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Samuel Goldwyn: The "G" in MGM

Published: 1/31/2014
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Samuel Goldwyn (AP Photo)

Forty years after his death, Samuel Goldwyn's name is still associated with Hollywood. He's the "G" in MGM when the movie starts. There's his signature, sprawling across the screen as end credits roll. Before the Oscars are awarded, the nominees are announced at the Samuel Goldwyn Theater in Beverly Hills.

When Goldwyn died Jan. 31, 1974, the industry's major studios stopped work for two minutes out of respect.

Goldwyn's rags-to-riches story has been told many times before. Born Schmuel Gelbfisz in Poland in 1879, he walked 500 miles across Europe so he could move to America. There, renamed "Sam Goldfish," he took a job sweeping at a glove factory in New York, then became a company salesman, then an executive.

He might have stayed in New York had the nascent film industry failed to catch his eye. The business had grown quickly during the first decade of the 1900s and Goldwyn decided to get in on it. In 1913 he partnered with the then-unknown director Cecil B. DeMille and popular vaudeville star Jesse Lasky to make a Western called The Squaw Man.

The partners had intended the movie to be filmed in Arizona, but that didn't work out. Instead, production moved to southern California, becoming in 1913 the first movie filmed in Hollywood. "Not just a career but a capital was born," the Boston Globe's Mark Feeney wrote in 1989.

Goldwyn remained Goldfish until 1916, when he formed a new partnership with two brothers named Selwyn. The men decided to combine their monikers to create a name for their new business. They chose Goldwyn, and Goldfish had his name changed legally.

From there, Goldwyn moved "from one exploding partnership to another, building and leaving companies that became Paramount, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and United Artists, emerging inevitably as the industry’s 'great independent' – a lone-wolf survivor," Goldwyn biographer A. Scott Berg writes on PBS.org.

Goldwyn liked big budgets and big stars. He rubbed elbows with the era's superstars, including Charlie Chaplin, Myrna Loy, Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford. He was said to have the "Goldwyn touch" because so many of his films were successful, including Wuthering Heights and The Best Years of our Lives. (The director of those films and other Goldwyn successes, William Wyler, said it should have been called "Wyler's touch.")

Like other moguls of the era, Goldwyn is remembered as a ruthless businessman who was a little rough around the edges. "Untutored, ignorant, often boorish, Goldwyn never shucked off his peasant roots," Thomas Tryon wrote in the Chicago Tribune.

But, Tryon noted, Goldwyn's second marriage to actress Frances Howard transformed him into a "suave autocrat who saw his smoothly barbered countenance among the pages of Esquire, Vanity Fair and other … magazines – his billiard-ball pate glossy and radiant and only the palest trace of amiability upon his thin lips …"

The Goldwyn name was associated with fine films. "Goldwyn 's focus on quality allowed him to transcend his own limitations," according to fandango.com. "The perfect example is The Pride of the Yankees (1942), which is generally regarded as the best movie biography of a sports figure of all time. During WWII, his film output was weighted decidedly toward comedy and he delighted audiences by the millions … Goldwyn reached his peak as a producer, however, with his best and most serious film – The Best Years of Our Lives, … (which) has endured as perhaps the best and most watchable of all of Hollywood's old-style dramatic epics."

Natalie Pompilio is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia. Her lifelong love of obituaries raised eyebrows when she was younger, but she's now able to explain that this interest goes beyond morbid curiosity. Says Pompilio, "Obituaries are mini life stories, allowing a glimpse into someone's world that we're often denied. I just wish we could share them with each other when we're alive."

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