David O. Selznick

Active - 1928 - 2014  |   Born - May 10, 1902 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, United States  |   Died - Jun 22, 1965   |   Genres - Drama, Romance

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Biography by Bruce Eder

The scion of a film-producing family, David O. Selznick was the forerunner of the modern independent producer, and probably had a keener understanding and appreciation of movies as art than any of his rival film moguls of the mid 20th century. Selznick was the younger son of Lewis Selznick, a film producer in his own right until bankruptcy forced him out of business in 1923; the family's older son, Myron, was a producer who later became one of Hollywood's most respected agents. After his father's bankruptcy, Selznick found some success producing exploitation films on his own, but it was only after coming to Hollywood in 1926 that he really began his filmmaking career. He began as an assistant story editor to L.B. Mayer at MGM, and rose to associate producer, but quickly moved to Paramount Pictures, where he became an associate director. During 1931, Selznick became head of production at RKO, which was then in terrible financial trouble, and managed to turn the studio's fortunes around through an ambitious production schedule that included the classic King Kong. His next stop was MGM, where he remained for three years as a vice-president and producer. In 1936, Selznick formed his own production company. His films were all high quality productions, rivalling the best work of such figures as Samuel Goldwyn as well as MGM; The Prisoner of Zenda, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, and Intermezzo were all extremely successful, and the latter brought Ingrid Bergman to Hollywood. His major coup, however, was buying up the film rights to Margaret Mitchell's novel Gone With The Wind, which he brought to the screen in 1939 in partnership with MGM. Unfortunately, the business arrangement he was forced to conclude with MGM to obtain the services of Clark Gable as star left the studio with most of the profits of the biggest moneymaker that Hollywood had seen up to that time. It left Selznick with recognition but relatively little financial reward.

In 1939, he also signed the English director Alfred Hitchcock to a long-term contract that brought the latter to Hollywood. Their first film together, Rebecca, was a huge hit and made the screen careers of several of its participants. Selznick and Hitchcock didn't especially enjoy working together, however, and the director was only too happy to be loaned out to other studios, such as Universal and RKO over the next four years -- Selznick collected huge fees for the loan of Hitchcock's services (and kept possession of one of the best of those outside pictures, Notorious), which helped finance Selznick's own films during this period. Hitchcock was happy to obtain the freedom to work in his own way outside of Selznick's influence. Selznick's own wartime productions were limited to Since You Went Away, an overlong but extremely popular drama, which costarred Jennifer Jones, a young actress with whom the producer fell passionately in love; she starred in all but two of his subsequent films. Duel In The Sun was Selznick's attempt to replicate the scope of Gone With The Wind in a western setting, with Jones at the center of the film, while Portrait of Jennie was a delicately woven fantasy. By the early 1950', Selznick's filmmaking activities had slowed, and ceased altogether following his disastrous remake of A Farewell To Arms.

As a producer, Selznick involved himself in every phase of a movie's production, and it can be said that he had as much to do with the shaping of the films he made as his directors did, with sometimes impressive results. He also understood film as well as the movie business -- Selznick urged RKO to preserve an uncut print of Orson Welles's The Magnificent Ambersons, for example, even though everyone else at his level of production in Hollywood merely looked at the movie as a losing investment. But he also alienated such figures as Alfred Hitchcock, who deliberately made the murderer in his classic Rear Window resemble Selznick.

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  • Used "O" as his middle initial, though it didn't stand for anything.
  • Founded his first production company, Selznick International Pictures, in 1935.
  • Former son-in-law of Louis B. Mayer.
  • Introduced a number of famous stars to the U.S., including Alfred Hitchcock and Gone With the Wind actress Vivien Leigh.
  • Wrote much of the script and directed several scenes of Gone With the Wind (1939).