Born in Pennsylvania in 1902, David O. Selznick moved to Hollywood in 1926, and in the next 10 years he advanced from script reader to producer. Many of his outstanding pictures of the 1930s were extravagant melodramas, such as A Star Is Born (1937), or meticulous adaptations of literary classics, such as David Copperfield (1935). But perhaps Selznick is best remembered for Gone with the Wind (1939), which won 10 Academy Awards in 1940.
Born on May 10, 1902, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, David O. Selznick would become one of the most successful producers of the Hollywood studio system’s Golden Age. The younger of two sons born to Lewis and Florence Selznick, David was exposed to filmmaking from an early age. His father was a successful silent-film producer and director in his own right, and David spent a good deal of his youth on-set with his father, learning the movie business as his apprentice. He was also introduced to the “good life” early on, as his father earned a significant salary through his work and lavished it upon his sons, both of whom received substantial monthly allowances. They were also well off enough that David was able to attend Columbia University for a time. In 1923, however, Lewis Selznick’s company filed for bankruptcy. David was forced to leave Columbia, and the family had to sell off all of their possessions. Shortly thereafter, David decided to head west in search of his fortune.
A Hollywood Beginning
In 1926 David Selznick made his way to Los Angeles and used both his father’s connections and his already notable egotism to land a job at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM), already one of the most powerful studios in the system. He started out as a script reader on a trial basis, but was soon hired full-time. He was eventually promoted to story editor and associate producer, and began working on Westerns. When he was let go by the studio the following year, Selznick quickly rebounded, landing himself a job in the story department at Paramount, and over the next couple of years rose to the position of associate producer there as well. During his ascent, Selznick also began courting a young woman named Irene Mayer, daughter of Louis B. Mayer, the head of MGM. Although Louis Mayer disapproved of their relationship, the couple was married in 1930. They would have two sons together, Louis and Daniel.
When in 1931 Paramount, suffering the financial impact of the Great Depression, asked Selznick to take a pay cut, he refused, choosing instead to leave for RKO, where he was hired as vice president and put in charge of production. It was at RKO that Selznick began to make a name for himself as a producer, consistently making movies of the highest quality, with the best casts . . . and with the largest budgets.
Among his most notable achievements at RKO were producing A Bill of Divorcement (1932), in which he cast Katharine Hepburn in her first screen role, and the legendary 1933 film King Kong, which featured then-groundbreaking special effects and was a huge commercial success.
New Ventures, New Heights
After returning briefly to MGM, where he continued his successful run as a producer with such movies as Dinner at Eight (1933) and Anna Karenina (1935), Selznick struck out on his own once more. With funding from various investors, in 1936 he founded Selznick International Pictures. Unchecked by studio heads, Selznick’s creativity was allowed to soar unencumbered. In 1936 he released The Garden of Allah, starring Marlene Dietrich, and in 1937 he released his most successful picture to date, A Star Is Born, which received seven Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture, making it the first color film to receive that honor.
But Selznick’s greatest achievement was yet to come. While filming The Garden of Allah, Selznick received a telegram from a New York–based story editor encouraging him to purchase the rights to a new Civil War epic she had just read. After some reluctance at the idea of adapting a 1,000-plus-page novel, Selznick eventually paid its author, Margaret Mitchell, $50,000 for the rights. In January of 1938, production on the film, which starred Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh, began in earnest. It would become one of the greatest in movie history—Gone with the Wind.
The film was shot at a breakneck pace over 22 weeks, during which time Selznick rarely slept and frequently harangued his cast and crew with all-hours memos and an unrelenting perfectionism. When it was completed, Gone with the Wind ran 3 hours and 45 minutes and had cost more than $4 million to make, at that time by far the most ever spent on a production. But it was also a massive critical and popular success, dominating the 1939 Academy Awards by winning 10 Oscars, including Best Picture.
The following year, Selznick again won the Academy Award for Best Picture, this time for Rebecca, which was directed by Alfred Hitchcock, whom Selznick had brought over from England to manage his other films while he was working on Gone with the Wind.
Later Career and Death
Despite Selznick’s overwhelming critical and commercial successes, the structure of Selznick International was such that he was left exposed to heavy taxation by the IRS and was forced to gradually sell off his company. After producing Hitchcock’s Spellbound in 1945, Selznick founded a new company, David Selznick Productions. Despite his efforts, however, he failed to equal any of his earlier accomplishments. In 1948 he and Irene divorced, and the following year he married an actress named Jennifer Jones, with whom he had been carrying on an affair.
In the years to come, Selznick would produce several films for Jones. He also co-produced the 1949 thriller classic The Third Man and made a brief foray into television production. For the most part, however, he chose to enjoy the notable wealth he had accumulated over the course of his career, spending his time with Jennifer in their Beverly Hills estate or in their Waldorf Towers apartment in New York City. His final credit as producer was for the 1957 adaptation of the Ernest Hemingway novel A Farewell to Arms.
After suffering several heart attacks over the previous few years, on June 22, 1965, David O. Selznick died of a coronary occlusion at the age of 63. He was buried at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale, California, alongside such Hollywood legends as Walt Disney, Humphrey Bogart and Errol Flynn.
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