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David O. Selznick, King of the Moguls

Published: 5/10/2011
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David O. Selznick, born on this day 99 years ago, was among the most powerful producers during Hollywood's Golden Age. We look back at the man who brought Gone With the Wind and other classics to the silver screen.

Born in Pittsburgh as the son of a wealthy silent movie distributor, Selznick worked for his father as soon as he was able, and moved to Hollywood when he was only 24 to further immerse himself in the movie business. A tireless worker with limitless ambition, Selznick started as a script reader at MGM, jumped to Paramount to become an associate director, and moved to RKO when offered a vice president of production position, before coming full circle and returning to MGM as a producer.

All of which he did before turning 30.

At RKO he produced the original King Kong (1933) and was responsible for giving director George Cukor his big break. But it was at MGM that Selznick really began to flourish. He was put in charge of a prestige production unit separate from that of Irving Thalberg (then in poor health), which specialized in big-budget literary adaptations like David Copperfield (1935), Anna Karenina (1935) and A Tale of Two Cities (1935). He'd been promoted to his position at MGM not long after marrying the daughter of studio chief Louis B. Mayer, inspiring quips that "the son-in-law also rises."

These successes weren't enough to quench his ambition though. In 1935 he formed Selznick International Pictures, and with a distribution deal in place from United Artists, set about making some of the highest-grossing movies of the era. During his career, he also discovered much of the talent that would shape cinema during what many still see as the art form's historic highpoint.

David O. Selznick (who'd added the "O" to his name on a whim) was behind Gene Kelly's first Hollywood contract, as well as that of Fred Astaire. He gave Katharine Hepburn and Joan Fontaine their breakout roles, brought Ingrid Bergman and Louis Jourdan from Europe, and cast Vivien Leigh in what would be not only his biggest picture, but one of the most popular of all time, 1939's Gone With the Wind.

Fresh off winning the best picture Oscar for his Civil War epic, he put his next feature into the hands of a 41-year-old British director who'd never worked in Hollywood before – Alfred Hitchcock.

To say the two clashed would be an understatement. Both men were used to being in control. As an import, Hitchcock may not have been aware of it, but Selznick's reputation as a meddler was second-to-none among Hollywood producers. "My understanding," writer-director Nunnally Johnson once told him, "is that an assignment from you consists of three months work and six months recuperation." A perfectionist, he not only oversaw production but also involved himself in every aspect of his films, from editing to reshoots to dictating what style eye make-up he wanted his leading women to wear. "The way I see it," Selznick once said, "my function is to be responsible for everything."

Directors, of course, were used to some level of studio interference, but less so the editors, cameramen, costume departments and others to whom Selznick regularly issued his meticulous and sometimes rambling directives (it is probably worth noting here that Selznick smoked about five packs of cigarettes a day and was a chronic amphetamine user). Clark Gable, after being woken at 3 a.m. by a delivery boy relaying a Selznick telegram, banded with others in the cast to impose a 9 p.m. memo curfew on the producer. When Selznick retired, memos he dictated to his secretaries filled more than 2,000 file boxes. During the making of Gone With the Wind alone, he dictated 1.5 million words – which, if made into a book, would be roughly four times the length of the original 1,000 page novel. He once famously sent a publicist a Western Union telegram that measured over thirty feet long and ended with, "Just received a phone call that pretty much clears up this matter. Please disregard this wire."

Despite Selznick and Hitchcock clashing during the production of Rebecca, the film won the 1940 Oscar for best picture, making Selznick the first producer to take home the statue in back-to-back years. Bruised though Hitch's ego might have been at taking orders from the younger producer, it didn't stop him from returning five years later to direct Spellbound for Selznick's company. The film would be Hitchcock's biggest success to that point, though once again he didn't get along with the producer and would make only one more picture with him, 1947's expensive and now largely forgotten The Paradine Case (which Selznick ended up taking over during the editing process).

Hitchcock would go on to even greater success after parting ways with the producer, while Selznick's power would wane beginning in the late 1940s. He did, however, score one last big hit with 1946's Duel in the Sun, a film he not only produced but wrote and partially directed (along with about seven others). Critics hated it, but the public flocked to theatres, some no doubt drawn by all the free publicity the movie received because of an on-set affair between actress Jennifer Jones and Selznick that had destroyed both of their marriages (it should be here noted that according to biographers Selznick was by reputation not averse to the whole casting couch thing).

Despite the big box office numbers the film generated, Selznick spent nearly as much making and marketing it as he had with Gone With the Wind and so it turned only a modest profit. His company soon largely ceased functioning as a studio, instead acting as a defacto talent agency that loaned its contracted big names to rival studios. Selznick says he got out of the game in 1948 partly because he was tired, but partly because he feared the enormous changes TV would bring to the industry.

He couldn't stay away long though, and would play a role, often uncredited, in at least half a dozen more productions. Right up until his death in 1965, he still had a hand in the entertainment business, setting up European distribution deals, arranging the sales of his movies to TV and working with properties for the stage.

"The difference between me and other producers," he once said, "is that I am interested in the thousands and thousands of details that go into the making of a film."

His interest in those details may be why audiences are still enjoying his movies to this day.

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