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Thursday, May 06, 2010

More of Selznick

Hindsight confers great wisdom. All of us realize what a disastrous mistake it was for David Selznick to sell his interest in Gone With The Wind less than three years after finishing that all-time smash, but how could he imagine any film would go on profiting for generations to come? There was tax necessity for that 1942 deal. DOS was bought out with $704,665 by his GWTW partner Jock Whitney and, of course, regretted it the rest of his life (Whitney later dealt the asset to MGM for considerably more). All this is recounted in David Thomson's Showman book. Imagine pouring life's blood into a venture of such magnitude, only to see revenues gone with someone else's less deserving wind. Selznick, it seems, was ruled by compulsion to work (a good thing, I'd suppose, for results he got), but was also dragged to near oblivion by vices that kept him often as not stony. Put aside imagining of rich movie producers when you read about this man! Selznick was under pressure movie folk still endure to create impressions of prosperity. His gambling losses alone surpassed annual income during years considered career peaks. Someone should write a monograph about Hollywood wealth lost at card tables. You wonder what it was about the picture trade that made these people such fools for betting. DOS was still paying off Eddie Mannix in the fifties for poker debts that went back years. I'll bet (that word!) accomplished players (Joe Schenck a recognized one) made better money gaming after hours than their movies yielded. Selznick was evidently high on the sucker list, his placement equal if not above that of chump colleague Howard Hawks.

Selznick was courageous for not fearing unemployment (always temporary), even during lowest Depression levels. He was known early on for having figured out the trick to movies, being a rare second generation industry man seemingly born to the craft. Memos Selznick wrote at age fourteen (for his father's company) are clear indicators he'd go far. There were firings and resignations from Metro, Paramount, RKO, then Metro again before better remembered entry into Selznick-International and independent producing. Columnists (plus DOS himself) suggested pics he handled for aforementioned firms were leagues better than average stuff they got out, and sure enough, a Selznick labeled RKO does represent higher grade of merchandise (King Kong is prime example here, even though DOS never tried taking credit for that, maybe out of deference to friend and oft-biz partner Merian Cooper). I wish Selznick had stayed longer at MGM during the thirties. For my time and amusement, his Metro offerings top Thalberg's. Wasn't it DOS who signed Dinner At Eight, Dancing Lady, David Copperfield, Manhattan Melodrama, and others of comparable quality? I'd call his a talent greater even than Thalberg's, though a Selznick lack of discipline otherwise closes the margin between them.

It was Selznick and partners that popularized Technicolor in the mid-thirties with early forays toward rainbow screens. Whatever The Garden Of Allah lacked in dramatic values was more than compensated by lush visuals far progressed from a two color process used in the twenties and earlier thirties. Coming on heels of Allah was A Star Is Born, Nothing Sacred, Adventures Of Tom Sawyer, and grand culmination Gone With The Wind to show how Selznick-International had mastered richer palettes. The fact we're missing quality renditions of most points up indifference to Selznick titles by latter day owners. Nothing Sacred was another that went public domain, and last I saw, languishes still among off labels (twelve I counted at Amazon). The best of these might be Slingshot Video's, it having been made from a rare 16mm collector's print with better than expected color. Adventures Of Tom Sawyer's copyright was renewed, but it's not to be had on disc in this country (there's only a region 2 DVD at present). Selznick properties began scattering when Jock Whitney got out some of his partnership interest in negatives, these taking leave of inventory with no one entity possessing all of the library since. Selznick was never satisfied with efforts his distributors made, always convinced they failed to realize maximum profit potential. With Duel In The Sun, he set up his own exchange system and realized too late what a burdensome and impractical concept that was. The curse of all independent producers was inability to push merchandise through a world marketplace dominated by the major companies. Those latter had volume and a sales force long in place. Selznick tried but could not compete with that. In the end, I wonder if he'd not have been better off affiliated with a studio better equipped to realize (and better circulate) his increasingly ambitious projects.

Selznick was ahead of time and competition for recognizing postwar European filmmakers and aligning himself with same to merge Hollywood's machinery with art film's advances. For a producer so affixed to classical styles, these were bold challenges to isolationist policy maintained by US companies. Accounts of The Third Man's production enjoy portraying Selznick's as wrong-headed interference, but without him, there'd be no Third Man (and wasn't he the one who insisted on the film's bleak ending?). Same applies to Powell and Pressburger's Gone To Earth and De Sica's Terminal Station, even if both were re-edited (or better put, ruined) by Selznick for stateside release. They're since released to DVD in original versions and are testament to good intentions DOS began with, his panic over then-lack 0f-commercial prospects being less important now that we have access to complete and refurbished discs. A fascinating DOS venture into early television is less available. Light's Diamond Jubilee was Selznick's three-ring salute to electric bulbs that simulcast on all networks in 1954 and got near a biggest audience recorded to that night. The program beginning with his traditional logo was all-starred with everyone up to and including the United States president (Eisenhower's spot as directed by Bill Wellman). Of all TV spectaculars extant, this might be hardest to see. For uneven and now dated outcome of Selznick's effort, Light's Diamond Jubilee is not a jewel destined for rescue and revival, and I can't imagine much hope investors would have for getting back expense of putting it right. Still, this is must-see TV for seekers of an obscure, but notable, chapter in Selznick's playbook.


Anonymous r.j. said...


Constance Bennett, is has been said, won some of her best roles in 30's movies, staying up for all night poker-sessions with the likes of Joe Schneck!

8:09 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Hey, that's right, RJ! I'd forgotten that Constance Bennett was a major player among Hollywood gamblers. So do you think she actually "won" some of her best roles at card tables?

8:20 AM  
Anonymous r.j. said...


You ever see a "little" offering from 1935 called "After Office Hours"? It's a really fun little "sleeper". Bennett, Clark Gable, Stu Erwin, and a script credited to Herman Mankiewicz, no less.

I was watching a video I have taken off the Turner channel of this film the other night. "How on earth did Bennett manage to land billing over Gable at his own home studio?", I wondered. Then a light bulb, roughly the size of the one you have pictured, went-off. Of course, I suddenly thought, she must have won a big-pot that night!

And, do you think it's mere coincidence that she starred in so many of the early 20th-Century films ("The Affairs of Cellini", and "Ladies In Love") that Schneck-produced?

PS.: I do tend to agree with your analysis that once he went to Metro, Selznick often beat Thalberg at his own game, but in all-fairness, it really was Thalberg who had set-up the existing patterns so that Selznick could "best them".

8:47 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

True, RJ, it was Thalberg who organized the Metyro system that enabled Selznick. If DOS had been less concerned over the appearance of nepotism there (Mayer being his father-in-law), perhaps he'd have stayed at Metro and become Thalberg's ideal successor.

Also a good point about "After Office Hours" --- I had always wondered about that billing. Constance Bennett seems to have hung on to stardom longer than her modest talent would have indicated. Did top billing and past earned starring parts indeed result from a turn of the cards?

10:31 AM  
Anonymous r.j. said...

We could keep this up, I fear, indefinitely, so I'll (try) to keep this brief in fairness to your other readers.

It would really be unfair to suggest that Constance Bennett's entire career was based on calling-in some important markers. The woman certainly had slim -- but very definite -- ability and nothing proved that better than her comeback in "Topper", which they say made her momentarily "hot" again.
My grandfather worked with her somewhat late in her career on a film called "Wild Bill Hickock Rides" in '41. He and lyricist Charles ("Jitterbugs") Newman wrote a very nice special-material song for her called "The Lady Got A Shady Deal", and I know that M.K. rehearsed her, because I've seen the stills. He never said anything directly to me about her, but I gather she was "difficult" and somewhat less than charming -- that is if you were not a George Cukor,or a Joe Schneck. Dad who was then a messenger on the lot, had the dubious honor of escorting her over to The Music Bldg. to meet with my grandfather about the number. Dad DID talk to me about her. He found her "entrance" onto the Warners lot apparently very funny. She was every inch "The Star" he told me, chauffeured limo, retinue, make-up person, dogs(poodles, I think) and husband Gilbert Roland all in attendance.

But, then when one sees her virtually "snatch" "Two-Faced Woman" out from under Garbo (as well as the rest of the cast),one has to give the devil (her) due -- the lady was not without talent, that's certain! "Just keep it light", I remember she said to the Films In Review author who wanted to do a career-article in later years, "Remember, I was no Bernhardt!" So, she seemed to posses a pretty-good sense of humor about herself after all.

And one final word, Thalberg apparently was himself inspired by Selznick's defection from Metro to start his own independent company at the time of his death -- which was Mayer's worst nightmare (almost) come true, I guess!

Best always, R.J.

11:20 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Donald Benson proposes another possible route to then-stardom ...

There's a short story by PG Wodehouse titled "The Rise of Minna Nordstrom," set in Hollywood during Prohibition. Three studio heads desperately need quantities of liquor that night, and a would-be actress gets between them and the only available stock. A little hard trading and she becomes a star. One wonders if that's entirely Wodehouse whimsey, or if a late-night poker game was just one of more vertical routes to success.

2:40 PM  
Blogger Dugan said...

How did everyone get off the subject of Selznick? Enjoyed your post on Selznick, but I always think of John Huston's comment about him, to paraphrase "David never made a good film after he met Jennifer Jones." I might have to agree after sitting through "A Farewell To Arms."

9:59 PM  
Blogger Mike Cline said...

Good for you Dugan---

I've never been able to sit thru A FAREWELL TO ARMS.

9:11 AM  
Anonymous Jim Lane said...

I'd never heard Dugan's quote from John Huston, but it's an intriguing one. It has a more personal resonance than saying "David never made a good film after the massive success of Gone With the Wind." Another way of phrasing Huston's comment would be to say Selznick never made a good film after he left Irene Mayer. (No longer the son-in-law, he no longer "also rises.") And that's an intriguing thought too.

12:30 PM  
Blogger Robin@DecoratingTennisGirl said...

My first visit to your site. I love it! I have been an old Hollywood buff forever! I will follow. Please stop over and visit when you have time. I have old Hollywood here and there on my blog.

7:47 PM  
Blogger Mike Cline said...

Today, May 10th, is Selznick's birthday.

9:20 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Thank you for the kind words Robin, and very glad to have you with us!

10:42 AM  

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