1969 was the grooviest year in human history. All over the world, people were experimenting with drugs, experimenting with sex, and letting their freak flags fly. In Hollywood, Twentieth Century Fox studios was, for the second time in a decade, on the brink of financial ruin. Richard Zanuck, the studio’s executive vice president, the guy who decides what movies are made, and threw a long ball. He called Russ Meyer, the director of Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill! and the documentary Mondo Topless. Zanuck wanted to know if Meyer, up to now an independent filmmaker, would be interested in making a studio picture. Specifically, a sequel to Jaqueline Susanne’s Valley of the Dolls, which had been a surprise, and rare, hit for Fox the previous year. The resulting film, Beyond The Valley Of The Dolls, would be the studio’s first X rated release. It would be followed a week later by the studio’s second rated X release, Myra Breckinridge. Dolls would also inspire a lawsuit from an unhappy Jaqueline Susanne, give a young Chicago film critic named Roger Ebert a chance to write a movie instead of reviewing one, cement its director, Russ Meyer, as a true American auteur and, eventually, contribute to Richard Zanuck’s ouster from the studio.
Twentieth Century Fox had risen to prominence under the leadership of Richard Zanuck’s father, the legendary Darryl F. Zanuck, who founded the studio with Joseph Schenk. Zanuck became one of the great Hollywood moguls. In 1956, after twenty-one years at the studio, Zanuck left his position and moved to Paris, where he continued to draw a handsome salary as a consultant. According to John Gregory Dunne’s book The Studio, which chronicled a year in the life of Twentieth Century Fox (that year being 1967), the elder Zanuck became disillusioned with running the studio in the wake of the radical changes brought about by the advent of television.
Zanuck was succeeded by Buddy Adler, who responded to his new position by dying almost immediately. Spyros Skouras was the long-running president of the studio, but he was a numbers guy who left the creative thinking to Zanuck. Nevertheless, he stepped forward to take the reins. In the words of Dunne, Skouras “pushed through dud after dud.” Then the duds got bigger. Cleopatra began filming in 1959 but wouldn’t be released until 1963. Its cost overruns were so hobbling that Skouras sold off a large chunk of the studio’s backlot to a real estate developer. That land is now the Century City Shopping Mall, a haven for fans of brutalist architecture and four-dollar cookies. In addition to l’affair Cleopatra, the studio was making Something’s Gotta Give! directed by George Cukor starring Dean Martin and Marylin Monroe. Monroe rarely showed up for work and when she did, she rarely left her trailer. Something did have to give and eventually Fox pulled the plug on the film, taking a two-million-dollar loss. Not long after, Monroe would join Buddy Adler.
The studio was on the ropes. The money men in New York were not happy. Neither was Daryl Zanuck, who, after some boardroom maneuvering, returned from to Paris and reassumed the throne. When he asked his son Richard for suggestions as to who would be an effective executive vice president, Zanuck’s son Richard suggested Zanuck’s son, Richard.
Once everyone was in place, Daryl Zanuck sprang into action and… shut down the studio. He let go of practically everyone on the payroll and scrapped the story material waiting in the wings. He even closed the commissary. At one point, Twentieth Century Fox, one of the “Big Six,” one of the major Hollywood studios, had fewer than a hundred people on the payroll. Cameras were turning on one television show. That’s it.
Salvation arrived from the alps, when 1965’s The Sound Of Music finally brought some money back into the studio. Another hit was 1967’s Valley Of The Dolls, based on Jaqueline Susann’s novel from the previous year. Dolls was a lurid potboiler that told the story of three young women who come to Hollywood seeking fame and fortune but instead find sex, drugs, addiction and other great stuff. Although panned by critics it was a surprise hit. Good thing. Fox was pouring money into a musical called Doctor Doolittle and the studio needed to balance the books. Desperately. Eyeing the returns on Valley Of The Dolls, Richard Zanuck picked up the phone and said, “Get me the director of Mondo Topless.”
Hooray For Hollywood!
Dude… there’s so much more.