Joseph Schenck

Joseph Schenck
United Artists at 20th Century Fox


Joseph Schenck
Film: North side of the 6700 block of Hollywood Boulevard
Born Dec. 25, 1878 in Rybinsk, Russian Federation
Died Oct. 22, 1961 in Beverly Hills, Calif.

Joseph Schenck rose from a $4.50 a week factory worker to one of the most powerful figures in the motion picture business.

The Russian-born emigrant was the former president and chairman of the board of United Artists and one of the founders of 20th Century Fox.

Born in Russia on Christmas Day 1878, Schenck came to the United States when he was ten years old. He worked in a factory while attending school at night.

His first business success was in pharmacy. Schenck became a druggist, bought a New York pharmacy for $600 and sold it three months later for $3,500 — all before he was 20.

With his $3,500 he "retired" and went to Europe, but soon returned to enter his first phase of show business — the development of an amusement park in Ft. George, NY.

With this a success, he and his brother, Nicholas, bought the multimillion-dollar Palisades Park in Fort Lee, N.J. From there his interest turned to vaudeville and then motion pictures.

He teamed with Marcus Loew, became one of the chief figures in Loew's enterprises and began his movie career.

Among the early-day stars he discovered or developed in movies were Buster Keaton, Fatty Arbuckle, John Barrymore, Corinne Griffith and Constance and Norma Talmadge. He married the latter in 1916.

As early as 1924, Schenck cried out for motion picture originality, rapping those of his contemporaries who only copied successful pictures and who turned out cycles of imitations. The striving for originality remained with him throughout his career.

In 1925, as business manager of United Artists, which he helped to form, he promoted the comeback of silent-day cowboy star William S. Hart.

His big pictures released by United Artists that year included "Don Quixote," starring Douglas Fairbanks; "Little Annie Rooney," with Mary Pickford; "The Gold Rush," the Charles Chaplin film still considered a comedy classic, and "The Untamed," starring Rudolph Valentino.

In 1933 Schenck and Darryl F. Zanuck formed a new production company called 20th Century, which soon merged with Fox pictures to become 20th Century-Fox.

That same year he negotiated a deal with British filmmakers to import pictures tailor-made for American audiences, and the way was opened for such stars as Charles Laughton and Merle Oberon to become favorites in this country.

Norma Talmadge divorced Schenck in Juarez, Mexico, on April 14, 1934, and soon after married actor George Jessel. Although he was later linked romantically with Oberon and Australian actress Mary Maguire, Schenck never remarried.

Schenck led a fight against a Depression-inspired California proposal to place a 35% income tax on state industries, threatening to move his huge film holdings to Florida. The bill was never passed, and Hollywood remained the center of the movie industry.

An early advocate of the "star system," Schenck was instrumental in settling disputes between the studios and the Screen Actors Guild in 1937 in which a walkout by 99% of Hollywood's actors was narrowly avoided.

But his real labor troubles began in 1938 and culminated in personal tragedy.

An investigation of a charge that he gave a $100,000 bribe to Willie Bioff of the Theatrical Stage Employees Union led to his indictment charging income tax violations, perjury, conspiracy and making false statements to federal agents.

He was convicted in New York Federal Court on two counts of income tax evasion but, principally because he helped racketeer Bioff to prison, his three-year prison sentence was suspended May 1, 1942. He was allowed to plead guilty to one count of perjury, served four months and five days at the Federal Correctional Institution at Danbury, Conn., and was paroled in 1942.

In spite of his difficulties with the government, he bore his adopted country no ill will. While still in jail, he loaned his Palm Springs mansion to the USO as a recreation center for desert troops.

He had resigned as 20th Century-Fox chairman upon his income tax conviction but in 1943, his 30th year in show business, he returned to the studio as production chief. He held that post until 1953 when he resigned to manage United Artists' huge theater chain.

In 1953, then 73, he became chairman of the Magna Theater Corp., owners of the Todd-AO, the late Mike Todd's wide-screen process in which such films as "Around the World in Eighty Days," "War and Peace" and "South Pacific" were developed.

Throughout his lifetime, even when beset by business and personal difficulties, he was a Southland civic leader, serving as California chairman of the National Foundation of Infantile Paralysis and active in the United Jewish Welfare Fund. He was state highway commissioner during the term of Gov. Olson.

His sidelines, which along with his movie interests helped make him one of the wealthiest men in Hollywood, included at various times, holdings in Southern California and Arizona real estate, the Agua Caliente and Del Mar race tracks, casino operations in Baja California, control of the Federal Trust & Savings Bank in Hollywood and a directorship in the Bank of America.

He was one of the founders with Mary Pickford of the Motion Picture Relief Fund and the Motion Picture Academy of Arts and Sciences and was a leader of numerous philanthropic as well as civic activities.

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    Academy Awards

    Year Category Work
    1952 Honorary Award Win

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