Selznick, David O. (1902-1965)

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Selznick, David O. (1902-1965)

David Selznick's production of Gone with the Wind is enough to secure his place in history. While this landmark film was his most successful, his influence on movie production in the 1930s and 1940s also marks his career with greatness. He was a very successful producer and writer with other films to his credit, such as David Copperfield (1935), A Star Is Born (1937), and Rebecca (1940).

Selznick worked for his father's motion picture company, Lewis J. Selznick Productions, until it was forced into bankruptcy in 1923. His first produced feature was Roulette in 1924. Selznick joined Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) in 1926 as a script reader and assistant story editor. After rapidly rising to supervisor of production he was fired because of disagreements with head of production Irving Thalberg.

Paramount made him their head of production in 1927, but after the depression forced salary cuts he moved to RKO Studios in 1931 as studio boss. While he was there, Selznick personally oversaw such productions as A Bill of Divorcement (1932) and Little Women (1933), both starring Katharine Hepburn. When MGM decided that Thalberg's ill health made it sensible to spread some of his production duties around, Louis B. Mayer was able to lure Selznick back to MGM. Since Selznick had married Mayer's daughter Irene in 1929, his return to MGM sparked the saying, "the son-in-law also rises." Intent on bringing more prestigious pictures to the screen, Selznick produced hits such as Dinner at Eight (1933) and Anna Karenina (1935). In the former picture, Selznick defied conventional wisdom and cast the film with big stars in every role, instead of just one star. By using such performers as Marie Dressler, Jean Harlow, and John Barrymore he produced a blockbuster hit.

In 1936 Selznick again left MGM to become an independent producer and founded Selznick International Pictures. His first film was the highly successful A Star Is Born (1937). His most memorable is, of course, Gone with the Wind. The film was fraught with problems, such as having a total of six directors and having to give up the distribution rights to MGM to get Clark Gable for the male lead. However, Selznick's search for an actress to play Scarlett O'Hara caused a national sensation, as young women everywhere, not just in Hollywood, auditioned for the role. This ultimate triumph won 10 Academy Awards and remains extremely popular. He followed this box office hit with the classic Rebecca (1940), directed by Alfred Hitchcock, which won a best picture Oscar.

After a massive tax debt forced his company onto the auction block Selznick formed a new company, David Selznick Productions. In this venue he became more of a talent scout than a producer. One of his biggest personal discoveries was Jennifer Jones, who had won an Oscar for Song of Bernadette (1943). While he was not responsible for discovering her, he fell in love with her and did his best to make her a superstar. He produced many films starring her, the most successful of which was 1946's Duel in the Sun.

When Selznick and Jones were married in 1949 he virtually gave up his independent producer status and became more of a Svengali to her. Pictures such as Portrait of Jennie (1949) and A Farewell to Arms (1957) starring Jones were moderately successful, but Selznick became something of a joke for his obsession with his wife. He continued to work in Hollywood, but his preoccupation with his wife's career relegated him more and more to the background until his death. Nevertheless, David O. Selznick is a name that is firmly planted in motion picture history. He was the biggest of the independent producers at a time when such a thing was rare.

—Jill A. Gregg

Further Reading:

Haver, Ronald. David O. Selznick's Hollywood. New York, Knopf, 1980.

Selznick, David O. Memo from David O. Selznick. New York, Viking Press, 1972.

Thomson, David. Showman: The Life of David O. Selznick. New York, Knopf, 1992.