. Zanuck, with Big Cigar, on the Set of Film "Rapture"

Carlo Bavagnoli

24 in. x 18 in.

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Over the next few years Zanuck guided Twentieth Century-Fox to profitability, and delighted in the minutiae of moviemaking, editing and producing; every aspect, in fact, except directing, which he avoided. He signed talented young actors such as Tyrone Power, Henry Fonda, Gene Tierney, and Betty Grable, and in particular, the child star, Shirley Temple. He produced several highly profitable Shirley Temple films including 'The Littlest Rebel' in 1935 and 'Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm' in 1938. His efforts paid off and with major box-office successes like 'The Mark of Zorro', and 'The Grapes of Wrath' in 1940 and 'How Green Was My Valley' in 1941 he put put Twentieth Century Fox firmly on the map, overtaking RKO and even MGM to become the third most profitable studio in Hollywood.

Zanuck guided Shirley Temple into becoming the greatest child star the movies have ever seen.

She topped the box-office charts for four years in a row (1935-38).

Shirley Temple Books and DVD

The War and After

Zanuck served for two years in the U.S. Army during World War II as as supervisor for Signal Corps training films. Part of his brief was to create a photographic record of the North Africa invasion, and he was awarded the Legion of Merit for his efforts. One of the films he produced, 'To the Shores of Tripoli' in 1942, was referred to by the Marines as the "biggest single recruitment aid" of the war. On his return to the studio he produced 'The Oxbow Incident', with Henry Fonda, in 1943, a powerful movie about a lynching in America.

Several of his post-war films are remarkable tributes to his skill in judging public taste, including 'Gentleman's Agreement' in 1947 on the theme of anti-semitism, and 'Pinky' in 1949. He continued producing high quality, commercially successful movies such as 'Twelve O'Clock High' in 1949, 'All about Eve' in 1950 and 'Viva Zapata!' in 1952 until in the mid 1950s he moved to Europe to make films as an independent producer.

Zanuck moved Fox into Cinemascope, the first of the wide screen formats, which kept the company competitive at the start of the television age.

Virginia Fox Zanuck
Virginia Fox Zanuck

The Lost Years 1954-62

At first glance Zanuck's move to France is baffling. It has been blamed variously on a spur of the moment decision, and error of judgment and a mid-life crisis. The truth is that his wife threw him out.

Zanuck married Virginia Fox, a silent movie actress, (pictured, right) in 1924 and the couple had three children. Marriage did not stop Zanuck from having dalliances with other young women. Many, many other women. His work gave him access to unlimited numbers of beautiful young actresses and he became renowned for his extra-marital affairs and for his enthusiastic use of the Hollywood casting couch. On the 20th Century Fox lot it was understood that Zanuck was "in conference" between 4:00 and 4:30 pm daily, "interviewing" one of his starlets or chorus girls. His wife at first, was very understanding and didn't bar past girlfriends from the house because, she said, ''that could cut down the guest list considerably.''

In 1955 his wife could stand it no longer when she learned from her daughter, Susan, that Zanuck was involved with a young actress, Bella Darvi, who was staying in their house. Darvi went to Paris and Zanuck followed soon afterwards and began his 6 lost years in Europe. He started an independent film company but most of the films he produced were in part to help the careers of his mistresses - as well as Darvi, there was Juliette Greco, Irina Demick, Genevieve Gilles and others. It was an astonishing lapse in taste and good sense from Zanuck as none of these actresses were popular with directors, critics, or audiences and most of the movies he made in Europe failed. The exception was 'The Longest Day' in 1962.

Zanuck returned as president of 20th Century-Fox in 1962, and re-established control after its financially disastrous production of 'Cleopatra'. He appointed his son, Richard, head of production and the studio once again began to make memorable movies such as 'The Sound of Music' in 1965, and 'Planet of the Apes' in 1968.

Bella Darvi

Irina Demick

Geneviève Gilles

Juliette Greco

Zanuck with his last girlfriend, Genevieve Gilles - (at least, his last as far as we know)

Zanuck with Genevieve Gilles
Zanuck with Genevieve Gilles

Final Years

After the disappointing 'Tora! Tora! Tora!' in 1970, Zanuck resigned from the studio after a bitter power struggle involving his son, Richard D. Zanuck. Weak, in the aftermath of a stroke, he came back to Palm Springs with his latest starlet, Genevieve Gilles, only to find his wife, from whom he had been separated for 18 years, waiting at the house. Miss Gilles was turned away and never saw him again. Virginia Zanuck had successfully outwaited all the others. She and her husband were reconciled and she nursed Zanuck through his final years as he battled with Alzheimer's Disease.

Darryl F Zanuck died from jaw cancer in Palm Springs, California on December 22, 1979. He was aged 77.

Zanuck's death marked the end of the era of the all-powerful Hollywood movie mogul. In his heyday, he was cricised as being ruthless, coarse, domineering, and arrogant, and he was all of these.

But he certainly produced good movies.

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Darryl F Zanuck 1902-1979



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