David Selznick's father, Lewis, was an adventurer who made and lost his pile in the early days of the film industry, and the son inherited many of his qualities—chutzpa, galvanic energy, a taste for gambling and self- display, a hard heart in business and a soft one in personal relations. The exuberant sharper also bequethed to his son a reverence for culture and good living. He collected Ming vases and vintage wines, and his favorite book was David Copperfield,which the boy began to read at the age of seven.
In one important respect, however, they differed. For the adventurer, movies were simply a game, an operation, another field in which to gamble. For David, they became a genuine passion, obsessive and strangely methodical.
Lewis J. Zeleznik, born in Kiev, Russia, in 1870, worked his way to the United States at the age of eighteen. He changed his name to Selznick and built up a successful jewelry retail business in Pittsburgh. In 1910 he overreached himself for the first time when he decided to open "the world's largest jewelry store" in New York. Its doors closed after a few months, and without this modestly grandiose failure there might never have been David's production of Gone With the Wind.
For this was the time when many businessmen, most of them Jewish emigres, were turning to a new business. Louis Burt Mayer from Minsk, having made some money dealing in scrap metal, used it to buy old theaters which he converted to nickelodeons, thus taking his first step toward becoming the Emperor of MGM. Adolph Zukor, a furrier from Ricse, Hungary, invested his savings in buying the rights to a French four-reeler, Queen Elizabeth,starring Sarah Bernhardt, thus taking hisfirst step toward the foundation of Paramount Pictures. Sammy Goldfish, a glove salesman from Warsaw, persuaded his brother-in-law, Jesse Lasky, who owned a chain of vaudeville houses, to risk a few thousands in film production. They went out to Hollywood, then only a village where no studios had yet been built, and joined forces with a young actor ambitious to direct. His name was Cecil B. De Mille. After the success of their film, The Squaw Man,shot in a converted barn and the first full-length feature to be made in California, the producer, Sammy Goldfish, decided to be known as Samuel Goldwyn.
Lewis J. Selznick entered the film business through a friend who owned stock in Universal Film Manufacturing and who commissioned Selznick to sell it for him to one of two men engaged in a struggle for control of the company. Selznick favored Carl Laemmle from Wurttemberg, Germany, formerly store manager of a clothing company in Wisconsin, and by selling Laemmle the stock and enabling him to gain the upper hand at Universal, Selznick maneuvered himself into a job with the company. Another struggle for power soon followed, since both men were too ambitious to remain colleagues for long. While Selznick had great enthusiasm for business intrigue, he was less experienced than Laemmle, who ousted him. He then met a mail-order agent named Arthur Spiegel and persuaded him to become a partner in a new company with the flaunty title of World Film Company. At that time it was the practice of both Laemmle and Zukor to entice "prestige" names from the theater to film their successes, and Selznick followed it, outbidding his rivals for the services of Clara Kimball Young, Nazimova, Lionel Barrymore, and Lillian Russell. He also employed a young director named Allan Dwan, who saw every D. W. Griffith film as it came out and who imitated the master's innovations with such speed that he became the second American director to use the close-up.
After quarreling with Spiegel, Selznick next induced Clara Kimball Young to become his partner. For the next few years, he and his rivals stole each other's stars, intriguing endlessly over the Talmadge sisters, tried to buy each other out, feuded in open letters to the trade press, and competed in flamboyant publicity stunts. The climax occurred in 1917, when Selznick cabled the deposed Czar Nicholas of Russia, offering him a position with his company. "When I was a boy in Russia your police treated my people very badly but no hard feelings ... " There was no reply from the last of the Romanovs. One empire fell, another expanded. A Rolls-Royce, a seventeen-room apartment on Park Avenue, and the collection of Ming vases became the symbols of Selznick's success. Yet even at its height the operation struck a wrong note, for in the arena of ambition and self- display Selznick was less sophisticated than Laemmle and Zukor, and he had the effect of uniting them against him. Compared to the furrier, the glove salesman and the scrap-metal merchant, the jewelry dealer seemed an upstart. They waited for him to overreach himself.
Apart from extravagance, Selznick's greatest mistake was to remain in New York when the trend was westward. By the early 1920s, Laemmle had moved to Hollywood and taken charge of the growing, prosperous Universal lot. Mayer had started producing pictures in a downtown Los Angeles studio rented from a man who made documentaries about animals—the premises included a small zoo containing, symbolically, a lion. Zukor and Lasky had merged to form Paramount. Selznick's stars followed the trend to the West, and he found himself increasingly isolated. In 1923 the company went bankrupt. Since its owner had quarreled with or alienated almost everybody, his ruin was greeted with applause.
This time the overreaching was final. There was a last, pathetic attempt to recoup by cashing in on a land boom in Florida. After its failure, Lewis J. Selznick retired from the field. Rolls-Royce, apartment, Ming vases, and his wife's jewels were sold, a squadron of servants dismissed. The Jester, as his rivals nicknamed him, moved to a three-room walk-up where Mrs. Selznick did the housework and cooking.
The Jester's naivete and greed might not in themselves have proved self-destructive. His methods, and the enmity they aroused, had a less forgivable reason behind them. For he never cared about the movies themselves, was blind to the coin in which he dealt, and publicized his contempt for it. In 1917 he told a congressional committee investigating the financial structure of the industry, "Less brains are necessary in the motion picture business than in any other." The movies remained for him on the level of the poker games at which he could win or lose thousands of dollars in a single night. They could never be art, for art was Ming vases and David Copperfieldand Nazimova in the theater, way beyond the reach of his own canned versions of Trilbyand Wildfire.
The other merchants, the dealers in scrap metal and furs and gloves from Russia and central Europe, had certainly been attracted to the movies for the same reasons as Selznick. There was quick money to be made and the new entertainment form, being silent, offered no language barrier. But Mayer, Goldwyn, and the others developed a passion for the movies and saw their extraordinary potential. The passion and the vision might have been primitive and narrow, but it was also intense and lasting and, in a raw way, imaginative. Starting as wheeler-dealers, they realized that they had something unique on their hands and they turned into founding fathers. Lewis J. Selznick, however, remained a wheeler-dealer all his active life, a promoter for the sake of promotion, and so his downfall is not for mourning and his career is chiefly remarkable for its effect on his sons.
To Myron, the eldest, and David, born in 1902, their father was a martyr. They loved him deeply, and when his empire collapsed, they saw him as a victim of callous businessmen and a true friend of the artist. Movie-struck from their schooldays, both brothers left Columbia University in New York to work for their father; after the fall, they were suddenly penniless. Myron went out to Hollywood, and David followed after raising enough money to produce a couple of shorts, one about boxing and the other of Rudolph Valentino judging a beauty contest.
In Hollywood the brothers had the advantage of being brought up in the business, but the disadvantage of their father's personal unpopularity and failure. However, their determination to succeed was unbeatable. Within a few years, Myron had established himself as the most powerful agent in town. Starting with a few clients, mainly personal friends like Lewis Milestone and William Wellman, Myron built up a company that by the early 1930s handled at least 50 percent of Hollywood's most famous stars, directors, and writers, and set the pattern for the later power structures of MCA and its imitators. A driven, possessed man who drank heavily, he believed he had a mission to avenge artists on the producers who'd ruined his father. "His work of vengeance changed the Hollywood climate," Ben Hecht wrote in A Child of the Century. "It doubled and quadrupled the salaries of directors, writers and actors—myself among them.... Brooding in his tent after a sortie on a major studio, Myron would chortle, 'I'll break them all. I'll send all those thieves and fourflushers crawling to the poorhouse. Before I'm done the artists in this town will have all the money.' " Before he was done (he died in 1944 of an internal hemorrhage), they certainly had a great deal of it.
David's rise was no less spectacular, though ironically enough he became a producer, in Myron's eyes the enemy profession. Equally possessed of talent, David had the greater equilibrium. He seems to have combined his father's quicksilver arrogance with a staying power and love of organization. Shortly after his arrival in California he made a characteristic move. Because his own name coincided with that of an uncle he disliked, and because it struck him as insufficiently impressive, he decided it needed a middle initial—like his father, like Louis B. Mayer, Cecil B. De Mille—and settled on O as the most imposing. (He announced that it stood for Oliver; but O in itself represents Omega, the end, the climax, the last of its kind.) It certainly seems to have imposed: by 1931 he had brought off two major coups: he married Irene, the daughter of Louis B. Mayer (over her father's strong opposition—"Keep away from that schnook!" he warned her. "He'll end up a bum just like his old man!"), and became vice president in charge of production at RKO.
When Selznick took over, RKO was short of prestige and profits, but he revitalized it in both areas within a year. His first step was to approve Merian C. Cooper's King Kong,a project that had been hanging fire; his second was to pick a subject that he would produce himself. To direct What Price Hollywood?he chose George Cukor, whom he'd met when both were new to California, and had introduced to a Russian friend, Lewis Milestone. Cukor worked as dialogue director on All Quiet on the Western Front,then was signed to make films for Paramount. The Hollywood story, originally conceived as a vehicle for the fading Clara Bow, then retailored for the rising Constance Bennett, was, as Cukor said later, "dear to David's heart. He later used it in a different way for the first version of A Star Is Born.Like the audience at that time, Selznick had a very romantic view of Hollywood, a real love of it.... Most of the other Hollywood pictures make it a kind of crazy, kooky place, but to David it was absolutely real, he believed in it." At that time, of course, it was a heady place in which to believe. The rise of Selznick coincided with the rise of the great studios; he stood at the entrance to an age of triumphant prosperity, unrivaled arsenals of technical resources and international talent that entertained the world. And yet, curiously enough, David's two films about Hollywood were preoccupied with failure. In the story dear to his heart, although the movie queen survives, the male figure—in What Price Hollywood?a director, inA Star Is Bornan actor—becomes a drunken failure and commits suicide. While Myron's heavy drinking may or may not have had a bearing on this, it seems certain that for all his romantic love of the place, David Selznick was not blind to the insecurities beneath its alluring surface.
On one level, the thirties were the great "halcyon period," as S. N. Behrman (who worked on several scripts in Hollywood, including Anna Kareninafor Selznick) writes in his memoir, People in a Diary."There were few places in America where you could go out to dinner with Harpo and Groucho Marx, the Franz Werfels, Leopold Stokowski, Aldous Huxley, Somerset Maugham, and George and Ira Gershwin." On another and less obvious level, there was a ruthless attitude toward failure and constant secret intrigue within the higher echelons of power. Falls from grace could be as drastic as rises to favor. Behrman tells the story of how Lubitsch learned one morning that he'd been dismissed as head of Paramount from his gym instructor, who had massaged a studio executive the night before and heard the gossip. Selznick's energy and ambition were outstanding even in a place bursting with both qualities; but perhaps, like others, he was propelled by fear as well as enthusiasm. The world in which he'd chosen to succeed also gave back echoes of his father's failure.