The Merger, 1935–1939 Fox Film Corporation

The Merger, 1935–1939
Fox Film Corporation
n the late 1920s William Fox, founder and president of the Fox Film Corporation, executed a daring plan to take over the American film industry.
First, in 1927 Fox Film bought the Wesco Theaters chain, the leading
chain in California and the states west of the Rocky Mountains. Wesco’s
assets also included 20 percent of First National Pictures, a large Hollywood production studio that was owned by a consortium of exhibitors.
Then in March 1929 Fox acquired a controlling interest in a major competitor, Loew’s Inc., which owned an East Coast theater chain as well as the
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer film studio. Loew’s was a successful business with
excellent prospects, but the death of founder Marcus Loew in 1927 had
created the possibility of a merger or takeover. William Fox assembled a
53 percent bloc of Loew’s Inc. shares by buying out Marcus Loew’s widow
plus other shareholders, including Nicholas Schenck, the new president
of the company. The Loew’s theater chain, with many first-run houses in
New York City and other large markets, nicely complemented Fox Film’s
dominance in the western United States. MGM was an amazing acquisition, because under the strong leadership of Louis B. Mayer, Irving Thalberg, and Harry Rapf it was already Hollywood’s most prestigious production studio. MGM emphasized high-quality A productions, and it had
dozens of well-known stars under contract. Fox, by contrast, had only recently moved into big-budget productions with titles like Seventh Heaven
and Sunrise (both 1927), and it lacked MGM’s glamour. To supplement his
American purchases, William Fox bought a 50 percent share of Gaumont
British, a British company with 300 theaters and a production business.
Even before the takeover of Loew’s, Fox Film was one of the largest
and most successful film companies in the world. It was a vertically integrated business, meaning that it owned all the stages of the production
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8 twentieth century-fox
and distribution of its product. Fox owned or controlled hundreds of movie
theaters, including the Wesco chain and a smaller chain on the East Coast;
the company had an extensive distribution business that sold its films in
North America and throughout the world; and it owned a state-of-the-art
production facility on Pico Boulevard in West Los Angeles. Fox had moved
rapidly to take advantage of the introduction of sound films by Warner
Bros. (a smaller competitor), and indeed Fox’s Movietone sound system
was superior to Warner Bros.’ Vitaphone system. By adding Loew’s and its
subsidiary MGM to his corporate holdings, William Fox now controlled two
of the “big three” Hollywood studios (the third was Paramount), and thus
he seemed poised to become the dominant force in American film—and in
the world film industry, for then, as now, the large Hollywood companies
were by far the leading exporters of motion pictures.
It must have given William Fox great satisfaction to suddenly have power
over Mayer, perhaps the best-known Hollywood executive, his top assistants
Thalberg and Rapf, and MGM’s human and physical assets. Fox was a harddriving Jewish immigrant who had started in the New York garment industry
before buying his first storefront theater in Brooklyn in 1904. Mayer, Thalberg,
and Rapf were also Jewish but more sophisticated and more assimilated.
The new distribution of power was on display for Fox Film Corporation’s
28 June 1929 opening of an elegant $5 million movie palace in San Francisco,
seating about five thousand and called, naturally, the “Fox.” Mayer attended
the opening with his wife and daughters; Thalberg was there with his wife,
MGM star Norma Shearer; the array of movie stars, mostly from MGM
and Fox, included Warner Baxter, Wallace Beery, Ronald Colman, Gary
Cooper, Joan Crawford, Janet Gaynor, John Gilbert, Buster Keaton, Harry
Langdon, Polly Moran, George O’Brien, Mary Pickford, Norma Talmadge,
and Lupe Velez, among many others. William Fox himself did not bother
to attend; he was represented by his wife.1
However, despite his acquisition of a majority share of Loew’s Inc. stock,
William Fox never took complete command of Loew’s or MGM. His new
empire failed because of bad timing, antitrust problems, and personal misfortune. Fox had borrowed enormous sums of money to finance purchases
of Loew’s Inc. and Gaumont British stock, and after the stock market crash
of October 1929 it was hard to find further loans to sustain his acquisitions
and his ongoing businesses. At the same time, the purchase of Loew’s was
opposed by the federal government on antitrust grounds, with a possible
behind-the-scenes assist from Louis B. Mayer. Mayer’s biographer Scott
Eyman notes that the MGM boss was extremely friendly with Herbert
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the merger, 1935–1939 9
Hoover, the newly inaugurated president of the United States—indeed,
Mayer was the first overnight guest at the Hoover White House. There
is no hard evidence of Mayer or Hoover influencing the decision, and it is
even possible that Mayer’s opposition had been softened by a payment from
William Fox, but nevertheless the Justice Department was working on a
case against Fox when other events made the antitrust action moot.2
William Fox was seriously injured in an automobile accident in July 1929
at a crucial stage of the process of consolidating Fox Film and Loew’s; he
recovered at home for the next three months. Further, the various creditors
of Fox Film, notably Chase National Bank, General Theaters Equipment
Company, and American Telephone Company, had decided by the spring
of 1930 to put the Fox Film Corporation into receivership rather than give
William Fox a chance to right his troubled business empire. The continuing
crisis surrounding William Fox meant that his control of MGM lasted for less
than a year and that no Fox-MGM merger of personnel or facilities was ever
completed. Fox Film Corporation was able to retain its 50 percent interest
in Gaumont British until 1935, but this was scant comfort to William Fox
himself, who was forced out of company management in 1930. He became
an entrepreneur without an enterprise, a casualty of the brutal economic
changes during the first months of the Great Depression.
What followed the collapse of the Loew’s/MGM deal has been called
“the first looting of a Hollywood film company.”3
Harley R. Clarke of the
General Theaters Equipment Company was installed as Fox Film Corporation’s new president. He announced that he would run both Fox Film and
General Theaters Equipment efficiently, but in fact he forced renovations
of Fox theaters at inflated prices to benefit his equipment company. Also,
Clarke was taking over an unfamiliar business, the production and distribution of films, and so in this case a leading creditor was not the best choice
to become Fox Film’s chief executive. American Telephone (better known
as AT&T) required Fox to pay royalties on its sound film patents, even
though William Fox and Fox Film controlled valid sound film patents of
their own. Chase National Bank took over majority ownership of the Wesco
theater chain and thus supervised that company’s payments of extensive
loans owed to the bank. The conflicts of interest were so extensive, especially in the case of General Theaters Equipment, that veteran muckraker
Upton Sinclair wrote a book in collaboration with William Fox exposing
the abuses.4
Film historian Aubrey Solomon suggests that the conflicts of
interest caused Fox Film to operate at a loss in 1931 and 1932,
but general
industry conditions surely played a role as well. Among the Hollywood film
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10 twentieth century-fox
companies, Paramount, Warner Bros., and RKO all took heavy losses in
1932; only MGM was modestly profitable.
Fox Film’s recovery began in April 1932 when Sidney R. Kent became
the company’s president. Unlike Harley Clarke or E. R. Tinker (a banker
who was briefly president of Fox Film), Kent actually had a background in
the motion picture industry. He had been a top executive at Paramount for
fourteen years and had played an important role in the expansion of that
company, which under Adolph Zukor had become the paradigm for what a
large-scale integrated motion picture business should be. Kent was a businessman rather than a film producer, therefore he was generally content to
work behind the scenes within a publicity-hungry industry. He had, however,
contributed to a famous series of Harvard School of Business Administration
lectures on the film industry in 1927; his lecture was titled “Distributing the
Kent was well liked and respected in the film industry, and this
was important because Fox Film urgently needed to regain the confidence
of both its own industry and the financial community.
One of Kent’s immediate problems was to reestablish the profitability
of Fox Film’s theater chains, which in 1932 and 1933—the low point of the
Depression—were rapidly losing money. Most of Fox Film’s net worth was
invested in motion picture theaters (this was true of Paramount and MGM
as well), and so the performance of the theaters was absolutely vital to the
survival of the company. Harley Clarke had decided that his managers and
engineers would study the business, learn it, and run it efficiently, but the
results had been disappointing. William Fox suggested that the problem was
that so much of film exhibition relied on unwritten, intuitive practices—for
example, estimating how much rental each theater in a chain could pay for
a particular film. As Fox told Upton Sinclair:
There is no system at present known by which you can measure what the
fair charge should be for the use of pictures made by any film company
for its exhibitors. It is different from any other manufacturing line I know
of; in any other line there is a standardized price, but in the leasing of
motion pictures there is no such price. . . . There are so many ramifications
that it really takes almost a life study to enable a person to arrange these
contracts so that they will be equitable both to the theatre owner and the
film leasing company.7
William Fox offered his own services to Clarke and Fox Film as an expert
in film exhibition practices, but his offer was ignored. Instead, when Kent
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the merger, 1935–1939 11
took over as president he turned to Skouras Brothers Theaters to manage
Fox Film’s theater chains; the three Skouras brothers had made “almost a life
study” of how to run a film exhibition business. This is how Spyros Skouras,
the future president of Twentieth Century-Fox, became an executive at Fox
Film Corporation.
Spyros Skouras and Skouras Brothers Theaters
Spyros Skouras was born near Mount Olympus in northern Greece in 1893.
He emigrated to St. Louis as a teenager, working briefly as a waiter in a hotel
restaurant. The three Skouras brothers—Spyros, older brother Charles, and
younger brother George—bought their first movie theater, the Olympia, in
Downtown St. Louis in 1914. Over the next several years they built or acquired other theaters in the area; this included the building of two showcase
movie palaces, the 3,700-seat Missouri Theater in 1921 and the even more
lavish 3,000-seat Ambassador Theater in 1926. According to the “Cinema
Treasures” website, the Missouri was “one of the first theatres in St. Louis to
have air conditioning,” and it featured “a chorus line of dancers known as the
Missouri Rocket Girls,” who eventually moved to the Roxy Theater in New
York City.8
The Ambassador Theater, part of a seventeen-story downtown
office building, was built by Chicago architects Rapp & Rapp in “the firm’s
typical Louis XIV Sun King theme.”9
Both of these theaters have now been
demolished, but the 2,700-seat St. Louis Theater, also designed in the Louis
XIV style, has been remodeled as Powell Symphony Hall, home of the St.
Louis Symphony Orchestra. In the first half of the 1920s Skouras Brothers
was directly competing with Paramount, which was trying to control exhibition in St. Louis through a local affiliate. Skouras Brothers outperformed
Paramount in the St. Louis area, resisted a buyout offer from the much larger
company, and eventually became the Paramount affiliate for Metropolitan
St. Louis. By 1926, the three brothers owned thirty-five theaters in St. Louis,
and they controlled theater chains in Kansas City and Indianapolis as well.
Skouras Brothers also became a part of First National Pictures, an effort by
regional exhibition chains to fight the industry-wide influence of Paramount
Pictures. Paramount’s combination of high-quality film production and a national distribution network had given the company a powerful position in the
American motion picture industry circa 1915–1920. Local exhibitors wishing
to show Paramount’s high-quality products had to accept Paramount’s terms,
which might include block booking (the requirement that theaters show a
whole slate of Paramount pictures, rather than choosing films of particular
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12 twentieth century-fox
interest), a split of receipts favoring the production company, favoritism to
Paramount theaters, and so forth. First National was a coalition of exhibitors
who banded together in 1917 to increase their bargaining power. In 1918 First
National added a film production studio, thus becoming a vertically integrated business. Paramount quickly responded to First National’s challenge
by assembling a theater chain of its own.10 Skouras Brothers Theaters had
not been an original member of First National because in 1917 the Skouras
company was too small. However, by the mid-1920s Skouras Brothers was
very actively participating in First National.11
The basic strategy of First National was to have theater chains contribute money to support a program of high-quality motion pictures. This
effort was at least moderately successful, but the loose organization of First
National caused continuing problems. Though united by their need for
quality pictures, the exhibitors who ran First National Pictures were both
widely dispersed and fiercely independent. Who was to run First National?
How were decisions to be made? A partial solution came when some of the
owners created a voting trust that controlled a majority of stock; the three
trustees were Spyros Skouras, Barney Balaban of Balaban & Katz (based
in Chicago), and Irving Rossheim of Stanley Company of America (based
in Philadelphia).12 However, many decisions were still made by extensive
consultation between all owners. A bitter power struggle came in 1928 when
Joseph P. Kennedy, the father of future U.S. President John F. Kennedy, was
asked to take over First National’s production and distribution business.
Kennedy already controlled three film industry businesses—the theater
chain Keith-Albee-Orpheum and two low-budget production studios—so
the idea was probably to form a new conglomerate that could compete with
Paramount, Loew’s, and Fox.
Spyros Skouras and some of the other First National owners were dissatisfied with Joseph Kennedy’s management. They felt he was too preoccupied with cutting costs at the production studio, whereas the priority should
always have been providing A quality pictures to the exhibitor-owners. They
also felt he was too concerned with the interests of his other businesses.13
One of the inherent difficulties of First National Pictures was that everybody
had an outside business. Though Joseph P. Kennedy had been offered a
contract to run First National in June 1928, the company’s board of directors
declined to ratify that contract in August of the same year.
Because the business was fragmenting, and because of discord with
Joseph Kennedy’s management, Spyros Skouras tried to find a buyer for
First National. According to Skouras’s unpublished memoirs, he played
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the merger, 1935–1939 13
a primary role in creating the merger between First National and Warner
Bros.; this role is not mentioned in film history textbooks, but a 1936 Wall
Street Journal article describes Skouras as “the theatre operator who brought
the First National deal to Warner.”14 Spyros Skouras arranged for Warner
Bros. to purchase three interconnected film industry businesses: Stanley
Company of America, the East Coast chain that held the biggest chunk
of First National stock; Skouras Brothers Theaters; and the First National
production studio. These acquisitions transformed Warner Bros. from a relatively small film company to a large, vertically integrated business. Spyros
Skouras had good relations with Warner Bros. because Skouras Brothers
Theaters had been one of the first chains to convert to sound film projection, and in the late 1920s Warner Bros. was an important supplier of sound
films. William Fox also made an offer for First National—this acquisition
would have made his company even more formidable—but Skouras felt he
was already committed to Warner Bros.15
As part of the deal, Spyros Skouras and his brothers were employed by
Warner Bros.; Spyros became the general manager in charge of all of Warner
Bros. theaters. However, he quickly became disillusioned with his new job
because Harry Warner broke the promises he made before the merger. For
one thing, Warner Bros. revised the deal to buy Skouras Brothers Theaters so
that it was less advantageous to the Skouras Brothers stockholders. Further,
there was an important disagreement about the future of Warner Bros./First
National. Spyros Skouras wanted Warner Bros.’ commitment to supply
top-quality films to all the members of First National (or all who wished to
participate) for seventeen years—in other words, Warner Bros. would become
a more reliable version of First National. Harry Warner, by contrast, wanted
First National’s production studio to be folded into the Warner Bros. operation, and so he did not agree to the seventeen-year arrangement.16 Though
First National’s production unit did retain semi-independence for a few
years, Harry Warner’s version of the merger quickly won out, and therefore
the Skouras brothers left Warner Bros. in January 1931.
At this point the three Skouras brothers were highly competent theater
chain executives with national experience who had lost control of their
original business. They went briefly to Paramount and then became involved
in rehabilitating Fox Film’s exhibition chains. Charles, Spyros, and George
Skouras were not exactly Fox employees; they were more like independent
contractors, managing Fox’s distressed theater businesses while at the same
time starting a new theater chain of their own. In the New York City area they
were one of two management teams running the bankrupt Fox Metropolitan
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14 twentieth century-fox
theaters for receiver Milton C. Weisman. In Upstate New York they bought
theaters from Fox, adding to a small chain of Skouras Brothers theaters on
the East Coast and in St. Louis.17 Then, in 1932 the brothers were invited
to take charge of Fox’s Wesco chain, which was heavily in debt and losing
money at an alarming rate. Charles Skouras and Spyros Skouras became
the top managers at Wesco, while George Skouras remained in New York
to supervise both Fox Metropolitan Playhouses and the Skouras family’s
East Coast interests.18 The three brothers were rewarded with Fox stock as
well as high salaries, and there was a possible conflict of interest because
Skouras Brothers retained a separate corporate identity. Wesco went into
receivership in 1933, but this was a relatively friendly bankruptcy proceeding, with Charles Skouras named as co-receiver.19 By 1936, Wesco—now
renamed National Theaters, though the original name was still sometimes
used—had been restored to profitability and had resumed its place as Fox’s
most important theater chain. However, ownership was still split between
Chase National Bank (58 percent) and Fox (42 percent).
One measure of the quick recovery of Fox’s exhibition business under the
Skouras Brothers was the reacquisition of the company’s New York flagship,
the 5,920-seat Roxy Theater. This fabulous movie palace on the corner of
Fiftieth Street and Seventh Avenue in Manhattan had been built in 1927 by
movie producer Herbert Lubin to celebrate and exploit the talents of theater
manager Samuel (Roxy) Rothafel. Roxy, known for presenting extravagant live
shows and hosting weekly radio programs, was offered an excellent financial
deal plus his name on the marquee for committing himself to Lubin’s project.
However, Lubin was unable to keep up with construction overruns of $2.5
million, and therefore he sold the Roxy to Fox Film Corporation shortly
before the theater’s gala opening on 11 March 1927.
20 From 1927 to 1931, under
Rothafel’s management the theater presented lavish, twenty-five-minute stage
shows featuring singers, an orchestra, and a line of dancers; the stage shows
were followed by a first-run film. As mentioned above, the dancers, called the
“Missouri Rockets,” had originally appeared at the Skouras Brothers’ Missouri Theater, in St. Louis. This group, with its name slightly changed, still
performs every Christmas season as the Radio City Music Hall Rockettes.
In May 1932 the Roxy Theater went into bankruptcy, dragged down by the
financial difficulties of William Fox’s corporate empire. It was operated in
receivership for five years by Harold Cullman, head of the New York Port
Authority. Then in 1937 it was reacquired by Twentieth Century-Fox under
a twenty-year franchise agreement. Many of Fox’s most prestigious films
premiered at the Roxy, and the theater also featured at various times top
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the merger, 1935–1939 15
live performers such as Jack Benny, Abbott and Costello, and Milton Berle.
Control of the Roxy passed from Twentieth Century-Fox to National Theaters in 1952 as part of an antitrust settlement (see Chapter 4). In 1960 this
historic theater, sitting on some of Manhattan’s most expensive real estate,
was demolished to make way for an office building.21
Darryl F. Zanuck and Twentieth Century Pictures
With the exhibition business now supervised by the three Skouras brothers,
Sidney Kent next turned to continuing difficulties with the production studio.
The production side of Fox Film was supervised by Winfield Sheehan, an
industry veteran who had at one time been secretary to the police commissioner of New York City. After several years of working for William Fox in
New York, Sheehan had taken charge of Fox’s Los Angeles studio in 1925.
Two of his significant accomplishments were the design of Fox’s state-ofthe-art West Los Angeles production facility and the company’s smooth and
profitable transition to sound in the late 1920s. He also had brought many
of Hollywood’s top stars to Fox, people like Will Rogers and Janet Gaynor.
However, by 1932 and 1933 Fox’s production business was obviously lagging.
In addition to general industry problems (e.g., the sag in attendance because
so many millions of people were out of work), Fox simply did not have the
stars and other creative personnel that had made it so competitive five years
earlier. The company’s well-publicized financial problems probably played a
role here, but it was also true that Winfield Sheehan was less of a hands-on
manager than he had been in earlier years.
In August 1935, Fox Film Corporation reorganized its film production
business by merging with Twentieth Century Pictures. The two companies
were in some ways opposites. Fox was one of the largest American film companies, an organization that handled the production, distribution, and exhibition of motion pictures. Fox had been in business since 1904 (if one starts
with William Fox’s first nickelodeon), and though it had struggled greatly
in the 1930s, it still had assets worth $24 million. Twentieth Century, in
contrast, was a two-year-old partnership between veteran executive Joseph
M. Schenck (born 1878) and young producer Darryl F. Zanuck (born 1902).
Schenck and Zanuck’s small independent company had no production facilities, no distribution setup, and no theater chain, though it did have a
distribution deal with United Artists. Twentieth Century had made a profit
in each of its first two years, but its total assets were only $4 million. The
New York Times, in an early account of the merger, naturally assumed that
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16 twentieth century-fox
the newly formed company would be called “Fox-Twentieth Century.”22
Nevertheless, the completed deal was a 50–50 merger, and the company
name was “Twentieth Century-Fox.” Further, the new company adopted
the logo originated by Twentieth Century Pictures, with its searchlights and
Art Deco buildings, as well as the fanfare composed by Alfred Newman.
One can only conclude that Joseph Schenck was a tough negotiator and
that Sidney Kent was eager to work with Zanuck and Schenck.
The key to the merger was Darryl F. Zanuck, a producer and studio
executive with an astonishing film industry track record. Zanuck, born in
Wahoo, Nebraska, had moved with his mother to Glendale, California, at
the age of seven, but he spent several summers in Nebraska on his grandfather’s ranch. After a stint in the military—he served in World War I as an
underage volunteer—Zanuck settled permanently in California in the fall
of 1919. He tried to make a living as a writer, pitching story ideas to magazines and movie companies. When told he would have more credibility as
a published author, he promptly wrote and sold a collection of stories and
novellas. Zanuck eventually found a series of film industry jobs, including
working as a gag writer for Mack Sennett. At Sennett Studios he met and
courted his future wife Virginia Fox (no relation to William Fox), who was
one of Sennett’s “Bathing Beauties.” He then moved to Warner Bros. as a
scriptwriter, where he was so prolific and so in tune with public taste that
he quickly became an important asset of the company. One of Zanuck’s
amusing problems in the mid-1920s was hiding the fact that one man was
writing so many Warner Bros. films. He used a series of pseudonyms, but
this led to uncomfortable moments when someone would ask to meet this
or that screenwriter. In 1924, Zanuck was promoted to producer and in 1926,
to supervisor of production for the whole Warner Bros. studio, working directly under Jack Warner. His compensation in 1926 was $5,000 a week, a
salary that remained constant for most of his later career. In 1927, Zanuck
was the supervisor of The Jazz Singer, which is widely considered the first
feature film “talkie,” even though it includes only a few lines of dialogue.
He was only twenty-four, and with his short stature and slender physique
he looked even younger in the publicity stills for this landmark film. But
Zanuck was already a major force in the Hollywood film industry. Much
later, the French singer-actress Juliette Greco, Zanuck’s lover for several
years, said in her memoirs that he was “an encyclopedia of cinema dressed
in suit and tie.”23
After The Jazz Singer, Zanuck supervised a number of famous films
that took advantage of the visual and aural potential of the sound film.
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the merger, 1935–1939 17
For example, he launched a series of hard-hitting gangster films including Little Caesar and Public Enemy (both 1931), sensational entertainments
that also tapped into the social resentments of the Depression. He went
further toward social commentary with Five Star Final (1931), Two Seconds
(1932), The Match King (1932), Cabin in the Cotton (1932), and especially I
Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932).24 Zanuck also launched a series of
Depression-era musicals including Forty-Second Street and Gold-Diggers of
1933 (both 1933), which combined the escapism of fantasy musical numbers
(choreographed by the innovative Busby Berkeley) with an unsentimental realism about Broadway dancers’ lives. Though these films were most
definitely collaborations—they were written, directed, acted, edited, and
scored by others—they all embodied a certain Zanuck style. They were
tightly written, with an emphasis on plot and conflict rather than symbolism or speech making. They were convincingly grounded in contemporary
Darryl F. Zanuck, undated photo, Motion Picture Herald. Quigley Publishing Company, a Division
of QP Media, Inc./Quigley Photographic Archives, Georgetown University Library Special
Collections Research Center, Washington, DC.
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reality—indeed, a long New Yorker article on Zanuck written in 1934 considers him first and foremost a journalist.25 They were edited with a rapid
and sure sense of pace, so the audience would be swept along with the story.
The hard-hitting, journalistic approach of I Am a Fugitive from a Chain
Gang is not the only Zanuck style because the films he produced changed
according to his perception of audience tastes. However, the emphasis on
conflict and pace is constant through Zanuck’s long career.
Zanuck was at an artistic high point in 1933, but he was tired of working
for Harry and Jack Warner. Zanuck felt his contributions to Warner Bros.
Pictures merited a partnership in the business, but over the years it became
clear that Warner Bros. was and would remain a family-run company. The
immediate cause for Zanuck’s break with the Warners was a dispute with
Harry Warner over a 1933 salary reduction of 50 percent, which was recommended by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for all
employees earning over $50 a week. At this point the Academy was a kind
of “company union,” closely aligned with the big production companies.
Zanuck promised studio employees that the reduction would last only eight
weeks (which was the industry-wide recommendation), but Harry Warner
maintained the drastic cut for two additional weeks. With his authority
undermined, Zanuck left Warner Bros.
Zanuck then quickly agreed to a partnership with Joseph Schenck, chairman
of the board of United Artists, to make twelve films per year under the name
Twentieth Century Pictures. The new company would release its films through
United Artists, the small, prestigious film distribution company founded by
Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, and D. W. Griffith in
1919. Joseph Schenck had joined United Artists as part owner and chairman
of the board in 1924 and had managed the company effectively. Among his
accomplishments were starting the United Artists Theater Circuit in 1926
(so that United Artists would have at least some guaranteed distribution for
its films), adding Samuel Goldwyn as a partner in 1927, and negotiating the
buyout of D. W. Griffith in 1933. For Zanuck, the new company gave him a
free hand at the production end while also linking him to a proven distributor.
Though Schenck had produced a number of films, including several starring
his wife, Constance Talmadge, he was happy to leave that side of the new
company to Zanuck, the “boy genius” from Warner Bros. Twentieth Century
was also a huge help to Schenck in his other job, as top manager of United
Artists, for that company had the chronic problem of finding enough highquality films for its distribution network. In 1934, Twentieth Century would
provide about half of the films distributed by United Artists.26
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Backing for the new company came from Joseph Schenck, from a bank
loan, and, surprisingly, from the top management of Loew’s/MGM. Nicholas
Schenck, president of Loew’s Inc., invested $250,000 in Twentieth Century,
perhaps to support his brother Joe. Louis B. Mayer, president of MGM,
invested $1.4 million. Mayer’s primary motivation was to buy a position for
his son-in-law William Goetz, who became Zanuck’s assistant. Mayer may
also have been angling for an eventual merger between Twentieth Century
and MGM; according to Scott Eyman, Mayer had tried to bring Zanuck
to MGM in 1932 when Irving Thalberg was ill (Thalberg died in 1936).27
Although the various investments in competing companies by Mayer, the
Schenck brothers, the Skouras brothers, William Fox, and others look like
impossible conflicts of interest today, they were evidently standard practice
in the 1920s and 1930s.
Twentieth Century Pictures, founded in the depths of the Depression, was a risky venture because its assets were slim for a motion picture
company and its finances could not have survived a run of bad pictures.
Zanuck was able to attract a few stars, writers, and directors based on his
years at Warner Bros., notably the male lead George Arliss, known for his
roles in historical dramas. He was also able to borrow a few actors from
Louis B. Mayer’s MGM—as an investor Mayer would, of course, personally benefit from any Twentieth Century successes. Zanuck cranked out a
dozen pictures a year at Twentieth Century, as planned. Though he had
to be careful about budgets, he did produce an important and potentially
controversial picture in 1934—House of Rothschild, starring George Arliss.
This film shows the Rothschild banking family, led by patriarch Mayer
Rothschild (Arliss), supporting democracy rather than tyranny in nineteenth-century Europe, even though an investment in Napoleon’s tyrannical empire would seem to be in the family’s financial interest. Napoleon’s
envoy to the Rothschilds is the anti-Semitic Prussian Count Ledranz (Boris
Karloff ), a fairly clear reference to the newly empowered Nazi regime in
Germany. Arliss’s performance in a dual role was much-praised (he plays
both Mayer Rothschild and his son Nathan), and House of Rothschild was
nominated for an Academy Award for best picture. It’s interesting that this
sympathetic portrait of a famous Jewish family was initiated and supervised
by Zanuck, a Protestant, rather than by one of the many prominent Jewish
film industry executives in 1930s Hollywood (the Schenck brothers, Louis
B. Mayer, Irving Thalberg, Harry Rapf, the Warner brothers, B. P. Schulberg, Jesse Lasky Sr., Samuel Goldwyn, etc.).
By 1935 Darryl Zanuck and Joseph Schenck had made Twentieth Century
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Pictures into a solidly profitable film production company, but Schenck’s coowners at United Artists were not pleased with the new company. Though
the original agreement was that Twentieth Century could become a partner
in United Artists after one year of successful operation, Chaplin, Pickford,
and the other producers at United Artists now wanted to stretch this out
to five years. Further, the United Artists partners had disagreements with
Schenck on other policy matters. Given this set of problems, Schenck and
Zanuck were looking for a new home for Twentieth Century at exactly the
moment that Sidney Kent was looking for a new head of production at Fox.
Schenck already had a business connection with Fox, for United Artists
Theaters operated a number of theaters in western states in partnership with
the National Theaters chain.
The structure and management of the newly merged company was worked
out in 1935 and 1936. Sidney Kent became the president of Twentieth CenturyFox (the hyphen was part of the company name until the 1980s), based in
New York, with oversight of the entire company but special responsibilities
in the areas of finance, distribution, exhibition, advertising, and government
relations. The three Skouras brothers, who originally were troubleshooters
brought in to solve Fox’s exhibition problems, gradually became more integrated into Twentieth Century-Fox management. George Skouras became
the head of Fox Metropolitan Theaters. Charles Skouras was the president
of the much larger National Theaters. Spyros Skouras moved from National
Theaters management to the parent company in New York, where he became
Sidney Kent’s top assistant. Although Spyros was the middle brother, he was
more outgoing than his siblings, and this is probably the reason he, rather
than elder brother Charles, became an executive in Twentieth Century-Fox’s
home office.
The Fox studios in West Los Angeles functioned for a brief period with
two production heads, Winfield Sheehan and Darryl Zanuck. Douglas
Churchill of the New York Times speculated that the merged company
would have two separate production units, Fox and Twentieth Century,
just as Warner Bros. had for some years retained Warner and First National
units.28 However, it quickly became evident that Zanuck’s pictures were
consistently profitable, whereas Sheehan’s were fortunate to break even.
Also, Sheehan had competed for the presidency of the company in the
early 1930s, breaking with William Fox and courting Fox’s creditors, and
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the merger, 1935–1939 21
he had contested Sidney Kent’s authority over the Los Angeles production studio. Given this history, Kent undoubtedly thought of him as a rival
rather than as an essential manager.29 After a few months of power sharing,
Sheehan was forced out, and Darryl Zanuck, at age 33, was running one of
the largest production companies in Hollywood.
Joseph Schenck was the mystery man in the Twentieth Century-Fox
reorganization, or perhaps he was the power behind the throne.30 He had
been an excellent, multitalented executive at United Artists, but at the new
company he became chairman of the board and executive head of production with few defined duties. What did he do to earn his $150,000 annual
salary? For many years Schenck was considered the senior executive at the
Los Angeles production studios, even though Zanuck supervised the entire
slate of Twentieth Century-Fox pictures. Schenck was often involved in
personnel decisions. For example, he recruited producer-director-actor
Otto Preminger for Fox in 1937; along with Zanuck, he decided to end
Shirley Temple’s contract in 1940; and he suggested Jennifer Jones for the
title role in The Song of Bernadette (1943). His role in personnel matters was
probably strongest in the 1930s, but as late as 1952 Betty Grable told reporters, after losing a part to Marilyn Monroe, “Mr. Zanuck and Mr. Schenck
are the bosses.”31
Joseph Schenck also represented the studio in solving industry-wide issues.
For example, when the new Screen Actors Guild demanded recognition,
Schenck and Louis B. Mayer negotiated an agreement, and the other studio
heads went along with their decision.32 Schenck had the personal misfortune of
being involved in film industry payoffs to gangster Willie Bioff, who promised
labor peace with the powerful IATSE (International Alliance of Theatrical
Stage Employees) union. All the big companies were paying Bioff and his
partner George Browne and, through them, the Chicago organized crime
syndicate, but only Schenck was caught and prosecuted. He served a short
sentence for income tax evasion and then resumed his duties at Twentieth
Century-Fox. Schenck was active in California politics, supporting businessoriented Republicans who would be friendly to the film industry. Schenck
also had a role in the management of Twentieth Century-Fox’s theater chains,
so he was involved in the New York as well as the Los Angeles office. And
although he sold his share of United Artists to the other partners, he retained
stock in United Artists Theaters and continued to be its president; United
Artists Theaters became an ally of Twentieth Century-Fox.
The production operation that Darryl Zanuck took over had a wonderful physical plant but only a few of the leading creative people in Hol5AQ6A2A095AI2EA2D0AI2P0T 3-S,9DA=IP?F 8F-P0=1A=01 :IEQA01E2T-%9AS=160A11 60-PA12

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22 twentieth century-fox
lywood. The big Fox stars of the mid-1930s were Will Rogers, the veteran
comedian loved for his live appearances, radio shows, books and films, and
child actress Shirley Temple, who was rated the number one movie star
in America at the age of seven. Twentieth Century-Fox suffered a huge
blow in 1935 when Will Rogers died in a plane crash. Two of his films were
awaiting release, but Zanuck would not have the pleasure of working with
this icon of American folk wisdom. As to Shirley Temple, she was the top
“money-making star” in American film from 1935 to 1938 and the fifthranked star in 1939, according to Quigley Publications’ ratings,33 but after
that audiences quickly lost interest. Among directors, Zanuck inherited
the services of John Ford, one of the greatest filmmakers in American film
history, whose contract at Fox extended through My Darling Clementine
(1946). Also at Fox were directors Henry King, Alan Dwan, Frank Lloyd,
and David Butler. Though Fox had writers, directors, cinematographers,
editors, composers, and so on, under contract, Zanuck brought some key
creative people with him from Twentieth Century. These included Nunnally Johnson, screenwriter for The House of Rothschild, who was a highly
valued writer, director, and producer at Twentieth Century-Fox until
the early 1960s (with a brief hiatus at Universal), and the editor Barbara
“Bobbie” McLean, who became Zanuck’s closest postproduction collaborator and worked for him until he retired.
Films of 1935–1939
The challenge facing Twentieth Century-Fox’s production studio in the early
years was reestablishing a profitable and prestigious operation. Fox was just
coming out of receivership in 1935, so money was tight. This was nothing
new for Darryl Zanuck, since Warner Bros. did not have lavish production
budgets, and Twentieth Century Pictures was a startup company with only
modest capital. Many of the strategies Zanuck had used at Warners were
now instituted at Fox. Films were made quickly on studio sets, and low-key
lighting hid the deficiencies of sets and costumes. Emphasis was put on good
scripts rather than a large cohort of movie stars (MGM took the contrary
approach; it was the studio with “more stars than there are in heaven”).
Films stressed populist and democratic ideals presented in familiar genres,
to appeal to working-class and middle-class audiences.
A fascinating and probably unanswerable question of film history is
whether Darryl Zanuck influenced Harry and Jack Warner, or vice versa.
Zanuck established some ideas about film production that persisted at Warner
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Bros. for many years: well-written, fast-paced, tightly edited features; film
subjects drawn from the headlines; genre cycles (e.g., gangster films) that
were exploited until audience interest waned; and a populism allowing for
empathy with rebels and outlaws. But since Harry and Jack Warner ran the
company, perhaps these ideas originated with them and Zanuck articulated
their tastes and preferences. When Zanuck left, Jack Warner and production
supervisor Hal Wallis, who had previously been Zanuck’s assistant, were
certainly able to carry forward a Warner Bros. style.
According to longtime Fox screenwriter Philip Dunne, Zanuck’s emphasis on story in the late 1930s was to some extent a matter of necessity
because writers were less expensive and easier to find than established movie
stars.34 So Zanuck worked very hard with his contract writers—notably
Nunnally Johnson, Lamar Trotti, Sonya Levien, and Dunne—while he
slowly added to the roster of Fox stars. Tyrone Power began his career at
Twentieth Century-Fox in 1936, and he became the studio’s leading actor
in both action and romantic roles. Power starred in an extraordinary thirteen films between 1937 and 1939; he must have been working all the time.
Henry Fonda was lured to Fox in the late 1930s by the promise of excellent
roles, and he quickly appeared in Young Mr. Lincoln (1939), Guns along the
Mohawk (1939), and The Grapes of Wrath (1940). Don Ameche, who starred
in both musicals and dramatic films, became an important Fox star in The
Story of Alexander Graham Bell (1939). Decades later Ameche told interviewer Ronald L. Davis that he, Power, and Alice Faye carried the young
studio’s important pictures for several years.35
Though Zanuck’s personal and professional interests were very masculine—he served in two world wars, he was a big-game hunter, he liked
adventure movies of various types—he assembled an impressive array of
female talent in the early years of Twentieth Century-Fox. Zanuck cannot
claim credit for Shirley Temple, who was signed to a Fox contract in 1934,
but he nurtured her career through the 1930s (for a detailed discussion
of Shirley Temple, see the last section of this chapter). Zanuck brought
Loretta Young with him from Warner Bros. to Twentieth Century and
then to Twentieth Century-Fox; her last film at Twentieth Century-Fox
was The Story of Alexander Graham Bell. Alice Faye, like Shirley Temple,
was signed by Fox in 1934, but she became a major star after the Twentieth
Century-Fox merger in such films as Sing, Baby, Sing (1936) and Alexander’s
Ragtime Band (1938). Figure-skating champion Sonja Henie signed in 1936,
and Linda Darnell, Betty Grable, and Gene Tierney all became prominent
Fox stars about 1940. These actresses sometimes did not like Zanuck—
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24 twentieth century-fox
Loretta Young, for example, disparaged his ability to work with female
stars36—but he must have had something to do with bringing such talented
performers to Fox and building their careers. This group of actresses contributed a great deal to Twentieth Century-Fox’s identity (as well as its
bottom line) in the 1930s and the early 1940s.
In the absence of established stars, Twentieth Century-Fox sometimes
built a film around a celebrity who was not a movie actor or actress. Two
films of 1936–1937 star Walter Winchell, who was extremely well known
to the American public as a newspaper columnist and a radio personality.
Both Wake Up and Live (1937) and Love and Hisses (1937) were built around
a supposed feud between Winchell (playing himself ) and bandleader Ben
Bernie (also playing himself ). Darryl Zanuck would have wanted to continue the series, but after two films Winchell returned to New York and
focused on his newspaper and radio work. However, for several years after
this Winchell was given an office on the Twentieth Century-Fox lot, and so
he would spend time at the studio when he was on the West Coast. Fox was
clearly making an effort to court the leading entertainment columnist of
the era. The Country Doctor (1936), written by Sonya Levien and directed by
Henry King, is another film about “famous people,” in this case the Dionne
quintuplets. After telling the story of the doctor who delivered them in a
backwoods Canadian town, the film shows the quintuplets themselves in
the last ten minutes.
A more enduring experiment with nonmovie celebrities was the use of
figure skater Sonja Henie in a series of musical films. Henie, a native of
Norway, won three Olympic skating championships and ten world championships, retiring after her Olympic victory in 1936. She then began organizing skating tours, mainly in the United States, and she approached
Twentieth Century-Fox about a movie contract. Fox agreed but was cautious about Henie’s film debut, One in a Million (1936). Henie plays the lead
but has limited screen time in this film about a variety show stranded in a
European winter resort. The love story is a bit stilted, but the skating scenes
are wonderful, and the film also features a variety of Fox musical talent. One
in a Million was a box-office success, and the studio consequently backed
a series of Henie musicals with substantially higher budgets. For example,
Thin Ice features elaborately choreographed skating scenes and has Henie
playing opposite Tyrone Power. Critic Frank Nugent wrote about the
“Henie problem” or “the great Norwegian riddle”—how to build a musical
film around a star who couldn’t sing and whose acting was suspect—but
audiences flocked to Sonja Henie films.37 Henie as a nonsinging star of
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the merger, 1935–1939 25
musical comedy actually fits in quite well with Twentieth Century-Fox’s
approach of always placing musical numbers in a realistic context, for
example, a stage show. In Thin Ice, the songs, presented by a bandleaderchanteuse ( Joan Davis) at a winter resort hotel, comment on the movie’s
blending of love story and winter sports. Henie continued to make films for
Fox until 1943.
Two films of 1936, Pigskin Parade and The Road to Glory, suggest the
tremendous diversity of Twentieth Century-Fox’s output in its first years.
Pigskin Parade is a musical comedy based on the premise that mighty Yale—
in the 1930s an athletic as well as academic powerhouse—challenges tiny
Texas State to a football game (Yale meant to invite the University of Texas,
but an underling made a mistake). The film seems hastily put together,
a combination of football games, musical numbers, and linking dramatic
scenes that features a large ensemble cast. The three top-billed actors—
Stuart Erwin as a hayseed star quarterback, Jack Haley as the Texas State
coach, Patsy Kelly as his shrewish wife—have nonsinging roles, but there
are any number of songs at pep rallies, college dances, football halftimes,
and so on. With the songs only tenuously linked to plot and character—
they certainly do not illuminate the “perfect couple” of RKO and MGM
musicals—one can consider Pigskin Parade part movie comedy and part
vaudeville show. For modern viewers, its main interest lies in appearances
by Betty Grable and Judy Garland a few years before they became major
stars. Grable has a primarily dramatic role as a pretty coed; she sings just a
few lines. Garland plays the kid sister of the star quarterback, and though
she appears only in the movie’s second half, she nevertheless performs three
songs. Pigskin Parade is light and even silly, but fun to watch.
Darryl Zanuck deserves credit for setting up The Road to Glory (1936) as
a high prestige but modestly budgeted film—the key strategy was buying
the rights to a recent French film about World War I, Les Croix du Bois,
and taking some large-scale exterior shots from it. This opens up the film’s
space, making it feel like more than a studio-bound project. However,
though Zanuck liked unconventional war films, this one does not look or
feel like a Darryl F. Zanuck production; instead, it is a brooding, fatalistic war movie that suggests the thematic and stylistic universe of director
Howard Hawks, one of Hollywood’s great filmmakers, and his frequent
screenwriter William Faulkner. The plot concerns French officers Paul La
Roche (Warner Baxter) and Michel Denet (Fredric March), who love the
same woman, nurse Monique La Coste ( June Lang); they also love and
respect each other, complicating the love triangle. In the midst of trench
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warfare, they are honorable, passionate, and self-sacrificing, realizing that
death is almost inevitable. The film is astonishingly intense without becoming antiwar or pacifist; these French soldiers perform bravely under
terrifying conditions. The film also presents the frequent Hawks theme of
doubling, or substitution. It begins with Captain La Roche telling the regiment under his command that France expects them to do their duty. At the
end of the film, the captain is dead, but Lieutenant Denet gives the very
same speech. La Roche’s loss is powerfully felt, yet the regiment still has a
leader, and Monique La Coste still has a lover. Like many Hawks dramas,
The Road to Glory is both pragmatic and tragic.
The Twentieth Century-Fox of 1936 did not have a fully formed identity, and therefore it experimented with such pictures as One in a Million,
Pigskin Parade, and The Road to Glory. But by 1938 the studio had established a confident “house style” and some high-quality contract stars. The
house style was a combination of ideas Zanuck had brought with him
from Warners with the premerger Fox Film Corporation’s emphasis on
“Americana.” This term can be roughly defined as nostalgic stories from
the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, often set in the Midwest or
West. Fox’s Americana was to some extent a matter of demographics since
the majority of Fox Film’s theater holdings were west of the Mississippi
and Westerners wanted to see films about themselves and their own recent
history. Further, as Zanuck biographer George Custen explains, a big part
of that history was the settling of the midwestern states, for many West
Coast residents were transplants from the middle of the country.38 Twentieth Century-Fox’s interest in Americana should, however, be seen as only
one strand of a more complicated set of subject and theme choices. The
studio had enormous numbers of East Coast and international customers,
and like its competitors it made films set in London, Paris, New York, and
many other escapist and/or historically important venues.
In Old Chicago (released in early 1938, but qualifying for the 1937
Academy Awards) is a confident synthesis of Americana with fast-paced,
Zanuck-style entertainment. Directed by Henry King and starring Tyrone
Power and Alice Faye, this film was the most expensive and most ambitious project of the studio’s early years. The original plan was even more
ambitious—Fox would borrow Jean Harlow, one of MGM’s top stars,
to play opposite Tyrone Power in a $2 million production. In Twentieth
Century-Fox’s early years, MGM was surprisingly generous with loan
outs. But in this case Harlow died before production began, and so Fox
substituted contract star Alice Faye and lowered the budget accordingly.
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the merger, 1935–1939 27
The film cost $1.55 million to produce and earned $2.5 million in domestic rentals. In Old Chicago begins by specifically linking a trip by covered
wagon in 1854 with the explosive growth of the young city of Chicago.
Crossing the prairie in 1854 are Patrick ( J. Anthony Hughes) and Molly
(Alice Brady) O’Leary and their three young sons. Patrick O’Leary dies a
few hours from Chicago after unwisely deciding to race a locomotive, but
his family flourishes in the city’s boom years due to the talents of mother
Molly and sons Dion (Tyrone Power), Jack (Don Ameche), and Bob (Tom
Brown). Molly’s laundry is the basis of family prosperity, and the two older
sons become prominent citizens, Dion as a gambler and saloon owner and
Jack as a lawyer who becomes mayor. This fictional story links to a kernel
of fact, as the great Chicago fire of 1871 did start in the backyard of a family
named O’Leary. The fire itself is presented in a long and exciting montage
sequence, with mattes and miniatures and other special effects. Mayor Jack
O’Leary dies saving his city, repeating the theme of loss from the film’s
beginning, but Molly O’Leary gives an eloquent speech saying that the city
of wood will be rebuilt as a city of steel, and Dion adds, “Nothing can lick
Chicago.” The film ends with its theme song played as a triumphal march.
Since In Old Chicago was planned as a one-of-a-kind roadshow attraction, it not surprisingly blends a number of different genres. It is a historical
fiction, a drama, a comedy, a love story, a family melodrama, a disaster film,
an epic (the fire becomes a “founding story” of Chicago), and a musical.
Comedy and love story elements enter, for example, when Dion O’Leary
tries to court saloon singer Belle Fawcett (Alice Faye). After being rebuffed
and humiliated, Dion enters Belle’s bedroom, pushes her to the floor, restrains her, and kisses her. He claims to be overwhelmed by love, but when
asked what he really wants he mentions a piece of real estate that Belle
owns. Belle seems relieved by this admission—she replies “I’m a businesswoman” and returns his kiss. Meanwhile, Belle’s African American maid, a
broadly comic character, has run for the police, but when she returns with
a policeman, the couple are embracing. The same situation is repeated for
comic effect, policeman and all, later in the film. The film is also a musical,
in the Zanuck/Fox style, because Alice Faye sings a handful of songs on a
nightclub stage. One of them is “In Old Chicago,” treated as a song-anddance number, with Faye’s character lifting her skirt in Can-Can fashion
(probably not period authentic).
The most thematically striking aspect of In Old Chicago is that the main
character is not the straight-arrow, reformist mayor Jack but his scoundrel of
a brother Dion. Dion lies, cheats, fixes elections, and treats women roughly,
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and yet he is the hero of the film. Tyrone Power is a handsome leading
man with a huge grin, and his athleticism becomes almost a throwback to
silent film acting. His energy and intelligence build a successful business, a
saloon called “The Senate,” and he actually arranges his brother’s election
as mayor while ostensibly supporting a less-reputable candidate. Dion also
courts and marries the lovely Belle Fawcett, who as an entertainer is not acceptable to his conservative mother. Dion complains that these are modern
times, but Mom comes around only when Belle saves her life during the
fire. Tyrone Power’s character has an interesting complexity here: he breaks
laws and ethical codes—for example, by marrying Belle to keep her from
testifying against him—but wins through with a good heart and lots of
energy. Dion is cynical about politics but devoted to his mother, his family,
and ultimately to Belle. Audience sympathy lies with the almost gangster
rather than the do-gooder brother, though near the film’s end Dion and
Jack reconcile and work together to stop the fire. In Old Chicago suggests
approvingly that Dion is the sort of man who built the great city of Chicago
and, by extension, the United States of America.
In Old Chicago. Tyrone Power (standing near stage) and Alice Faye. Author’s personal
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Twentieth Century-Fox in the 1930s also had a lively B-picture unit
headed by Sol Wurtzel, a holdover from the Winfield Sheehan days. The
B unit featured westerns, comedies, and the Charlie Chan series. Wurtzel’s
most important star was probably the young Jane Withers, who had costarred with Shirley Temple in Bright Eyes (1934) but was then assigned film
after film in the B unit. Withers’s typical character is aggressive, energetic,
and precociously intelligent. Rascals (1938) begins with a gypsy traveling
troupe—musicians, fortune-tellers, pickpockets—being pelted with food
as they drive their trucks out of a medium-sized town. Withers, the youngest of the gypsies, enthusiastically returns fire in the food fight. However,
this overweight youngster in a shapeless dress turns out to be the leader
of the troupe—she plans their itinerary, tells the musicians what to play,
finds food, and even plays Cupid to the film’s romantic couple played by
Rochelle Hudson and Robert Wilcox. Hudson’s character, a rich heiress
Los Angeles premiere of In Old Chicago. Courtesy of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and
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suffering from temporary amnesia, eventually recovers her memory because
of an operation arranged by Withers. Returning to her home and a socialclimbing mother, the Hudson character prepares to marry a nasty, perhaps
even sadistic, baron. But Withers engineers a last-minute rescue, and the
gypsies play the wedding march as Hudson and Wilcox marry.
Withers’ real-life precocity is presented by a story she told many years
later in the journal American Classic Screen. Twelve-year-old Jane lobbied
her boss Sol Wurtzel to cast her in a movie opposite her favorite star, Gene
Autry. When Wurtzel told her this was impossible because Autry was
under contract at Republic Studios, Withers made a phone call to Herbert
Yates, president of Republic, and explained her request. After verifying that he was speaking to “the Jane Withers,” Yates arranged a swap of
actors—Gene Autry to Fox for one film in exchange for the loan of two Fox
actors to Republic. Withers then got her wish, costarring with Autry in
Shooting High (1940). Remarkably, this was the first western Autry made
away from Republic.39
One important approach that Zanuck brought to Fox from his years at
Warner Bros. was a cycle of biographies of great men (and, in a few instances, women). Although George Custen’s book on biopics presents Darryl
Zanuck as the leading exponent of the genre,40 filmed biography also fits
Harry and Jack Warner’s preference for film as education, as described by
film historian Neal Gabler.41 The Warners/Twentieth Century/Twentieth
Century-Fox cycle of biographies begins with the success of George Arliss
in Warners’ Disraeli in 1929 and peaks with Henry Fonda’s brilliant performance as Young Mr. Lincoln in 1939. Biographies offered excellent roles for
actors, since the historical subject’s prestige enhanced the actor’s reputation
and the actor’s reputation enhanced the historical subject. A successful biography also added to the studio’s reputation because motion pictures were
being used to “uplift” the audience as well as to entertain.
As Custen has pointed out, the film biographies of the 1930s were not
particularly accurate, although their accuracy was often advertised. Consultants and research departments ensured accuracy of visual detail, but stories
often veered from the historical record in order to sustain audience interest. Conventions like a “rooting interest” in the protagonist42 and a heterosexual love story were essential to Hollywood biographies, which created a
leveling effect—whatever the announced subject, filmed biographies were
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very much alike. Darryl Zanuck could be withering in his disdain for those
who did not understand that historical films required artistic license. For
example, his response to a consultant who had found inaccuracies in the
script for Cardinal Richelieu (1934, a Twentieth Century Pictures film) was
that the public would probably think it was about Rasputin, anyway.43
Jesse James (1939), directed by Henry King, shows that by the end of
the 1930s Fox was able to invest in high production values for selected
films. This film was shot in color, with most exteriors filmed on location
in Pineville, Missouri. It features impressive landscapes and one remarkable stunt scene where Frank James (Henry Fonda) and younger brother
Jesse (Tyrone Power) evade pursuers by riding their horses over a high cliff
and landing in a river. The film omits the background of bloody Civil War
conflicts in Missouri and Kansas that is essential to understanding the real
James brothers, probably because to sympathize with either the Union or
the Confederacy would offend part of the American movie audience. Jesse
James substitutes a conflict with a rapacious corporation, a railroad.
In this version of the story Jesse and Frank James are simultaneously
folk heroes and outlaws, and they are presented with a fascinating blend of
populism and law-and-order conservatism. The brothers are small farmers in
conflict with big business and corrupt government, and so they represent the
grievances of everyone victimized by business and government. Yet the film
goes only so far in its populism, for Twentieth Century-Fox is not preaching
rebellion or even reform. Jesse’s first clash with the law stems from protecting his mother ( Jane Darwell) and her farm from the deceptive and violent
emissaries of the St. Louis–Midland Railway. He is completely justified in
his resistance. From this point on, Jesse’s antagonist is the railroad and its
lying, cheating, cowardly president, Mr. McCoy (Donald Meek). When Jesse
agrees to serve jail time in return for a reduced sentence, McCoy subverts the
agreement and arranges a quick, guaranteed hanging, but Frank breaks Jesse
out of jail. The James gang goes on to rob the railroad, its affiliated bank,
and other, unrelated businesses. Finally, Jesse is killed by a gang member
(played by John Carradine), who is after the reward plus amnesty promised
by McCoy. Given this trajectory, Jesse has the respect and rooting interest of his friends and neighbors (and the audience) but not their complete
agreement because he has gone beyond protecting his family and righting
obvious wrongs. We understand that Jesse must die because of the historical ending of the tale (which many in the audience would know) as well as
the Motion Picture Production Code (which said that wrongdoing must
be punished).
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The film’s populist flavor is caught by the funeral oration for Jesse given
by his father-in-law, outspoken newspaper editor Rufus Cobb (Henry Hull):
There ain’t no question about it, Jesse was an outlaw, a bandit, a criminal.
Even those that loved him ain’t got no answer for that. But we ain’t ashamed
of him. . . . Maybe it’s because he was bold and lawless, like we all of us like
to be sometimes. Maybe it’s because we understand he wasn’t all to blame
for what the times made him. Maybe it’s because for more than ten years
he licked the tar out of five states. Or maybe it’s because he was so good at
what he was doing. I do know he was one of the doggonedest, goldingest,
gadblingest buckaroos that ever rode across these United States of America.
Stanley and Livingstone (1939) is about the reporter Henry M. Stanley’s lengthy search in Tanganyika and other parts of East Africa for the
missionary doctor David Livingstone. This film includes some location
footage shot in Kenya, Uganda, and Tanganyika, though Spencer Tracy
(playing Henry M. Stanley), Walter Brennan (playing Stanley’s assistant
Jeff Slocum), and Sir Cedric Hardwicke (playing David Livingstone) did
not make the trip to Africa. Tracy and Brennan are sometimes represented
in the location footage as two white men in safari suits seen in long shot
and from the rear. Stanley is a great adventurer, in love with his job as ace
reporter for the sensationalist New York World, owned by James Gordon
Bennett (played by Henry Hull). The film does a nice job of matching
footage from California and footage from Africa. It also has a populist side,
for Stanley and Bennett are competing with a British newspaper publisher,
the aristocratic Lord Tice, and it turns out that Stanley, despite his American accent, was once a destitute orphan in England.
Jesse James and Stanley and Livingstone considered together highlight
the strengths and weaknesses of Henry King as director. Both films are
crisp, clear, and fast-paced, and they are organized around plot and action
rather than symbolism or ideas. Jesse James includes some impressive
action scenes, and Stanley and Livingstone’s visual interest is enhanced by
the African footage. The unresolved question of Jesse’s moral or immoral
character shows King’s tolerance for ambiguity, as well as Tyrone Power’s
good/bad guy image, and the theme of Stanley’s unrealized love for Eve
Kingsley (Nancy Kelly) demonstrates subtlety. King fails in his attempt to
show Stanley’s newfound spirituality after the encounter with the saintly
Livingstone—a slight upward glance and swelling music cannot simulate
inspiration. But overall King seems to be a fine interpreter of scripts with
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a taste for taut, uncluttered scenes and a good rapport with actors. He is,
therefore, a good partner for creative producer Darryl Zanuck, who had
much to do with shaping the scripts.
Young Mr. Lincoln was a collaboration between screenwriter Lamar Trotti
(Fox’s specialist in historical and biographical subjects), producer Darryl
Zanuck, and director John Ford. As historian J. E. Smyth has shown, Trotti’s version of Abraham Lincoln intelligently blends the historically known
Lincoln, the myth of Lincoln, and extrapolations based on both history and
myth.44 Trotti’s script can be fragmented and allusive because it assumes
the viewer already knows some basic facts about Lincoln. Darryl Zanuck
supported Trotti’s unique approach while also trying to make the script
more dramatic. And Zanuck, according to Smyth, was responsible for
the exact form of the ending. Trotti had envisioned an ending of Lincoln
“talking to God and being shown the consequences of his future,” a religious/hagiographic scene at odds with the overall tone of the film. Zanuck
changed this to a lingering shot of a rainy landscape (in the diegetic world
of the film), followed by a cut to the Lincoln Memorial in Washington,
DC—representing the evolution of Lincoln’s image from “the real” to “the
Without denying the important contributions of Trotti and Zanuck, it
seems clear that John Ford gave Young Mr. Lincoln much of its humanistic strength. He presents with great warmth and subtlety an American
small-town past—Springfield, Illinois, in the first half of the nineteenth
century—complete with a Fourth of July parade and a threatened lynching. His version of Lincoln is a flawed yet promising young man, a gifted
lawyer and speaker who is as yet not confident in his gifts. Ford described
the character to Henry Fonda like this: “You are being asked to act like a
young squirt of a lawyer who hasn’t got a penny to his name and is just
trying to make something of himself in the big wide world.”46 Fonda had
the impressive ability of suggesting modesty in his characters—even when
he, Fonda, was earning thousands of dollars a week—and he brought this
crucial quality to the role of Lincoln.
Ford is a visually superb director. The short sequence involving Ann
Rutledge, and then Ann’s grave, is beautifully understated and sad. It shows
Lincoln’s experience with love, and loss, and the rebirth signaled by spring.
The background image of ice breaking up on the river is every bit as important as Lincoln communing with Ann in the foreground. The ball scene
featuring Springfield “society” is one of many extraordinary dance or ball
scenes in John Ford’s films—he found their mixture of social ritual and
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individual desire to be endlessly fascinating. In Young Mr. Lincoln, the tall,
awkward, lower-class, and physically odd Lincoln is invited to the ball by
Mary Todd, a charming, chatty, and socially prominent young woman.
Lincoln does not voluntarily dance; he prefers to tell stories to an audience of old men, thereby skipping the highly charged courtship aspects of
the ball. When Mary Todd cajoles him onto the dance floor, he displays
his unfamiliarity with the conventions of ballroom dancing. Mary Todd
confirms Lincoln’s self-deprecating comment that he is a poor dancer, but
his “problem” might actually indicate class difference: Lincoln’s folksy, energetic style does not mix with the more formal and controlled dancing of
middle-class society. The movements and rhythms of the scene are greatly
enhanced by bright, cheery lighting, suggesting wealth and confidence;
by elaborate camera movements in a film that is otherwise conservative
in framing; and by such small details as the wallpaper, which makes the
ballroom stand out from simpler interiors in the rest of the film. Another
layer of this scene is the viewer’s knowledge that Mary Todd will eventually
become Mrs. Lincoln.
If Henry King is an excellent interpreter of scripts, John Ford is much
more than that. Ford can be described as a multidimensional filmmaker, especially gifted as a chronicler of community. “Home” and “family” have tremendous resonance in his films, which also means that loneliness is deeply
felt. Further, the director has a knack for presenting larger and more abstract
communities—for example, town, state, country, ethnic group—through
concrete examples, as in the courtroom scenes and the Fourth of July parade
of Young Mr. Lincoln. Ford often brings a scene to life with a visual detail—
for example, the ice breaking up on the river as Lincoln mourns his first
wife. Darryl Zanuck recognized Ford’s talents and therefore assigned him
to many of Fox’s most promising scripts, including Drums along the Mohawk
(1939), Young Mr. Lincoln (1939), The Grapes of Wrath (1940), and How Green
Was My Valley (1941). Ford and Zanuck recognized each other’s achievements, with Ford calling Zanuck a “genius. . . head and shoulders above all
other producers” and Zanuck declaring in 1968, “In reviewing all the work
of the many directors I have finally come to the conclusion that John Ford
is the best director in the history of motion pictures.”47
Case Study: Shirley Temple and Wee Willie Winkie (1937)
Shirley Temple was born in Southern California in 1928. She made a
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tures” in 1932 and 1933 and signed a contract with Fox Film Corporation in
1934. This was before the Fox–Twentieth Century merger, so Temple was
originally a protégée of Winfield Sheehan, not Darryl F. Zanuck. Temple
almost immediately became the leading star, not only at Fox, but also in the
American film industry as a whole. Between 1934 and 1938 she was listed
as Hollywood’s number one box-office attraction in the trade paper Film
Daily’s yearly poll. Her importance to a struggling company just emerging
from bankruptcy cannot be overstressed.
What were the reasons for Shirley’s amazing popularity? She was, of
course, a strikingly pretty child, with curly hair, a winning smile, and an
infectious laugh. She was also an acting prodigy: she understood her lines,
she sang, she danced, she did everything remarkably well. Temple could
steal a scene from even the most accomplished actor; Adolphe Menjou, her
costar in Little Miss Marker (1934), described her as “an Ethel Barrymore
at four.”48 Both children and adults must have marveled at her abilities, for
one does not become the top box-office star by appealing to children alone.
But Temple’s popularity also derived from the kinds of problems she solves
in her nineteen feature films of the 1930s (seventeen at Fox, two on loan at
Paramount). In film after film, Temple brings lovers and families together
and overcomes economic hardships. Sometimes she is an orphan at the beginning of a film and part of a happy family at the end. In many films she
solves economic problems for adults as well as for herself. For example, in
both The Little Colonel (1935) and Wee Willie Winkie she reconciles her penniless mother with her stubborn grandfather. At the beginning of Rebecca
of Sunnybrook Farm, her stepfather takes her to a rich aunt because he is
not able to support her—but her point of view is that she is tired of taking
care of her stepfather, and though this is humorous, it is also true. In many
films she takes care of adults, and children as well: she breaks down social
barriers, she provides emotional support, and she earns money for food and
shelter. In the context of the Depression, Shirley Temple is a magical figure
because everything she touches turns out right.
Temple’s unifying presence even diminishes the gap between white and
black races in America. In The Little Colonel, she dances a lovely duet with
Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, the great African American tap dancer, at a
time when black actors appeared only in stereotyped, limited roles in Hollywood films. Not only does the duet suggest equality, but Robinson, as
the adult, is teaching Temple the child. Robinson danced with Temple in
three more films, and for Dimples (1936) he did the choreography, including
one performance featuring Temple with two African American dancers.
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However, one should not imagine Twentieth Century-Fox as an island of
racial equality in a sea of prejudice. Fox was also the studio of actor Stepin
Fetchit in the 1930s, and Fetchit (even the pseudonym is insulting) typically
played comically stupid and lazy African American characters. Also, the
nondancing scenes of The Little Colonel—in other words, the vast majority
of the film—are full of rough jests aimed at black characters, including the
butler played by Bill Robinson.
Graham Greene started a whirlwind of controversy in 1937 when he
claimed that Shirley Temple’s stardom had much to do with sex appeal. The
idea was that older adult men would be attracted to such a beautiful and
smart yet unthreatening child.49 Greene was harshly criticized for this view,
but in 1975 film historian Jeannine Basinger presented it as one of Temple’s
audience appeals. Basinger notes Temple’s “constantly kissing little mouth”
and describes her habit of sitting on fatherly or grandfatherly laps as at least
potentially sexual.50 In a 2009 essay Ara Osterweil elaborated on Greene
and Basinger, describing Temple’s films in terms of “the obsessive looking at,
eroticizing and idealizing of the child body.”51 Shirley Temple as sex object
is definitely a part of the early Educational Pictures shorts, where young
boys five or six years old wear diapers and similarly aged girls in elaborate
and sexy dress (including Marlene Dietrich–style cross-dressing) play the
roles of adults. Connotations from the shorts probably carried over to the
Twentieth Century-Fox feature films, but it seems doubtful that Temple’s
primary appeal was “pedophilic” (a term used by Osterweil).52 Audiences
interact with movies in all sorts of ways; however, the Shirley Temple features
have been widely acclaimed as wholesome, mainstream entertainments.
In the late 1930s, Temple’s films moved away from the most stereotyped
material—for example, Shirley as orphaned waif—and toward more ambitious subject matter. Wee Willie Winkie places Shirley on the Indian-Afghan
frontier circa 1900, Heidi presents her in the Swiss Alps, Susannah of the
Mounties finds her in a frontier area of Northwest Canada, and The Blue
Bird features her in an elaborate musical based on a folktale. Wee Willie
Winkie and Heidi were successes, but the later Susannah of the Mounties
and The Bluebird were failures, and by 1939 Temple had slipped to fifth on
the Film Daily box-office ratings; in 1940 she fell out of the top ten. At
this point, Zanuck and Joseph Schenck evidently concluded that Temple’s
stardom would not survive puberty, and so they did not renew her contract.
This seems to be an abrupt and even cruel ending for Fox’s top attraction of the 1930s, and one wonders why such a talented, intelligent, and
level-headed child star was given so little chance to make the transition to
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adult star. Shirley Temple’s autobiography suggests that Zanuck never liked
her or felt close to her, even when she was riding high.53 Perhaps Zanuck,
who had an enormous ego, felt threatened by Temple’s amazing success. Or
perhaps Zanuck and Schenck were just being hard-headed businessmen in
dropping Temple as her box-office numbers lagged.
The most interesting Shirley Temple film, and her personal favorite as
well, was Wee Willie Winkie. Instead of playing safe with his number one
star, in this case Darryl Zanuck put her into a picture of some substance
and teamed her with director John Ford and costar Victor McLaglen.
Further, Zanuck told a story conference that he expected a naturalistic
performance from Temple, instead of overplaying and scene-stealing: “All
the hokum must be thrown out.”54 The unusual combination of McLaglen
and Temple worked, with the interaction between the large, rough Irishman and the tiny child star creating both funny and moving scenes. Ford
Wee Willie Winkie advertisement. Author’s personal collection.
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enjoyed working with the child star, and some years later he found a part
for the young adult actress Temple in Fort Apache (1949). Further, Wee Willie
Winkie stands out from the other Shirley Temple films because it is not
another heartwarming comedy-drama of a little girl overcoming misery;
instead, it fits into a genre of colonial adventures that film historians have
labeled “Empire cinema.”
The American film industry of the 1930s made a number of stories
about British imperialism. According to historian Prem Chaudhry, the
most popular titles in this cycle were The Lives of a Bengal Lancer (1935),
The Charge of the Light Brigade (1936), Wee Willie Winkie (1937), and Gunga
Din (1939), along with the British film The Drum (1938).55 Jeffrey Richards,
another film historian, lists more than twenty motion pictures produced by
Hollywood studios between 1930 and 1939 in his filmography of Empire
films, as well as numerous British productions.56 Fox Film Corporation
may actually have started the cycle in 1929 with The Black Watch (directed by John Ford), and Twentieth Century Pictures contributed Clive of
India (1935). Twentieth Century-Fox films in this genre included Under
Two Flags (1936), Wee Willie Winkie, Four Men and a Prayer (1938), The
Rains Came (1939), and Stanley and Livingstone (1939). After 1939, Empire
films made in Hollywood or England became less common, at least in part
because of objections from the British government, but occasional titles
still appeared, for example, Kim (1951), Bhowani Junction (1955), The Rains
of Ranchipur (1955, a remake of The Rains Came), Zulu (1963), and The Man
Who Would Be King (1975).
Rudyard Kipling’s short story “Wee Willie Winkie,” first published in
1888, tells the story of Percival William Williams, six and three-quarters years
old, who lives on the Afghan frontier with an army regiment commanded by
his father, Colonel Williams. Nicknamed Wee Willie Winkie (based on the
nursery rhyme), he becomes a hero when he saves Miss Allardyce (a young
woman living on the army base) from Pashtun tribesmen. He speaks to them
in their own language, which he learned from a stable groom, warning them
that the regiment will severely punish the surrounding villages if he and Miss
Allardyce are kidnapped. While the tribesmen are discussing this, a group
of soldiers gallops up, resolving the drama. Aside from the humor of a sixyear-old saving the day, the story suggests that young Winkie understands
exactly how to threaten and persuade nonwhites and therefore that British
imperialism has a bright future in India.
Twentieth Century-Fox’s version of Wee Willie Winkie, written by Julien
Josephson and Ernest Pascal, is for a variety of reasons a loose adaptation
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of the Kipling story. For one thing, the story is quite short, and the filmmakers needed to add material to bring it up to one hundred minutes.
Many incidents are added about the life of the military base, and there
are a few scenes of the Pashtun fort as well. Jeanine Basinger praises the
“authentic re-creation of locale” in the film,57 but what she probably means
is that some of the outdoor shots were filmed in the hills of Chatsworth,
California (an area used for many western films), rather than on a studio
back lot. The Pashtun chief Khoda Khan is played by Cesar Romero, who
is from the wrong ethnic background, but at least Khoda Khan is presented
as a strong, admirable leader. The other named nonwhite character is the
servant Mohammed Dihn, a stereotyped comic figure played by Willie
Fung, an ethnic Chinese who worked extensively in Hollywood films.
The most important change in the story is the gender of Private Winkie;
instead of a little boy playing at soldiers, Winkie becomes a smart and
well-spoken little girl. Shirley Temple’s character in the film is actually
named Priscilla Williams, and she is an American girl who comes to the
Northwestern frontier of India with her mother Joyce ( June Lang). They
venture to a military outpost to live with Colonel Williams (C. Aubrey
Smith), commander of a British regiment, who is Priscilla’s grandfather.
Joyce’s connection to Colonel Williams is daughter-in-law, rather than
daughter, but as a penniless widow she needs his support. For an American spectator, the family relationship between Priscilla, Joyce, and Colonel
Williams reinforces the film’s pro-British viewpoint. The familiar, genrespecific quality of the film is enhanced by the casting of C. Aubrey Smith,
who played a British officer in Clive of India, The Lives of a Bengal Lancer,
Four Men and a Prayer (1938), The Four Feathers (1939), and The Sun Never
Sets (1939).
The combination of McLaglen and Temple creates fascinating story
dynamics. McLaglen plays Sergeant MacDuff, a noncommissioned officer
in the Scottish regiment commanded by Colonel Williams. This character,
who does not exist in Kipling’s story, becomes the friend and protector of
the bored Priscilla and gives her the name Wee Willie Winkie. McLaglen
simplifies his performance for comic effect and also to reach an audience that
includes children. The film is full of rough jests—for example, MacDuff as
boxing instructor knocking out one of his soldier-pupils. MacDuff is almost
childlike, and Priscilla is a smart and mature preteen, so they find a common
ground of friendship. However, there is one excellent scene where Ford,
McLaglen, and Temple play with the different understandings of children
and adults. MacDuff is grievously wounded after leading a patrol against
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the Pashtuns. Priscilla comes to visit him, a big smile on her face because
she doesn’t comprehend that he is dying. She brings a small bouquet of
flowers that disappears into MacDuff ’s enormous hand. Then she sings him
the Scottish song “Auld Lang Syne” in a high, clear voice with absolutely
no accompaniment; this sad moment is the only “musical number” in the
film. MacDuff closes his eyes, and Priscilla thinks he is sleeping, but he is
dead. In a few seconds the film cuts to his funeral. This gentle, sad scene
shows us that children don’t understand death, that they are not equipped
to understand it.
Andrew Sarris, in his book The John Ford Movie Mystery, says that Wee
Willie Winkie was a “notorious assignment” for John Ford because “as the
supposed Irish patriot of The Informer and The Plough and the Stars he was
compelled to perpetuate Hollywood’s glorification of C. Aubrey Smith’s
British Empire.”58 Although Sarris’s provocative statement is too simple, it
is not totally off base. Ford did see the world from an Irish perspective, and
yet he made more than one film with British colonial soldiers as heroes. A
more nuanced ideological summary of Wee Willie Winkie would be that a
few scenes suggest that Ford and his collaborators were not entirely sold on
the British colonial adventure, but overall the film affirms British rule in
India. However, since ideology is a complicated matter, it is worth examining the film’s attitudes in detail.
In the very first scene, Priscilla and her mother are on a train in northern India. Priscilla asks her mother if her grandfather is an Indian. Joyce
responds: “No, he’s an Englishman, a colonel in the Army.” Priscilla wants
to know “Then why doesn’t he live in England?” Joyce answers, “Because
Queen Victoria transferred him.” The conversation presents a child’s comic
and naïve questions, and the adult doesn’t really answer them. But on another
level, these are very good questions, and they signal that the film will reassess
some basic assumptions about nationality and empire. Unlike her mother
and grandfather, Priscilla doesn’t take colonialism for granted.
Among the soldiers, only the commanding officer has a rationale for
why the British are fighting Khoda Khan and other tribal leaders. Colonel
Williams says that “England wants to be friends with all her people” but
that outside the fort’s perimeter are savages who, if not stopped, will attack
and pillage the entire subcontinent of India. The logic is fascinating and
only slightly hidden. Either one is part of England’s people, which means
subject to the queen, her government, and her army, or one is a savage. Sergeant MacDuff, representing the lower ranks of the army, says that Khoda
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the merger, 1935–1939 41
ternational relations. For him soldiering is a job, and his primary loyalty is
to the regiment rather than to queen and country. Ford makes a point of
showing that MacDuff and his men are Scottish, not English, and they
may even have some resentment toward the English. For example, at one
point the enlisted men make Private Mott (a young boy, playing a character
similar to Private Winkie in Kipling’s story) swear an oath that includes a
phrase about “the unburied dead at Culloden,” Culloden being a battle of
the Highland Scots against the English. Nevertheless, this Scottish regiment loyally defends British interests in India.
For Colonel Williams and others in the regiment Khoda Khan is a bad
guy, but Priscilla has met Khoda Khan and she has a different impression.
She calls Khoda Khan a “nice gentleman,” and she doesn’t blame him for
wanting to escape from prison. Khoda Khan calmly and rationally tells
her he is not sorry he stole rifles from the English, he is only sorry he got
caught. To the high-ranking officers who interrogate him he will say only
“I ask nothing and I give nothing.” Khan doesn’t recognize the authority of
the British Raj, therefore he has nothing to say. When Khoda Khan escapes
and Sergeant MacDuff is killed in the ensuing battle, Priscilla decides she
needs to talk to Khan in order to stop the killing. The duplicitous Mohammed Dinh takes her to Khoda Khan’s stronghold, more or less kidnapping
her. The regiment naturally prepares for battle, but since a frontal approach
on the stronghold would be suicidal, Colonel Williams approaches alone.
Impressed by Priscilla’s sincerity and her grandfather’s courage, Khoda Khan
evidently makes peace with the British.
We cut away from the beginning of the Williams-Khan conversation, but
in a final scene the Scottish soldiers drill in their camp with Khoda Khan
and his tribesmen sitting peacefully as spectators. The spatial positioning
of this scene delivers the film’s political ideas in microcosm. Behind the
tribesmen are British ladies, suggesting how safe the frontier has suddenly
become (there is, however, a low fence between tribesmen and ladies, so
class/racial barriers have not entirely disappeared). Both Indian cavalry
and Scottish infantry pass by, with Colonel Williams and Priscilla standing
together and reviewing the troops. The Pashtun tribesmen have agreed, at
least provisionally, to be friends with the English, and in a few years they
may be marching with the other soldiers.
This “reading” of Wee Willie Winkie can be enhanced if we consider the
meanings and strategies associated with Shirley Temple in previous films.
As mentioned above, Temple was not just a superb child actress, she was
also a magical problem solver. So when Shirley Temple goes to the North5AQ6A2A095AI2EA2D0AI2P0T 3-S,9DA=IP?F 8F-P0=1A=01 :IEQA01E2T-%9AS=160A11 60-PA12

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west Frontier Province of India, a place that has always repelled outside
authority, her fans expect that she will take care of whatever problems
arise. The death of Sergeant MacDuff is unexpected and moving precisely
because it is beyond the magical star’s control. But, overall, Temple does
solve an intractable geopolitical problem. Exactly how this happens is a
bit murky, for the scenes of negotiation have been excised from the plot.
However, it seems that Shirley Temple’s legend, along with the logic of
British imperialism, creates at least a temporary rapprochement between
the British and the Pashtuns.
Though the film of Wee Willie Winkie corrects some of the sexism of
Kipling’s story, it is not really a feminist work. There is no helpless “damsel
in distress” in the film; instead, Priscilla chooses to visit Khoda Khan. Priscilla is an active, intelligent heroine, but she is also Shirley Temple, and thus
the “proper” roles of middle-class femininity do not apply to her. Much of
Temple’s appeal comes from her far-from-ordinary womanhood: she is a
fairy, a good witch, an exceptional being. When Temple grew up she lost
most of this exceptionality, and thus she quickly lost her star quality. The
more typical female role in the film is played by June Lang, who is polite,
deferential, and dependent on her father-in-law.
One should not interpret the ideological themes of Wee Willie Winkie as
applying only or even primarily to the actual political situation in India in
1937. Instead, the general message aimed at American and European spectators is reassurance: peace is possible, disputes can be resolved, authority is
benevolent, traditional gender roles are still in place. Empire cinema presents
all of this very well. Still, with Shirley Temple’s skeptical intelligence as Priscilla, Cesar Romero’s dignified performance as Khoda Khan, Victor McLaglen’s comic bravura as MacDuff, and John Ford’s thoughtful direction, Wee
Willie Winkie avoids some of the excesses of the genre.
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Wartime Prosperity, 1940–1945
Mogul at Work
B y the first half of the 1940s, Twentieth Century-Fox had established itself
as one of the three most powerful studios in Hollywood, along with MGM
and Paramount; this was the same triumvirate that had dominated the
late 1920s, except that William Fox was long gone and Fox Film had
merged with Twentieth Century. At the Fox production studio Darryl
Zanuck had assembled an impressive group of stars, with Gene Tierney,
Betty Grable, Clifton Webb, Carmen Miranda, Linda Darnell, and others
joining the already successful Tyrone Power, Alice Faye, Sonja Henie, Henry
Fonda, and Don Ameche. Henry Hathaway, Elia Kazan, Otto Preminger,
and Joseph L. Mankiewicz enhanced the list of top directors at the studio,
with Preminger doubling as a producer and Mankiewicz serving as a talented
writer-director. Studio budgets were up, and Fox in the 1940s made a greater
number of Technicolor features than any of its competitors. The company
lost half a million dollars in 1940—probably because of a lack of access to
European markets as Nazi Germany took over much of the Continent—but
was solidly profitable for the rest of the decade. The theater chain was also
doing well under the supervision of Spyros, Charles, and George Skouras.
National Theaters had sufficient confidence in the future to start an ambitious schedule of building new theaters and renovating old ones.
According to George Custen, “The 1940s belonged to Darryl Zanuck.”1
Darryl F. Zanuck was certainly one of the most successful production executives of the time, and he was unique in the scope of his responsibilities.
Basically, Zanuck tried to be a working filmmaker as well as the manager
of a large and complex organization, whereas such contemporaries as Louis
B. Mayer and Jack Warner took a less hands-on approach. Zanuck’s creative duties were something like Irving Thalberg’s at MGM in the 1930s.
Film historian Thomas Schatz describes Thalberg as running a “centralized
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producer system,” having oversight of MGM’s A productions as well as
supervising about a third of the productions himself.2
Zanuck was similarly
the creative producer in charge of all of Fox’s A pictures. He was very active
in the preproduction and postproduction aspects of filmmaking but rarely
appeared on a set, leaving day-to-day production work in the hands of Fox’s
directors. Zanuck was such a hands-on supervisor that in the late 1930s the
studio’s credits always listed him as “Executive in Charge of Production” and
then omitted a producer credit; Kenneth Macgowan, Raymond Griffith, and
others were listed as associate producers. Beginning about 1940 these same
men began to get producer credits, perhaps to bring Fox into line with its
Hollywood competitors. However, Zanuck himself was listed as producer for
half a dozen films per year, and he worked on many others without taking
a producer credit.
Zanuck was also an administrator, responsible for thousands of employees, the studio’s physical plant, and the year’s overall production schedule.
He had to consult with Executive Head of Production Joseph Schenck
plus the studio president in New York on big-ticket items like renewing a
star’s contract or buying the rights to a hit Broadway show, but because of
his track record, Zanuck usually got what he wanted. One could say that
Zanuck at Fox took on the duties of Irving Thalberg and Louis B. Mayer
and to some extent Harry Rapf, which is remarkable because at MGM even
Thalberg’s job was considered too much for one man (in the 1920s Thalberg and Rapf split the supervision of MGM’s productions; by the early to
mid-1930s, Thalberg was in charge of the studio’s A productions and Rapf
was mainly working with B films).3
When Irving Thalberg died in 1936 his
studio ended centralized production and empowered its producers, giving
them creative responsibility for individual films. Zanuck kept centralized
production alive until the 1950s, although the degree of his involvement
varied from project to project. Otto Preminger, for example, reports that
after the success of Laura (1944) Zanuck generally left him alone.4
In preproduction, Zanuck read every script draft for every A film; this in
itself was a phenomenal amount of work. Unlike most of the other studio
production heads, Zanuck had a long experience as a writer and a producer,
so he was well prepared to guide writers through a scripting process. He
was not a great writer on his own—for example, Habit, his published collection of short fiction from 1923, is not impressive—but he was an excellent script doctor. He was very good at shaping the plot, character, and pace
of a script, and he was less concerned about nuances of theme or fidelity to
a historical or fictional source. Zanuck’s frequent script conferences with
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wartime prosperity, 1940–1945 45
writers and directors seem to have been mainly lectures, with the studio
head speaking at length on the strengths and weaknesses of the script, often
suggesting solutions to problems. A stenographer took down Zanuck’s
speeches for later reference by the writers; in an amusing demonstration of
the boss’s power, the comments of others are almost never recorded in the
notes for these conferences.5
However, one should not imagine Zanuck as
a tyrant squelching the creative process and telling everyone exactly what
to do. Writers at Fox learned that they needed to pay attention to Zanuck’s
comments, but they were welcome to propose alternate solutions to the
issues that he raised. Longtime collaborators such as Nunnally Johnson and
Philip Dunne found this to be a stimulating rather than constricting way to
work, and they credited Zanuck with making their scripts better.
Like other Hollywood executives, Zanuck would spend evenings and
sometimes early mornings viewing the rushes (unedited footage from that
day’s filming) of motion pictures in progress at the studio. This is a way to
be sure that productions are proceeding smoothly, that performances are acceptable, that technical details are right. Zanuck also put tremendous effort
into supervising the cutting of Fox films, viewing the rough cuts and fine
cuts and making voluminous suggestions. He always screened the various
versions of a film with his trusted assistant Barbara “Bobbie” McLean, an
editor whom he valued for her sense of story and audience as well as her
technical expertise. Director Robert Wise, an Academy Award–winning
editor himself (for Citizen Kane, 1941), was astonished by the thoroughness
and acuity of Zanuck’s response to the rough cut of Two Flags West (1950),
the first film Wise directed at Fox. During the projection Zanuck was completely silent, which evidently was different from Wise’s experience with
other producers, but when the screening was over he spoke at great length
about every scene.6
Zanuck’s off-the-cuff lecture showed both a prodigious
memory and a concern for analyzing the film-in-progress as a whole.
Barbara McLean started at Fox Film as an assistant editor in 1924; she
retired from the studio in 1969 after editing thirty Darryl F. Zanuck productions and contributing to hundreds of other films. Her oral history with Tom
Stempel describes an exceptionally close working relationship with Zanuck.
They would watch films-in-progress together, with Zanuck touching her
arm when he didn’t like something; McLean would then write notes in the
dark, anticipating what he would later want to say. She admired Zanuck’s
ability to concentrate and his knack for working on several films at once,
and she shared his long, long hours. Her evenings with Zanuck often included returning to the studio after viewing a preview so they could get to
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46 twentieth century-fox
work immediately on the film they had seen.7
And she also had a “day job,”
editing many of Fox’s most important pictures. McLean and her husband
Robert Webb (first an assistant director, then director at the studio) were
fierce Zanuck loyalists with nothing but praise for their boss.8
Whether a studio head should closely supervise the editing of all pictures is
a complicated question. On the positive side, it does provide excellent quality
control for the company. Zanuck had read and approved the scripts for Fox’s
A films, and so by checking the editing he was assuring that the productions
had followed through on what was scripted. Zanuck’s supervision (though
he never took an editing credit) also assured a minimum level of quality and
pace. One danger of this approach was the risk of burnout for the head of
production, but for many years burnout did not seem to be an issue. A more
interesting question would be what, if anything, is lost when the director, or
writer-director, does not control the editing of the film. For John Ford this
was not a problem: he did not like to spend time in the cutting room, and
he was comfortable with Zanuck cutting his films. Ford was able to put his
stamp on a film by what he did with the performances and the visual style he
used. Also, like other top directors (Alfred Hitchcock, for one), Ford filmed
very few alternate angles for his scenes, so an editor was more or less forced to
follow the director’s conception of the scene. However, for a younger director like Elia Kazan, Zanuck’s insistence on controlling the editing of a film
was a constraint and an irritation. Kazan respected Zanuck, but he wanted
to get away from the role of “studio director,” and he especially valued the
right of final cut.9
Kazan seems to have had a concept of the director as total
filmmaker, someone who should be in charge of the script and the editing
as well as day-to-day work on the set or location.
Aside from supervising the script and the editing, Zanuck had other
responsibilities in the producing of films and the life of the studio. George
Custen lists some of them as follows: “He acquired the books, he fought to
get them made into movies, he cast the roles, he staffed the film’s production
team, he supervised the music, the sets. . . .”10 Zanuck himself, in a memo
addressed to Philip Dunne and William Wyler, once expressed an ideal
of creative collaboration involving producer, writer, and director. He said
he was
not the type of producer who stands on the side-lines and hires people
to express their views for him and takes the screen credit. I expect every
picture that I have been associated with to equally represent the views of
the writer, the director and myself.11
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Darryl Zanuck in 1952 with daughter Susan (left) and wife Virginia (right). Quigley Publishing
Company, a Division of QP Media, Inc./Quigley Photographic Archives, Georgetown University
Library Special Collections Research Center, Washington, DC.
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48 twentieth century-fox
Zanuck’s collaborators also mentioned his leadership abilities. He was enthusiastic, and he managed to communicate that enthusiasm for picture after
picture. Zanuck was usually fair in dealing with subordinates, he was funny,
and he inspired a feeling of camaraderie. Because of all these qualities, his
associates were willing to work long hours for him.
We should also discuss Zanuck the “mogul.” This long-established Hollywood term refers to the Muslim emperors of India circa 1700 (an alternate
spelling is “Mughal”), and specifically to their absolute power. The idea of
the film mogul is that studio bosses such as Zanuck, Mayer, and Jack Warner
could make or break careers and in other ways exert enormous influence over
their employees; they were therefore emperor-like. Zanuck did not have absolute power, but he did have a great deal of control over the Fox production
studio’s actors, writers, directors, musicians, and so forth, and he insisted on
the trappings of power. Zanuck’s huge office was always painted a specific
shade of green, known as “Zanuck green” at Fox. Behind the office was a
bedroom, used for afternoon naps to break up the long working day and also
used for sexual encounters with many of Fox’s aspiring actresses, singers, and
dancers. Zanuck’s children contest this part of their father’s biography, saying
that they were in and out of the “office bedroom” and therefore the sexual
liaisons are a myth, but most of Zanuck’s biographers report his afternoon
encounters as fact.12 Having a bedroom for casual sex at the office is certainly
mogul-like. There are also some kinder, gentler stories of Zanuck the mogul;
for example, he looked out for the emotionally frail Gene Tierney and tried
to adjust her production schedule to her health needs.
It is difficult to reconcile Zanuck as despot with the intensely collaborative nature of the movie business. How could such a dominant executive
work so successfully with others? All accounts agree that Zanuck surrounded himself with yes-men; indeed, Mel Gussow’s interview/biography is entitled Don’t Say Yes Until I Finish Talking. Zanuck, like many Hollywood
executives, showed favoritism to family and friends, hiring his son, his
sons-in-law, his French tutor, his ski instructor, and the best player on his
polo team to positions of responsibility at Fox. He also promoted some of
his buddies to jobs that were beyond their abilities; for example, Zanuck’s
close friend Gregory Ratoff was a good comic actor, but he probably should
not have been a producer and director. In contrast, Zanuck’s son Richard
became an outstanding Hollywood executive and an Oscar-winning producer, and French tutor Edward Leggewie became one of Fox’s top managers in Europe. Despite the yes-men and the trappings of power, Zanuck did
manage to listen to people. When his script ideas were wrong, he dropped
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wartime prosperity, 1940–1945 49
them. Lamar Trotti told a much-quoted story of Zanuck announcing a
plot cliché, “. . . and now her hate turns to love.” When he was challenged
by a writer, Zanuck almost immediately conceded the point: “All right, so
her hate doesn’t turn to love.”13 Though his story conferences were often
monologues—or at least they were transcribed that way—Zanuck respected the creativity and professionalism of the people he supervised at Fox.
The Theater Business
One of the ironies of Zanuck-as-legendary-mogul is that for most of his
career he was not the chief executive at Twentieth Century-Fox. Not surprisingly, there was considerable tension between the Hollywood “emperors”
and their corporate bosses, and one explanation for Zanuck and his peers’
insistence on the perquisites of being a studio boss is that they resented having
any supervision at all. The moguls did have a degree of independence from
“New York” because of their highly valued expertise plus the influence of
geography (the continent separating Los Angeles from the East Coast). In
some cases salaries reflected the importance of the West Coast managers,
with Mayer and Thalberg earning more than Nicholas Schenck because of
a bonus arrangement and Darryl Zanuck earning more in straight salary
than Sidney Kent or Spyros Skouras. Zanuck also owned a large block of
Twentieth Century-Fox shares, enhancing his power within the company.
The moguls were clearly important at the corporate level, but the power and
the responsibilities of the New York executives have been unjustly neglected
by film historians.
To understand Spyros Skouras and his power, it is important to further
describe the theater business that dominated Twentieth Century-Fox’s balance
sheet. Fox’s core business was selling a structured entertainment experience
to hundreds of millions of customers around the world and creating regular
customers who would buy tickets week after week after week. Feature films
and to some extent short films (serials, newsreels) were an essential part, but
only a part, of the moviegoing experience. Fox and its competitors also built,
bought, and leased theaters, trying to “cover” a city, metropolitan area, or region
for maximum profit. They designed, renovated, and maintained theaters to
make going to the movies convenient and pleasurable. Fox hired and trained
staff, which in the largest movie palaces was considerable. It planned a daily
and weekly program for each theater, which could include live entertainment,
newsreels, and shorts as well as feature films. It organized a yearly schedule of
releases, in coordination with the production studio, to ensure that the first5AQ6A2A095AI2EA2D0AI2P0T 3-S,9DA=IP?F 8F-P0=1A=01 :IEQA01E2T-%9AS=160A11 60-PA12

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50 twentieth century-fox
run theaters had major films opening at the most propitious times of year. It
orchestrated advertising and publicity. It rented films to other theaters and
theater chains, making sure, however, that the strongest Fox pictures played
prominently in its own first-run theaters. It also rented and exhibited films
made by its competitors. Fox created and sustained about fifty branch offices
in North America and several dozen additional offices all over the world to
control the advertising, distribution, and exhibition of its movies. We now
think of Twentieth Century-Fox as synonymous with movie production, but
in the 1930s and 1940s production was a way to supply Fox’s theater chain,
which was the company’s main business.
An important component of Fox’s distribution and exhibition operation
was “showmanship,” meaning ideas that would help a theater manager attract
an audience. Sidney Kent had explained to his Harvard audience in 1927 that
a salesman with superior promotional ideas could legitimately charge more
money than one with ordinary ideas for the same motion picture.14 Fox’s
pressbooks from the 1930s and 1940s are loaded with promotional ideas as
well as sample advertisements and information about films and movie stars.
Fox’s managers also understood that “showmanship” included the theater
building and the surrounding environment; to quote architect S. Charles
Lee, who designed a few hundred movie theaters with Fox as his main client,
“The show starts on the sidewalk.”15 “Showmanship” was so important to
Twentieth Century-Fox that it became the title of the studio theater chain’s
in-house weekly newsletter.
Spyros Skouras managed Fox’s distribution and exhibition businesses
and kept a watchful eye on Darryl Zanuck’s production studio from Fox
headquarters at 444 West Fifty-Sixth Street in Manhattan, an Art Deco
office building dating back to the William Fox era. Fox headquarters housed
the company’s distribution, sales, publicity, advertising, accounting, and
executive offices, an East Coast story department (for Broadway plays and
New York–based publications), an international department, and so on.
Playwright Arthur Miller described Skouras’s office like this:
[It] was about the size of a squash court, with the entire wall at one end
covered by a map of the world as a backdrop for the coffin-length executive
desk in front of it. On the map, Latin America was some ten feet long and
the other continents proportionately immense, all marked with many large
red stars where Fox offices were located.16
Skouras was proud of having visited every one of Fox’s international offices.
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wartime prosperity, 1940–1945 51
He was a confident executive and a film industry leader, especially in matters
involving distributor-exhibitor relations. An energetic and persuasive communicator, he was in touch by telephone, telegram, and letters with Darryl
Zanuck, Charles and George Skouras, Fox managers around the country
and the world, other people in the film industry, and a number of political,
religious, and business leaders. As a speaker Skouras was much in demand,
despite his heavy Greek accent; he frequently spoke at film industry events
and also to charities, political groups, and religious groups. In the late 1940s
he was strongly pro–United Nations and pro-Zionist and was welcomed as
a speaker by organizations supporting those causes.
The work of Fox’s large New York–based publicity department can give
a sense of the activities supervised by Skouras. The publicity department
organized the openings of Fox’s movies, finding ways to get free mentions
in the press to supplement the studio’s paid advertising. Publicists comSpyros Skouras in May 1942, about one month after he became president of Twentieth CenturyFox. Photo by Floyd Stone, Motion Picture Herald staff photographer. Quigley Publishing
Company, a Division of QP Media, Inc./Quigley Photographic Archives, Georgetown University
Library Special Collections Research Center, Washington, DC.
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52 twentieth century-fox
piled a pressbook for each of Fox’s movies, with prewritten articles, photos,
and displays made available to theaters, newspapers, and magazines. There
were many suggestions for special events and community activities that
could be linked to a film’s opening. Publicists dreamed up wild events to
get press attention, and Fox’s exploitation department helped to make these
events happen. Publicists fed items to entertainment columnists like Walter
Winchell and Dorothy Kilgallen, who were important shapers of public
opinion. Publicists arranged interviews with Fox actors, directors, producers, and executives, often with the specific aim of highlighting one film.
Publicists also arranged elaborate premieres, trying to make the premiere
itself a newsworthy event. Then, as now, New York was the national center
of media and culture, so the New York opening was crucial to the success
of a picture. Fox also had a field publicity unit (for other North American
cities) and an international publicity unit based in the New York office. The
West Los Angeles studio had a publicity department of its own, charged
with writing stories and interviews about the production process (many of
these went into pressbooks), working with Los Angeles columnists and
newspapers, hosting visiting reporters and celebrities, and so on.17
Film industry history looks very different from the exhibition side of the
business. It is not primarily about great films by great directors made for great
(or at least memorable) studio heads. It is instead about the theaters and the
business practices that made going to the movies enjoyable for the audience
and profitable for the movie company. For Fox Film Corporation and its
competitors, the big problem of the early 1930s was overcapacity; the movie
palaces built in the 1920s were too big and too expensive to operate given the
economic decline of 1932 and 1933. Some theaters closed, others went into
bankruptcy and reorganization, and others stayed open with reduced staffs.
Theater executives like the Skouras brothers found that they needed to offer
something extra to lure patrons to the theaters, and so an era of giveaways,
games, and contests began. Theaters gave away cash, trips, household goods,
coupons, and candy as “business stimulators.” Bank Night, a promotion based
on giving patrons prize money, was developed by Charles Urban Yeager, an
assistant district manager for Fox West Coast in Colorado.18 Often there was
live entertainment before the movies began—it could be a game like lotto, or
a vaudeville performance, or a lookalike contest. Theaters made great efforts
to cater to specific audience segments—for example, with matinees for children and “crying rooms” for mothers with babies.19 Some of this activity was
locally organized, but numerous suggestions about promotions and giveaways
came from large distributors and exhibitors such as Twentieth Century-Fox.
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When box-office receipts improved in the mid-1930s, exhibitors gradually
weaned their customers from a steady diet of extras.
Edward Hopper’s painting New York Movie (1939) suggests the extent to
which going to a movie theater was a rich pattern of experiences involving
much more than the scheduled motion picture. The picture shows a side
aisle, a wood-paneled wall, a corner of the seating area, and a small fragment of the image on-screen. We are looking at part of an ornate movie
palace, with carved wooden pillars, elaborate light fixtures, and interestingly textured walls, carpets, curtains, and seats. Everything is a bit run-down,
which is how a 1920s movie palace would probably look in 1939, and yet it is
mysterious and romantic as well. On the right side of the frame in the side
aisle we see a pretty female usher resting next to a light fixture; the point
of view suggests an unseen male in the back of the theater. The usher with
Edward Hopper’s painting New York Movie (1939). The Museum of Modern Art/Licensed by
Scala/Art Resource, NY.
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her blonde hair, tailored uniform, and high heels is the best-lit item in the
painting. On the left side of the frame is the auditorium; though darkened,
it affords a glimpse of plush red seats, dim ceiling lanterns, and a few barely
seen spectators. There is a black-and-white image on the screen, but what
little we can see of it is completely indecipherable. New York Movie presents
the artist’s personal vision, but it is also a remarkably detailed description
of moviegoing at a particular place and time. In this case, the movie theater
experience mainly involves the architecture, the interior design, and the
usher—not necessarily in that order—rather than the spectacle on screen.
It is important to note that this kind of structured environment did not
just happen; it was planned and implemented by companies like Twentieth
With improved business conditions in the late 1930s and early 1940s,
Twentieth Century-Fox began a building program on the West Coast. New
theaters were constructed in growing areas, and older theaters were renovated to ensure their style and glamour as entertainment destinations. The
ornate movie palaces of the 1920s were now out of fashion—too elaborate,
and too expensive to operate. The new style was “streamline design,” with
modernistic curves and spirals but relatively simple construction materials
and decorations. Movie theater exteriors often had striking, neon-lit masts
or pillars, sometimes incorporating the spirals of streamline design, to attract
the attention of motorists. For examples of this style built by Twentieth
Century-Fox, see the Academy Theater in Inglewood, California (1939),
or the Tower Theater in Fresno, California (also 1939).20 The building and
renovation program was supervised by Charles Skouras, president of National
Theaters, with support from his brother Spyros at the parent company in
New York. This building program was curtailed after Pearl Harbor because
war-related construction was strongly prioritized. Architect S. Charles Lee
did a few renovations around Los Angeles in the early 1940s, but his specialty
of designing motion picture theaters was so limited during the war years
that he opened a second office in Mexico City (Mexico was neutral during
World War II) to keep his company going.21
The movie theater became a different kind of community center during
World War II. First of all, it offered welcome entertainment and relaxation
to war workers who had money to spend but few places to spend it. Travel
was limited by gasoline rationing and restrictions on train travel, so people
stayed close to home and attended neighborhood or downtown movie theaters. Some theaters stayed open twenty-four hours a day to accommodate
three shifts of workers in defense plants. Movie theaters also offered infor5AQ6A2A095AI2EA2D0AI2P0T 3-S,9DA=IP?F 8F-P0=1A=01 :IEQA01E2T-%9AS=160A11 60-PA12

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wartime prosperity, 1940–1945 55
mation and persuasion about the war effort. Many film plots incorporated
war-related incidents and themes; this included not only combat movies
but also musicals, comedies, and dramas. Newsreels shown in theaters were
a popular and important part of war information. Twentieth Century-Fox
also distributed and exhibited a number of feature-length war documentaries, including United We Stand (1942), We Are the Marines (1942), Battle
of Russia (1943), and Desert Victory (1943). Movie theaters and movie stars
participated in selling war bonds and collecting for war-related charities;
the typical Fox release of the period includes the phrase “Buy War Bonds!”
in the credits.
Prestige Films
Twentieth Century-Fox’s success in the late 1930s allowed Darryl Zanuck
to focus on two big-budget, high-prestige adaptations of novels in 1940–
1941: The Grapes of Wrath and How Green Was My Valley. Both projects seem
driven by a desire to excel, to establish Fox as a company that was artistically
and culturally serious as well as commercially successful. Both films received
fine reviews and numerous awards while making good profits, so this inspired Zanuck to undertake another serious-minded film a few years later:
Wilson (1944), based on the life of American President Woodrow Wilson.
Wilson, too, received accolades, but box-office success did not follow.
John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath is a long, brilliant, angry novel that
became a controversial best-seller in 1939. It describes the desperate plight
of tenant farmers losing their farms in the Dust Bowl state of Oklahoma
and making the long trek to California, only to be exploited by large agricultural businesses paying starvation wages. Formally, the novel is innovative for its combination of two different types of chapters: those telling
the story of the Joad family’s migration from Oklahoma to California,
and those pausing to discuss history, politics, philosophy, religion, and the
natural world. The narrative and nonnarrative chapters work together to
present Steinbeck’s radical view of the Great Depression. Here are some
of his crucial ideas: (1) people respond first and foremost to their material
conditions of existence; (2) when the rich few force the poor many to the
brink of starvation, a violent correction is inevitable and necessary; and (3)
the poor will help each other spontaneously and courageously as the need
arises. The overall tone of the book may be gauged by the passage containing the title phrase: “In the souls of the people the grapes of wrath are
filling and growing heavy, growing heavy for the vintage” (chapter 25). The
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book is also very specific in describing death, birth, sex, and suffering; it is
physical in a way that no Hollywood film could be in 1940.
Darryl Zanuck bought the film rights to the novel soon after publication, a decision that in context seems courageous. The motion picture at this
time was an entertainment medium subject to various levels of censorship
and not protected by the First Amendment. The Motion Picture Production Code, strictly enforced since 1934, prohibited nudity, explicit sexuality,
brutality, and even such words as “hell,” “damn,” “S.O.B.,” “broad” (applied
to a woman), and “louse.” There were also political problems to consider.
The Hollywood studios were managed by conservative businessmen, most
of them (including Zanuck) belonging to the Republican Party, and they
were beholden to financial institutions and anxious to please local, state,
and federal levels of government. In 1940, the controlling stockholder in
Twentieth Century-Fox was still Chase National Bank, a company strongly
linked to the financial and political status quo. There was a real danger that
the film adaptation of The Grapes of Wrath would be discouraged or vetoed
by the Production Code Administration or by Chase National Bank.
And if it were to be made, it might face a storm of censorship and criticism
on release.
Nevertheless, Zanuck and screenwriter Nunnally Johnson set to work
and quickly created a script without physical explicitness or socialist commentary. Johnson’s script is primarily a family melodrama, describing terrible
threats and losses but also the ultimate survival of the Joad family. Most
strikingly, Johnson changed the ending of the novel. Steinbeck concludes
with the Joad family on the road, escaping a flood with no destination in
mind and no sense of how they will survive the winter. They shelter for the
night in a barn and find two other refugees, a young boy and his father; the
father is starving because he has given every bit of food to the boy. With
her mother’s urging Rosasharn Joad, who has just given birth to a stillborn
child, breastfeeds the emaciated and starving man. This ending combines
agony, release, and a solidarity that goes beyond convention or shame. The
ending absolutely could not be filmed in 1940, so Johnson substituted a more
positive episode from the middle of the book, where Ma Joad says “We’re
the people that live. We’ll go on forever, because we’re the people.” At this
point the Joads are still on the road, still in jeopardy, but at least Ma thinks
it will turn out all right. Johnson retained much of Steinbeck’s criticism of
agribusiness, but he also incorporated a crucial bit of advice from Zanuck
on the moral and political landscape of the movie—if the good institutions
the Joads encounter (e.g., the government camp) are really, really good, then
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the censors, banks, and politicians cannot complain too much about the bad
institutions (e.g., the big farmers exploiting migrant workers) being really,
really bad.22
Johnson and Zanuck created a script that was controversial enough to
interest audiences without offending powerful interests such as the banks
and the churches. Also, the great success of Steinbeck’s novel—it sold
more than half a million copies—helped ease the way for a film adaptation.
Winthrop Aldrich, president of Chase National Bank, told Zanuck at a
meeting in New York that he thought The Grapes of Wrath should be made
into a movie, so the bank was not a problem.23 The Production Code Administration in Los Angeles had no objections to the script but referred it
to the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America, also known
as the Hays Office, in New York because of political concerns. The Hays
Office asked for a few minor changes and otherwise supported the film,
even suggesting a tie-in with a report on migrant farmworkers recently
issued by the Public Affairs Committee, a group sponsored by the Alfred P.
Sloan Foundation.24 John Steinbeck himself was very encouraging. Early in
the scripting process, Steinbeck’s advice to Nunnally Johnson on adapting
The Grapes of Wrath was “Tamper with it.” Steinbeck explained that he had
already put the novel in the form he wanted, so an adaptor should now do
something different.25
The Grapes of Wrath is, like In Old Chicago, an epic film, but in this case
the epic has a tragic dimension. The film uses the Joad family to represent
the hundreds of thousands of tenant farmers and small businessmen displaced from Oklahoma, Kansas, Arkansas, and Texas and then mistreated
in California. It is the founding story of a people—the Okies—but it does
not bring their journey to resolution. Most of Steinbeck’s socialist commentary has disappeared, though there are a few scenes of workers organizing, and one memorable scene shows Tom Joad (Henry Fonda) asking,
“What is these Reds, anyway?” In the novel Tom gets an explanation, but
the film veers away without providing an answer. The film does include a
utopic sequence in a government-run camp, including the almost-inevitable John Ford dance scene—in this case the dance is organized and policed
by the Okies themselves. Much of the dance sequence was shot on location
in the Weedpatch government camp near Bakersfield, a camp managed
by Steinbeck’s friend Tom Collins.26 Director John Ford and the large cast
present an array of character responses to the catastrophic migration of the
Okies. Half-crazed Muley ( John Qualen) refuses to leave, even though
his house has been bulldozed and lawmen are hunting him. Tom Joad, the
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ex-preacher Casy ( John Carradine), and Ma Joad ( Jane Darwell) all slowly
work out what they need to do in the face of disaster. Ma’s priority is always
protecting the family, and she is pushed to extremes to do so. Casy figures
out that he needs to take care of his fellow men rather than an abstract
God, and so he helps to organize a strike. Tom has an instinctive idea of
justice, which leads him to avenge Casy’s death and in a sense to replace
him. Weather-beaten Pa Joad (Russell Simpson) has been terribly hurt by
the loss of the Oklahoma farm; he keeps moving doggedly but without initiative. Rosasharn is so focused on her pregnancy that she is able to get over
the desertion of her husband Connie Rivers (Eddie Quillan). The youngest
Joads, Ruthie (Shirley Mills) and Winfield (Darryl Hickman), marvel at
all the new experiences and fail to understand the family’s peril. Various
growers, policemen, and townspeople are not inherently evil but behave
evilly because they cannot imagine the Okies as human beings. There is,
however, a lovely scene in a diner where a waitress and two truckers let Pa
The Grapes of Wrath. Jane Darwell, Henry Fonda, and Russell Simpson. Author’s personal
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Joad buy a loaf of bread plus candy for the kids at a very low price because
they do empathize. Ford orchestrates the character development within a
number of short scenes, with whimsical moments breaking up the overall
tragic journey.
The visual style of this film benefits enormously from the presence of
Gregg Toland, who would also work with Ford on The Long Voyage Home
(United Artists, 1940). Toland is known especially for his experiments with
depth of field, in Citizen Kane and other films, and depth of field is part
of the style here: farm fields, cars going down the road, mountain vistas,
farmworker camps. Even more notable in the art direction and cinematography is a “lived-in” quality: the people look worn and stressed, the
clothes much mended, the buildings modest and run-down (except in the
government camp), the atmosphere sad. Toland worked extensively with
Alice Faye, in costume for Little Old New York, visits with Henry Fonda (left) and John Ford
(center) on the set of The Grapes of Wrath. Courtesy of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and
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grayscale in daylight scenes of the various camps. At times his cinematography resembled the famous Works Progress Administration photographs
of Appalachia by Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange. All the actors have
a weathered look, including movie star Henry Fonda. Some scenes were
filmed on location in California’s agricultural counties, but even the studio
shots have a quiet authenticity.
Occasionally Ford and Toland move to long shot to provide a philosophical perspective on the film’s action. The film’s last scenes feature two such
moments. After Tom tells Ma that he must leave but will become part of
the environment, the camera switches to an extreme long shot of Tom as a
tiny figure outlined on a ridge. At this point, Tom’s striving is so generalized
and mythicized that he is presented as a semiabstract figure. Then, after Ma’s
concluding speech in the car, there is a beautiful long shot of automobiles
driving down a mountain road in the dark, perhaps coming down the pass
leading from Arizona to the California border. As film historian-critic J. H.
Place has argued, throughout the film the shiny new cars and harvesters
belong to the hostile forces—to business and law enforcement—and the Okies
must make do with dilapidated, overloaded trucks.27 But in this ending shot
we assume the voyagers are Okies, traveling either in the film’s present or in
some future time. The darkness is soft and the vehicle lights coming down
the hill have a poetic quality. This shot, like Ma’s speech, quietly suggests
that the migrants will get where they are going, that despite the suffering
of the film’s plot there will be some kind of happy ending.
The Grapes of Wrath was Fox’s most successful film at the box office in
1940, and only modest objections were raised to its political themes. Frank
Nugent of the New York Times called the film “a great American motion
picture,” a work that caught much of the artistry and the anger of Steinbeck’s “great American novel.” Nugent specifically praised John Ford’s direction, Nunnally Johnson’s script, and “the almost incredible rightness of
the film’s casting.”28 One of the few negative responses to The Grapes of
Wrath film came from the left/liberal magazine the Nation, which reported
on the incongruity of a private New York preview of the film attended by
high society. The story noted that the ladies at this showing, including
Jane Darwell (the actress who plays Ma Joad), were conspicuously displaying their wealth; even the cost of the orchids they wore “might have kept
the Joads in sidemeat for a year.” Also, Chase National Bank, prominently
represented at the screening, stood to gain from controlling “the Western
land companies that tractored the Joads, and thousands like them, off their
farms.”29 The magazine story is correct to point out the contradictions of
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Twentieth Century-Fox’s sympathy for the little guy in The Grapes of Wrath,
and yet the film’s populism did expose an unjust and desperate situation.
Although John Steinbeck did not attend the premiere, he did see the film
before its public release, and he wrote to a friend that he was pleased:
Zanuck has more than kept his word. He has a hard, straight picture in
which the actors are submerged so completely that it looks and feels like
a documentary film and certainly it has a hard, truthful ring. No punches
were pulled—in fact, with descriptive matter removed, it is a harsher thing
than the book, by far.30
The film was nominated for a best picture Academy Award but lost out to
Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca. John Ford and Jane Darwell did win Academy
Awards, for best director and best supporting actress, respectively.
Darryl Zanuck followed the success of The Grapes of Wrath by preparing to adapt another controversial best-seller, How Green Was My Valley, by
Richard Llewellyn. The novel follows the life of Huw Morgan, youngest
son of a Welsh coal-mining family, from boyhood to old age. It includes
scenes of conflict between mine owners and workers as well as many scenes
of family life. Zanuck was so enthusiastic about this novel that he paid a
huge price, $300,000, for the film rights and planned a four-hour Technicolor film that would rival Gone with the Wind. The first screenwriters assigned to the project were Ernest Pascal and playwright Liam O’Flaherty.
When Zanuck found their draft unsatisfactory, the project was assigned
to screenwriter Philip Dunne and director William Wyler, who had been
borrowed for twelve weeks from Samuel Goldwyn Productions. Wyler was
already a distinguished director known for his good taste and meticulous
attention to detail. He was also a slow worker, which meant his films were
expensive. Very unusually, Zanuck agreed that Dunne and Wyler could go
off on their own to write a script; more typically at Fox, directors did not
spend weeks on a script draft, and writers worked on the studio lot. While
Dunne and Wyler were away, the parameters of the project changed. The
Fox board of directors vetoed the idea of a lavish, Gone with the Wind–style
production, and so the filmmakers had to reduce their vision to a twohour, black-and-white production. This is an example of the New York
side of the business reining in the extravagance of the Hollywood side.
Given the new parameters, Wyler and Dunne had the excellent idea of
limiting the story to Huw’s boyhood, as told in voiceover by a much older
Huw. However, they did not succeed in reducing script length, and so
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in November 1940 an exasperated Zanuck cut it to 187 pages—still about
three hours long.
Zanuck remained committed to the project—indeed, he had built a set
for the film’s Welsh village in the hills near Ventura, California, before the
script was finished—but because of slow progress, he let Wyler go. The film
could not be shot in winter, so there would have been a delay in any case.
John Ford was eventually brought in to direct the film, and even though
How Green Was My Valley seems like an excellent match for Ford’s artistic
interests, he had nothing to do with the months of planning in 1940. Philip
Dunne’s script, finally brought down to the required two hours, has many
scenes with little or no dialogue and strong emphasis on the image, which
corresponds to Ford’s strengths. The opening scene, for example, expresses
the story’s main theme in microcosm: Huw and his father Gwilym Morgan
walk in the lovely hills above the village, and look over a small pile of coal
slag created by the mine. Then we cut to the same hills some years later, and
they are now completely covered by dead and depressing slag. We hear no
present-tense dialogue in this sequence, only the narrator explaining what
has happened.
Like The Grapes of Wrath, How Green Was My Valley is centrally about a
large family: Huw, his five brothers, his mother, his father, his sister, and
his eldest brother Ivor’s wife Bronwyn. The brothers are not always individualized; sometimes they are large, friendly presences looming above
Huw in the Morgan home or the village streets. At several points in the
story we see the Morgan men at the mine’s pay window: this is an efficient
way to present the changing relationship between the family and the mine.
The first time we see the pay window shot, wages are fair, and a comic
scene at the Morgan home celebrates the end of the work week. The next
time the shot is used, pay has gone down because there are too many men
competing for too few jobs. The third time, two of the brothers—the best
workers in the mine, according to the narrator—receive a discharge slip on
payday because the mine cannot afford to keep them. A final use of the pay
window shot presents young Huw proudly receiving his wage, but rates are
still low compared to the first pay window shot. This repeated motif shows
an unequal power relationship: the company needs workers, the workers
need the company, but the company has great latitude on whom to employ
and how much to pay. To counter the pay window’s power (a synecdoche
for the company), the villagers start a union, but that causes both labormanagement strife and a struggle within labor, since Mr. Morgan and some
other miners are antiunion. Finally, the preacher, Mr. Gruffydd, intervenes
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in the conflict between workers, saying that unions are necessary but must
be used responsibly, and the strike itself is eventually settled.
How Green Was My Valley gives freer rein to emotional ups and downs
than the tight, angry Grapes of Wrath. Mr. and Mrs. Morgan quarrel and
fuss and soothe each other in ways that are more funny than sad. The
family breaks up in anger and despair when four brothers walk out of the
Morgan house and lodge elsewhere because of the union dispute. Huw’s
sister Angharad marries the wealthy Iestyn Evans in the village church
even though she loves Mr. Gruffydd; we are spared the sight of Gruffydd
performing the ceremony, but we do see his longing and regret as Evans’s
carriage drives away. Occasionally loud bells ring, announcing an accident
in the mines. The last accident is shown in great detail, for Mr. Morgan is
caught in a cave-in. Gruffydd, Huw, the blind Dai Bando, and a few others
descend on a rescue mission, braving collapsed walls and high water levels.
Huw finds his father, but Mr. Morgan dies in his arms. The rescuers ascend
with Huw still cradling his father’s head.
Much of How Green Was My Valley is about sacrifice. Mr. Morgan and his
sons descend daily to the mine, risking injury or death in order to support
the family. Both Mr. Morgan and Ivor are killed in mining accidents.
Angharad is in love with the preacher, and tells him so, but she dutifully
marries a rich man at her father’s request. Mr. Morgan is thinking about
security above all when he consents to the marriage. Much later in the film
Angharad returns to the village without her husband, and rumors start
about her possible (but never confirmed) wish for a divorce and her continuing love for Gruffydd. She has done nothing wrong, but despite her
sacrifice she is persecuted by the village. Four of the brothers go off to
find their fortunes elsewhere—Canada, New Zealand, the United States—
when they cannot find work in the mine. Gwilym Morgan, a religious man,
forces himself to say “my cup runneth over” as he reads a Bible passage
when two of the brothers prepare to leave. Mrs. Morgan sends her youngest child Huw to live with Bronwyn after Ivor dies.
And yet, despite its picture of a family and a village in decline, How
Green Was My Valley is not overall a sad film. It makes the point that people
and families retain a powerful presence while their memory lingers. Near
the end of the film the narrator tells us, “Men like my father cannot die.
. . . They are with me still.” Time is malleable in the emotional working of
this film, so that the beginning shows us the end (the ruined valley), but the
end insists on the continued existence of the beginning (the green valley,
the united family). The last moments of the film repeat images that have
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come earlier, and the very last image shows Huw and his father walking in
the grass-covered hills. This film is telling us something that is very rarely
an explicit part of a motion picture narrative: films can preserve characters
and stories and ideas and emotions, in a cyclical format. They end, and they
begin again.
How Green Was My Valley won Academy Awards for best picture, best
director ( John Ford, for the second year in a row), and best supporting
actor (Donald Crisp). Today it is shown less often than The Grapes of Wrath,
perhaps because John Steinbeck’s novel is a revered part of the literary
canon, whereas the author of How Green Was My Valley, Richard Llewellyn,
has been more or less forgotten in the United States. However, both films
are magnificent; they are two of the finest films ever made by Twentieth
Wilson was Darryl Zanuck’s attempt to combine drama with a specific piece of political advocacy: support for a post–World War II international organization that would resemble the post–World War I League
of Nations. He threw himself into the project with great enthusiasm, and
this time he had the resources to make a long (154 minutes) color film.
Zanuck knew that he was taking a risk. He commented at the time, “I
am gambling $3 million in an effort to prove that audiences are ready to
accept something more than straightforward entertainment. I am making
one mighty bid to try to open the floodgates of production toward the
making of entertaining films that are enlightening as well.”31 Scripted by
Lamar Trotti and directed by Henry King, the film lovingly re-creates a
number of set pieces, for example, the Yale-Princeton game in 1909, the
Democratic Convention of 1912, and the signing of the Treaty of Versailles
in 1919. Visually Wilson is superb, with color photography setting a nostalgic tone and crisp editing that makes sense of a complicated life. The score,
drawing heavily on popular and patriotic songs, adds greatly to the film’s
themes. But this film curiously lacks both big stars and dramatic tension.
The title role was played by Alexander Knox, a Scottish actor who looked
like Woodrow Wilson but did not project charisma on screen. The real
Wilson, as seen briefly in the film through newsreels, was more energetic.
The film does have a villain, the isolationist Senator Henry Cabot Lodge
(Cedric Hardwicke), but he is rarely seen. Therefore, the hero often seems
to be pushing against history or fate, and such abstract forces do not shape
a clear dramatic conflict. It’s also problematic that Wilson is the story of a
defeat, since the United States never did join the League of Nations. At
film’s end Trotti and Zanuck telegraph their political message as Wilson,
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during his last moments as president, says: “The fight’s just begun. You
and I may never live to see it finished. But that doesn’t matter. . . . The
dream of a world united against war is too deeply embedded in the hearts
of men, everywhere.” The filmmakers thus try to turn Wilson’s defeat into
the prophecy of a more successful world organization, the United Nations
(founded in 1945).
Critical and public response to Wilson was interestingly mixed. Archer
Winsten of the New York Post dismissed the film’s “superficial magnificence,” but Howard Barnes of the New York Herald Tribune commented,
“A challenging segment of American history has been reconstructed with
great honesty and imagination in Wilson.” The left-leaning daily PM was
ecstatic about the picture, publishing “An Open Telegram to Zanuck” that
began, “This newspaper believes that your production of Wilson . . . is at
once a great movie and one of the greatest news stories in the country
today.” PM also declared that Wilson was an argument for the reelection of
Franklin Roosevelt, which must have bemused the Republican Zanuck.32
Wilson did fairly well during awards season. It was nominated for the best
picture Academy Award but lost to the Bing Crosby–starring Going My
Way. Alexander Knox (best actor) and Henry King (best director) were
also nominated but lost. Wilson did receive Oscars for Lamar Trotti (best
writing, original screenplay); Leon Shamroy (best cinematography, color);
and Barbara McLean (best film editing), plus two more for art direction and
sound recording. Fox veterans Trotti and McLean won their sole Academy
Awards on this film. Film Daily’s Annual Critic’s Poll disagreed with the
Academy’s best picture choice by naming Wilson as the number one picture
of the year.33 Box-office results were not bad for a social/political message
movie, with $2 million in domestic rentals plus whatever was earned overseas. However, the production cost was $3 million, and screenwriter Ring
Lardner Jr. speculated that the break-even point was about $6 million (allowing for a substantial advertising and promotions budget).34 Zanuck
always regarded Wilson as a devastating failure. He did not abandon social
and political themes, despite a threat to “never make another film without
Betty Grable in the cast”;35 but he did very carefully watch the budgeting
of later message films.
Star Power
The Mark of Zorro (1940) was a well-made genre film and a star vehicle for
Tyrone Power. It established Power as a sword-wielding hero of swash5AQ6A2A095AI2EA2D0AI2P0T 3-S,9DA=IP?F 8F-P0=1A=01 :IEQA01E2T-%9AS=160A11 60-PA12

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bucklers, a role he was to play several more times for Fox. The story
originated in a serialized story, “The Curse of Capistrano” (1919), by pulp
writer Johnson McCulley, which quickly became the basis for a Douglas
Fairbanks–starring silent film in 1920. The 1940 film stays fairly close to
the 1919 and 1920 versions: it describes the early nineteenth-century
adventures of Don Diego de la Vega, an aristocratic young man whose
father is the former governor of Spanish California. Diego, recently returned from Spain, seems to be a foppish weakling, but he has a secret
identity as a masked, black-clad, sword-wielding bandit who steals from
the cruel, tax-extorting current governor; he then gives the money to a
Franciscan priest for return to the peons. The swashbuckling story is exaggerated and sometimes silly, as when the filmmakers emphasize Zorro’s
effeminate dandyism. But Power, with his good guy/bad guy image, works
nicely as a character with a split personality, and he is ably supported by
J. Edward Bromberg as the current governor Don Luis Quintero, Basil
Rathbone as the villainous Captain Pasquale, and Eugene Pallette as the
Franciscan priest. The film has vaguely populist sentiments, but unlike
The Grapes of Wrath or How Green Was My Valley it does not analyze or
suggest solutions to any contemporary problems. Instead, it seems to be a
response to other films, including the earlier versions of Zorro but also the
Warner Bros. hit The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938). With his thin moustache and athletic physique, Tyrone Power here looks like a more compact
version of Warners’ Errol Flynn. This film is beautifully shot with authentic settings—the story takes place in the then-provincial small town of Los
Angeles, and it was easy to reproduce exterior scenes of Spanish California
in the Southern California of 1940. The interiors are also convincing, and a
few action scenes stand out. A long swordfight between Power and Rathbone is exceptionally well done, and a later scene where Zorro leads a revolt
features impressive sets and hundreds of extras.
This Zorro is essentially for fun; perhaps that is true for all the versions of the story, which continues to be remade. Diego amusingly courts
both the governor’s wife Ines (Gale Sondergaard), who seems eager for an
adulterous affair, and her young, innocent niece Lolita (Linda Darnell).
He subtly manipulates Ines’s desires to aid his cause, while with Lolita
he struggles to express his true feelings while showing her three different
personas—Diego, Zorro, and a priest. The priest is actually the disguise
of a disguise, for Zorro puts on a Franciscan robe to escape detection in
the governor’s house. Lolita decides that she likes Zorro but not Diego, so
that needs to be worked out. Although The Mark of Zorro is basically an
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adventure film, it does feature a few over-the-top lines that are just subtle
enough to get by the literalists of the Production Code Administration.
For example, at one point the governor comments that Captain Pasquale
is always thrusting at something, and the dandyish, antimacho Diego says
that must be tiresome. This double entendre leads to the swordfight scene,
where the captain and the governor learn that Diego/Zorro is a very good
thruster. At the end of the film Zorro sends Don Luis and Ines back to
Spain, reinstalls his father as governor, and announces his attention to stay
in California, farm the land, and raise sons and daughters with Lolita. Any
sexual variance has been recuperated, and the populism of leading a revolt
against tyranny is resolved by replacing a bad aristocrat with a good one.
The story can be retold indefinitely without threatening the status quo.
If The Mark of Zorro successfully charted a new direction for Tyrone
Power, The Blue Bird (1940), directed by Walter Lang, was a less-thansuccessful attempt to create a Wizard of Oz–like showpiece for Shirley
Temple, who had by this point outgrown the “cute little girl” films that had
made her world famous. The story, based on a play by Maurice Maeterlinck
(which in turn derives from a folktale), begins with a black-and-white prologue that introduces Mytyl (Temple), her younger brother Tytyl ( Johnny
Russell), and their parents. This is a poor but loving family surviving precariously in an unspecified European country during the Napoleonic Wars.
Mytyl is a spoiled, willful child who covets wealth and luxury and who
traps a bird to assert her power over something weaker than herself. Almost
immediately the family faces a crisis: the father, a woodcutter, must join the
militia to face Napoleon’s army. That evening Mytyl and Tytyl experience
a series of dreams or adventures that are presented in color. A fairylike
woman named Light—dressed, naturally, in brilliant white—sends them
on a quest to find the Blue Bird of Happiness. Assisting them in their
quest are the family’s dog Tylo (Eddie Collins) and cat Tylette (Gale Sondergaard), who are suddenly made human in the dream. After visiting the
past, the land of luxury, the land of nature (a woodland), and the future, the
children end up in their beds at home in a black-and-white epilogue. They
embrace their parents and now appreciate home and family; the slogan
“there’s no place like home,” from The Wizard of Oz, would fit this film
equally well. In the final scene news comes that a truce has been declared—
their father need not march to war.
This is a lavish color film, with gorgeous sets and excellent special
effects. The land of luxury includes a huge two-story set where even the
respectable Mr. and Mrs. Luxury slide down the banisters—because The
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Blue Bird is, after all, a children’s movie. The forest scene features tree men
who turn hostile to the children when the cat explains that Mytyl and
Tytyl’s father is a woodcutter. The tree men respond by using wind and fire
to create an impressively scary forest fire. This fire sequence combines live
action and special effects in a suspenseful montage that rivals the action
scenes of Fantasia (both films were released in 1940, but the Fox film came
out in January and the Disney film not until November). The scenes in the
future of children waiting to be born are static and uninteresting except
for a lovely ship that sails through the clouds, taking boys and girls—not
babies—to their parents.
Aside from the special effects scenes, Tylette the cat may be the most
intriguing element in The Blue Bird. She is lovely and dangerous but not
inherently wicked; if she deceives and betrays, the explanation seems to be
that cats are like that. At film’s end when the children are back home and
talking about the cat’s misbehavior, the dog (now a real dog) chases after
the cat (now a real cat) to general laughter, so a bit of harassment rather
than real punishment is what the cat deserves. Gale Sondergaard as Tylette
is not exactly a witch, but with her dark hair, made-up face, and curvy
woman’s figure she may represent the dangers of adult sexuality. Unlike
the domesticated Mommy Tyl (Spring Byington), the children’s mother,
Tylette looks and acts like a silent film vamp. She is a version of the “fatal
woman” of film noir, but rendered almost harmless by association with a pet
cat and by the context of a children’s film.
The central character of Mytyl as played by Shirley Temple leaves
much to be desired. Temple (born in 1928) was several years younger than
Judy Garland (born in 1922), and so she could not have played the childwoman, ready-to-grow-up character who is so important to The Wizard of
Oz. Instead, the filmmakers of The Blue Bird—producer Darryl Zanuck,
writer Ernest Pascal, and director Walter Lang—chose to build their story
around a selfish girl who learns to appreciate what she has. The problem is
that the selfish girl lingers through most of the film, making Temple a sour
and unattractive presence. Also, The Blue Bird squanders one of the most
attractive qualities of Temple’s star image, her magical ability to solve problems and thereby bring people together. In this film Mytyl’s behavior seems
vaguely connected to external events, for example, when she is selfish her
father is summoned to war, and when she is appreciative a truce is declared.
Such indirect and mystical connections may be appropriate for a folktale,
but they are far less appealing than the Temple character’s active agency
in films like Dimples, The Little Colonel, Wee Willie Winkie, and Rebecca of
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wartime prosperity, 1940–1945 69
Sunnybrook Farm. Director George Cukor commented that, in this “cloudcuckoo land” version of The Blue Bird, Fox was “tossing away talent,”36 and
soon after the film Fox did literally “toss away” Shirley Temple by not renewing her contract.
Prologue to War
A Yank in the R.A.F. (1941), starring Tyrone Power, is a highly entertaining war film/romance with a politically controversial subtext. In this film,
Tim Baker (Power) is a self-centered pilot who flies an American-made
plane intended for Great Britain straight to Canada, rather than stopping
at the border as regulations require. Then he flies a plane from Canada to
England for the fee of $1,000. He stays in England and enlists in the Royal
Air Force (R.A.F.) to impress an ex-girlfriend, Carol Brown (Betty Grable),
who is singing in a London nightclub and volunteering with Civil Defense
during the day. Grable sings a couple of songs at the Regency Club, and she
seems comfortable and energized in the role of an entertainer who must
fend off admirers. Carol loses patience with Tim, who has a roving eye for
women, so she begins to date Wing Commander Morley ( John Sutton), a
handsome and attentive British officer. Morley turns out to be Tim’s commanding officer, which makes the love triangle more complex. Tim lies
and schemes to keep seeing Carol, and although Morley seems to be the
better catch, Tim has superior sex appeal. As Carol explains about Tim, “I
don’t love him. . . . But when I’m with him I can’t seem to remember that.”
Morley and Tim are shot down together in Europe, but both survive; they
steal a small boat to get back to England. Then Tim is transferred to a
fighter squadron—which has been his preference all along—and assigned
to provide air support for the evacuation at Dunkirk. His plane is shot
down, and Carol, waiting for news with Morley, is completely distraught.
Tim reappears on the last boat arriving from Dunkirk.
One would expect that a film featuring two of Fox’s biggest stars would
end with the couple headed for marriage, but that just doesn’t happen here.
Tim sweet-talks and embraces Carol, but it turns out he has already arranged a ride and a date with a pretty nurse. Tim, Carol, and Morley walk
off arm in arm, and the film’s last line comes from Tim: “I know, honey, I’m
a worm.” Evidently he will still play the field, she will still love him, and
Morley will still court her, at least for a while. The film endorses impermanence and nonresolution, with no guarantee of a stable relationship, let
alone a marriage. This is probably appropriate to wartime, when couples
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may be separated for long periods and men in uniform—particularly
pilots—may not come back. The film also daringly (for 1941) suggests that
Tim and Carol have a sexual relationship. A passing remark implies that
they lived together for a while in the United States. On their first meeting
in London, Carol says good-bye to Tim in her living room, he kisses her
passionately, she calls him a worm and returns the kiss with equal passion;
then we fade out. One assumes that the evening didn’t stop there. The
good/bad image of Power developed in In Old Chicago and Jesse James is
here applied to romantic relationships.
A Yank in the R.A.F. includes effective sequences of British-German air
battles, with footage shot during actual battles mixed with back projection,
miniatures, bombers on the ground at a Lockheed factory, and a restaging of the evacuation of Dunkirk. Some of the documentary war footage
was shot by automatic cameras attached to British planes, but Twentieth
Century-Fox also sent up cameramen with British fighters and bombers.
Two of the cameramen were killed when their plane was shot down.37
Director Henry King was an enthusiastic private pilot who often flew to
film locations, so he probably had something to do with the blending of
documentary and fiction in the aerial scenes. However, King and the actors
did not make the trip to England (it would have been far too dangerous).
Supervision of the air battle footage was handled by Leslie Baker, working
out of Fox’s London office.
This film was politically controversial because even though the American
government was sending a great deal of military hardware to Great Britain,
as shown in the opening sequence, the United States was officially neutral.
The picture is careful not to explicitly favor the British: Tim Baker fights
with the Royal Air Force first to impress Carol Brown and then to revenge
two of his friends, and Carol does humanitarian volunteer work that is not
strictly military. As critic Bosley Crowther noted, there are no “fine and fancy
speeches about fighting to save democracy and the freedom of generations
yet unborn.”38 Nevertheless, the film’s logic seems to be that since Tyrone
Power and Betty Grable are supporting the British, the United States should
be doing the same. The final shot of Power, Grable, and John Sutton walking
arm in arm anticipates by a few months the Atlantic alliance that would
win World War II. Aside from the love triangle, this film features British
characters who are honorable, courageous, and sometimes a lot of fun. We
even see a few picturesque shots of London and the English countryside,
which probably came from Fox’s stock footage library.
A Yank in the R.A.F. opened at precisely the moment that a subcommit5AQ6A2A095AI2EA2D0AI2P0T 3-S,9DA=IP?F 8F-P0=1A=01 :IEQA01E2T-%9AS=160A11 60-PA12

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tee of the U.S. Senate chaired by D. Worth Clark (Democrat, Idaho) was
investigating the pro-British bias of the Hollywood film companies. The
subcommittee, dominated by isolationists, accused studio leaders such as
Nicholas Schenck, Harry Warner, and Darryl Zanuck of lacking patriotism and engaging in propaganda, and then veered off into such seemingly
unrelated topics as monopoly, nepotism, anti-Communism, and a thinly
veiled anti-Semitism. Counsel for the studios was Wendell Willkie (the
Republican candidate for president in 1940), who ably demonstrated that
the senators were badly prepared and that most of their questions were
off the mark. Darryl Zanuck told the committee that he was a Methodist from a small town in Nebraska and a World War I veteran and that
his parents and all four grandparents had been born in the United States.
This was important because other witnesses had charged that Hollywood
was controlled by Jewish immigrants whose loyalties were suspect. Zanuck
A Yank in the R.A.F. Betty Grable with John Sutton. Author’s personal collection.
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made a strong statement that the Hollywood film industry should be able
to deal with “the same vital developments which today fill our newspapers, magazines, books, the radio and the stage.”39 When Senator Clark
asked if he would produce a film “that would make people who saw it want
to go to war with another nation,” Zanuck responded, “I do believe it is
my right, as long as I stay within the laws of decency, within the laws of
the nation, and within the code, to produce anything I like.”40 These were
brave words, since in 1941 film was not protected by the First Amendment, and the Hollywood companies were therefore always worried about
government censorship. Zanuck and his peers successfully defended the
film industry’s independence and ability to respond to current events. The
subcommittee hearings created no negative consequences for the industry:
no legislation was passed, and boycotts were threatened but never materialized. After Pearl Harbor and America’s entry into the war, the film industry’s position seemed prescient and entirely correct. Unfortunately, when
the U.S. Congress next investigated the Hollywood studios—in the House
Un-American Activities Committee hearings of 1947—the consequences
were far more drastic.
Fox at War
Nineteen forty-two was a year of upheaval for Twentieth Century-Fox.
Sidney Kent died on 19 March and was replaced by Spyros Skouras. Joseph
Schenck went to jail for income-tax evasion in relation to the George
Browne–Willie Bioff bribery scandal. Darryl Zanuck, who had been a
part-time lieutenant-colonel in the Army Signal Corps since 1939, took
a full-time commission and went to North Africa to make combat films.
John Ford had taken a similar position with the navy in 1941. Tyrone Power
and Henry Fonda also joined the armed services. Fox did what it could to
replace its top-echelon people. Wendell Willkie became chairman of the
board, replacing Schenck. Though it was reported that Willkie would not
be actively managing either the New York office or the Los Angeles studio,
his appointment enhanced the company’s reputation. William Goetz replaced Zanuck, after several years of waiting for significant responsibilities.
Goetz repainted Zanuck’s office, began working on his own slate of films,
and generally acted as if Zanuck were not coming back. The Film Daily
Yearbook of 1943 does not list Zanuck as a Fox executive in any capacity!
Zanuck had written in his memoir of the North African campaign that he
missed having lunch with “Billy [Goetz] and Joe [Schenck] and the gang at
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the studio,”41 but when he returned to Fox after only a year away he fired his
former top assistant. Goetz’s behavior seems self-destructive, but perhaps
he really wanted a pretext to leave Fox and strike out on his own. Goetz
and former RKO executive Leo Spitz quickly formed an independent
company called International Pictures, which merged with Universal a few
years later. Tyrone Power and Henry Fonda were impossible to replace, but
occasionally the studio was able to pull strings to make one of them available for a picture. When Power and Fonda were not available, the public
was willing to accept leading men such as Don Ameche, Dana Andrews,
George Montgomery, and John Payne or films top lining female talent.
Both Spyros Skouras and Darryl Zanuck had “good wars,” meaning that
they achieved a lot and formed connections that would help them as individuals and corporate leaders after the war. Skouras stayed at Fox’s New
York office, but he also became one of the chairmen of Greek War Relief,
an indispensable charity that saved millions of people from starvation. The
Germans and Italians conquered Greece but refused to feed its people;
instead, after the disastrous winter of 1941–1942 they allowed shipments
of food financed by North American donations to be distributed in needy
areas. Skouras’s war relief efforts put him in contact with the upper echelons of the American government, with New York high society, and with
everyone of importance in Greece, including the royal family. After World
War II, Spyros Skouras was treated with enormous respect in his native
country, and the Skouras family (including one branch that had not immigrated to the United States) became active in the Greek film and television
industries. Zanuck could have easily stayed in California and made training
films if he wanted to contribute to the war effort. His decision to produce
a film on the front lines in North Africa gave him a much more immediate
and complicated view of the war, as well as allowing him to meet the top
brass in the American and British armies. Twentieth Century-Fox had been
on good terms with the U.S. military before World War II, but Zanuck’s
service in the war enhanced that relationship. For example, many years later
when Zanuck was producing The Longest Day and needed assistance from
the Department of Defense, he could bypass the bureaucracy in Washington and ask the U.S. commander in Europe for a favor.
Zanuck’s primary assignment in the Signal Corps was producing a documentary about the Allied campaign in North Africa in 1942. Zanuck supervised fifty-two cameramen, and the end result was a color film of about
forty minutes entitled At the Front in North Africa.
42 The film presents the
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land journey to engage the German army near Tunis. It provides a sense of
the terrain and the local culture as well as some fragmented battle scenes.
Zanuck’s film was distributed in theaters in 1943 but was criticized for a lack
of story and for being dated (editing and distribution took a few months).
Zanuck’s book about the same subject, entitled Tunis Expedition, is actually
more interesting than the film.43 Zanuck writes in short, punchy, dramatic
sentences, and he lets us know that he is acquainted with General Dwight
D. Eisenhower and General Mark W. Clark. However, instead of presenting a formulaic view of combat, Zanuck describes a chaotic, random, and
uncomfortable experience, including dangerous encounters with snipers,
artillery, and enemy planes. He emphasizes the modern soldier’s powerlessness in mechanized warfare—for example, after landing under fire at
Algiers airport, Zanuck notes that he and his fellow passengers “stand
around like idiots” as “dogfights crowd the air.”44 Much of his time is spent
seeking food and shelter. He tries to supervise a complex documentary
but sometimes has difficulty finding the cameramen under his command.
Though Zanuck is emotionally patriotic and anti-German,45 his memoir
ends before the Allies achieved definitive victory in North Africa.
The Hollywood studios quickly turned to war-themed productions after
Pearl Harbor, but they lacked the sets, scripts, equipment, and personnel to
make convincing combat films. Also, there was not a lot of inspiring news
to make films about in 1942 and 1943: the Germans had marched through
Western Europe, and in the Pacific the Japanese had the upper hand. In
this situation, Fox made a group of films that combined military training with love stories and other familiar themes. Crash Dive (1943) features
Dana Andrews as the skipper of a submarine and Tyrone Power as his first
officer. This color film, shot partly on location at the U.S. Navy submarine
base at New London, Connecticut, alternates training and then combat
scenes with a love triangle featuring Andrews, Power, and Anne Baxter. It
concludes with Power’s character, who had reluctantly transferred from a
PT boat to a sub, making a long speech about the importance of all parts of
the U.S. Navy. To the Shores of Tripoli stars John Payne as a well-connected
Marine Corps recruit who makes a mess of basic training but ultimately
redeems himself by saving his former drill sergeant, played by Randolph
Scott, from a dangerous predicament during target practice at sea. The
theme is that individual needs and privileges can’t get in the way of the
war effort. Thunder Birds, a collaboration between writer-producer Lamar
Trotti and director William Wellman, is about training pilots at Thunderbird Field in Arizona. American, British, and Chinese flyers are instructed
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by veteran pilots, including Steve Britt (Preston Foster), a World War I
ace and now a civilian. Once again there is a love triangle, this time involving Britt, his off-and-on romantic interest Kay Saunders (Gene Tierney),
and well-mannered British trainee Peter Stackhouse ( John Sutton). The
action scenes in this film feel contrived, and pilot training is less interesting
than combat to begin with. A more important flaw is that Preston Foster
lacks charisma as the aging pilot; put Humphrey Bogart (a Warner Bros.
star) in this role, and Thunder Birds might have been an excellent picture.
Wing and a Prayer, released in 1944, is a far more imaginative war movie
that mixes documentary footage of U.S. Navy aircraft carriers and planes
with a fictional story about men serving on a carrier. The premise of the
story is that after Pearl Harbor “Carrier X”, as it is mysteriously named
in the opening credits, was ordered to show itself to Japanese forces in
four widely separated areas of the Pacific without engaging in combat. The
carrier was a decoy—the navy hoped it would be perceived as four carriers—intended to show the dispersal of U.S. ships and their reluctance to
fight. This creates a tension aboard ship, where officers and men are frustrated by the order not to engage; we the spectators understand the overall
strategy because of an opening scene in Washington, but the men on the
carrier do not. The pilots and gunners of a torpedo bomber squadron, led
by Dana Andrews, have another source of frustration: they can’t stand the
carrier’s martinet of a flight commander, played by Don Ameche. This
character is so tough on pilot mistakes and weaknesses that he grounds a
decorated pilot because of a takeoff error. The personnel on the carrier are
eventually turned loose to attack the Japanese fleet that is gathering near
Midway Island. The torpedo bombers perform beautifully in air-to-ship
warfare, but a tense and difficult situation arises after their return. One
plane given up for lost miraculously appears and circles the carrier in an
impenetrable fog. Andrews pleads with Ameche to break radio silence or
to launch a plane that can lead the straggler to the carrier deck. Ameche
refuses because this might reveal the ship’s location to the enemy, thus
risking three thousand lives instead of three. The pilots and gunners hear
their friends’ plane run out of gas and know that it will fall into the ocean;
the mood here is understandably grim. But after explaining his reasons to
Andrews and the others, Ameche gets a phone call; two of the lost bomber’s crew have been picked up by a destroyer. In a well-executed wordless
scene we observe Ameche’s relief as he returns to his office to prepare for
the next day’s missions.
Wing and a Prayer insists that it tells a true story, but the strange mission
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of “Carrier X” is a fictional creation. As historian Lawrence Suid reports,
the U.S. Navy did not send a carrier on a decoy mission, nor did it refuse
engagement in the weeks after Pearl Harbor. The decoy strategy in the
film creates interesting dramatic conflicts, and it may also (falsely) reassure spectators that the navy wasn’t crippled after Pearl Harbor, it was just
playing possum. The film’s account of the Battle of Midway is also wildly
inaccurate, according to Suid. Torpedo bombers participated in the battle,
but they were ineffective, and they took heavy casualties. It was U.S. dive
bombers that badly damaged Japanese carriers and ensured the victory
for American forces. Since Twentieth Century-Fox had access to very
good training footage of torpedo bombers, the studio chose to rewrite
history in order to make an exciting and morale-building film.46 Darryl
Zanuck had long insisted on the need for dramatic license even on factbased films such as biographies, and here he applied this principle to a
combat movie.
Putting aside its fractured history, Wing and a Prayer is notable for a
thoroughly bleak mood. Officers and men on a U.S. Navy aircraft carrier
are taking casualties in pursuit of a mission that makes no sense to them.
Many of them are new to the navy, thus unfamiliar with its culture and
routines, and they find the stress of losing planes and not fighting back
hard to bear. The tough, rigid flight commander adds another stress point,
though the casting of usually sympathetic Don Ameche suggests that this
officer cannot really be so unfeeling. Screenwriter Jerome Cady adds a reflexive touch by presenting pilot Hallam Scott (William Eyth) as a fictional
Twentieth Century-Fox movie star; his fellow-aviators call him “Oscar.”
This suggests the Fox studio’s commitment to the war effort, and it adds a
comic moment when Scott claims that kissing Betty Grable according to
a director’s instructions is not much fun. Relaxed or comic scenes are rare,
however, for Wing and a Prayer overall is a tense movie. Though the film
ends well, with victory at Midway and the return of a lost plane, one cannot
get too excited when only two of the plane’s crew members survive. Wing
and a Prayer was filmed in a very gray black-and-white: not glamorous, but
appropriate to the subject matter.
Allies and Enemies
The Hollywood studios faced a bewildering array of censorship and advisory
groups during World War II. The Department of Defense, for example,
cooperated with producers if their films gave a positive view of the military.
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The Office of War Information (OWI) tried to shape Hollywood’s attitudes
toward all sorts of topics—combat, allies, enemies, the home front—but
without the clout to enforce its wishes. The Office of Censorship, another
branch of the federal bureaucracy that usually worked in tandem with the
OWI, did have enforcement power—it could approve or deny the export of
American motion pictures. The film industry’s own Production Code Administration was mainly concerned with moral rather than political issues.
Fortunately, the studios and these censoring agencies all had the shared
goal of supporting the war effort while maintaining a private, profit-making
motion picture industry.
One surprisingly large but now mostly forgotten category of World War
II films was films about America’s allies. As mentioned earlier, sympathetic
pictures of the British at war began before Pearl Harbor with films such as
Man Hunt (1941) and A Yank in the R.A.F. After Pearl Harbor numerous
films about the Allies—Britain, Russia, and China—were made, but now
the OWI was trying to manage their portrayal. The films about England remained sympathetic, more or less realistic, and consistently of high quality,
which was not surprising since the studios had experience making Britishthemed films and many British actors were still in Hollywood. However,
the OWI did try to alter prewar American tastes by discouraging films
about colonial India and encouraging films about a contemporary England
of varied social classes. Films about Russia and China were more obviously
propagandistic. When Russia became an ally, Hollywood made films about
a strong and democratic Russia, ignoring the excesses of Stalinism. These
films came back to haunt the studios a few years later, when the House
Un-American Activities Committee was investigating pro-Communist activities in the film industry. China was also presented as a democratic ally,
ignoring the corruption of the ruling Kuomintang Party and the civil war in
progress between the Kuomintang and the Communists. Also, the studios
had trouble presenting a credible view of China because of an ignorance of
Chinese culture and an unwillingness to present Chinese American actors
in leading roles. Twentieth Century-Fox did not make an important film
about Russia during World War II, but it did participate in revising the
images of England and China.
This Above All (1942) reinterprets England as an egalitarian place that
would be both familiar and sympathetic to American audiences. It begins
with an upper-class dinner of family and friends in the country, but the
heroine Prudence Cathaway ( Joan Fontaine) quickly leaves her father’s
estate and enlists as a private in the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force. Here
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she mixes easily with working-class women, and she starts a romance with
Clive Briggs (Tyrone Power), who plays an educated Englishman from a
modest though undefined background.47 This film uses accents to present
class differences, except when American actors like Power and Thomas
Mitchell are playing English characters. It turns out that Clive fought heroically in France but is now a deserter because he couldn’t stand the selfishness and class privilege of his officers. Prudence convinces him that all of
England must stand together to win the war, and then it can deal with the
problems of class. Both Clive and Prudence are decent, sympathetic people,
and so their love embodies the class unity that Prudence argues for.
Eric Knight, author of the novel This Above All, felt that the Hollywood
adaptation of his work would be a mindless entertainment: “I expect it
to come out as a Don Ameche special with Tyrone Power backing, and
a musical comedy translation with Horace Heidt’s orchestra and a Busby
Berkeley chorus.”48 He was right to anticipate an emphasis on entertainment; Darryl Zanuck, in notes to screenwriter R. C. Sheriff, requested less
preachiness and more sex.49 And yet This Above All does include a serious
critique of the class system by Clive and a serious answer by Prudence. By
contrast, MGM’s Mrs. Miniver (1942), the most popular American film
about England made during World War II, limits its view of social class to
the small differences between the upper-middle-class Miniver family, who
live in a large house with two servants, and the aristocratic Lady Belden,
who lives in an even larger house. In Mrs. Miniver, class privilege is a more
or less harmless anachronism, whereas in This Above All, it is an important
matter that will need to be addressed after the war. This Above All ’s empathy
with a principled deserter, played by a top American star, is remarkable; it
shows an awareness of unresolved tensions within English society.
China Girl (1942) has a convoluted plot by Ben Hecht and Darryl
Zanuck,50 but it is more a series of motifs than a unified story. It begins in
a Japanese-occupied part of China, where photographer Johnny “Bugsy”
Williams (George Montgomery), imprisoned by the Japanese, witnesses
a mass execution of Chinese men. With the help of Western adventurers
Bull Weed (Victor McLaglen) and Fifi (Lynn Bari), he escapes by plane to
Burma. Very independent and cynical, he refuses to fly for the British, preferring to report on the war in Burma as a freelance photojournalist. Eventually he falls in love with Haoli, a half-Chinese young woman played by
Gene Tierney, and therefore turns down a casual romance with the seductive Fifi. Fifi saves Johnny from the Japanese, even though she is a Japanese
agent. Meanwhile, Johnny is wandering through a studio-built Mandalay
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populated largely by Caucasians. His guide is a Hindu boy played by Bobby
Blake—the same Robert Blake who would later be a film, TV, and scandal
star. At film’s end Haoli dies in a Japanese air attack, which means the film’s
romance across racial lines is never completed—and since Gene Tierney is
Caucasian, the romance isn’t really biracial, anyway. Johnny, now converted
to the Allied cause, grabs a gun and fires away at the Japanese planes, exclaiming, “This one is for you, China Girl.” The film is a charming mess
and only incidentally about the war in Asia.
The more ambitious Keys to the Kingdom (1944) is a big-budget picture
about missionary work in China during the early decades of the twentieth
century. The theme is basically how to lead a Christian life, and the film
features a humble but exemplary priest named Francis Chisholm (Gregory
Peck in his first important role). This subject matter became part of Fox’s
repertoire of genres in the 1940s and 1950s, with Fox President Spyros
Skouras encouraging religious films such as The Song of Bernadette (1943),
Keys to the Kingdom. Gregory Peck (left) at the end of the film, aged by makeup, with Sir Cedric
Hardwicke. Author’s personal collection.
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The Keys to the Kingdom, Come to the Stable (1949) and The Robe (1953).
The Keys to the Kingdom was not explicitly about World War II, and yet
the OWI’s Bureau of Motion Pictures was very concerned about its representation of China. Early drafts of the script showed a backward China
besieged by warlords, civil war, ignorance, and disease. Both Imperial and
Republican troops were presented as ruthless and brutal. This portrayal of
early twentieth-century China, based on the novel The Keys to the Kingdom
by A. J. Cronin, was probably correct, yet the Bureau of Motion Pictures
was appalled by the script’s negative image of the United States’ Chinese
ally. The bureau made specific suggestions about improving the script,
for example, by showing the Republican army as a progressive, wellorganized force and by demonstrating greatly improved living conditions
by the 1930s.51 In the finished film, the Republicans (Nationalist Party) are
law-abiding defenders of the people who defeat the Imperial army, which
inaugurates a long period of stability; that is a far-from-accurate image of
real conditions in 1940s China. The Keys to the Kingdom also centers on the
stories of Western missionaries rather than on Chinese characters, and it
stresses that the Chinese welcome and appreciate Western aid. At least
the film uses Chinese actors to portray Chinese characters, unlike other
American films of the period. As a religious film, The Keys of the Kingdom is
impressive; as a portrait of China, it is inaccurate war propaganda.52
Fox, like all the Hollywood studios, benefited from waves of European
talent arriving in the 1930s and early 1940s: writers, directors, actors, producers. Many were refugees from Nazi Germany and its client states, but
others had been lured to Los Angeles by big contracts and the promise of
high-quality filmmaking. Adjustments were often not easy; the language
barrier was troublesome, and so was the Hollywood pecking order. French
director Jean Renoir was signed to a Fox contract in January 1941, and his
first assignment was the rural drama Swamp Water, set in and around the
Okefenokee Swamp in Georgia. Renoir had already made a similarly rural
film, Toni (1934), but Swamp Water was more reminiscent of John Ford’s
work, especially Tobacco Road (1941). The screenwriter was Dudley Nichols,
who had worked with Ford on The Informer (1935), Tobacco Road, and other
pictures. Renoir’s autobiography says he enjoyed working on location for
this picture, but the AFI Catalog tells us that most of the film was studiobound—among the actors, only Dana Andrews actually made the trip to
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Georgia.53 Swamp Water is a small, well-made film that had a surprisingly
strong commercial run, earning $1.5 million to Tobacco Road ’s $1.7 million.
However, Renoir described Zanuck’s working methods as “dictatorship”:
the director’s role was minimized, and the studio head controlled all aspects
of production.54 Renoir directed films in Hollywood for several years,
working for RKO and United Artists, but he never returned to Fox.
The great French actor Jean Gabin, star of Renoir’s Grand Illusion (1937)
and Marcel Carné’s Quai des Brumes (1938), had an even harder time adjusting to the American motion picture industry. Moontide (1942), his first Hollywood film, is an atmospheric film noir set on the California coast and directed by Archie Mayo. Most of the scenes were filmed at night, with pools
of deep black and fog effects suitable to the setting. Gabin plays Bobo, a
dockworker and mechanic who has wandered all over the world and who
now lives in a bait shack. Bobo drinks and socializes with a set of oddballs
who resemble the habitués of the isolated café in Quai des Brumes: indeed,
Moontide is almost a remake of the Carné classic. His friends include the
philosophical night watchman Nutsy (Claude Rains), the Asian-American
fisherman Henry (Chester Gans), and the alcoholic Tiny (Thomas Mitchell). When Bobo blacks out one evening and someone he knows is found
dead the next morning, Tiny blackmails Bobo for murder. Bobo falls in
love with Anna (Ida Lupino), a young woman down on her luck whom he
meets when she tries to drown herself in the ocean. At the film’s conclusion Anna figures out that Tiny, not Bobo, is the murderer. Tiny assaults
Anna, causing a terrible back injury, and Bobo forces Tiny into the ocean
even though Tiny can’t swim. The story’s romantic pessimism and Charles
G. Clarke’s moody photography suggest the French Poetic Realism of the
late 1930s.
The main problems with Moontide lie in script and performance. Gabin
speaks an awkward, heavily accented English, and yet he is clearly the star
and central figure of the film. The script, by John O’Hara, limits his lines
to a relatively small vocabulary, but the film has trouble building a consistent and believable character. Gabin’s performance is uneven; sometimes he
finds the right mix of rough individualism and tenderness, at other times
his expressive face exaggerates to the point of clownishness. In his French
films Gabin got the nuances of the working class exactly right, but not
in Moontide. The great revelation of the film is Ida Lupino as a woman
who has been through hard times but is beginning to hope. The Britishborn Lupino had been working in Hollywood since 1934, and in this film
she brilliantly catches a fragile character confronting the dangers of living
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among down-and-out men. It is not surprising that Lupino became one of
the top actresses in American film noir. As for Jean Gabin, he understood
all too well his difficulties during the production of Moontide. He commented (as quoted by biographer André Brunelin): “I quickly learned to
speak English in everyday life, but acting caused me problems. . . . I heard
myself and I had the impression that another person was speaking. This was
something like an echo and I felt completely desynchronized. My gestures,
my body, everything that I felt physically and also that I thought, nothing
seemed to correspond to what I said.”55 Gabin made only two films in the
United States during World War II; he resumed his French career in 1946.
Ernst Lubitsch came from a much earlier generation of émigrés than
Jean Renoir or Jean Gabin. After directing a number of successful films—
mainly historical dramas—in the German silent film industry, he arrived in
the United States in 1923 to make Rosita for Mary Pickford and a series of
films for Warner Bros. Lubitsch quickly established himself in Hollywood
as a skillful creator of ironic and sophisticated romantic comedies, often
with a European setting. This genre allowed him to maintain a European
sensibility while not offending an American mass audience. Lubitsch’s accomplishments in the sound film era included a number of excellent comedies, a few musicals, and a brief stint as head of production at Paramount.
In 1943 he moved to Fox and continued to produce and direct comedies
with “the Lubitsch touch.”
Heaven Can Wait (1943), the first Lubitsch film at Fox, shows that
the director had by this point developed a fine sense for the ironies and
foibles of the American upper class. It starts and ends with a framing story:
Henry Van Cleve (Don Ameche) arrives at the waiting room or vestibule
to Hell and tells his life story. The waiting room is a bland office staffed
by a huge, impeccably dressed man (Laird Creger) whose Vandyke beard
suggests that he may be a devil, or perhaps even the Devil. Henry presents himself in flashbacks as a man-about-town from a wealthy New York
family; his story covers the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
One notable episode shows him charming a lovely midwestern girl named
Martha Strabel (Gene Tierney), who is engaged to his earnest and nerdy
cousin Albert (Allyn Joslyn). Henry and Martha slip away from the engagement party together, scandalizing the two families, and soon they
are married despite the stern disapproval of both sets of parents. Though
happily married and the father of a son, Henry has a series of affairs with
young women; this is mentioned but not actually shown, with one interesting exception: Henry, now fifty, pays court to a blonde “Follies girl” named
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Peggy Nash (Helene Reynolds), and the two play an elaborate verbal game,
full of charm and flirtation but self-consciously superficial on both sides.
It turns out that Henry’s real purpose is to end the romance between Nash
and his son and that Nash understands this completely; they eventually get
down to business and agree on a price. A bit later the young man tells his
father that he was tired of Nash and is interested in someone else, a girl
from Philadelphia. His parents hope for a society match, but she turns out
to be another showgirl.
Heaven Can Wait is an elegant color film with fine performances by
Ameche and Tierney; both actors have a warmth and subtlety here that is
absent in some of their other roles. Lubitsch and his collaborators—screenwriter Samson Raphaelson, cinematographer Edward Cronjager, and art
directors James Basevi and Leland Fuller—do a splendid job of recreating
the charm of upper-class New York and the less tasteful Kansas home of
Martha’s parents (her father is a meatpacking tycoon). Much of the film’s
attraction lies in Lubitsch’s manipulation of what is shown and what is only
Heaven Can Wait. Don Ameche and Gene Tierney. Author’s personal collection.
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implied. For example, the devil in the framing story is soft-spoken and attentive, the opposite of what one might expect, yet when a querulous old
woman interrupts his conversation with Henry, saying she doesn’t belong
in that place, he quickly opens a trapdoor and dispatches her to the flames
below. We learn from this early moment that the devil is a gentleman but
annoying him has consequences; we further learn that good manners are
valued. Henry tells his own life story, and this allows him to avoid unimportant or distasteful topics. The family business figures very little in
his life, and the various mistresses, though mentioned in conversation, are
never shown. The most extraordinary example of omitting the unpleasant is that Martha’s final illness—probably cancer—is introduced allusively
with a mixture of humor and tenderness. At the end of the story the devil
tells Henry that he is not the right sort of person for Hell, and that he
might be accepted elsewhere. The mistresses are evidently unimportant,
given Henry’s obvious love for his wife. Lubitsch’s Heaven Can Wait is so
charming and sympathetic that the censors were not unduly disturbed by
its moral relativism.
Otto Preminger was a remarkably successful producer, director, and
manager of theater companies in Vienna while still in his twenties. In 1936
Joseph Schenck, touring Europe with his wife Norma Talmadge, signed
Preminger to a Hollywood contract on behalf of the newly merged Twentieth Century-Fox. When Preminger first arrived in the United States, he
divided his time between the Broadway stage and the Fox studio in Los
Angeles. In 1939 Darryl Zanuck fired him at Fox for refusing to direct a
film based on Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel Kidnapped, and Preminger
returned to Broadway and worked as an actor, director, and producer. He
resumed work at Fox in 1942, at the invitation of William Goetz. When
Zanuck arrived at the studio after his stint in the Signal Corps, many of
Goetz’s projects were immediately cancelled, but Zanuck was impressed by
Preminger’s current project—a murder mystery called Laura, based on the
novel by Vera Caspary. Zanuck kept Preminger as producer but hired the
far more experienced Rouben Mamoulian to direct. However, when filming
under Mamoulian began at a glacially slow pace, Preminger proposed to
Zanuck that he (Preminger) should take over as director, and Zanuck
agreed. Preminger won over the cast and shot the film without major incident. Then Zanuck decided that a new ending was needed that would make
the whole story a dream. Preminger shot the new ending but argued against
it and eventually won the argument. After this series of encounters with an
active and engaged supervisor, Preminger concluded that Zanuck “was very
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fair.”56 A more nuanced conclusion would be that if you have a powerful
personality, great powers of persuasion, artistic vision, and a willingness to
argue with the boss, then Zanuck could be a very fair man.
Laura begins with a stunning voiceover line delivered by Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb): “I shall never forget the day that Laura died.” Then the
first half of the film alternates between Waldo’s flashbacks of his young
protégée Laura (Gene Tierney) and the attempts of Detective Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews) to discover who killed her. We are introduced to
the posh world of upper-middle-class New York, with spacious, beautifully
appointed apartments and a never-ending social whirl. However, the characters are all weak or damaged, including radio commentator Waldo, an
aging dandy who professes love for Laura even though he abhors a physical relationship; Laura’s fiancé Shelby Carpenter (Vincent Price), a handsome but penniless Southerner who lies to everyone; and Ann Treadwell,
Laura. Murder suspect Clifton Webb (right and in mirror) with detective Dana Andrews. Author’s
personal collection.
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Laura’s aunt, who pays Shelby’s bills even though she knows he is using
her. McPherson is not particularly likable, either; he has a low opinion of
women, and he avoids emotional involvement with people or situations.
McPherson also fiddles with a tiny version of a pinball game throughout
the movie; he claims that this childish, irritating habit relaxes him.
In the second half of the film Laura reappears. Someone else, a fashion
model named Diane Redfern, had been killed in Laura’s apartment, with
her face destroyed beyond recognition by a shotgun blast. To this point
McPherson had been falling in love with Laura’s painted portrait. Now he
encounters the woman herself, more beautiful and more troubling than the
painted representation. As Waldo gleefully points out, McPherson’s interest in Laura is necrophiliac—this kind of obsession with a dead woman
recurs in another great Hollywood film, Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958).
Waldo, Shelby, Ann, and even Laura herself are under suspicion for Diane’s
death, which leads to a variety of tense conversations amid party scenes.
The murder mystery is eventually resolved, but Preminger is more interested in characters than in plot.
The title character, as played by Gene Tierney, is a wonderfully original
version of the femme fatale. Laura is not really a bad woman, in fact she is
responsible and virtuous, but it doesn’t matter; men lie, cheat, and murder
to gain her favor. Structurally, this character directly and indirectly causes
jealousy, deception, and crime because of her beauty and in spite of her
moral goodness. Laura is fashion-model beautiful, and she is also thoughtful, empathetic, and a good listener. Her main imperfection is that she
lacks the “no” reflex, the willingness to quickly cut off unwanted attention
from men. She devotes a great deal of time and energy to men of dubious
character, including the obviously gay Waldo, the deeply flawed Shelby, and
even the undemonstrative, childish Mark. The film presents her reluctance
to leave Waldo and Shelby as a character flaw—by refusing to decide, she
has some responsibility for the tragic events that ensue. Laura’s involvement
with damaged men might also be an implicit reference to the social context
of World War II (the war is never explicitly mentioned in this film), for if
she wants a permanent relationship with someone not in the military she
would have limited choices. Even Mark, who would have been exempt from
military service, is not a good catch.
Laura is an odd sort of film noir, with a virtuous heroine and lavish Park
Avenue settings. The film’s black-and-white cinematography is low-key
but more or less conventional, with soft lighting on most of the faces. Yet
thematically Laura could definitely be labeled “film noir” since it shows not
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only weak characters but also a fallen world. Although the male characters
delude themselves about motivation and values, the females understand
that they live in a world of lies, deceit, and immorality. Ann Treadwell
communicates this in a private conversation with Laura, saying that Shelby
is not the right match for her niece. Ann continues: “Shelby’s better for
me. Why? Because I can afford him. And I understand him. He’s no good,
but he’s what I want. I’m not a nice person, Laura.” Laura says nothing;
evidently she does not expect too much of her fellow human beings.
Laura was not Preminger’s first Hollywood film, but it was the one that
established him as a major creative presence. Ironic, sophisticated, insightful, it went on to both critical and commercial success. Both Clifton Webb
(who won an Academy Award for best supporting actor) and Gene Tierney
are best known for their performances in Laura. As for Preminger, he went
on to a long and distinguished career, first at Fox and then as an independent producer.
Betty Grable and the Fox Musical
Musical films in a wide variety of styles were an important part of Fox’s
output in the early 1940s. Sonja Henie continued to thrill audiences with
“ice musicals” such as Sun Valley Serenade (1941), Iceland (1942), and Wintertime (1943). Fox films showcased the era’s two most popular big bands:
the Glenn Miller Orchestra appears in Sun Valley Serenade and in Orchestra
Wives (1942), and the Benny Goodman Orchestra appears in The Gang’s All
Here (1943). Stormy Weather (1943) starred Lena Horne and Fox veteran Bill
“Bojangles” Robinson in a film with a totally African American cast. Alice
Faye, a major talent for Twentieth Century-Fox in the late 1930s, remained
an important star in such films as Little Old New York (1940), That Night in
Rio (1941), Week-End in Havana (1941), and The Gang’s All Here. However,
the biggest Fox musical star of the 1940s, and the studio’s prime box-office
attraction, was a pert blonde with beautiful legs named Betty Grable.
Betty Grable became a Hollywood star because of Alice Faye’s appendicitis. Faye was set to appear in Down Argentine Way (1940) opposite
Don Ameche; when she was unable to start the picture, Fox took a chance
on Grable, who had been bouncing around Hollywood for years. Grable
had been a chorus girl, singer, dancer, and supporting actress in dozens of
films, beginning with Fox’s Happy Days in 1929. She had worked for Fox,
Goldwyn, Sennett, RKO, MGM, Columbia, Paramount, Warner Bros.,
and other studios. The great surprise of Down Argentine Way, filmed in
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Technicolor, is that Grable has a fabulous presence: her blonde hair, blue
eyes, fair skin, and brightly colored wardrobe light up the screen. Though
not an overwhelming beauty like Greta Garbo, Grable is self-confident and
outgoing, and audiences like her. She can sing and she can dance, unlike
Alice Faye, whose dancing skills were minimal. Down Argentine Way presents a love story between Grable, playing an American rich girl, and Don
Ameche, playing an Argentinian rich boy, and although Ameche is topbilled, Grable carries the film. In typical romantic comedy style they meet,
they fight, they fall in love, and—since this is a musical—they sing and
they dance.
Twentieth Century-Fox did not make the so-called integrated musicals
of MGM, where musical elements developed plot and character and vice
versa.57 Fox musicals were more like revues or variety shows, where the musical
numbers are realistic moments of the plot (e.g., nightclub scenes, or trips to
the theater) rather than fantasy expressions of the characters’ inner feelings.
The songs can still explore themes and moods important to the plot, though
more indirectly than in an MGM musical. Darryl Zanuck maintained in a
1943 production memo that this realistic approach explained Fox’s success
with musicals:
The reason our musicals have consistently topped all musicals made elsewhere is, in my opinion, because we have successfully eliminated the stage
or theatre technique [presumably the technique of bursting spontaneously
into song]. While it is true that we have had certain variations of this, in
Down Argentine Way and others, we have generally adhered to the rule of
keeping our musical numbers logical and having them arise from situations.58
In Fox films we see a variety of musical acts, and sometimes the main
character doesn’t sing at all; this happens most notoriously in Sonja Henie
movies. In Down Argentine Way one feels at times that the studio is “protecting” Grable, as it protected Henie, by having other talents provide the
musical entertainment—these other talents include Carmen Miranda,
character actress Charlotte Greenwood, and tap-dance specialists the
Nicholas Brothers. Nevertheless, Grable gets enough musical numbers to
prove her skills, and in later musicals there is no question that she is the
star attraction.
Though the script of Down Argentine Way would probably have been
identical with Grable or Faye in the lead, with this film we can already
begin to differentiate the two actresses. Both are blonde beauties, but Faye
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is often relatively restrained and domestic whereas Grable has a wild and
independent streak. In Down Argentine Way Glenda Crawford (Grable) has
a disappointing first encounter with Ricardo Quintana (Ameche) in New
York and decides to follow him to Buenos Aires. She announces her intention to Aunt Binnie (Greenwood), who comments, “Oh you beautiful
spoiled brat!,” and says she will come along. Instead of chaperoning, Binnie
spends her time in nightclubs with the tourist guide Tito (Leonid Kinskey),
leaving Glenda on her own to charm Ricardo and his father Don Diego
(Henry Stephenson). With her blonde hair, bright outfits, and strong will,
Glenda stands out in Argentina (actually a studio Argentina), but standing
out is central to her appeal. After a series of complications, she gets her man.
Down Argentine Way is in several ways a celebration. It celebrates the
courtship and expected marriage of Glenda and Ricardo. It celebrates the
debut of a major star; based on the overall mood and feel of the film, it seems
likely that everyone involved knew that Grable was going to be a success. It
celebrates the reconciliation of the various plot conflicts. At a self-reflexive
level the film understands that a Hollywood musical is a celebration; to use
critic Leo Braudy’s formulation, musicals celebrate the perfect couple in the
perfect world.59 So much has gone right by the time we get to Down Argentine Way’s final fiesta that everybody sings and/or dances—indeed, it is
here that the film goes beyond Zanuck’s rule of “keeping musical numbers
logical.” Grable sings and dances, Ameche sings, Charlotte Greenwood
sings and dances, the Nicholas Brothers dance. Even actors who can’t
sing or dance try to sing and dance, anyway. Near the end of the fiesta
Grable dances a sexy shimmy with a few possible meanings: “I got the guy,”
“I’m having fun,” and “I’m going to be a star!” Her movements are unabashedly sensual, anticipating a passionate, physical relationship. A musical is
a celebration.
Down Argentine Way was one of many Fox films made to implement
a film industry-wide “Good Neighbor Policy” toward Latin America; the
phrase comes from Franklin D. Roosevelt’s first inaugural address of 1933,
where he promised a friendly and peaceful attitude toward South and
Central America. During World War II, the U.S. government created an
administrative agency to encourage good relations with Latin America, the
Office of Inter-American Affairs, and this agency specifically encouraged
the production of “Good Neighbor” films. Down Argentine Way preceded
the formation of the Office of Inter-American Affairs, but nevertheless it
was surely influenced by Roosevelt administration policy. Thus, the impending marriage between Glenda and Ricardo represents close and im5AQ6A2A095AI2EA2D0AI2P0T 3-S,9DA=IP?F 8F-P0=1A=01 :IEQA01E2T-%9AS=160A11 60-PA12

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proving relations between the United States and Argentina—another cause
for celebration. Since the film was a box-office success, it was hardly surprising that Fox would continue to support government policy and its own
self-interest by making films such as That Night in Rio (1941) and WeekEnd in Havana (1941). These films bring together American and Latin
American characters using the plot device of Americans travelling abroad.
The films were very popular in the United States but not successful as propaganda aimed at Latin America—because they lacked authenticity.
Carmen Miranda was a big star in her native Brazil as a singer and
dancer known for her sex appeal. She signed a film contract with Fox in
1940 while she was appearing at a New York club, and Down Argentine Way
was her first appearance in an American film. Since Miranda could not
break her nightclub contract, her numbers for this film were shot in New
York even though all the other actors were working with director Irving
Cummings in Los Angeles. If you look closely at Miranda’s scenes, you will
find that she never interacts with the other characters. Fox, with its revue
approach to musicals, could cut and paste Miranda into the film. Miranda
made several more films for Twentieth Century-Fox, but unfortunately the
studio never figured out how to make the Brazilian star completely fit with
American productions. Instead of appealing to adults, she became a childlike and campy figure of fun known for outrageous outfits, for example, the
“tutti-frutti hat” in The Gang’s All Here (1943). Miranda had some spoken
lines in the films that followed Down Argentine Way, but she was always a
comic, secondary character. Although her percussive approach to singing
was indeed fun, and it minimized the language barrier, one wonders if in
other circumstances she could have played multidimensional, fully realized
human beings.
After the success of Down Argentine Way, which earned $2 million in
domestic rentals in 1940, Fox quickly put Betty Grable to work on more
films. In the musical Tin Pan Alley (1940), also a big success, she was the
second female lead behind Alice Faye. In 1941 she appeared in two dramatic
features, A Yank in the R.A.F. (discussed earlier in this chapter) and I Wake
Up Screaming, and then Fox decided to limit her to musical comedies only.
Grable was so popular that her films were rushed into production: choreographer Hermes Pan remembers that the slogan at Fox’s West Los Angeles
studio was “Hurry up and get Grable out there.”60 With this hurry-up attitude, it’s not surprising that the quality of Grable musicals varied, but nevertheless she was ranked among Hollywood’s top ten box-office stars for
every year between 1942 and 1951, and in 1943 she was ranked number one.
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In Moon over Miami (1941), Grable is a gold-digger after Don Ameche’s
money, but she is so nice that both Ameche and the audience forgive her.
Song of the Islands (1942) is another Good Neighbor movie, this time set
in a studio fantasy of Hawaii. Grable wears a grass skirt and other revealing costumes, and her dance number for “O’Brien Has Gone Hawaiian,”
combining tap, Irish, and hula steps, works surprisingly well. Coney Island
(1943) is a film about the entertainment business circa 1900, with George
Montgomery toning down Grable’s singing style and her trashy clothing
to make her a Broadway star. Much of the film is about the Grable character before Montgomery reforms her, and thus it presents an oddly vulgar,
flashy image. Sweetheart of the Rockies (1942), yet another Good Neighbor film, was partly shot on location at Lake Louise in Alberta, Canada.
During production of this film Grable first met bandleader Harry James;
after a rapid courtship they were married on 5 July 1943. The Dolly Sisters
(1945) stars Grable and June Haver as singing and dancing siblings who
became vaudeville stars in the early 1900s. The studio was preparing Haver
as the latest “Fox blonde” in musical comedies (after Sonja Henie, Alice
Faye, and Grable), but her career never took off.
Pin Up Girl (1944) is one of the most uneven and most fascinating Betty
Grable films. It starts from an exciting, presold premise, as it is largely
based on Grable’s famous wartime pinup photograph. In 1941, photographer Frank Powolny shot a series of publicity stills of the actress, including
an image of her in a one-piece bathing suit, walking away from the camera
but looking back invitingly at the viewer. This image became the numberone pinup of World War II; it was so popular with American GIs that
Twentieth Century-Fox gave away millions of copies. The photo’s message
is ambiguous, since Grable has turned her back but she is nevertheless
looking at the viewer. She is moving away, but she is also flirting. The exact
relationship between star and viewer is left uncertain. There is also some
ambiguity about the nature of the young woman in the picture. On the one
hand, she has a pretty face and a wholesome smile and she wears a relatively
modest bathing suit, therefore she might be considered, in Grable biographer Doug Warren’s words, “a representation of the girl-back-home for
thousands of homesick young lads.”61 On the other hand, the pose stresses
the legs and rear of an already famous Hollywood star whose films were
wish fulfillments and whose real-life romances generated headlines. By this
standard, the woman in the photo is not so innocent; she is approachable,
romanceable, perhaps even beddable.
Pin Up Girl presents a fictionalized backstory to the photograph, and
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Betty Grable’s famous pinup
image, photographed by Frank
Powolny. Author’s personal
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wartime prosperity, 1940–1945 93
it is a very odd movie because the dramatic scenes directed by L. Bruce
Humberstone are mediocre at best but some of the musical numbers are
excellent. Contemporary reviewer Dorothy Watson, writing for the Hollywood Citizen-News, described the film as follows: “The lavishly staged
specialty numbers . . . form the basis of a good variety show. Why the studio
didn’t let it go at that instead of dragging in a stupid, unconvincing plot
remains a mystery.”62 However, there is more to say about Pin Up Girl, for
its nonmusical and musical scenes help to define very different aspects of
the pinup photo. In the dramatic portions of the film, we follow the adventures of Lorry Jones (played by Grable), a young woman who volunteers
and occasionally sings at the USO in the fictionalized town of Missoula,
Missouri (probably based on Grable’s birthplace, St. Louis). All the soldiers and sailors are in love with her, and she distributes her photo—the
famous pinup photo—to all of them. Lorry and her friend Kay (Dorothea
Kent) then move to Washington, DC, to work as secretaries in a navy office
building; they are girls-next-door and part of the film’s patriotic theme.
When they stop in New York en route to Washington, Lorry meets the war
hero Tommy Dooley ( John Harvey), who will be her love interest through
the story’s adventures and complications. But she also gets to sing a song in
a fancy nightclub, using the made-up name Laura Lorraine rather than the
more ordinary Lorry Jones, and this paves the way for her to moonlight as a
nightclub performer in Washington. In her musical numbers Lorry/Laura
becomes a more provocative and independent character, and she eventually
performs two sexually aggressive numbers, as a prostitute/Apache dancer
and as a “Merry Widow.”
At first glance, Pin Up Girl is a thematically unintegrated musical, and a
bad one at that. It is hard to see how song and dance illuminate story, and
vice versa, as in the great MGM musicals or even Down Argentine Way.
The story of a girl-next-door secretary is glued together with some musical
numbers so that Betty Grable can sing. Patriotic exhortations are added
to both the plot and the musical numbers, as might be expected in 1944.
A romance, also expected, adds some complication to the story—war hero
Tommy Dooley looks everywhere for the glamorous young singer her met
in New York, not realizing she is the glasses-wearing secretary he sees at
the office. Pin Up Girl appears to be one big cliché.
And yet the film by its very incoherence responds to the ambiguity of
the source photo. It poses the question “What kind of pinup girl do you
want?” and provides multiple answers, anticipating the varied desires of the
audience. If you want a girl from a modest, midwestern background, the plot
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provides her. If you want something richer and stranger, the film has that,
too; in fact, you get a few different choices. First, there is the Apache dance
scene, where a provocatively dressed Parisienne (Grable) dances with her
man (choreographer Hermes Pan), who is almost certainly her pimp, though
a 1940s Hollywood film couldn’t explicitly say so. Both actors are sensual and
arrogant; they are attracted to each other but keep a proud distance. The
female performer, who has the only singing part, explains that her man has
cheated on her “Once Too Often” (the title of the song), and she threatens
him with both romantic betrayal and bodily harm. One rather amazing line
is “You’re goin’ to whimper like a pup.” The film’s communication here could
be “Maybe you want a more dangerous woman as your pinup.”
In the last dance number of the film, the Grable character again suggests
a more provocative fantasy than Washington, DC, secretary or midwestern
USO hostess. Here she sings and dances as “The Merry Widow,” a rich
woman who drinks and parties all day long. This number presents the fantasy
of the independent woman at home in the United States, having multiple
affairs while the poor GI risks life and limb in Europe or the Pacific. Perhaps
the Merry Widow version of Grable represents the GI’s wife or girlfriend,
though the term “widow” does at least slow down the masochistic elements
of the fantasy. But the Merry Widow number quickly morphs into something
else: a Busby Berkeley-ized fantasy of women in uniform, being put through
their paces by drill sergeant Betty Grable. No lyrics here, just a patriotic
march and the terse orders and cadences of Miss Grable. The women march
in geometric patterns, their uniforms gleaming, their stockings straight, for
a few minutes. Then the film ends. On a literal level, the final number is
saying that individual pleasure is out for the duration of the war. Personal
selfishness must be sacrificed for the war effort. But the drill formation also
weirdly continues the masochistic elements of the Apache dance and the
“Merry Widow” lyrics and dance. Here the communication might be “Suppose
it was Betty Grable who was disciplining me and putting me through my
paces?” The severity of this scene—no lyrics, no narrative elements, strict
geometry, long duration—further suggests a masochistic possibility. But it
is only a possibility because the scene and the film are unresolved.
In many musical films, a variety of possibilities and fantasies are resolved
at the end by the affirmation of the perfect couple. However, Pin Up Girl
has a relatively undeveloped central couple, and the final meeting between
Lorry and Tommy does not solve the film’s conflicts and contradictions.
One problem with the couple is that Lorry is by far the more interesting
and complex character, whereas Tommy is a cardboard stereotype of the
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handsome, heroic sailor. This corresponds, of course, to the background of
the actors: Betty Grable was an important Hollywood star, whereas John
Harvey was making his second motion picture appearance. But Tommy’s
very anonymity might be an asset, for in the film he stands in for the male
spectator, the viewer of the pinup picture. If Tommy were too important, he
would get in the spectator’s way. Tommy is not a singer or a dancer, and so
he never appears in the crucial musical numbers. At the end of Pin Up Girl
Lorry does reveal herself to Tommy, she shows him that Lorry the secretary
and Laura the entertainer are one and the same, but the film then moves
quickly to the Merry Widow/drill team number.
After that number, the movie does not return to Lorry and Tommy, so
we don’t get to see Tommy’s response; instead, the closing credits appear.
This abrupt ending leaves the central question “What kind of pinup girl do
you want?” unanswered. We do not know that Lorry will be domesticated
by Tommy, and so we are left with an array of possibilities. The pinup girl,
object of male fantasies, could be the midwestern girl-next-door, or the
dangerous Apache girl, or the Merry Widow, or the drill sergeant, or even
the perfect wife-to-be. Like Frank Powolny’s still photograph, the film Pin
Up Girl creates a relationship with the spectator and leaves much to the
imagination. You and I can choose which Betty Grable we like, or we can
be entertained by all of them. Still, there’s no getting around the mediocre
story; Pin Up Girl is a very good bad Hollywood movie.
Case Study: Lifeboat
Alfred Hitchcock arrived at Twentieth Century-Fox in 1942, during the
period that Darryl Zanuck was in the Signal Corps and William Goetz
was acting head of the Los Angeles production studio. Goetz had made a
loan-out deal with his brother-in-law David O. Selznick to bring Hitchcock to Fox for two films (though only one was ever made). On his very
first day, Hitchcock proposed the story of a diverse group of people thrown
together in a lifeboat. Goetz was enthusiastic, and he gave Hitchcock and
producer Kenneth Macgowan a free hand to develop the project. Hitchcock asked Ernest Hemingway to write the script, but Hemingway politely
declined. John Steinbeck was asked next and he sort of accepted, saying
that he would work for a week on the story and then, if the results were
good, he would sign a contract. Steinbeck had a cordial and productive
relationship with Fox that began with his admiration for the film version of
The Grapes of Wrath (1940) and extended through The Moon Is Down (1942),
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Lifeboat (1944), O. Henry’s Full House (1950, with Steinbeck as the on-screen
host) and Viva Zapata (1952). Steinbeck became passionately interested in
the Lifeboat project, accepted a fee of $50,000, and quickly wrote a prose
description of the story that was 158 pages long.63 This prose document
has been called a “treatment”—a short prose version of a film story—but
in length it is more like a novella. Steinbeck outlined a number of American and British characters who escape from a sinking freighter and find
their way to a lifeboat, as well as the German character Willi who escapes
from a sinking U-boat. Unfortunately, Steinbeck and Hitchcock did not
agree on a few major points. Steinbeck was interested in the operations of
the U.S. Merchant Marine, including procedures to follow in a shipwreck,
but Hitchcock was more attracted to the technical challenge of telling an
entire story within the restricted space of a lifeboat. Steinbeck filtered the
story through the consciousness of a proletarian/socialist American sailor,
but Hitchcock favored a more objective view, putting all of the survivors
on a more or less equal footing. Steinbeck’s Willi was relatively weak and
passive, but Hitchcock conceived Willi as a strong villain who would create
dramatic tension. Steinbeck and Hitchcock worked on the story in New
York for a few weeks before Steinbeck left the United States to spend some
months in England as a war correspondent. At this point Hitchcock reworked the project with screenwriter Jo Swerling, who later reported that
the finished story was primarily Hitchcock’s.64 Steinbeck was disappointed
by the finished film and suggested that he be taken off the credits, but Fox
gave him a prominent credit because of the publicity value of his name.
Although the above account seems pretty straightforward, there is considerable controversy about Steinbeck’s novella for Lifeboat because (1) the
typescript of the novella has been hidden away in a few archives for decades;
(2) Steinbeck had harsh words for Hitchcock after the release of the film;
and (3) both Steinbeck and Hitchcock scholars have claimed Lifeboat as
an example of “their” author’s genius. To fairly evaluate the various claims,
it is necessary to analyze the novella itself before moving to the film’s production history and then to Lifeboat as finished product. Steinbeck’s most
interesting decision in the novella was using a first-person narrator, the
merchant seaman Bud Abbott (this character is called “John Kovac” in the
film). In a memo to Macgowan and Hitchcock, Steinbeck explained that
Lifeboat as he imagined it was “a story of mood,” that a first-person narrator would put “the stamp of an individual mind on the whole exposition,”
and that the narrator would create a colloquial and intimate tone. Steinbeck said that he was not necessarily suggesting voiceover narration for the
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film, “though in some cases it might even be a good thing.” He added that
he was worried about authenticity of detail, for example, the equipment
that would be in a lifeboat and the weather and currents to be expected in
the Atlantic.65
As Hitchcock later acknowledged, Steinbeck was largely responsible
for several of the characters in the finished film Lifeboat. What really
changes from novella to film is the attitude toward the characters. Steinbeck’s Bud Abbott is a left-winger, and so he has no use for either the
fashionable journalist Connie Porter (played by Tallulah Bankhead in the
film) or the wealthy capitalist C. J. Rittenhouse (played by Henry Hull
in the film). Hitchcock changed this bias against the wealthy to a more
evenhanded look at the characters, and in his version Connie rather than
Kovac becomes the most important character. This is partly because of
Tallulah Bankhead, a Broadway star, and partly because of the character’s
transformation from egotism to solidarity and self-sacrifice. Steinbeck later
objected that Hitchcock “is one of those incredible English middle class
snobs who really and truly despise working people,” presumably referring
to the director’s decision to move away from the working-class Bud Abbott
as focal point of the finished film, but, as Hitchcock biographer Patrick
McGilligan notes, Steinbeck worked harmoniously with Hitchcock during
preproduction.66 The one character added after Steinbeck left the project
was British seaman Stanley Garrett, nicknamed “Sparks,” played by Canadian actor Hume Cronyn. Sparks falls in love with American nurse Alice
MacKenzie, played by Mary Anderson, and this helps to create the film’s
allegorical theme of cooperation between allies.
According to McGilligan, the novella of Lifeboat is mediocre Steinbeck
and therefore cannot have much bearing on the authorship of the finished
film. McGilligan’s key evidence is letters from Steinbeck’s editor and publisher in the Twentieth Century-Fox legal files urging the author not to
publish Lifeboat because it is not up to his own high standards.67 However,
a careful reading of the novella itself suggests that it is original and well
written, although not in polished, final form. There are a couple of possible
reasons that Steinbeck was advised not to publish. First, in the 1940s writing
for film was considered to be hack work, far less prestigious (though better
paying) than poetry or prose. For example, William Faulkner thought of
his entire screenwriting career as purely mercenary, though Bruce Kawin’s
book Faulkner and Film found a great deal of interest in Faulkner’s various
scripts.68 Second, there is a problem with the opinions expressed in Steinbeck’s novella, and so his advisors may have questioned the quality of the
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98 twentieth century-fox
work as an indirect way to keep him from publishing controversial material
that could have damaged his career. Steinbeck’s Bud Abbott tells us that
World War II was caused by colossal lies and misrepresentations that the
Allied governments and the German government told the ordinary people
(a category that includes Abbott himself ). The resulting conflict is not at
all noble and patriotic but rather something dirty that one has to clean
out. Further, lots of people are benefiting from war profiteering in big and
small ways. And Bud promises that after the war people will be hungry
for change and will not put up with congressmen who would not spend
$10 billion to feed the hungry but were willing to spend $100 billion on
the war.69 This material is political dynamite that could not have been
presented in a Hollywood motion picture and that probably would have
damaged Steinbeck’s reputation—but there is nothing wrong with the
quality of the writing.
Two other key themes in the novella do find their way to Hitchcock’s
film. The first is an unusual focus and intensity found in every scene because
of the moment-to-moment need to survive. Steinbeck’s prose is indeed a
“mood piece” since Bud recalls not only the factual details of several days in
the lifeboat but also the feelings, the physical challenges (e.g., the storm),
and the conflicts between characters. Hitchcock, to his great credit, found
ways to present the intensity and the changing moods of the story through
images, sounds, dialogue, and pacing. Lifeboat is a remarkably engaging
and credible film even though it was shot almost entirely on the Twentieth
Century-Fox backlot. Some scenes were filmed in a large water tank, others
with the boat in a large rocking contraption that had originally been created
for the film The Sea Wolf (1930).70 One could describe the film as a triumph
of dramatic artifice, not realism. A second notable theme in the novella is
guilt; the characters representing the Allies push Willi out of the boat—
thereby ensuring his death—and then feel very guilty about it. The same
episode happens in the film, but here it is not so evident how the characters
and the spectators are supposed to respond to Willi’s murder. Hitchcock
told François Truffaut that the film’s major idea is that the Allies must
learn to work together in order to defeat the German adversary. When
Truffaut brought up shared guilt, Hitchcock agreed that yes, the people on
the lifeboat behaved “like a pack of dogs.”71 However, Hitchcock’s presentation of this element is far more understated than Steinbeck’s. There is a
moral dilemma here—Willi is a threat to the group and therefore should
be killed, but Willi is also a human being and has a right to some form of
organized justice.
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wartime prosperity, 1940–1945 99
Lifeboat begins with a single shot of a sinking smokestack (representing
the freighter), a few shots of debris on the water, and then a shot of Connie
Porter, a prominent American journalist, sitting in a small boat. Connie, an
incongruous figure with a mink coat, an 8 mm movie camera, and perfect
makeup, helps a number of others come aboard. The people stranded on the
lifeboat are male and female, rich and poor, American and British (and one
German), white and black. Many things happen during their several days
on the open seas: a British woman, Mrs. Higgins, distraught because of the
death of her baby, commits suicide by jumping over the side; a huge storm
takes most of the group’s food and water, but kills no one; an American
sailor, Gus Smith (William Bendix), leaves the boat while delirious after
the amputation of his lower leg; the group argues about politics and social
class and who will be the lifeboat leader; Connie and Rittenhouse learn
that money and possessions are unimportant; Sparks and Miss MacKenzie
fall in love; an African American seaman, Joe Spencer (Canada Lee), is
welcomed as a full member of the group, but he prefers to remain on the
periphery. After the storm, Willi surprisingly takes charge because he is
the strongest and most capable person in the lifeboat. But Willi turns out
to be both deceitful and a threat to the others: he is a U-boat captain, not
an ordinary seaman, and he is taking the lifeboat to a German rendezvous
point, not Bermuda. Also, Willi murdered Gus—first he tried to convince
the injured sailor to jump, then he gave Gus a small but sufficient push.
The group unites against Willi and pushes him off the lifeboat.
The filming of Lifeboat was long, difficult, and technically challenging. Hume Cronyn’s autobiography describes the day-to-day production as
“physically uncomfortable”: “Nine of us huddled in a lifeboat on frequently
stormy seas for the best part of three months.” When scenes were shot using
the water tank the actors were “cold, wet and covered with diesel oil.” The
studio provided several identical changes of clothing, but everything was
wet by midafternoon. When scenes were shot in the mechanical rocker, the
boat had to move “according to the wave conditions on the process screen—
sometimes pitching wildly, sometimes rolling gently, occasionally in a flat
calm.” Here seasickness was a major problem. Hitchcock, who did not
actually have to get in the boat, enjoyed the challenges of filming in a small,
confined area. Cronyn says that Hitchcock used his drawing skills to communicate the compositions he wanted to cinematographer Glen MacWilliams, and in this way succeeded in creating visual variety despite
the limited space.72 Through script, acting, composition, and meticulous
attention to detail (props, costumes, boat movement, diesel oil), the film
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100 twentieth century-fox
maintains our interest in the lifeboat as microcosm; we experience drama,
character development, and a sense of the broader world.73 Hitchcock told
Truffaut he had noticed that for “psychological pictures . . . eighty per cent
of the footage was shot in close-ups or semiclose shots.”74 So for Lifeboat
he set himself the challenge of making a film that was almost 100 percent
close or semiclose shots, and where the camera never left the boat. The
resulting film is intense and suspenseful, and so the experiment must be
called a success. Lifeboat anticipates the later experiment of Rope (1948)
which was shot in a limited space and with what appears to be a single,
continuous take.
Though Darryl Zanuck participated in the scripting and editing of
almost all of Fox’s A pictures, he had very little to do with Lifeboat. Zanuck
was in the military when Lifeboat was approved by Goetz and then scripted
by Steinbeck, Swerling, Hitchcock, and Alma Reville (Hitchcock’s wife,
who often worked without credit on his projects). When Zanuck returned
to Fox, preproduction was well under way, and Hitchcock was firmly in
control; producer Macgowan basically acted as Hitchcock’s assistant.
Zanuck closely observed the production, and on 19 August 1943 he wrote
Macgowan and Hitchcock that the schedule was too leisurely and the
script was too long. The studio head worried that Lifeboat as then planned
would have a running time of almost three hours. Hitchcock magisterially
replied that Zanuck was getting stupid advice; he added that the picture
was proceeding efficiently and the final cut might be eighty-four minutes
long. Zanuck replied that Hitchcock was underestimating the length
(the finished film runs ninety-seven minutes), and he complained about
mounting costs, but he did not require any script deletions.75 Hitchcock
finished Lifeboat with little interference from Zanuck, so one can assume
that the finished product was very much the film Hitchcock wanted to
make. However, Zanuck was not wrong in his objections; Lifeboat cost a lot
of money for a film without proven Hollywood stars, and in 1944 its boxoffice returns were mediocre (with a production cost of $1.59 million and
domestic rentals of $1 million).
The critics of 1944 did not give Lifeboat an enthusiastic reception.
Dorothy Thompson, political columnist of the New York Herald Tribune
and a staunch anti-Nazi, “gave the picture ten days to get out of town,” a
phrase Hitchcock still remembered in 1967.
76 Bosley Crowther of the New
York Times thought that the Nazi character was “efficient and resourceful” whereas the American and British characters were “pathetic,” and
though praising the film’s technical strengths he found its ideas “alarm5AQ6A2A095AI2EA2D0AI2P0T 3-S,9DA=IP?F 8F-P0=1A=01 :IEQA01E2T-%9AS=160A11 60-PA12

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wartime prosperity, 1940–1945 101
ing.” Interestingly, Crowther felt that Connie and Rittenhouse, the two
wealthy characters, were “opportunistic and cynical,” though this theme is
far stronger in the Steinbeck novella.77 Crowther’s key objection was that a
superior German character fed the myth of the Nazi superman; Hitchcock
had made Willi strong so that his eventual defeat would be powerful and
satisfying, but Crowther read this as bad propaganda in wartime. Today’s
spectators are less concerned about Willy’s strength and more attuned to
the film’s virtuosic and moral qualities. Hitchcock’s reputation has risen
over the decades—he is a “pantheon director,” per Andrew Sarris—and
Lifeboat has become a frequently revived classic.78
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