Friday, February 10, 2006

MEN OF VISION - David O. Selznick

by Nick Zegarac

There is little to deny the filmic legacy of David O. Selznick its hallowed spot in the cinema firmament. His motion pictures – the first to carry a producer’s credit either above or just below the main title - have transcended the modesty of mere ‘movies’ to, in some cases, become benchmarks that continue to define those intangibles of chic good taste, idealism and imagination. Always at the forefront of painstaking craftsmanship, Selznick was a manic - some would say maniacal - grandmaster of that glossy, romanticized vision. Though he did not invent either this concept or its execution on film – he was undeniably its most consistent and shining champion. For Selznick’s art has an unmistakable afterglow of virulent beauty all its own.

“There are only two kinds of class,” Selznick used to say, “First class and no class.”
Ever faithful to this edict, he was a legend in his own mind long before he created that corporeal legacy for the rest of us on celluloid. If he was receptive to ideas from colleagues and collaborators on any project, this perceived open-mindedness paled to his dogmatic approach on the set and the onslaught of memos that could very well have wallpapered an entire office building by the end of each shoot. For Selznick could be a dictator – as autocratic as any of those in the studio system that he despised.

Throughout his career, Selznick carried the angst of a proud scion whose own father had lost everything to the Hollywood dream factories. Unlike his older brother Myron, who sought revenge from their financial ruin, David was determined to show the big bosses that independence from the studio machinery was not only possible – but in fact, the best way of making movies. The irony is, of course, that Selznick was tyrannically involved in every facet of the film making process – much more hands on than say, L.B. Mayer at MGM, under whom he briefly worked for a time.

He was born simply – a quiet introspective babe with no hint of the fiery showman that was to follow, in Pittsburgh on May 10, 1902. David Selznick was the third child of immigrant jeweler, Lewis J. and his wife Florence. His father’s was quick to instill all of his children with a sense of pride – a quality that Selznick would refine under his own studio banner years later.

A preteen fascination with classic literature impressed his father much more than Selznick’s growing appreciation for the then fledgling art of motion pictures, which Lewis J. never considered as art. Still, films captured enough of Lewis’s interest to delve deeply into producing a series of shorts. During this tenure, David learned all he could about the film making process. However, in 1923 Lewis J’s production company went under. Three years later, a deal between his father and Associated Exhibitors all but bankrupted the family.

If Selznick’s bright-eyed optimism for the movies in general won him respect and limited work during this dark moment in his personal history, his haughty and often ferocious temperament did not. After making a bitter enemy of L.B. Mayer, David turned to Nicholas Schenk, Mayer’s New York boss for a reprieve. He was forcibly appointed by Schenk as a lowly reader in MGM’s story department where he did not remain for long. Although his rise to prominence as Harry Rapf’s personal assistant came swiftly, equally meteoric was his lamentable fall from grace after Selznick refused to offer an apology to MGM’s V.P Irving Thalberg. David chose instead to walk out of the studio, and seemingly, on his future.

He did not remain unemployed for long, largely through the interventions of personal friend and rising director, William Wellman, who finagled a deal for Selznick at Paramount in 1928. Installed once more in the writer’s department, Selznick began to work his magic on scripts he felt were being given short shrift. He also became mired in the laborious process of acquiring and developing sound facilities for the studio.

A quickie marriage to Irene, the daughter of L.B. Mayer in April, 1930 did little to slow the pace of Selznick’s responsibilities. During his Paramount tenure, Selznick became acquainted with several men who would eventually make up his small entourage at his own studio; including directors John Cromwell and George Cukor, Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack – the latter two providing Selznick with his first accredited mega success as producer; King Kong (1933) – though that venture would come not at Paramount, but through another migration – this time to Keith-Albee-Orpheum (RKO) Studios.

Selznick’s decampment to RKO had been perceived as a precursor to striking out on his own as an independent set-up with film pioneer Lewis J. Milestone. But the venture was ill-timed. RKO was in a state of sublime panic – hit badly by the Great Depression and mildly threatening its contract players and staff with a complete shut down. Wary of loaning out capital to the film industry, banks balked at Selznick’s pitch – a blow softened considerably when Merian C. Cooper announced that he had secured a green light on King Kong.

Kong was a bright spot that helped keep RKO in the black. Even before conceptualization on the film had begun, Selznick found himself producing What Price Hollywood? (1932) a precursor to the original A Star is Born (1937) which Selznick would later produce under his own studio banner. Selznick also cemented his working relationship with director George Cukor on his next project – the enchanting melodrama A Bill of Divorcement (1932) starring Katharine Hepburn and John Barrymore. Hepburn – an irritant even then, nevertheless proved to have Selznick’s complete backing and trust. Neither was misplaced and Selznick quickly arranged for her to star in a version of Little Women (1933). By all accounts Selznick’s career was on the upswing.

However, the most seismic event in Selznick’s career that year was neither the debut of Kong nor the devastating earthquake that had hit Long Beach, killing hundreds. It was rather Selznick return to MGM – with his record of past indiscretions expunged. With George Cukor directing, Selznick would produce the studio’s biggest blockbuster to date; the all-star melodrama; Dinner at Eight. In truth, Selznick doubted his own sanity in returning under the auspicious reign of L.B. Mayer and, at one point, even asked Mayer to release him from his contract. Mayer did not. With Irving Thalberg convalescing after a near fatal heart attack, Mayer needed a strong producer at MGM’s helm.

Although Selznick grumbled consistently throughout his second Metro tenure, his stay produced many worthy contenders for the upper echelons in film art; Dancing Lady (1933), Viva Villa!(1934); Garbo’s definitive version of Anna Karenina and the best of Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities and David Copperfield (all made in1935). Of these, Anna Karenina gave Selznick the most grief – not on the set, but in preproduction – as the Breen censors refused to allow Selznick to include a scene directly ripped from the pages of the novel.

However, another tiff near the end of completion on A Tale of Two Cities resulted in Selznick making a clean break with MGM in the spring of 1935. He moved to the old Pathe backlot with the blessing and financial backing of former UA president Al Lichtman and more aid provided by wealthy playboy John Hay (Jock) Whitney. Selznick inaugurated Selznick International Pictures in October with the following press release:

“The day of mass production has ended…it has become, in the making of good pictures, so essential for a producer to collaborate on every inch of script, to be available for every conference and go over all details of production that it is physically impossible for him to give his best efforts to more than a limited number of pictures. Audiences are smarter than we give them credit for, and they have become much more selective in their choices of pictures they will pay to see….they don’t like being ‘played down to’ so our new company…will play up to our prospective audiences. My object as a producer has always been to make the finer things and to leave the trash to the other fellows. I firmly believe that the future of pictures lies in producing stories of high caliber.” – typical Selznick: setting lofty standards and expectations for himself while bandying about the work of his contemporaries as inferiority personified.

The division of responsibilities incurred at the studio involved a New York office headed by Katharine Brown, with the near autonomy to hunt down and purchase any and all stories that might be considered filmable commodities. The first of these was Little Lord Fauntleroy (1935) a film that borrowed its stars, Freddie Bartholomew and Mickey Rooney from MGM. Selznick had hoped to one day cultivate a small but lucrative stable of his own stars.

Though he would in fact make feeble attempts to transform the careers of Rhonda Fleming and Guy Madison - as well as launch the career of his second wife, Jennifer Jones (even though Jones’ greatest successes occurred outside of Selznick’s domain) Selznick’s greatest discoveries of the period were undoubtedly Vivien Leigh and Ingrid Bergman (both already well established in the arts in their respective countries of Britain and Sweden before coming to America).

At about this same time, Selznick made several attempts to rechristen the three strip Technicolor process for live action films. His first attempt at deifying color with The Garden of Allah (a maudlin tale about a psychologically scarred monk who renounces his vows, falls in love with a beautiful foreigner, then decides to return to the church) was a modest financial disaster. Selznick rebounded with his next venture, A Star Is Born (1937).

After beginning production on the first sound (and undeniably best) version of Anthony Hope’s classic swashbuckler, The Prisoner of Zenda (1937) Selznick embarked on what would prove to be his all too brief golden period. He became a star maker – discovering Ingrid Bergman and casting her opposite British matinee idol Leslie Howard in Intermezzo (1939), a classic love story. During this period Selznick also discovered a lucrative sideline in the ‘packaging’ of a property – basically gathering and signing talents both in front of and behind the camera, combining them with a solid script, then marketing the whole affair to an outside production company under a distribution deal designed to maximize his profits with a minimal amount of personal investment.

But by far, Selznick’s greatest achievement of the period – and arguably, ever – was his acquiescence to produce a property brought to his attention by Katharine Brown: Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With The Wind. Selznick had at first balked at the prospect of transforming the lengthy work into a film – first, because he had been working backward from the assumption that civil war pictures were ‘box office poison’ a branding put forth by the general exhibitors, and second, because he had no female lead under contract whom he felt typified the fiery Scarlett O’Hara. However, when Brown attempted to market the property to another company, ego kicked in and Selznick agreed to acquire the rights to the novel for a then record $50,000.

The woes in developing Gone With The Wind for the screen are too numerous to explore at any great length, and, no brief summation will adequately suffice. However, a few key points bear on the subsequent history of David Selznick and thus deserve inclusion herein. First, the project became a catalyst for a professional rift between Selznick and long time associate – director George Cukor. The two had worked successfully on several projects and, at least at the start of shooting, Selznick had placed his faith entirely in Cukor’s abilities to deliver an expertly tailored melodrama. However, the daily rushes did not bear this blind faith out, and Selznick eventually borrowed director Victor Fleming from MGM to take over the project.

Perhaps because he realized the enormity of his undertaking too late to turn back, Selznick was much more heavily involved in all facets of Gone With The Wind throughout its gestation period and even beyond, to the Atlanta premiere. His almost daily conflicts ran the gamut from fussing over Walter Plunkett’s costume designs to critiquing Vivien Leigh’s diction lessons.

During these strenuous months, Selznick discovered Benzedrine, the popular over-the-counter sleep remedy which he needed to settle him down after pulling fifteen hour days at the studio, but which he ultimately and chronically became addicted to ever after. His national campaign to find the ideal Scarlett O’Hara quickly became the most publicized talk of the town; his discovery of Vivien Leigh – easily, the find of the decade.

But there was little time, if any, to wallow in these successes. Selznick had persuaded British director Alfred Hitchcock to sign an American contract under the false pretext of producing a film based on the Titanic disaster – a folly probably never taken seriously by Selznick since he had too little time and revenue to invest in another costly production. Instead, Selznick began preproduction on Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca (1940) while Gone With The Wind was nearing completion. Financial strain and complete bankruptcy were narrowly averted only after Jock Whitney came to the rescue with much needed backing to see the company through.

By the end of 1940, Selznick could be proud of all this quiet chaos. He had two of the most successful films in general release at the same time and both Gone With The Wind and Rebecca proved winners at Oscar time. It was, at once, the beginning and the end of David O. Selznick’s flourishing career. For although Selznick retained Hitchcock’s services throughout the decade – arguably providing for the director’s first golden period in Hollywood – Selznick’s desire to produce the next ‘Gone With The Wind’ led him on a wild goose chase that consumed the rest of his career and his life.

Most certainly, audience expectations were in place for another ‘big’ movie and Selznick did – with varying degrees of success – attempt to meet those expectation; first with the war time weepy Since You Went Away (1942) and later, with the absurdly lavish western/adventure; Duel in the Sun (1945). Only the former made money. The latter proved in hindsight to be the last project to carry that unmistakable hallmark of attention to every detail.

With the last of the Selznick/Hitchcock collaborations The Paradine Case (1947) proving an expensive disappointment, and Portrait of Jennie (1947) a colossal mistake for all concerned – Selznick entered the last period of his career as a somewhat forgotten man. Mounting debts forced his divestment of the studio and a complete liquidation of his interests in Gone With The Wind to MGM. Selznick would make one last stab at immortality with a remake of Hemmingway’s A Farewell to Arms (1957) – a colossally miscast melodrama that effectively turned the Selznick legacy on its end.

On June 22, 1965, David O. Selznick departed from his beloved Mecca of film making. Ironically, the biggest obstacle that he had faced in his waning years as producer was David O. Selznick – not just the legacy of his tenure, but the man. Unable to cast off that sheen of high polished romanticism that had served him so consistently well throughout the late 1920s, 30s and early 40s, Selznick’s later product increasingly fell out of touch with audience expectations.

In thought and execution, Selznick too seemed almost unable to comprehend how the world of movies had dramatically changed around him while his attitude toward them had not…could not, and finally…did not. For Selznick – his was a final act of looking back to that all too brief moment in Hollywood’s history that he best summated in a speech, delivered to eager young minds listening at the University of Rochester in 1940:

“To you who feel the burning urge to influence the modes and manners, the social and political ideologies of the future through the medium of the motion picture, I say, here is a challenge, here is a frontier that is and always will be crying for the courage and the energy and the initiative and the genius of American youth. Here is the Southwest Passage to fame and fortune and influence! Here is the El Dorado of the heart, the soul and the mind.”

The man and the world that he occupied have passed…but his legacy lives on.

@2006 Nick Zegarac (all rights reserved).