Scott Eyman spoke with Solzy at the Movies about his new book, 20th Century-Fox: Darryl F. Zanuck and the Creation of the Modern Film Studio.
When did you first decide to write about the history of 20th Century-Fox?
Scott Eyman: I thought it was among the most interesting studios, not the highest profile studio. But always interesting because there was such a demarcation point between the films that William Fox made when he was running the studio and the films that Darryl Zanuck made when he took the studio over a few years after Fox was deposed. I like a lot of the late Fox silents, the Murnaus and obviously, I spent some time talking about Murnau and the films he made there.
I have always had a huge interest, too, in Zanuck because I think he was—for all of his obsessive compulsive, personal failings. I’ve always thought he was a spectacular movie producer. There’s just such a huge leap from films Fox was making to the films that Zanuck was making, not that one is necessarily better than the other but they’re just so entirely different and the malleability of the system to encompass both to such varying sensibilities at the same studio.
If Vanda Krefft didn’t write a biography about William Fox a few years ago, would this have been a different book?
Scott Eyman: I would have spent less time on Fox, probably, if Vanda hadn’t written a book. I might have just had a briefer prologue and gone directly into Zanuck.
What was the most fascinating thing you learned about Darryl Zanuck in writing the book?
Scott Eyman: The chasm between the kind of person he was as a man and the kind of values he espoused as a filmmaker, I think, is fascinating. I’m not sure he would have regarded himself as a hypocrite but there certainly is gap between the guy with all those Fox musicals in production as well as the Fox films like John Ford’s How Green Was My Valley and things like that in the way he actually lived his own life. I think that’s very intrinsically interesting. The thing about Zanuck is he wasn’t the same in middle age as he was as a younger man when he’s was making pictures at Warner Brothers as the production head. The pictures are entirely different than the pictures he was making at Fox just a few years later. He wasn’t stuck in any particular groove—he was able to expand with the times and expand depending upon the talent he had at hand to make pictures.
When I was reading about Jules Dassin, Zanuck’s behavior really surprised me especially during the blacklist.
Scott Eyman: Well, Zanuck was a liberal Republican. He was a financial Republican more than a political Republican. Basically, all those guys were autocrats. They didn’t want anybody telling them what they could make or not make, especially politicians. It offended him on a psychological level and also offended him on a political level.
The other thing, at least from when I was reading the book, was how race was depicted on screen while he was at Fox.
Scott Eyman: As I said, he was a very liberal republican for his period. Not necessarily in terms of 21st century but in terms of the mid-20th century, I think you’d have to regard him as fighting the good fight.
Do you think a film like Gentleman’s Agreement could have happened at any other studio?
Scott Eyman: No. For that matter, I don’t think a film like All About Eve would have happened at another studio. It’s just there’s no conventional drama to it if you really think about it. I mean, nobody lives, nobody dies. There’s not really any conventional conflict. It’s the idea of career taking precedence over personal happiness that motivates the film and motivates all the characters, which is something Zanuck knew habitually (laughs) because he long since placed his money and career over personal happiness because he was at the studio 16-18 hours a day, which inevitably probably caused him to burn out at some point. He was a workaholic as most of those people were. I mean, it was not a nine-to-five business. It never has been a nine-to-five business. It’s still not a nine-to-five business. So no, I don’t think Gentleman’s Agreement at another—Mayer wouldn’t have touched it at MGM. Selznick made one kind of movie, which didn’t deal with politics or race. Paramount, no—who would have starred in it there? Bing Crosby?!? (Laughs) No, there’s nobody else that could have produced that picture.
What do you think that Zanuck would have thought about the Disney acquisition?
Scott Eyman: Well, that’s interesting because when all these guys were making movies, Disney was a boutique operation. It was always a boutique operation in their eyes. I mean, Disney made shorts and one or two features a year and that was basically it. Every three or four years, there’d be an animated feature because it took so long to make. It was no—in any sense—competition for Paramount, Fox, MGM or any of the majors.
Zanuck also—as a businessman—would have understood that corporations age and grow senile, just like human beings do. Disney hit a growth spurt in the 80s and has continued to expand exponentially and Fox didn’t. I don’t think Fox got senile. Fox just settled into a groove under the last couple owners and Rupert Murdoch, the last owner before the sale to Disney. Disney is much more aggressive. Disney has a burgeoning streaming operation, which Fox doesn’t have. Disney needed product for the streaming operation and they needed material for remakes—stuff that they could throw into the mall and recast for a different type of place. It made a lot of sense for Disney. Whereas Fox sort of settled into a more comfortable groove and didn’t really try to compete with Disney or, for that matter, other corporations.
Paramount is in the same situation. They’re trying to do things a little late in the day with the streaming operation but they’re nowhere near as aggressive. It’s a difference between a (inaudible) studio like Fox or Paramount—one that goes back over 100 years—and a more upstart operation. I mean, Disney goes back to the late 20s but the modern Disney only goes back 35-40 years so that’s a huge difference in the level of aggression in the vision of where the company could go and where technology is taking show business.
I think Zanuck would be stunned, on the one hand, that everything he had built would suddenly disappear into Burbank with a cut check. On the other hand, he was a pretty aggressive guy himself, not so much in business—he wasn’t motivated by money at all. He was motivated by making great pictures. He just loved the process. He loved the business and what he did but he would have understood that in order to make great pictures, you have to have a firm foundation, you have to have talent, you have to have money, and you have to have all those things that got a little difficult at Fox in recent years but he wouldn’t be happy about it.
Having read a number of your books during the pandemic what is it about classic Hollywood that makes it a great subject for film historians?
Scott Eyman: Well, in one sense, it’s like studying ancient Rome in that it’s dead, it’s past. Those people, those kinds of movies and the value system that animated those people is in the past and can be examined simply and judged in a way that is hard to do with more contemporary things because it’s still in motion—business is in motions, people are in motion, and sometimes you need time to pass to really get a sense of perspective. It’s got money, sex, power, and astonishing betrayals. It’s got everything you want in Shakespearean drama without the (inaudible).
How much has the pandemic affected you in terms of access to papers and such?
Scott Eyman: Stifled it. It’s been difficult. The Academy is still closed. USC is closed. UCLA is closed. The Library of Congress opened up a week or two ago. It’s made it more difficult—it’s forced writers, I think, to get more—either to just hope, wait, and sit it out, which is, of course, an option if you can afford to do it or forge ahead with other means and accessing other archives—digital archives, for instance, where stuff is more readily available with a download. You have to figure out what’s doable with material in hand. And if that’s not doable, then alter the project or come up with a different project. It’s been difficult but it’s been difficult for everybody. Traveling to do interviews, well, that’s been out. And as I said, the libraries have been closed for well over a year. So yeah, it’s creating problems but it’s creating problems for everybody because we are all in the same boat.
Have you started working on the next book?
Scott Eyman: Yeah. I’m always working on something. I don’t like to talk about books that I’ve started working on until they’re basically done. There are writers who love to talk about what they’re working on—the Truman Capote thing where he talked himself basically out of the book—he never actually wrote Answered Prayers. There are writers who don’t like to talk about them. I’m one of those who don’t like to talk about them. It dissipates my compression—you can talk a book out rather than write a book out. I’d rather write it.
I will say that it caught me off guard when I received the email about the 20th Century-Fox book because I was like, I just read the Cary Grant book.
Scott Eyman: The Cary Grant book was done before I did the Fox book. The Fox book was a pandemic book because I didn’t want to sit around for an indefinite amount of time and just twiddle my thumbs. I wanted to get working on something as a means of dealing with the pandemic. I looked around and thought about a lot about what do I have that I could put into motion with the material I already had: old interviews, the films I’ve already seen, previously published material, archival stuff I’ve got Xeroxed. You just throw everything in, look and see what you’ve got. Basically, that’s what I did. What came up was Fox, which I was very happy with because I’ve always had it at the back of my mind to write about Zanuck at some point and this was the opportunity that presented itself.