Zanuck: The Rise and Fall of Hollywood’s Last Tycoon by Leonard Mosley; Little Brown, Boston.
Movies have not always been taken seriously as art. When Rudolph Arnheim 50 years ago compared film with painting, music, and literature, he was being deliberately controversial. It was a long road from the nickelodeon to artistic respectability. Today film no longer needs to be promoted as art. It simply is art; all of it is. As a result, we are entertained with learned discourses concerning the films of George Romero and John Carpenter, and about the sociocultural significance of toast and The Rocky Horror Picture Show.
One element that tends to be ignored––even in Marxist criticism––is that, by and large, movies are made to make a pile of dough that can be cooked into T-bills, oil leases, and various objects of conspicuous consumption. What makes Sammy run? Not art: Budd Schulberg, the creator of Sammy Glick, pointed out over 40 years ago that money is the prime-perhaps the only motivator in Hollywood.
However, give a self-proclaimed Hollywood expert the following list, and he’ll start hollering “art” The ]azz Singer (1927), Little Caesar (1931), The Public Enemy (1931), I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang (1932),42nd Street ( 1933), Moulon Rouge (1934 ), Jesse James (1939), Young Mr. Lincoln (1939), Drums Along the Mohawk (1939), The Grapes of Wrath (1940)––and the list could continue. But even with this party program we have the first “talkie,” Edward G. Robinson, James Cagney, Jean Harlow, Paul Muni, Ruby Keeler, Nunnally Johnson, Tyrone Power, Henry Fonda, and John Ford. The common element: movies produced by Darryl F. Zanuck.
Biographer Leonard Mosley figures Zanuck as “Hollywood’s Last Tycoon.” Yes, Zanuck endured until 1979; he lasted longer than Louis B. Mayer of M-G-M, the brothers Warner, Harry Cohn of Columbia Pictures, and Adolph Zukor of Paramount-but longevity alone does not tum a businessman into a visionary or a pioneer. Throughout his long career, Zanuck’s only concern was the bottom line. Movies didn’t start having voice tracks to broaden the artistic possibilities of film: it was merely a gimmick that paid off. Zanuck didn’t produce a series of gangster films in the 1930’s because he was several jumps ahead of the school of film noir; audiences simply loved them. And although many venerate the efforts of director John Ford, it should be noted that Zanuck sliced, diced, and riced Ford’s footage as he, DFZ, saw fit.
If the passing of Zanuck really does mean the end of an era and the extinction of a subspecies-well, I’d be sorrier to see the snail darter go.