The film What Price Hollywood?was well received and led to further collaborations between Selznick and Cukor. A Bill of Divorcementintroduced Katharine Hepburn to the screen and began a director-star partnership that became famous. For all three the pinnacle of this period was Little Women,a piece of classic Americana unequaled for intimate, charming exactness.
Selznick's success at RKO reconciled him, on the business level at least, with his father-in-law. Mayer had been quarreling repeatedly with the second vice president of MGM, the fragile but determined Irving Thalberg. After Thalberg recovered from a heart attack and left for a long European vacation with his wife, Norma Shearer, the Emperor made overtures to Selznick, offering him carte blanche as producer at the studio and implying he might soon take Thalberg's place. Selznick accepted, not out of affection for Mayer, nor because he wanted to succeed Thalberg; but the resources of Hollywood's most glamorous and celebrated studio were irresistible. He left RKO in 1933, Cukor went with him, and they made the all-star Dinner at Eight.Based on a Broadway hit, with a cast including Marie Dressler, John and Lionel Barrymore, Jean Harlow, Wallace Beery, and Billie Burke, it had the same formula as Thalberg's coup of the previous year, Grand Hotel.Cukor handled the lineup of sacred monsters with ease and skill, shot the whole blockbuster in twenty-seven days, and made of it one of the most hardedged of Depression comedies.
The film earned a lot of money, gained Selznick more prestige in the industry than he'd ever enjoyed before, and killed the joke—"the son-in-law also rises"—that could be heard everywhere when he joined MGM. Other successes quickly followed—Dancing Lady,with Clark Gable and Joan Crawford, which introduced Astaire to the screen; Manhattan Melodrama,again with Gable; and Viva Villa!—and Selznick found himself in a position to achieve something he'd wanted for a long time: a real cultural splash. As a work of literature, Little Womenhad been at best a minor classic, and the film itself, for all its virtues, had been on a small scale. Selznick was now, as they say, thinking big. He had already prepared for the occasion by compiling a methodical, obsessive list of all the classics he might one day wish to film. At the head of it was David Copperfield,his father's favorite novel. He chose Cukor to direct. Mayer opposed the project, fearful that classics were bad box-office (and the record showed that most of them were); when his son-in-law insisted, he tried to impose the MGM child star, Jackie Cooper, for the young David. Selznick and Cukor held out for an unknown and discovered Freddie Bartholomew in England.
Producer and director agreed that the way to film Dickens was not to restructure him, not to add new and more "commercial" elements to the story, but to respect his episodic style and concentrate on the gallery of characters. For the time this was an almost revolutionary approach, and unnerved the studio even further, especially since it would involve a movie about two and a half hours long. Box-office insurance was taken out by assembling an all-star cast for the other major roles—W. C. Fields, Maureen O'Sullivan, Lionel Barrymore, Basil Rathbone, Edna May Oliver, and all—but the audience reaction at a sneak preview in Bakersfield was discouraging. Selznick toyed with the idea of eliminating Barrymore as Peggotty (in fact the only weak performance), then shrewdly decided to avoid the wrath of Dickens lovers and to trim the running time by a few minutes instead. When David Copperfieldwas released, both critics and public liked it very much—rightly so, for in spite of some uncertain art direction it has great vitality and conviction, and remains the most authentically flavored Dickens movie ever made. Later, David confessed that with a mixture of sentiment and superstition, during the preparation and shooting of the film, "I lugged with me every place we went the old-fashioned red leather copy of Copperfieldwhich my father had given me."
This success was a turning point in Selznick's career, for it proved not only that a film of a classic novel could make money but that respect for the original paid off. He repeated the formula with Anna Karenina,for Garbo, and A Tale of Two Cities. By this time Thalberg had recovered and returned to the studio. Having no wish to be entangled in Mayer's intrigues, Selznick declared that he was leaving to form his own company. In a memo to Nicholas Schenck, the president of MGM, he explained with that characteristic touch of portentousness: "I am at a crossroads where a sign hangs high: 'To thine own self be true, and it must follow, as the night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man.'"
Assembling a formidable list of stockholders, he announced the formation of Selznick International Pictures at the end of 1935. Capitalized at over $3,000,000, it had the multimillionaire John Hay ("Jock") Whitney, whom he'd originally met through Merian C. Cooper of King Kong,as chairman of the board. The directors included Cornelius Whitney and three Whitney sisters, representing an investment of $2,400,000; three New York financiers, Robert Lehman, and Arthur and John Herts ($150,000 each); Myron Selznick ($200,000); and as a gesture of private sympathy, a silent investment of $200,000 from Irving and Norma Shearer Thalberg. Mayer felt deeply rejected, and the event was to have repercussions when David came to produce Gone With the Wind.
The old Pathe studio in Culver City was the new headquarters. A portrait of Lewis J. Selznick hung on the wall of his son's office. From the beginning, "class" was the watchword, and both the Venus de Milo and the Winged Victory were considered for company trademarks. Then Selznick was struck one day by the facade of the studio building. Colonial in style, with white pillars, it seems now to carry an unconscious premonition of Margaret Mitchell's Tara, as prophetic as the adopted O. Superimposed on this emblem was the proud slogan, "In a Tradition of Quality."
The tradition began with adaptations of Little Lord Fauntleroy, The Garden of Allah (Selznick's one failure, but interestingly bizarre), and The Prisoner of Zenda. This list of "classics" suggests that his literary taste was basically nineteenth century-romantic, and erratic at that, but for Dickens and Robert Hichens alike he advertised the same unwavering, serious respect. A compiler of lists is also a natural composer of notes and memos. In a series of them, written while he was making Anna Karenina,he outlined his procedure for adapting a classic:
Having just gone through the difficulties of adapting David Copperfield,the prospect of compressing Tolstoi's work without too great a loss of values did not faze us.... Our first blow was a flat refusal by the Hays office to permit the entire section of the story dealing with Anna's illegitimate child ... but even what remained of the personal story of Anna seemed so far superior to such inventions of writers today as could be considered possibilities for Miss Garbo, that we went on with the job.... We had to eliminate everything that could even remotely be classified as a passionate love scene: and we had to make it perfectly clear that not merely did Anna suffer but that Vronsky suffered.... Our next step in the adaptation was to decide which of the several stories that are told in the book we could tell on the screen without diverting the audience's interest from one line to another. This meant the minimizing of the story of Levin, including that magnificent scene, the death of Levin's brother.... From this point on, it became a matter of the careful selection and editing of Tolstoi's scenes, with a surprising little amount of original writing necessary ... I like to think that we retained the literary quality and the greater part of the poignant story of a woman torn between two equal loves and doomed to tragedy whichever one she chose....
The tone of this, and the memo habit that was to grow over the years, stretching into hundreds of thousands of words, provides a clue to something that happened within Selznick at the time. The stilted style, rather like an old-fashioned politician's and rich with doublethink, is both curiously old for a man still in his early thirties and masterly in its techniques of self-justification—the glossing over of the difference between fidelity and distortion with "I like to think ... " These are statements in the form of an order, and the order comes from the top. He has found the secret of authority, which is belief in oneself at all times. A parallel can be seen in the increasing size and grandeur of the films themselves, which also cost more to produce—starting with Fauntleroyat about $550,000 and rising to Zendaat about $900,000.
Another habit on the increase was gambling. Selznick liked to play mainly at a club on the Sunset Strip, and was dedicated but unlucky at roulette. He had a system, of course, devised as elaborately as the card index and the lists and the memos, but it seldom seemed to work. One night he lost more than $100,000 to Joseph Schenck, chairman of the board of Twentieth Century-Fox. He also built a house in Beverly Hills for himself and Irene, furnished with expensive antiques, a dining table that seated thirty, and a projection room. Servants were employed around the clock, as were secretaries, in case he wished to eat or dictate in the small hours. Dinner parties for the Hollywood elite, and occasional weekend yachting excursions, were planned like productions. The after-dinner movie started promptly at the scheduled time, and invitations to the yacht arrived in the form of sailing orders.
From poker to life-style to movies, the stakes were growing higher.
Early in 1936, Selznick's story editor on the East Coast, Kay Brown, sent him a long synopsis of a long forthcoming novel. It was called Gone With the Wind,and nobody had ever heard of the author. Kay Brown felt strongly enough about its possibilities to end her note of recommendation: "I know that after you read the book you will drop everything and buy it."
He didn't. Although he read the digest at once, and on the face of it the project should have seemed irresistible—a twentieth-century work with all the nineteenth-century romantic ingredients that he adored—Selznick resisted. While the nostalgia and sweep of the material intrigued him, his business sense made signals of alarm. Pictures about the Civil War, with the exception of The Birth of a Nation—and that was a long time ago—had never been successful at the box office. Only the previous year, So Red the Rose,directed by his friend King Vidor with the popular stars Margaret Sullavan and Randolph Scott, had confirmed the jinx all over again. A cabled memo to Kay Brown ended, "Most sorry to have to say No in face of your enthusiasm for this story."
A few days later, second thoughts began. Another cabled memo to Kay Brown agreed that the novel had great possibilities, especially if filmed in color; but he was worried about the difficulty of casting the leads, and the high asking price for the rights, $65,000. Torn between enthusiasm and doubt for six weeks, he made no final move. In the Hollywood phrase, he sat on it—"it" being the symbolic toilet seat which one cannot decide either to use or to leave. But Kay Brown was sure of her instinct. She sent the synopsis of Gone With the Windto the company chairman, Jock Whitney. His response was immediate, and he told her that if Selznick didn't buy the rights, he would go after them himself. This had its effect. Selznick made an offer of $50,000. A day or so later the director Mervyn Le Roy, who had by now got hold of an advance copy, offered $55,000.