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Monday, May 03, 2010

A Greenbriar Selznick Memo --- Part One

Friday, March 21, 1969 was a big television night for me. That's when NBC broadcast Hollywood: The Selznick Years, a documentary celebration of the producer's life and work. Were others among you there? I wanted clocks to tick backward through that hour. Never before had so many dynamic excerpts been marshaled to prove old films were the best films. I'd read of Selznick and seen Gone With The Wind by that time, but where were these others they spoke of? 1969 was well into banishment of older titles from television. Post-48's in color were more recently available and all the rage. Late shows once the province of Gable and Garbo now hosted Tony Curtis, Piper Laurie and others of post-war discovery. The Selznick special's bombardment of highpoints from Dancing Lady, Viva Villa!, Manhattan Melodrama, and so many more was exquisite torture for those of us states removed from channels playing them. Program directors answered my pleading letters with a promise to consider 30's and 40's features, even as they had no plans at this time to run any. I looked at Hollywood: The Selznick Years again yesterday, albeit a faded 16mm print. Now it seems we have access to DOS's movies, but none to Hollywood: The Selznick Years, a so-far no-show on DVD and likely to remain so for all those clips someone would have to clear in order to release it.

David O. Selznick made pictures that exemplified Golden Age Hollywood. His I thought of as prime exemplars of magic in movies. Odd samplings turned up for his library being so widely dispersed. The producer had spent inactive years peddling backlog to varied distributors. I'd see Intermezzo and Made For Each Other repeatedly but never The Garden Of Allah or Nothing Sacred. Some of the Selznicks played television very early. Charlotte's Channel 3 celebrated its 25th Anniversary in 1974 by re-running the first movie they ever broadcast. That was A Star Is Born back in 1949. The special arrangement made with negative owner Warner Bros. yielded a gorgeous color print of the 1937 classic that proved to be the hit of WBTV's celebration week and rare opportunity to see a film not only long out of circulation, but unavailable to television in anything other than black-and-white up to that point. Transferred ownership resulted in lapse of A Star Is Born's copyright in the mid-seventies and 16mm dealers everywhere began selling it. Public domain ash-heaps were soon piled high with dupes made from dupes made from ... well, you get the picture. It's thirty-five years later and no disc release I've seen does honor to Selznick's pioneering Technicolor effort. UCLA completed a wonderful restoration a decade or so back, but no one's made that available thus far. I'd have thought Warner's upcoming Blu-Ray of the 1954 remake would include the 1937 version as an extra, but that's evidently a no-go. Will we ever get Selznick's A Star Is Born on a proper DVD?

I've given up this post to rambling, it seems. Call it my homage to a Selznick memo. There are hundreds of thousands of those stored at the University Of Texas Library in Austin. Scholars could generate dozens more books in addition to ones already written on DOS. Rudy Behlmer compiled Memo From David O. Selznick back in 1972 and it's been standard text since. One thing I appreciate for reading DOS's dictation is how articulate this man was. He'd taken few college level courses, never graduated, yet I wonder if Ivy Leaguers today could express themselves so eloquently. Plenty suggests public education then, elementary and high school, was far more advanced than what earns diplomas now. Selznick and others of his generation supply evidence of truth in that. I read his memos and wish for half so much erudition. Selznick got started on a life story he never finished, but enough was there to provide summary in his own words of career highlights. This was a producer who respected Hollywood's history in addition to his own and wanted to preserve both. He even proposed, in the early forties, a first-ever pictorial summary of American films. Lack of a publisher's commitment unfortunately scotched the idea. Selznick also tried persuading RKO to donate a complete print of The Magnificent Ambersons, a film he was not connected with beyond an admiration for Orson Welles, to the Museum Of Modern Art for safe keeping, this according to David Thomson's splendid Showman bio. That idea also went nowhere, mores' the pity. I just finished a second Showman reading. If any of you know David Thomson, tell him he has a fan at Greenbriar. Same goes for Rudy Behlmer. His book remains an absolute must, as is Ronald Haver's monumental David O. Selznick's Hollywood, surely the most colorful and engaging of coffee table movie tomes. All three are available for songs at Amazon used books.

Here's a question that haunts my dreams. Is it possible that Duel In The Sun's censor cuts still exist? Numerous ones were made after its release in order to mollify the Legion Of Decency. Selznick instructed exchange operatives to physically remove offending footage from the 35mm prints and discard same. I keep thinking ... surely one among DOS employees squirreled these outtakes into drawers at home. After all, this was a movie's equivalent of French postcards and plenty hot stuff anyone would be tempted to smuggle out. Apparently, there's none of it left within Austin's Selznick archives, but I'd just bet a roll of contraband survives in someone's hoarded kit (this is, after all, how the King Kong snips managed a life after reissue cutting). A lot of prints went out on Duel In The Sun (being saturation opened in many territories) and lots were individually trimmed by exchange hands across the country. Too bad someone didn't track down former Selznick Releasing Organization minions twenty or thirty years ago, for chances seem more than good that one of them sequestered the goods (wouldn't you?). Alas, any still living would be well into eighties at the least. I mention (or obsess on) this for Duel In The Sun being a longtime favorite and thoughts of a fully complete version entice me yet. Could there be nitrate hidden somewhere to fill in those (obviously) missing pieces of the DITS puzzle?


Anonymous Jim Cobb said...

I do remember the NBC special you mention... our household at that point did not include a color tv, so I went to a neighbor's to watch on their round screened color set. Selznick certainly pushed showmanship in a variety of intriguing ways. I would say the results varied from picture to picture. He could do epic, he could do arty (PORTRAIT OF JENNIE) and despite the battles between the two, I think he and Hitchcock helped each other a lot. DUEL IN THE SUN is something of a mixed bag for me.... much of it is impressive purely in scale. Applying many of the production techniques from GWTW to a western, it is certainly visually stunning in places. On the other hand, much of it is crazy, the heightened sexuality (when Jones and Peck kiss, lighting strikes), the sometimes awful dialog (Jones' confession that she is "Trash, trash, trash.")and Gish's death scene with its pratfall. You have to give it points for sticking to its guns, literally and figurably... no quiet good taste or restaint anywhere to be seen, which is all to the good in my book. Of course, the ending is great... so unexpected and yet also perfect. It is too bad this has yet to be done in a really high quality dvd release, which it does deserve.

10:48 AM  
Blogger Paul Penna said...

I recently transfered to DVD a middling-quality Beta tape of The Selznick Years that I recorded from TCM in 1998. The ending logo proclaims Warner Bros.' ("A Time-Warner Company") 75th Anniversary, so the print itself appears to date from 1998.

It's a blood-brother to the David L. Wolper-produced half hour series "Hollywood and the Stars" of a few years earlier. Wolper had left Metromedia by 1969, but the lineage shows in the overall style of the production, plus use of the same title theme music.

Watching both today, I'm struck by the irony of hearing Joseph Cotten (in HATS) or Fonda wax rhapsodic over the way that film preserves for future generations the timeless immortality of performances by film actors and actresses who, in many cases for the present generation, are already approaching the obscurity of a Minnie Maddern Fiske, if not having attained it already.

3:06 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Donald Benson writes in about "Duel In The Sun":

I'm not sure it was the same special, but I remember some TV documentary going on about how Duel in the Sun was meant to be the biggest western of all time, and showing the giganormous gang of cowhands gathering to stop the railroad. When I finally saw the film, I was disappointed to see that this mounted army simply came to a stop and a bunch of cavalry lined up in front of them at the construction site. That, aside from Gregory Peck reacting to a large model engine derailing, was it for spectacle.

The overheated half-breed passion sort of made up for it -- in those years it was thrilling enough to see a film where the heroine was as hormone-crazed as the boys. Also, I remember a scene where a fire-and-brimstone preacher shows up to save the girl's soul from her baser instincts, and there's some nervous dialogue to make clear he's not representing any real church. It reminded me of old spy films where foreign villains make a point of saying they're not Russian or Chinese.

6:57 PM  
Anonymous Will said...

Warner had originally intended to include the '37 A STAR IS BORN as a bonus feature on its upcoming DVD/Blu-Ray of the '54 version, but decided the earlier film deserved a restoration and DVD release of its own rather than being tacked onto the later film's disc as an extra.

9:26 PM  
Blogger Christopher said...

the sequence of the various exteriors of hollywood nightspots in A Star Is Born has got to be one of the most used bits of stock footage ever..Even seen in 70s movies that are portraying the 1930s..

1:42 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Reader Griff sends these memories of "Hollywood: The Selznick Years" via e-mail:

John, I remember this show vividly. Everything you say is true, to my memory. The entire family watched this on the old Magnavox and found it a great entertainment. My dad thought it the best thing of its kind he'd seen on TV since Hollywood and the Stars went off the air.

Dynamic stuff, indeed. The effect of the slow tracking shot, late in the show, of the shelves of reels of Selznick films, accompanied by choice snatches of classic dialogue on the soundtrack has stayed with me for over forty years. Though I'm sure that the many similar documentaries that have followed in its path have covered and re-covered this material, I'd love to see this fine program again.

It's interesting that this aired on NBC, as I believe that ABC had already moved by this time to acquire all rights to the catalogue of pictures still owned by the Selznick estate. ABC did air a number of these films -- SPIRAL STAIRCASE, PORTRAIT OF JENNIE and others -- in prime time during the '70s.

The IMDb lists Jack Tillar as the show's musical director. But I somehow recall the program re-purposing Elmer Bernstein's excellent Hollywood and the Stars theme to great effect as its main title theme. Do you have any memory of that, John?

Thanks for reminding me of this show, John.

5:21 AM  
Blogger Paul Penna said...

Yes, "The Selznick Years" used Bernstein's "Hollywood and the Stars" theme music. I alluded to that in my earlier comment, but I'd forgotten that Bernstein had written it. Bernstein himself conducts it in a 1993 Denon CD compilation of his music. Wonderfully evocative of the Hollywood period of the 30s-50s, as is Carl Davis' theme for the "Hollywood" series for the 10s-20s.

1:10 PM  
Anonymous r.j. said...


Re your masthead for today (May 5) I assume that the reason you posted this was for Mr. Pratt, but what interested me far more was the listing for "The Ben Hecht Show". How fascinating that must have been! I'm wondering if any kinescopes might exist?

We had a version of that out-here in L.A. -- Oscar Levant did a local show for a while with his wife June as side-kick, on the chessiest, most cheap-jack of all local stations in those days, channel 13. And, I understand, it was the highest-rated show in the L.A. market in its' time. Because from week-to-week viewers didn't know what Levant might say or do (or, possibly if he might not even collapse on the air!) And, he was thrown-off by the air several times, for making some remarks considered "no-nos",or too "politically dangerous" in those days! Anyway, because of his standing in the cultural/theatrical communties, he was able to corral people who would never normally appear on television at all. Fred Astaire made his debut appearance on Levants' show, and this has been excerpted in several recent documentaries on Astaire. He was then planning his own special and wanted to test the T.V. "waters".

I was very very young when Levants' show was in it's prime, but I do remember it, albeit vaguely, because nothing quite this "strange" (for a child) had ever been on the air before!

But the ads for Pegler and Hecht and my mention of Levant (and certainly the old Jack Paar Show -- light-years from what Johnny Carson did in terms of its' genuine sophistication and wit), only points-up what television in it's earliest-days always, I felt, did best. Presented genuinely intelligent people who had something to say and said it pretty damned-well!

Conan O'Brien, anyone?

As always, yours,


2:46 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I watched the special when I was 9years old-and I was the one who called my parents attention to it.I was especially intrigued by the DANCING LADY clip and the STAR IS BORN and NOTHING SACRED clips-I handn't seen much 30s Tecnicolor before.Here in Boston in '69, 30s movies were on TV, but mostly at 1:AM, too late for me to stay up!WBZ had the pre-48 Paramount and 20TH/FOX packages.A few years later the Worcester UHF station had almost 'round the clock Laurel and Hardy.

5:01 PM  
Anonymous jimmyoh said...

I don't think you'll see good quality DVDs of public domain films because it would be too easy for another company to buy a copy and make dubs and sell those identical copies for a dollar.

10:58 PM  
Blogger Karen said...

I was one of those who saw this brilliant special when it aired and was also fortunate enough to catch it on public TV during the '80s. I taped it but am damned if I can find it. I was a huge fan of "Hollywood and the Stars" and was thrilled when this was broadcast (yes, the same wonderful theme by Elmer Bernstein). I wish with all my heart that this would show up on DVD but then I still have hopes that the wonderful (and seemingly forgotten) "Wayne and Shuster Take an Affectionate Look at Mae West" will make it to disk as well. I guess it costs nothing to dream.

9:21 PM  

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