There would never have been a 20th Century Fox if Darryl F. Zanuck and Harry Warner had gotten along better.
When DFZ, as he became known, was born Sept. 5, 1902, in Wahoo, Nebraska, the movie business was just taking shape. Harry Warner and his three younger brothers (Albert, Sam & Jack) opened their first theatre in New Castle, Pennsylvania in 1903 and by 1918 had a studio in Hollywood. One of their biggest assets, after incorporating Warner Bros. Pictures in 1923, was Rin Tin Tin, a French dog brought back after World War I by a U.S. soldier. Zanuck, then a young writer, joined WB in 1924, writing scripts that made Rinty a superstar. Zanuck became head of the production and studio chief Jack Warner’s, right-hand man. But Harry, WB’s chairman, controlled the purse strings from New York.
After the 1929 stock market crash, moviegoing was a great escape for people, helping Hollywood survive the early Depression years. By 1933 studios were slashing payrolls to stay alive. Employees’ 50% pay cuts were to be restored by specific dates. It was DFZ who promised the WB team when they’d get full pay again. Then Harry insisted on delaying full salaries. Tempers flared. And Zanuck quit his own $5,000 a week job.
Three days later, over breakfast at the Brown Derby, United Artists chairman Joe Schenck told DFZ they should start their own production company with distribution through UA and handed him a check for $100,000. It was signed by MGM chief Louis B. Mayer, who wanted to make his son-in-law, William Goetz, a shareholder in the new venture and a Zanuck production executive. Mayer’s boss at MGM was Loew’s president Nicholas Schenck, Joe’s brother, so taking in Goetz meant they could do loan-out deals for MGM stars.
The company’s name, 20th Century Pictures, came after DFZ, an avid polo player, was knocked off his horse during a match and yelled that the other guy played “as they did in the 19th Century.” His polo pal replied, “Let’s call the company 20th Century!” All went well until Zanuck discovered 20th’s UA deal was paying 10% of the net, not the gross as agreed. As luck had it, Fox Film Corp. was in financial trouble at the time. Fox needed product, but had strong distribution, a 96-acre studio, and owned theatres. A 1935 merger created 20th Century-Fox, a major player until Disney bought it as part of a $71 billion deal in 2019. Zanuck’s 20th Century is now a Disney label with a brand new hit — “FREE GUY.”
“Television won’t last because people will soon get tired of staring at a plywood box every night.” – Darryl F. Zanuck