The Film 100: David O. Selznick, no. 64


Born: May 10, 1902, Pittsburgh, PA
Died: June 22, 1965, Hollywood, CA

Selznick’s genius was in his commercial sense, his showmanship as well as his basic good taste.
—Peter Bogdanovich

In 1926, a young scriptreader named David O. Selznick joined fledgling MGM and rocketed through jobs in the story department until earning a promotion to supervisor of production. He quickly became known as a producer who could get efficient results out of a meager staff and bring a picture in under budget and on schedule. However, Selznick was also a stubborn perfectionist who would wield his authority with reckless disregard for the temperament of his stars or the authority of his superiors. While working at MGM, Selznick continuously engaged in disagreements with production genius Irving Thalberg; he got himself fired just one year after his appointment to the position.

However, Paramount Pictures, attracted by his reputation for efficiency, quickly made him the head of their production staff in 1927. Selznick worked on several projects with no hint of the prima donna tendencies that MGM saw in him. But the Depression forced Paramount to juggle priorities; they wished to institute a temporary hiatus in all salaries, and when they informed Selznick of the payroll problems, he bolted to RKO. There, he instituted a production scheme modeled on the autonomous units that production pioneer Thomas Ince had espoused in his days at the Triangle studios. As head of seven assistant producers, Selznick concerned himself with every detail of RKO productions, particularly the Katharine Hepburn films A Bill of Divorcement (1932) and Little Women (1933).

Upon hearing of Selznick’s repeated successes, MGM boss Louis B. Mayer sought to rehire him when Irving Thalberg took a leave of absence. Selznick agreed to a package that would give him creative control, and soon he was back at MGM making Dinner at Eight (1933), David Copperfield (1935) and other prestigious literary and stage adaptations of the 1930s.

Bent on establishing himself as a rogue independent, Selznick left MGM again in 1936 and launched International Pictures, where his first movie was the award-winning A Star Is Born (1937). Most of the films made under Selznick’s new company would be distributed under the MGM flag, but with one difference: they would include Selznick’s name over the title. He then set out to make his name a mark of superior excellence.

The scope of Selznick’s bravado was illustrated in his most memorable triumph, Gone with the Wind (1939). Enlisting six directors, including William Cameron Menzies, King Vidor and Victor Fleming, and calling on several screenwriters, including Ben Hecht, he released the picture to millions of eager fans. Gone with the Wind won ten Oscars and a place as one of the greatest box office successes in film history.

The tremendous profits were multiplied by other Selznick successes that same year, notably Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca. Selznick’s other talents including finding foreign film properties and acquiring their rights for a Hollywood version. Here, he was incredibly successful, and a remake of Intermezzo (1939) illustrated it. With the film, he revealed two European talents in Charles Boyer and Ingrid Bergman.

Ironically, a massive tax debt in 1940 forced stockholders of International Pictures to put the entire holdings on the block. Selznick immediately formed David Selznick Productions, but did not produce any movies until the mid-1940s. In many of his productions he had to assume a reduced role such as acting as a talent scout for Hitchcock’s Spellbound (1945) and Carol Reed’s The Third Man (1949). Compared to his earlier years, his output was rather sparse. He did, however, produced Duel in the Sun (1946) and Portrait of Jennie (1948), mainly as vehicles for actress Jennifer Jones who later became his wife, but he rarely took an active part in his company’s projects.

David O. Selznick accomplished what he set out to do; his name became a symbol of exceptional quality in entertainment. Audiences began to recognize his seal of approval. Actors and directors were eager to be involved in his projects. MGM was glad to have his bright light shine upon their crown; Selznick was responsible for many of their biggest names, and the pristine MGM image is largely due to him. He would be remembered as the energetic loner, working outside the studio system to make polished films. Selznick’s hard-won reputation would inspire the Zanucks and Goldwyns to follow his example and treat their names as a mark of excellence.

To read all the republished articles from ‘The Film 100,’ as well as the complete list of 100 most influential people in the history of the movies, go to Reintroducing the Film 100 here on Keyframe.

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