The Crack of Dawn
The Crack of Dawn
The biggest movie star in the world in 1930 was George Arliss, who won the Oscar for Best Actor that year (actually, back then Oscars were given for half one year and half of another, so George Arliss won in 1929-30) for the film, Disraeli (1929). George Arliss holds a record that cannot be beaten – having been born in 1868, he was born before every other Oscar-winner. He was 61 when he won his Oscar.
To me, George Arliss is a unique, fascinating glimpse into an earlier era – the Victorian Era – that had just ended as movies began (Queen Victoria died in 1901). George Arliss was a big star on the British stage in the early 1900s. He made a few silent films, but stage actors, for the most part, didn’t fare well in silents: they were trained to deliver dialogue, not perform pantomime. However, as soon as sound arrived (which is always dated as 1927, but theaters weren’t wired for sound until 1929), and people could actually hear the actors speaking, George Arliss was what an actor was supposed to sound like: British, erudite, snobby, and very formal.
Darryl F. Zanuck was the original “boy genius” of Hollywood. Zanuck predated, and even sort of trained, Irving Thalberg, who became known as the “boy genius” of Hollywood. In Zanuck’s early 20s (which happened to be in the early ‘20s), Zanuck took over production at Universal Pictures. When he left, Irving Thalberg replaced him. Zanuck then became Head of Production at Warner Brothers, and put that studio on the map. Darryl Zanuck loved historical dramas, and so do I. He produced a giant spectacle called Noah’s Ark (1929), and it’s absolutely ridiculous – a biblical story intercut with a WWI story – and was a big hit (I have the hardcover novel that accompanied the movie, with many b&w photos, and it’s attributed to Darryl Zanuck). Zanuck was the guy who started the gangster movie craze, with Little Caesar (1931). And he was the guy who signed George Arliss, who was known for playing historical figures on stage. Their first picture they made was Disraeli (1929), which was a smash success, and Arliss got the Oscar. And for 1929, it’s as well-made, well-acted, and intelligent of a movie as had ever been made. I think audiences were astounded that movies could possibly be so sophisticated. And George Arliss was the personification of sophistication, often wearing a monocle, always with a lot of makeup, and obvious wearing lipstick.
Darryl Zanuck left Warners in 1933 and put together what I think is one of the coolest deals ever done in Hollywood, and still remains so even today. He founded 20th Century Pictures with Joseph Schenck (brother of Nicholas Schenck, president of Loew’s Theaters, which owned MGM).
Joe Schenck brought the money; Darryl Zanuck brought George Arliss, whom he had filched from his former employer, Warner Bros. And even though George Arliss and his old-fashioned style of acting was quickly on their way out, Zanuck and Arliss scored a hit right away with House of Rothchild (1934, and once again, with Arliss portraying a Jewish character, though neither Zanuck nor Arliss were Jewish).
The old expression is, “Luck favors the bold.” In 1933, Fox Films, one of the oldest and biggest companies in Hollywood, went bankrupt. Zanuck and Schenck swooped in and procured it, lock, stock, and barrel, including all of its assets: sound stages on Western Blvd., a film laboratory (now Deluxe), a backlot (now Century City), and the exclusive contract of 6-year-old, Shirley Temple. Her films ranked number-one at the box office in 1935, 1936, 1937, and 1938.
So, the newly-named conglomerate, 20th Century Fox, replaced George Arliss, the oldest star in Hollywood, with Shirley Temple, the youngest star in Hollywood.
One of the Fox assets, that in 1933 wasn’t worth very much, was John Ford’s contract. Ford hadn’t had a hit since the arrival of sound, and he seemed washed up. He was still working all the time, and made some good, routine pictures, but he was struggling. Ford wasn’t at all sure that he was going to cut it in the sound era.
Darryl Zanuck, however, was the right guy, in the right place, with the ambition, motivation, money, a vision, and suddenly he had the best toys to play with. He put his two new assets together, and came up with my favorite Shirley Temple movie, Wee Willie Winkie (1937), with Victor McLaglen and Caesar Romero. I loved how they took the British military uniform, put it in boiling water and shrunk it, and it fit Shirley perfectly.
The blue gels have arrived. I made it, man, just in time.