As a filmmaker Darryl F. Zanuck was more a storyteller than an historian. When he was the dominant creative force at 20th Century-Fox as its vice-president of production in the thirties and forties, Zanuck’s interest in history was in the stories it provided him and his collaborators (screenwriters, directors, technicians, et al.). Zanuck and his collaborators had widely varying attitudes toward history on film, as we will see by looking at the production of several of Zanuck’s films at 20th Century Pictures and 20th Century-Fox from the thirties through the early fifties.

When Zanuck was growing up in Nebraska, he heard stories from his maternal grandfather, Henry Torpin, about the older man’s adventures as a railroad construction engineer. This was perhaps the beginning of Zanuck’s interest in American historical stories, particularly those that focused on a “great man,” since Zanuck was particularly close to his grandfather. (1) Zanuck entered the film business first as a writer. His scripts for Warner Brothers in the twenties were mostly contemporary stories. One of his most successful films, Old San Francisco (1927), a white-slavery-in-Chinatown melodrama, was set in 1906 not to provide an historical view, but to use the earthquake as the climax. Another Zanuck attempt at an historical film was the 1929 epic Noah’s Ark. It was not a success. (2) Zanuck eventually became head of production at Warners where he specialised in contemporary stories about social issues, such as gangster movies and social comment films such as I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang (1932).

Zanuck seems to have stumbled into the biographical film genre. (3) George Arliss was a British stage actor who had specialised in playing historical figures. In 1929 he did a sound version for Warner Brothers of his stage and silent success Disraeli, which won him an Academy Award for best actor. What else should a studio do but follow it up with Alexander Hamilton (1931) and Voltaire (1933)? Zanuck’s following biographical films tended to focus on the “great man” approach (a single extraordinary man accomplishes something unique), sometimes with odd variations.

In 1933 Zanuck, Joseph Schenck, the president of United Artists, and William Goetz, formed 20th Century Pictures, with the deal including release through UA. (4) Zanuck brought along with him a few stars from Warners, including Arliss. Zanuck’s first film at 20th was The Bowery (1933), hardly a “great man” look at history. It was very loosely based on Steve Brodie, whose claim to fame was that he jumped off the Brooklyn Bridge in 1886. Historical figures such as John L. Sullivan and Carrie Nation do show up. The script focused more on rowdy entertainment than history, which is true of nearly all Zanuck’s historical films. Zanuck did produce several “great man” films in the first two years of 20th Century, including The Mighty Barnum in 1934, and Clive of India in 1935. Because the company was using rented offices and studio space, the physical productions of these films were limited (although this was also true of the larger studios at the time because of the Depression finally hitting the film business) (5). A look at Clive of India shows it was mostly shot on sound stages, with only occasional exterior second unit work (a second unit is a smaller crew that shoots scenes not involving the stars, e.g. action sequences with stunt doubles).

The first Arliss film that Zanuck made for 20th Century was the 1934 The House of Rothschild. At Warners Arliss tried to get Zanuck to make a film based on a play by George Westley about the Rothschilds. At 20th he pushed again. It was obviously the character of Nathan Rothschild that appealed to Arliss, since it fit well in his traditional role of a wise man solving all of everybody’s problems, both business and romantic. The first screenwriters assigned eliminated Westley’s subplots, focused on Nathan, and at Arliss’s suggestion added Nathan’s father, Mayer, whom Arliss played as well. This, alas, made the script even more complicated. (6) Zanuck asked another writer to work on the script. He was Nunnally Johnson, whose previous screenwriting work had been comedies. Johnson was not sure he was up to dramatic story. Zanuck told him to go ahead and try it. (7) Johnson focused on getting a smoother narrative flow. Johnson’s storytelling led him to become one of Zanuck’s three major screenwriters at 20th Century-Fox.

Arliss kept reminding Zanuck that Nathan Rothschild was a friend of Disraeli’s, hoping Zanuck could have that part written in as well so he could re-create his Academy Award winning role of another great man; Zanuck refused. (8) The House of Rothschild also takes a little from Zanuck’s social comment approach. After all, it is a biography of a bank made during the Depression. It also focuses on the anti-Semitism the Rothschilds had to fight against. Joseph Schenck, who rarely read scripts, read this one and was worried about an anti-Semitic speech the villain gives. Schenck said to Zanuck, “I’m afraid people will cheer.” (9) The film was one of the new company’s biggest hits. (10) 20th Century’s success led in 1935 to a merger with the moribund Fox Film Corporation, forming 20th Century-Fox.

When Zanuck was starting up 20th Century Pictures he used the biographical films to establish the new company as a class operation, as opposed to several fly-by-night smaller studios. In 1934, he gave an interview in which he talked about his goals for his films: “It’s the theme that counts. That goes beyond the story… They [audiences] want interpretive, analytical, educational information on the screen, or anywhere else.(11)

Zanuck was not quite as high-toned talking to his writers about his historical films. Shortly after the merger with Fox, Zanuck brought to the studio Philip Dunne, the second of the three best writers at the studio. Before coming to Fox, Dunne had written the 1934 The Count of Monte Cristo and the 1936 The Last of the Mohicans. It was later reported to Dunne that Zanuck said of him, “Now we’ve got a fellow who can handle the big pictures.” Dunne did not disagree, “I rather liked the heroic type.” (12) His first big historical film was Suez (1938) about Ferdinand de Lesseps building the Suez Canal. Since de Lesseps was well into his sixties when he built the canal, he would have been a perfect role for Arliss. Unfortunately Arliss had retired from the screen the year before when his wife lost her sight. (13) By the time Dunne was brought onto the project, de Lesseps had been rewritten for a much younger Tyrone Power, who had come to stardom in Zanuck’s 1936 biography of an insurance company, Lloyd’s of London. Dunne later recalled,

These were the days when history was rewritten very freely… As a matter of fact, I made a squawk when I read Sam Duncan’s thing (story). I said, “You know, this is absolutely ridiculous, the affair with the Empress Eugenie and all.” Zanuck said, “Look, it’s movies. Forget it. We’re not writing history, we’re making a movie.” I’m sort of an historian manqué. That’s my interest. I’ve always tried to keep as close as I can. But on the other hand, I think that the important thing is to try to catch the spirit of history rather than the letter. Easy enough to follow the letter and be extremely dull.” (14)

Dunne followed the successful Suez with another rewrite job the following year, Stanley and Livingstone. (15) An earlier script started with a very young English boy, Henry Stanley, meeting Dr. Livingstone, who treats him kindly, which motivates Stanley to search for him later in Africa. Dunne thought this both inaccurate and sentimental. After a prologue of Stanley in the American West, a sequence to connect with American audiences, Dunne has Stanley’s newspaper editor, James Gordon Bennett, talking him into looking for Livingstone. Dunne modeled the meeting on Zanuck and his story conferences, with Bennett talking about the importance of the story. Zanuck, noticing a connection, said to Dunne jokingly, “You haven’t modeled this character on anybody have you?” (16) The film focuses on the story of Stanley finding Livingstone, with no reference to Stanley’s earlier years, and only a brief, very thirties montage of his later explorations in Africa at the end of the film.

One of the reasons Zanuck saw Dunne as a potential writer for the “big” pictures was that Dunne was the most literate of all the Fox writers. One film historian later described Dunne’s screenplays as “relentlessly literate,” a phrase Dunne loved and quoted for years. (17) He could write dialogue for the “great men” Zanuck preferred to see in his biographies. But Dunne was smart enough to see that it might have helped the picture to cast against type. Zanuck had the lordly Sir Cedric Harwicke as Livingstone, whereas Dunne would have preferred the more modest Dudley Digges.

If Zanuck was so dismissive of history, why did he keep making historical films? As the head of the studio, he had to come up with twenty to thirty different A-pictures to release each year. He was constantly looking for story material. Stories were the lifeblood of Zanuck’s approach to film, and history provided stories that had entertained “audiences” for years. Zanuck was aware that what American (and overseas) audiences wanted and expected from American films were stories. And he was very aware of audiences. After The House of Rothschild, Nunnally Johnson was briefly assigned another Arliss biographical film, Cardinal Richelieu (1935). Johnson got Zanuck to hire as an historical consultant Cameron Rogers. Johnson recalled,

He knew the French court…the way [Walter] Winchell [the gossip columnist] knew Broadway… I remember at one of these story conferences, Cam would just sit there looking pop-eyed. It was what Darryl was doing with history. Cam said, “If you don’t mind my saying so, Mr. Zanuck, I can’t imagine any scholar accepting such-and-such a thing.” Christ, I think Darryl was going to put the Battle of Waterloo in there or something like that because it fit. Darryl thought about it for a few minutes and then he said, “Aw, the hell with you. Nine out of ten people is [sic] going to think he’s Rasputin anyway.” (18)

If Zanuck could occasionally be cynical about both history and audiences, he understood audiences better than any other studio head of the period. (19)

According to the souvenir booklet prepared for In Old Chicago (1938), the idea for the film came from four or five lines about the fire in the “National Disasters” section of the World Almanac. (20) Maybe, but somebody had to have been looking for a disaster. Zanuck had been impressed with MGM’s huge 1936 hit San Francisco, but having done the earthquake in Old San Francisco, he suggested to producer Kenneth Macgowan they consider a film based on the Chicago Fire of 1871. (21) In an October 8, 1936 memo Zanuck asked writer Richard Collins to be assigned to Macgowan and to “go to work collecting data for an original story called THE CHICAGO FIRE. I want him to use the M-G-M picture SAN FRANCISCO as a pattern; I want him to…dig up everything that he can in connection with the Chicago fire that might be made into an important, smash boxoffice picture.” (22) At the same time Collins was working, another writer assigned to the project, Niven Busch, came up with a treatment (a description in prose of the story) called “Mrs. O’Leary’s Cow.” It was later given the title “We, The O’Learys” to make it sound as though it was a published story, which it was not. Zanuck thought the treatment had “muddled characters and plots” and assigned Sonya Levien to work with Busch. (23)

Sonya Levien had been at Fox since 1929, well before the merger with 20th Century. At Fox she wrote between five and six scripts a year, including Fox’s big 1933 historical epic Cavalcade. Levien worked with Busch, but they did not see eye to eye. Macgowan reported to Zanuck: “She leans toward characterization and he towards effective dramatic gags—which ought to make them a good combination—but they can’t get together on the details of a story line. They have wasted so much time arguing that yesterday each started separately.” (24)

Zanuck thought Levien’s version had too much atmosphere and Busch’s too little. He felt that both of them had too many plots and not enough focus on the love story. (25) He had both writers do new treatments, and the one Levien did with Busch’s suggestions became the basis for the screenplay. Levien was noted more for story construction than dialogue and Zanuck assigned Lamar Trotti to work on the screenplay with her. (26)

Lamar Trotti was the third major screenwriter at 20th Century-Fox. If Dunne specialized in heroic figures in big pictures, Trotti, who could also write big pictures, specialised in Americana. This made him just the writer for Zanuck’s American historical films. Maynard Smith, who studied Trotti’s career, noted that Trotti’s credits include 9 “costume dramas,” 10 “Americana” films, and 11 “biographies.” (27)

In Old Chicago (1938), the picture Zanuck produced from the Levien-Trotti script, marked a change from Zanuck’s previous historical films. The majority of those had not been set in America, although some had been, such as Alexander Hamilton and The Prisoner of Shark Island (1936). Since he was looking to increase the prestige of 20th Century Pictures and later the merged company, he undoubtedly felt that the higher class historical films should be set in Europe, such as House of Rothschild. But Zanuck’s first interest in “history” came from the very American tales his grandfather told him about railroad building in the West. Zanuck had more of a feeling for the exuberance of America than he did for the refinement of Europe. What he saw in San Francisco was a film that captured that excitement, and he pushed for that in In Old Chicago. The midwestern Zanuck would never have produced a movie about old Philadelphia or old Boston. Zanuck was drawn to the energy of American history, particularly in the 19th Century, which led the studio to be nicknamed 19th Century-Fox. (28)

Unlike most of his previous historical films, In Old Chicago is not based on real people, although the fire started near the house of a real Mrs. O’Leary, but the film’s family is fictionalized. (29) After the death of her husband in a covered wagon on the way to Chicago in 1854 (Chicago was one of the gateways to the west), Mrs. O’Leary raises her three sons. Jack, the eldest, grows up to be a lawyer and reform candidate for mayor. The second son, Dion, grows up to run a fancy saloon and gets involved in politics, sometimes on Jack’s side, sometimes not. The only real “great man” who appears in the film is Civil War General Phil Sheridan, who did indeed command the military during the fire, but his role is no more than a cameo. While San Francisco deals slightly with local politics, it stays mostly with a love story set in the saloon business. In Old Chicago gets into politics long before the fire starts, which makes the fire more integral to the story than the earthquake in San Francisco. In Old Chicago trades on the idea that Chicago politics is and always has been corrupt. Zanuck’s Warner gangster movies had been inspired by Chicago, after all. One of the best scenes in the film is a trial of a man who tried to register to vote under several different names. (30) Audiences believed it because of what they assumed they knew about Chicago.

The same is true of the cause of the fire. “Everybody knows” the fire was started by Mrs. O’Leary’s cow knocking over a lantern in a barn. That theory was disproved as early as 1893 when Michael Ahern, a reporter for the Chicago Republican at the time of the fire, admitted he had made up the story. However, another reporter claimed he had made up the story and written it under Ahern’s by-line. (31) There have been many other versions of the fire’s origin. Zanuck was simply interested in a story that audiences would accept and be entertained by, not necessarily in that order.

Possibly because the story was fictional, the physical production was as accurate as possible to help authenticate it. The merged 20th Century-Fox was a major studio in every sense, and the industry’s financial condition had improved by later in the decade. Kenneth Macgowan, the associate producer on the film, wrote about the advantages a big studio had in doing an historical film:

The research department usually has 20,000 to 40,000 bound books and periodicals–some quite rare in Southern California–files of clippings, and indexes of material that may be especially useful. For any production with an exotic background or historical content, the staff compiles loose-leaf books of photographs and articles. These serve the screenwriter as well as the art and wardrobe departments. Research at Fox supplied over 800 words of “period” advertising and signs that were lettered on the windows and fronts of stores in In Old Chicago (1938), for example, “Ladies Dept. No Men Clerks.” (32)

There was not only the research department but other technicians, who were as much collaborators as the writers and directors. As Philip Dunne said, “In a set-up like the Fox set-up, the factory, with these excellent departments, like the marvelous prop department, you’d just say, ‘Let the department handle it.’” (33) During the thirties, if screenwriters at Fox could not figure out how a scene they were writing could possibly be filmed, they were instructed to write in the script “Sersen shot,” (34) since Fred Sersen was the special effects wizard. In the case of the Chicago Fire, in one shot he combined up to eleven separate negatives (of full sets, painted matte shots of backgrounds, and live action with extras) into a single shot, all of which he coordinated with the film’s editor, Barbara McLean. (35)

All the sets in those shots came because the studio also had the advantage of space. William Fox had opened the Fox Movietone City to the west of Beverly Hills in 1928, which provided several hundred acres of back lot. According to the film’s director, Henry King, between thirty and forty acres were used to build the sets for In Old Chicago. (36) Part of Lake Michigan was built, although until the base of it was lined with concrete, it leaked into the homes of people in Beverly Hills. (37)

Henry King, an actor in silent films, directed for Fox in the twenties and early thirties. King could handle the large-scale productions such as the historical films, although he had help. Very demanding about the physical look of his films, King later insisted, “I never had the slightest bit of trouble with any of the departments or anything like that. I was always able to get what I wanted, but I always tried to see that wants were not unreasonable.” (38) While that makes it sound easy, very often his demands were the subject of considerable discussion between the departments and his longtime assistant director Robert D. Webb. (39)

Since Zanuck wanted to fill In Old Chicago with the energy of what a title near the beginning of the film calls “a fighting, laughing, aggressive American city,” King was the perfect choice to direct. Whereas John Ford, also at Fox, could fill the screen with emotion even in the simplest of shots, King could fill the screen with the physical look of the story, in this case both the interior and exterior sets. As in most King films, the sets are more physically detailed than those of any other director. Notice the bar towels in one of the saloons in a scene in the film taking place in 1870. If Zanuck and King were not giving us the facts of American history in In Old Chicago, they were giving us the look of the period and a reflection on how we, and not only Zanuck, felt about the past. The film was enormously successful at the box office, re-enforcing Zanuck’s idea of doing historical films as epic pageants.

Zanuck was apparently less admiring of Sonya Levien than he was of other writers, and in 1939 she was let go from Fox. (40) Trotti continued working for Fox until his death in 1952, although seldom on original screenplays after his 1939 film Young Mr. Lincoln. (41) Trotti and Nunnally Johnson both stopped doing original screenplays. Looking at it from a studio head’s point of view, it was more efficient for the factory to have each of these writers do two to three adaptations a year rather than one original. When Zanuck was showing some guests around the lot in the forties, they came across Philip Dunne and Trotti together, and Zanuck introduced them as “Now here are my old pros.” Dunne recalled later, “That was the feeling. It was a nice feeling. We were sort of dependable.” (42) Trotti, Johnson, and Dunne were the writers who could tell the stories, including but not limited to the historical ones that Zanuck wanted to tell.

Jesse James (1847-1882) was the most mythologised outlaw of 19th Century America. As a teenager he had ridden with Quantrill’s Raiders, a particularly brutal Southern guerilla group in the Civil War. After the war he became the first outlaw to rob a train. He and his brother Frank also robbed banks, which were branches of Northern institutions, much to the delight of his fellow Southern sympathisers (who undoubtedly thought of Jesse as a “great man”) during the Reconstruction. Never captured by the authorities, he was shot to death by one of his own gang, Bob Ford, for the reward money. (43) Newspaper stories, dime novels, stage plays and eventually movies followed.

In the early 20th century, a theatrical troupe called the Jewell Kelly Stock Company brought a melodrama called The James Boys in Missouri to Columbus, Georgia. A young Nunnally Johnson was fascinated by the kids in the audience getting so caught up in the play they yelled at Jesse to watch out when Ford was about to shoot him. Years later it occurred to Johnson that they might be able to make a film that stirred up the audience in the same way. His interest was in the James myth audiences responded to rather than the historical Jesse. He mentioned his idea to Zanuck. Zanuck was told by the corporate executives in New York that such a picture would only make money in “Missouri, Kansas, and parts of Southern Illinois.” (44) Zanuck did not press New York at that time.

The time was 1936. The merger between 20th Century and Fox had taken place, and Zanuck was now making many more pictures per year than at 20th Century. He asked Johnson to produce films as well as write. Johnson reluctantly agreed, and Zanuck let him have a junior writer, Curtis Kenyon, to work on a treatment on the Jesse James story. Kenyon’s 28-page treatment dated March 30, 1936 (45) was rambling and episodic, but it stuck closer to the historical Jesse James than the final film, with references to the Civil War. A year later, on March 30, 1937, Gene Fowler and Hal Long turned in a 10-page treatment that focused more on the train robbing but began to develop the characters. A Fowler and Long outline on April 17, 1937 begins with the famous Quantrill raid on Lawrence, Kansas. A followup outline on April 26th has Will Wright, who in the treatments shifts around from sheriff to county attorney to marshal, putting Jesse’s wife Zee in jail. Jesse and his gang dress as women (based on a real incident) and rescue Zee. In May there were additional treatments, and one of the writers on them was Rosalind Schaeffer, who had come to the studio with Jesse’s granddaughter, Jo Francis James. Shaeffer was writing a biography of Jesse James, and the studio felt it was worth the money to involve her to avoid a lawsuit. Shaeffer and James are credited with “historical research” in the film’s credits, but there is no indication of any additional research in the May 12th treatment her name is on. In any case, Zanuck was less concerned with history and more with story and characters. In his May 14th conference notes, Zanuck said “The story line is wobbly and not clear,” noting that the human values had been neglected and that Jesse’s character was inconsistent. It is Zanuck who here suggested that instead of Zee being put in jail, it should be Jesse who is captured and then rescued. He also suggested a funeral oration “For censorship purposes [they are glorifying an outlaw, after all]–and also to give us an epic type of finale.” Hal Long had suggested a eulogy in his May 1937 treatment given by a character based on the real life John Edwards. Edwards was a newspaper editor whose articles and editorials in the Sedalia Democrat had mythologised the James boys and in 1882 condemned the murder of Jesse.

Johnson discovered that he lacked Zanuck’s talent for telling other writers how to write. Instead of getting others to rewrite, he would write it himself. He finally told Zanuck he could no longer supervise other writers, and Zanuck eventually suggested Johnson only produce those scripts he himself wrote. (46) Johnson set to work on a final treatment and screenplay.

Johnson’s first draft script, dated May 13, 1938, is 189 pages long, and the final script, dated June 1, 1938 is 182 pages long. Zanuck certainly was looking for an epic. The final script does not include any material at the beginning about the Civil War (other than a printed foreword) or Quantrill’s Raiders. It begins with the celebration (shot, but cut from the film) of the railroad arriving, then shows how unscrupulous the railroads are. When they cause the death of his mother (in real life, she was wounded but did not die in a similar situation), Jesse starts robbing trains. In a five-page scene in the screenplay the governor of Missouri discusses with the railroad a possible amnesty for Jesse, with no mention of Quantrill, but with a discussion of Missouri’s status as a border state. The scene, of some historical interest, was cut because it would obviously slow the film down. Jesse does give himself up, and to get him out of jail, Johnson resorted to a plot twist from a played called The Purple Mask, a 1920 melodrama set in 1803. (47) In the film Jesse tells his captors Frank will rescue him. The posse the law swears in to bring in Frank includes several of Jesse’s gang. There is no equivalent in the history of Jesse James. The film ends with the disastrous raid on the Northfield Minnesota bank in which Jesse is ambushed, and then Jesse’s murder, both historical events.

Johnson’s script is less interested in historical accuracy than providing an entertaining gloss, much as Jewell Kelly had, on what we think we know about Jesse. Johnson understood the tropes of historical filmmaking of the time and how they could provide an authentic texture to the film. There is the printed foreword to the film, as was common in historical films of the time. When Helen Gilmore reported on the film for Liberty magazine, she described how Johnson read the foreword out loud to her and closed the script with a flourish and said the film was not glorifying the James boys. Gilmore took him seriously, making him sound rather pompous. Nunnally Johnson did not have a pompous bone in his body and was obviously parodying the “historical” style of films for her. Gilmore did not get the joke. (48)

Johnson made sure there were scenes that made the characters sympathetic but just as importantly, he gave the characters rousing action. In addition to the jailbreak in the middle of the film, there is a first train robbery. Jesse does not simply flag down the train (as Jesse was suspected of doing in his first train robbery) (49), but jumps from a galloping horse onto the train, runs across the top of the train, and pulls a gun on the engineer. As they escape from the posse after Northfield, he and Frank jump their horses off a ninety-foot cliff into a lake. The real Jesse never did that, as far as we know, although there is probably some variation of it in the dime novels.

The director of Jesse James was Henry King. King had pioneered shooting on location in his silent films days, making his first big hit Tol’able David (1921) in his home state of Virginia. Zanuck was opposed to extensive location shooting, preferring to have his directors where he could talk to them. King, who loved Johnson’s script, thought it would be better shot on location. He eventually found the town of Pineville, in southern Missouri. It had main streets with buildings that could pass for post-Civil War era, split-rail fences, and lots of lush green hills, valleys and lakes. (50) The fact that it looked very little like the dry, flat areas of northern Missouri that were home to the James family did not bother him. (51)

King and Robert Webb took photographs and 16mm film of the Pineville area and returned to the studio. King talked with art director William Darling and then to William Goetz, who was running the studio while Zanuck was on safari in Africa. King convinced Goetz that it would be cheaper to shoot in Missouri rather than rebuild everything at the studio. When Zanuck got back later he realised it would have increased the cost of the picture to change plans, so he let King shoot in Missouri. A man in the prop department at Fox, obviously aware of King’s interest in the physical details of a film, showed King an ad for a Indiana company that made new “old” buggies. King had him order several and sent to Missouri, on the grounds that people of the time would have driven new as well as old buggies. The new ones have red and yellow painted spokes and show up throughout the film.

Because of the enormous interest of people in the area in a film about their local hero, tourists numbering in the thousands visited the sets and locations, which slowed down the production. (52) People at the studio urged Zanuck to stop the location shoot. (53) Eventually a second unit under director Otto Brower was sent out to shoot the chase sequences and the horse jump off the cliff. (54) The footage of the stunt was so spectacular it was used for years in many other Fox westerns, becoming part of our cinematic history of the West.

At Zanuck’s insistence King returned to the studio to shoot the interiors and the Northfield raid, which was shot on a standing backlot western set. Because King had some medical problems, Irving Cummings, a studio director, shot the raid, and the scene where Jesse returns home after the raid. (55)

When the film was cut together, Zanuck was concerned about how fans would react to the studio’s leading heartthrob, Tyrone Power, being killed. Several endings were tried, (56) but Zanuck decided to “Let the tail go with the hide.” (57) In spite of several ladies groups complaining about the glorification of an outlaw, (58) the picture was a huge grosser, not only in “Missouri, Kansas, and parts of Southern Illinois,” but in the whole country and overseas as well.

Part of the reason for its success was that Nunnally Johnson understood the appeal of Jesse James to Americans. The eulogy he wrote for Major Cobb, the equivalent of the John Edwards character, borrowed not the words, but the tone of Edwards’ editorials. In it, Cobb says,

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. I don’t know why, but I don’t think America is ashamed for Jesse James. Maybe it was because he was bold and lawless like we all of us like to be sometimes. Maybe it’s because we understand a little that he wasn’t altogether to blame for what his time made him. Maybe it’s because for 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 don’t know. All I do know is that he was one of the dog-gonedest, gol-dangedest, dad-blamedest buckaroos that ever rode across these United States of America.

What Nunnally Johnson and his collaborators made was not a film about the facts of Jesse James, but about the attitudes Americans have about him and his story. He was “bold and lawless, like we all of us like to be sometimes,” but he also had a middle class work ethic: “Or maybe it’s because he was so good at what he was doing.” Whatever he was in real life, Jesse in this film was fun and exciting, just like Darryl Zanuck thought history should be.

By 1950, eleven years after Jesse James, the world had changed. Zanuck came back after World War II to focus on his old love, stories dealing with serious social issues, such as anti-Semitism (Gentleman’s Agreement, 1947), race relations (Pinky, 1949) and conditions in mental hospitals (The Snake Pit, 1948). While Fox continued to make historical films, few of them were Zanuck’s personal productions, i.e., with a “Produced by Darryl F. Zanuck” credit. After a few years away Nunnally Johnson had returned to Fox when his friend, screenwriter William Bowers, brought a script to him that became the classic western The Gunfighter (1950).

The inspiration for The Gunfighter had nothing to do with history. Bowers had dinner with former heavyweight boxing champion Jack Dempsey, and Dempsey mentioned that everybody he met wanted to take a punch at him because he was the champ. (59) This stuck in Bowers’ mind and along with Andre de Toth he came up with a story. Bowers and William Sellers turned it into a 94-page screenplay about a famous gunfighter in the old west whom every kid wants to challenge. Johnson had Fox buy the script and he fleshed it out to 132 pages. (60)

The screenplay is an elaboration of the last twenty minutes or so of Jesse James, looking in a more serious way at the myth of the gunfighter. Neither Johnson nor Henry King, who directed the film, thought consciously they were re-examining one of the myths of the old west. Johnson thought he had a wonderful story to tell and King wanted to make the best picture possible. (61) But by 1950, the old studio system was beginning to decline, and in its decline it was haunted by its own past. (62) This included the way it had shown the past as well, which led to a post World War II series of revisionist westerns, of which The Gunfighter was one of the first.

King was just as insistent on the physical reality of the film as he had been on his others. Although the film was shot on a standing western street on the back lot, King was concerned with details. Johnson recalled,

There was one thing about Henry. No matter what subject or what period you mentioned, he’s an authority on it, and there’s no arguing with him about it… He walked into this barroom [set] and there were a few bar towels hanging, and he said, in effect, “Who’s responsible for this?” He went down the line snatching each one of these towels off, saying, “Bar towels didn’t come in until 1871.”

Well, he happened to be saying this in front of the only man who knew he was lying, which was me. I didn’t know he was lying because I never studied the history of bar towels. It just happened that the night before I had been looking through an album of old pictures, like a collection of [Mathew] Brady photographs and had seen a picture of General Grant in a saloon and there were bar towels there.

But naturally I didn’t say anything. There was nothing [to be gained by it]. It seemed to me a small point and Henry had gained a small victory. It made him happy. I didn’t care whether there were [bar towels]. If we’d been doing a picture of the Crusades, he’d come up with the same outright, flat statements and nobody would dispute a director as authoritative as Henry. The whole atmosphere was entirely Henry’s, because as I remember it, when it comes to designs for sets and all that sort of thing, he’s an old-time interior decorator. He wants his period right and gets it right. He was responsible for that. (63)

King’s knowledge of bar towels appears of have changed since in In Old Chicago.

Before production started, Johnson showed King a book he had referred to on outlaws of the west, Triggernometry, (64) which included photographs of outlaws. King talked to Gregory Peck, who was to star as Jimmie Ringo, and discussed Peck’s wearing a moustache and getting an old-fashioned haircut. Peck came in the next day with the haircut and the beginnings of moustache. Zanuck was in Europe when the picture was shot and did not see it until he returned. Zanuck said to King at the end of the screening, “I would give $50,000 of my own money if we could get that moustache off that guy… This man has a young following. Young girls like this man. That moustache I’m afraid is going to kill it.” King thought Zanuck was objecting to the realism, and Zanuck replied, “I’m not complaining about that at all. This is a [Frederick] Remington. (65) Remington couldn’t have done it better than this, but I’m only thinking of the box office.” (66)

Zanuck, who had been wrong in fearing potential reaction to the death of Jesse James, was right in his concern here. The historical authenticity was too much for most audiences. The picture made only a slight profit. In a memo to Nunnally Johnson after the release of the film, Zanuck said, “It is unquestionably a minor classic, but I really believe that it violates so many true Western traditions [italics added] that it goes over the heads of the type of people who patronise Westerns, and there are not enough of the others to give us the top business we anticipated.” He goes on to mention that ushers at the Roxy Theatre in New York asked patrons as they are leaving what they thought of the film. The ushers’ reports indicated women and young girls did not like the moustache. Zanuck ended with a rumination on the vagaries of the film business:

The only thing I can say is that we live and learn. Sometimes you wonder why classic pictures like The Snake Pit, Twelve 0’Clock High [a 1949 World War II film], and Pinky are enormous box-office hits and other pictures that belong in the same category do not do fifty percent of the business. Yellow Sky [a 1948 western starring Gregory Peck], in my opinion, is not half the picture that The Gunfighter is. Yet it went into a more formula mold and obviously had broader popular appeal. But, on the other hand, there was certainly no formula mold about The Snake Pit and look what it did… (67)

Darryl F. Zanuck ran a motion picture studio. Using other people’s money, he made movies that hopefully made enough money to allow him and his collaborators at the studio to make more movies. Zanuck understood that American audiences wanted to be told stories. Zanuck and his collaborators looked for stories everywhere. Sometimes the stories came from history, sometimes not. History was only one of Zanuck’s interests and concerns, and often not the most crucial one. But he knew, as historians have always known, that history can provide great stories. Some of them even more or less true.

Much of the material in this article comes from a series of oral history interviews I conducted from 1968 through 1971. The first was an interview with Nunnally Johnson (abbreviated in these notes as NJOH) conducted as part of the Oral History of the Motion Pictures Project at UCLA in 1968-1969, under grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the American Film Institute. The transcripts of the interviews are at the UCLA Oral History offices, as well as at the Louis B. Mayer Library at the American Film Institute’s Center for Advanced Studies in Los Angeles and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ Margaret Herrick Library in Beverly Hills. The other oral histories were of Philip Dunne (PDOH), Henry King (HKOH), Robert Webb (RWOH), and Barbara McLean (BMOH). They were done as a Research Associateship at the American Film Institute. The transcripts are at the Mayer and Herrick Libraries.


  1. There are two adequate biographies of Zanuck. Mel Gussow’s Don’t Say Yes Until I Finish Talking (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1971), is aimed at a general audience. It has the advantage of having had access to Zanuck himself. Slightly more academic is George Custen, Twentieth Century’s Fox: Darryl F. Zanuck and the Culture of Hollywood (New York: Basic Books, 1997), although it is not without errors. The biographical information in the first section of the article is from these two books.
  2. Custen, 123-126.
  3. George Custen suggests (79-80) Zanuck got his interest in biographical films from the German director William Dieterle, who was working at Warners at the time. But Dieterle did not get into directing biographical films such as The Story of Louis Pasteur (1936) until well after Zanuck had left Warners.
  4. Gussow, 56-61, Custen, 171-179.
  5. Conversation with Aubrey Solomon on the first draft of this article, March 2009.
  6. The scripts and memos were in the 20th Century-Fox story files at the studios when I looked at them in the seventies. The Fox story files have been moved to the Doheny Library at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles.
  7. NJOH, 20. The oral history became the basis for my biography of Johnson, Screenwriter: The Life and Times of Nunnally Johnson (San Diego: A.S. Barnes, 1980).
  8. NJOH, 21.
  9. Quoted in Ibid, 24.
  10. Stempel, Screenwriter, 49.
  11. R.P. White, “The Miracle Man of Hollywood,” LAT Magazine, 4 November 1935, italics in original, quoted in Custen , 401.
  12. PDOH, 15-16. For a fuller look at Dunne’s life, including his work in politics, see his memoir, Philip Dunne, Take Two: A Life in Movies and Politics (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1980; Revised Edition: New York, Limelight Editions, 1992).
  13. Ephraim Katz, The Film Encyclopedia (New York: Harper & Row, 1979), 44.
  14. PDOH, 12, 16-17.
  15. Budgets and film rentals for the 20th Century-Fox films are found in Aubrey Solomon’s Twentieth Century-Fox: A Corporate and Financial History (Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, 1988).
  16. PDOH, 23.
  17. Stempel, Screenwriter, 45
  18. NJOH, 33-34.
  19. See Rudy Behlmer, Memo From Darryl F. Zanuck: The Golden Years at Twentieth Century-Fox (New York: Grove Press, 1993). The memos Behlmer collected repeatedly show Zanuck’s perception of audiences was much more subtle and nuanced than his “Rasputin” comment would suggest.
  20. The booklet is in Folder Five, Box 33, of the Kenneth Macgowan Collection at the Special Collections Department, Charles E. Young Research Library, UCLA. The quote is on page 6.
  21. Kenneth Macgowan, Behind the Screen: The History and Techniques of the Motion Picture (New York: Delta, 1965), 337.
  22. Zanuck memo, October 8, 1936, in Folder One, Box 33, in the Macgowan Collection. Unless otherwise indicated, the memos referred to in this section are all from that folder.
  23. Larry Ceplair, A Great Lady: The Life of the Screenwriter Sonya Levien (Lanham, MD; Scarecrow Press), 91. Ceplair is paraphrasing Zanuck. Ceplair’s book is short, modest, and valuable.
  24. Macgown memo December 3, 1936.
  25. Zanuck memo December 24, 1936, quoted in Ceplair, 91-92.
  26. Zanuck memo to Macgowan, January 14, 1937.
  27. Maynard Smith, “Lamar Trotti,” Films in Review, August-September 1958, 381. Smith had interviewed Trotti a year and a half before Trotti died in 1952, and his article is the most comprehensive on Trotti, but not without its errors. There is, alas, at this writing (mid 2009) no full-length biography of Trotti.
  28. Macgowan, 338. For some reason Zanuck’s biographer Mel Gussow, got it into his head that the nickname was 16th Century-Fox (Gussow, 70), but Macgowan was there. Besides, 19th Century-Fox makes more sense in view of the American historical films Zanuck was making. Even in the non-American films, he seldom went back as far as the 16th Century until he got into Biblical films to show off the widescreen process CinemaScope in the fifties. Alas, Gussow’s error keeps get repeated.
  29. “The O’Leary Legend,” Chicago Historical Museum, www.chicagohistory.org/fire/oleary/essasy-2.html
  30. This scene has more the feel of Lamar Trotti than Sonya Levien. It appeared in the 115 minute “roadshow” version of the film that played in big cities, but was cut out of the 95 minute “general release” version of the film. Both versions appear on the 2005 Region 1 DVD.
  31. See note 29.
  32. Macgowan, 307.
  33. PDOH, 14.
  34. Ibid, 13.
  35. Macgowan, 429; BMOH, 25.
  36. Frank Thompson, ed., Henry King Director: From Silents to ‘Scope (Los Angeles: Directors Guild of America, 1995), 111. The book consists of two sets of interviews with King, one by David Shepard and one by Ted Perry, edited together.
  37. HKOH, 65. The Chicago Lake was subsequently used in many Fox films.
  38. HKOH, 50.
  39. RWOH, 57-59.
  40. Ceplair, 98, although Ceplair does not seem to have found any particular reason why she was let go. J.E. Smyth, in Reconstructing American Historical Cinema: From Cimarron to Citizen Kane (Lexington; University of Kentucky Press, 2006), 245-246, points out the disagreements she and Zanuck had on the script for Drums Along the Mohawk, which may have had something to do with it.
  41. Smyth, 189.
  42. PDOH, 132.
  43. The biography of Jesse James I find useful is William A. Settle, Jr., Jesse James Was His Name; or Fact and Fiction Concerning the Careers of the Notorious James Brothers of Missouri (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1977, reprint of 1966 edition).
  44. While this in general is what Johnson recalls Zanuck saying (NJOH, 92), the exact wording is from an unpublished interview with Henry King conducted by Kevin Brownlow, who graciously provided a copy to the author.
  45. In the Fox story files. See note 6 above. The additional treatments are from those files.
  46. NJOH, 48-49.
  47. NJOH, 98-99.
  48. Gilmore’s encounter with Johnson is described in Smyth, 127-128. As for Johnson not having a pompous bone in his body, I can vouch for that myself, having known him the last ten years of his life. See also Stempel, Screenwriter.
  49. Settle, 88.
  50. Location scouting in Missouri, HKOH, 16-19, 71-73; Thompson, 118-119.
  51. At Los Angeles City College, I had a student from northern Missouri who was outraged King was trying to pass off the southern part of the state as the north.
  52. The Fox story files on the film include teletype messages and correspondence between the studio and location which discuss the problem. Webb, the assistant director, said in one letter to the studio (August 25,1938) that if the picture would be a hit if as many people came to see it as came to the location.
  53. Teletype messages in the Fox story files, especially King’s teletype to Zanuck September 13, 1938.
  54. HKOH, 77-80.
  55. Ibid, 76.
  56. Stempel, Screenwriter, 75.
  57. Quoted by Henry King, HKOH, 28.
  58. Clippings in the Jesse James file at the Herrick Library.
  59. William Bowers, in discussion with a screenwriting class at UCLA, Spring 1968.
  60. Johnson specifically declined to take a screenwriting credit on the film. See NJOH, 292-293 for Johnson’s discussion of the additions he made and why he did not want to take the writing credit. See also Stempel, Screenwriter, 128, for a more detailed discussion of the additions.
  61. NJOH, 280-281; HKOH, 153; Thompson, 155.
  62. See Tom Stempel, American Audiences on Movies and Moviegoing (Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky, 2001) for an elaboration on the idea of Post-war Hollywood being haunted by its own past.
  63. NJOH, 278-279.
  64. Eugene Cunningham, Triggernometry: A Galley of Gunfighters (Caldwell, ID: Caxton Printers, 1941).
  65. Frederick Remington (1961-1909) was the greatest painter of the western frontier, and his work inspired not only The Gunfighter, but most of John Ford’s westerns, especially Fort Apache and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949).
  66. King quoting Zanuck, HKOH, 152.
  67. Behlmer, 189-190.

About The Author

Tom Stempel is a Professor of Cinema at Los Angeles City College, where he has taught courses in film history and screenwriting since 1971. He is the author of six books on film. He currently writes the “Understanding Screenwriting” column at www.thehousenextdooronline.com

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