THE HINDENBURG DISASTER
(May 6, 1937 – Lakehurst Naval Air Station, New Jersey)
(Co-Founder, Paramount Pictures)
The Official Story
(Co-Founder of Paramount Pictures)
Adolph Zukor (January 7, 1873 – June 10, 1976) was a Hungarian-American film producer best known as one of the three founders of Paramount Pictures. He produced one of America’s first feature-length films, The Prisoner of Zenda, in 1913.
The Paramount Pictures Corporation was formed to distribute films made by Famous Players-Lasky and a dozen smaller companies which were pulled into Zukor’s corporate giant. The consolidations led to the formation of a nationwide film distribution system.
In 1917, Zukor acquired 50% of Lewis J. Selznick’s Select Pictures which led Selznick’s publicity to wane. Later, however, Selznick bought out Zukor’s share of Select Pictures.
Zukor shed most of his early partners; the Frohman brothers, Hodkinson and Goldwyn were out by 1917.
In 1919, the company bought 135 theaters in the Southern states, making the producing concern the first that guaranteed exhibition of its own product in its own theaters. He revolutionized the film industry by organizing production, distribution, and exhibition within a single company.
Zukor believed in employing stars. He signed many of the early ones, including Mary Pickford, Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, Marguerite Clark, Pauline Frederick, Douglas Fairbanks, Gloria Swanson, Rudolph Valentino, and Wallace Reid. With so many important players, Zukor also pioneered “Block Booking” for Paramount Pictures, which meant that an exhibitor who wanted a particular star’s films had to buy a year’s worth of other Paramount productions. That system gave Paramount a leading position in the 1920s and 1930s, but led the government to pursue it on antitrust grounds for more than 20 years.
Zukor was the driving force behind Paramount’s success. Through the teens and twenties, he also built the Publix Theatres Corporation, a chain of nearly 2000 screens. He also ran two production studios, one in Astoria, New York (now the Kaufman Astoria Studios) and the other in Hollywood, California.
In 1926, Zukor hired independent producer B. P. Schulberg, who had an unerring eye for new talent, to run the new West Coast operations. Lasky and Zukor purchased the Robert Brunton Studios, a 26-acre facility at 5451 Marathon Street, for US$1 million. In 1927, Famous Players-Lasky took the name Paramount Famous Lasky Corporation. In 1930, because of the importance of the Publix Theatres, it became the Paramount Publix Corporation.
By then, Zukor was turning out 60 features a year. He made deals to show them all in theaters controlled by Loew’s Incorporated, and also continued to add more theaters to his own chain. By 1920, he was in a position to charge what he wished for film rentals. Thus he pioneered the concept, now the accepted practice in the film industry, by which the distributor charges the exhibitor a percentage of box-office receipts.
Zukor, ever the impresario, bought a huge plot of ground at Broadway and 43d Street, over objections of his board of directors, to build the Paramount Theater and office building, a 39-story building that had its grand opening in 1926. He managed to keep stars such as Pola Negri, Gloria Swanson, and most important of all, Mary Pickford, under contract and happy to stay at Paramount. At one point, Pickford told Zukor: “You know, for years I’ve dreamed of making $20,000 a year before I was 20, and I’ll be 20 very soon.”
“I could take a hint,” Zukor recalled wryly. “She got the $20,000, and before long I was paying her $100,000 a year. Mary was a terrific businessman.”
Zukor was, primarily, also a businessman. “He did not take the same personal, down-to-the-last-detail interest in the making of his movies that producer-executives such as Samuel Goldwyn and Louis B. Mayer did,” wrote The New York Times in Zukor’s obituary at the age of 103. He became an early investor in radio, taking a 50 percent interest in the new Columbia Broadcasting System in 1928, but selling it within a few years.
Partner Lasky hung on until 1932, when Paramount nearly collapsed in the Great Depression years. Lasky was blamed for that and tossed out. In the following year, Paramount went into receivership. Ultimately at fault were Zukor’s over-expansion and use of overvalued Paramount stock for purchases that made the company file for bankruptcy. A bank-mandated reorganization team kept the company intact, and, miraculously, Zukor was able to return as production chief. On June 4, 1935, John E. Otterson became president. When Barney Balaban was appointed president on July 2, 1936 Zukor was relegated to chairman of the board.
He eventually spent most of his time in New York City, but passed the winter months in Hollywood to check on his studio. He retired from Paramount Pictures in 1959 and in 1964, stepped down as chairman and assumed Chairman Emeritus status, a position he held up until his death at the age of 103 in Los Angeles.
(Hindenburg Disaster Newsreel Coverage)
The Paramount was filmed by Tommy Craven using an Eyemo, which had interchangeable lenses. During the landing approach, Craven alternated between wide-angle and telephoto views of the airship. As the ship dropped its ropes another cameraman can be seen. Craven was using the telephoto lens when the fire started (the footage starts a few seconds after the Hearst reel), giving a close-up view of the fire and people running away from the airship. The footage also shows flames “erasing” the ship’s name as it crashes to the ground. Craven, an out-of-work news photographer aspiring to become a newsreel cameraman, was given the chance by Paramount to cover the Hindenburg‘s landing, which landed him the job at Paramount News. The footage has sometimes been misattributed to Al Mingalone. In 1957 Craven made an appearance in the Canadian game show Front Page Challenge recounting his experience filming the disaster.