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20th Century Fox: Darryl F. Zanuck and the Creation of the Modern Film Studio (Review)

We all know the iconic music cue. In fact, you can probably hear the sweeping, majestic bit of musical delightfulness in your own head right now. With the passage of time, 20th Century Fox’s title card has grown to be as iconic as any of its cinematic output. The story of 20th Century Fox (and its predecessor, Fox Film Corporation) is one which spans the history of cinema, perhaps more than many of its Big 5 competitors.

It’s with this in the back of his head that Scott Eyman dives into a story of the studio through a lens focused on producers William Fox and Darryl F. Zanuck. So many of us know the actors, we even know the directors… heck, some of us know the writers. So, how is this examination of the businessmen behind the movies we love? Well, folks, here’s everything you need to know.

20th Century Fox: Darryl F. Zanuck and the Creation of the Modern Film Studio dives into a full history of the studio most of us remember as 20th Century Fox. This begins as William Fox creates the Fox Film Corporation, leading to the merger which gave us the 20th Century Fox we all know and love, before ending when the iconic studio was acquired by Disney and its name was changed. The book is a super-sized story tracing not only the history of the studio between 1915 and 2020, but also the lives of two larger than life moguls: William Fox and Darryl F. Zanuck.

Author Scott Eyman weaves this massive story into an interesting and complex tale. The success in this rests very much on his ability to craft William Fox and Darryl F. Zanuck into interesting characters around which this web of events rotates. He brings these two challenging men to life with striking clarity in all their ego-driven, workaholic tendencies.

Throughout this read, I found my enjoyment of the work very much tied to the narrative surrounding these men. My interest is (admittedly) star persona in my study of film history, so Eyman’s subject matter here is largely new to me. There are points where the narrative does drift away from the men to focus on the studio as a whole. This is after all a study of not only the moguls, but a business and a super-sized one at that. For the better part of forty years, studios like 20th Century Fox were cities in their own right during Hollywood’s Golden Age, controlling every aspect of film production from the ground up.

There are stretches throughout the book where the story dives deep into the business behind the creativity. There is talk of merges, of profits and losses and even the deal making behind the scenes. The stars and the directors many of us know so well are there, but they exist almost as celestial bodies orbiting in an out of the narrative. I would have expected to hear more about stars like Betty Grable (who largely carried the studio on her shoulders for a number of years). However, there really isn’t a sense of the humanity of these equally larger than life individuals. In fact, these stars feel more like collateral for the business than employees of the studio. This might be a struggle for those who find far more interest in star persona or the creativity of filmmaking, but at the same time the stories of these producers are a part of Old Hollywood which isn’t often explored. The studios were after all, businesses first.

As I read, I must bow to Eyman’s ability to tell more than 100 years worth of story within a breezy 268 pages. It’s a complex tale, spanning Theda Barra to Kevin Feige with so much in-between. With that being said, there are segments which do feel a bit… speedy, primarily the 1970s and 1980s. However, as the studio moved from the all-encompassing creativity of Zanuck to the more business minded producers of the following decades, this does make sense. Movie making had changed and the Hollywood we saw at the tail end of the 20th century was not the same place it had been a mere forty years earlier.

Meanwhile, the book walks a very interesting line in the handling of Zanuck’s personal life, particularly as a father to his three children. When I say interesting, I’m talking “soap opera” interesting. This is particularly evident in his relationship with his son Richard. We see Daryl Zanuck as an absentee, workaholic father who later orchestrates his fourteen year old son’s first sexual encounter, before becoming a leading force in the charge to see Richard fired during one of the studio’s roughest periods in the late 1960s. In truth, I found myself wanting so much more on this relationship. Unfortunately though, by the time Zanuck the younger joins the studio in the 1960s, the book is already lining up to reach its conclusion. As has been mentioned, the book is a business history first, but Eyman finds such a fascinating personal thread here that it’s a shame he doesn’t have more pages to work with.

Scott Eyman’s construction of 20th Century Fox’s storied history is definitely one to check out for students of Old Hollywood. This isn’t always the easiest read. It’s very detailed and it certainly isn’t the “sexy” story to tell. However, the story of the producers and the studios are a necessary one to understanding the history of the business we all love and it’s one which isn’t often told.

20th Century Fox: Darryl F. Zanuck and the Creation of the Modern Film Studio is available wherever you get your books!

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