Flashback: The Rise of the Moguls

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By Subir Ghosh
The consolidation of the Hollywood Studio System could not have happened without the power exerted by the moguls. There were many, among them being two Jewish immigrants from Russia – Joseph and Nicholas Schenck. In their heydays, the two brothers between them ran two major studios; while Joseph operated from behind the scenes as first as the head of United Artists and later that of Twentieth Century-Fox, Nick ran Leow’s Inc and its world famous subsidiary, Metro-Goldgwyn-Mayer.

The Schenck brothers migrated to New York City in 1892, and entered the entertainment business operating concessions at New York’s Fort George Amusement Park. In 1903, sensing the money-making potential that cinema had, they purchased Palisades Amusement Park. The Schenck brothers subsequently ventured into the film industry as partners with Marcus Loew, who owned a chain of movie theatres across the United States. So involved were they that Joseph even married Norma Talmadge, one of the top young stars with Vitagraph Studios.

Nicholas rose to the preidency of Leow’s, a position that he held for a quarter of a century. Joseph, on the other hand, was more independent.

The two brothers soon parted ways, though only in terms of staying together, and Joseph Schenck moved to the West Coast. Initially, he managed the careers of Roscoe (Fatty) Arbuckle, Buster Keaton and the three Talmadge sisters. The Schenck-Keaton-Talmadge extended family became one of the most powerful in Hollywood. Within a few years, Schenck was made the first president of the new United Artists. In 1933 he partnered with Darryl F Zanuck to create Twentieth Century Pictures that merged with Fox Film Corporation in 1935.

As chairman of of this big corporation, Schenck became one of the most powerful and influential people in the Hollywood film business. Zanuck was gradually eased out, thanks to the financial support that Joseph Schenck got from brother Nicholas at Leow’s. Joseph remained behind the scenes and expanded Twentieth Century-Fox’s chain of theatres worldwide. During his tenure as chairman, he established equal pay rates for animals used in filming and more representative speaking roles for women and African Americans. He held clout, and used it too.

Later, caught in a payoff scam to broker peace with trade unions, Schenck was convicted of income tax evasion and spent time in prison before being granted a presidential pardon. Following his release, he returned to Twentieth Century Fox where he became infatuated with a young actress named Marilyn Monroe and played a key role in launching her career.

The payoff scandal remain the blot on Schenck’s career. Throughout the Great Depression of the 1930s, Schenck and other studio heads (including Nicholas) paid bribes to Willie Bioff of the projectionists’ union to keep their theatres open. This payoff practice was in due course unearthed by government investigators. Bioff was convicted. One of the studio heads too had to take the fall – Joseph Schenck did. He was convicted of perjury and spent four months in jail, till he was pardoned by US President Harry Truman in 1945.

One of the founders of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, in 1952 he was given a special Academy Award in recognition of his very significant contribution to the development of the film industry. He has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 6757 Hollywood Blvd.

Schenck retired in 1957 and four years later suffered a stroke from which he never recovered.

Among the moguls, Schenck was one who got a raw deal in terms of remembrance. He and his brother had a substantial role to play in the structure called Hollywood that became rock solid over the years. The payoff scandal in which Schenck had been indicted came at a time when Hollywood was beginning to reel under the impact of the Great Depression.

The 1920s had been a decade of tremendous growth for Hollywood – in terms of production, distribution and exhibition. So robust was the industry even with the advent of the talkie, that Hollywood even called itself “depression-proof” when Wall Street collapsed momentarily in 1929. In fact, the best year of the industry came in 1930. But as the economic downturn started taking its effect on the film industry, Hollywood’s Big Three – Columbia, Universal and United Artists – fared better than others. The first thing to be curtailed was production. But that was not enough. Schenck and others did what they felt necessary to keep themselves afloat.

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