Once upon a time, in a long-forgotten early Hollywood before David O. Selznick was the most famous movie producer of his time, the term "Selznicked" was coined to describe someone who had just lost their shirt. Such was the impact of the rags-to-riches-to-rags story of Lewis Selznick, David’s pioneering movie industry father. Lewis, a Russian Jewish immigrant, was a flash-in-the-pan success during the silent era, earning and then going on to lose something like $11 million dollars in the course of a decade.
In fact, one of the most powerful and longest-reigning moguls of classical Hollywood, Louis B. Mayer, had a grudge against the young Selznick that would have killed most movie careers in the cradle. He warned his besotted daughter Irene that David would amount to nothing ("a bum like his father"), and refused to give the upstart a job at MGM until pressed by other colleagues. Mayer, like the rest of Hollywood elite, would not exactly turn out to be on the right side of history—and to add insult to injury, his daughter Irene would go on to marry David in 1930. It took Selznick some time to climb the ranks at the most glamorous of movie studios, and he began cutting his teeth in the late 1920s as a producer of B-westerns. He would ping between jobs for a while, moving from MGM to Paramount, becoming vice president at a failing RKO and turning the studio around, returning to MGM, and then finally forming Selznick International Pictures in 1936, becoming the independent producer he’d always yearned to be.
As film historian David Thomson’s seminal biography on Selznick recounts, David and his older brother Myron would spend much of their youths attempting to make up for the vertiginous highs and lows of their father’s career. And though David O. Selznick was enormously successful by anybody’s standards, he too went through the sorts of ups and downs that might induce vertigo. Selznick’s work on Gone with the Wind (1939) was so renowned that he once remarked that his association to it should be written on his gravestone; he spent many years trying to figure out how to equal or surpass such an achievement.
For the the Metrograph’s compact repertory season "Produced by David O. Selznick," eight of the creative producer’s most legendary projects and collaborations have been selected to screen starting this weekend. Of course, it includes Gone with the Wind, the Civil War epic that would prove to be the early climax of Selznick’s career. (He was 36.) For whatever qualms contemporary audiences may have with the film, the sheer spectacle-driven scale of its army of extras and fantastic sets must be credited. Selznick spent more on the movie than any producer in Hollywood history had done before. The ambition paid off.
Chronologically speaking, the earliest amongst the Metrograph’s programming choices are What Price Hollywood? (1932) and Dinner at Eight (1933), both sparkling examples of pre-Code glamour and early talkie wit. Two of Selznick’s three collaborations with Alfred Hitchcock have also been chosen: Daphne Du Maurier adaptation Rebecca (1940) and the Salvador Dalí-inflected examination of Freudian theory Spellbound (1945). These were both intellectually daring projects and the former won an Academy Award for Best Picture. But the pair were notoriously ill-suited in terms of personality and their creative partnership was often strained.
Perhaps the most common accepted wisdom about Selznick is that he was a control freak. In an era where the producer was the name above the title and directorial intent was secondary, Selznick removed and replaced his writers and directors with ruthless regularity. Gone with the Wind went through three major directors and fifteen writers before Selznick was happy, and he basically wrote and rewrote on the film straight through the night, barely sleeping. Ingrid Bergman admitted that Hitchcock sometimes pretended he was having technical difficulties with his camera so that Selznick would stop swooping in to micromanage on the set of Spellbound. King Vidor stormed off the set of Duel in the Sun (1946) after Selznick kept scolding him in front of his crew.
This apparent carelessness about the creative process of his collaborators left its mark. He could be notoriously tone deaf; when he first saw Bicycle Thieves he wondered if it could perhaps be made in America with Cary Grant. He could be brilliant at recognizing and appreciating artistic talent when he saw it—as with his harvesting of Alfred Hitchcock in 1939, or his discovery of Ingrid Bergman—yet equally incapable of letting that talent bloom without constant interference.
These qualities didn’t exactly put him in the best position to work with European directors like Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, or Vittorio De Sica, but the fact that he yearned to work with them in the first place is telling. In the early 1950s, when many producers were content to remain within the realms of Los Angeles, Selznick was ambitiously pursuing projects with fresh filmmakers. Unfortunately, the films wrought from those ambitions—Gone to Earth (1950) and Indiscretions of an American Wife (1951)—would be aggressively re-cut, changed, and re-named by a displeased Selznick. Both also starred Selznick’s second wife, Jennifer Jones, and would be muddled by her husband’s haranguing insistence on accessibility to U.S. audiences. Montgomery Clift, Jones’ co-star in the latter film, would go on to call the schmaltzy romance a "complete mess."
Tellingly, neither of these films—in any iteration—are being screened by the Metrograph. We can hardly expect a summary of Selznick’s long and complicated career in a season of eight movies, and so the season elides some of his lesser films. Still, it’s interesting to examine the gaps. Wisely, the programmers have opted for the third of Selznick’s productions from this European era: The Third Man (1949). But if Selznick’s biographer David Thomson is to be listened to, the gift he gave to Carol Reed and writer Graham Greene was his distance from the set. His many memos intended to "Americanize" the script were said to go straight into the wastebasket, and later admitted himself that he had "done nothing to greatly contribute to its success." It’s no surprise, then, that there’s no way to make a neat narrative of Selznick’s influence. The producer would not find much success throughout the 1950s, even with a big-budget adaptation of Hemingway’s Farewell to Arms (1957). The steady decline of his career came hand-in-hand with worsening health, and he passed away in 1965 aged only 61.
Still, the Metrograph program seems to show an admirable desire to bring audiences out from under the shadow of auteurism. Seeing Selznick’s productions screened together asks us to think differently about authorship—not only in terms of the different hierarchies of studio-system Hollywood, but also of the subtle ways that Selznick defied them as an independent producer. His active work with everyone from writer Ben Hecht to composers like Dimitri Tiomkin reveal a man deeply committed to the details of the final project. Perhaps even more compelling is Selznick’s overwhelming focus on featuring his wife Jennifer Jones in so many of his major projects, most notably Duel in the Sun and Portrait of Jennie (1948). In both, Jones is styled and shot with the utmost aesthetic care, and given the volatile emotions and intimate drama of these films, perhaps something about the pair’s relationship can be read between the lines.
Selznick was nothing if not dramatic; his taste for extravagance proved to be both his great talent and his undoing. During the production of Gone with the Wind, Selznick orchestrated the famous "burning of Atlanta" scene by setting up a conflagration of old film sets. He characteristically insisted on manning the controls of this elaborate fire-starting project. City of Nets writer Otto Friedrich describes Selznick pushing a series of buttons, with an army of firefighters waiting on standby and no less than seven camera crews filming the destruction. After all, Selznick didn’t want to take any risks with their state-of-the-art Technicolor cameras and the one-time-only event. As the producer watched sets go up in smoke, with a whole party of onlookers invited, you have to wonder if he had any inkling that he had touched on greatness. As the ash settled, David O. Selznick had exemplified his whole creative career in microcosm; he was forever applying great force to yield occasional magic, collateral damage be damned.
"Produced by David O. Selznick" is showing January 26 – February 17, 2019 at New York's Metrograph.