David O. Selznick
Hollywood Renegade & Founding Member of The Society of Independent Motion
David O. Selznick was the son of industry pioneer Lewis J. Selznick, and the
beneficiary of a childhood immersion in independent film production. The
Selznick patriarch L. J. Selznick had been a formidable independent producer in
the early days of Hollywood. He crossed paths with Carl Laemmle at Universal,
and then ushered in a new age of Wall Street investment at the World Film
company. In 1915 L. J. Selznick left World to become an independent, taking with
him World's biggest star Clara Kimball Young. Later Selznick partnered with
Adolph Zukor, only to return to independent production as the head of Selznick
Pictures. David, born
in 1902 was training in film production from an early age, while his older
brother Myron was being groomed to someday run the Selznick Corporation. But
before David came of age, his father suffered a devastating turn of events that
brought the Selznick organization to ruins during the silent era.
first independent film company ever run by a Selznick was the Clara
Kimball Young Film Corporation. Lewis J. Selznick, President and
General Manager. (Aberdeen collection).
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The brothers were forced to alter their careers in an effort to vindicate the
Selznick name. Myron became an influential talent agent, while David O. Selznick
started at an entry-level studio position in at MGM in 1924. He became a
supervisor at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer where he made contacts with Irving Thalberg
and future SIMPP stalwart Hunt Stromberg.
In 1927 he became the executive assistant to B.P. Schulberg, the production
head at Paramount. Here he became a close associate of Merian C.
later produced King Kong (1933) with Selznick, then became an independent
partner with him. He was also friends with Walter Wanger
(a cofounder of
SIMPP), then head of the East Coast Paramount executive.
David Sarnoff, the czar of RCA, hired David O. Selznick as head of production
for the RCA film subsidiary RKO-Radio Pictures in 1931. Selznick took the place
of William LeBaron, who would later join SIMPP.
Selznick’s aspirations had been to become an independent producer like his
father — not a studio production head. But Selznick again postponed his
independent desires in order to head his own production unit back at MGM. The
deal gave Selznick near creative autonomy, along with access to the vast
resources of MGM. He would report directly to Louis B. Mayer, who had become
Selznick’s father-in-law when David married Irene Mayer a few years earlier on
April 29, 1930. At his time, there were four production units at MGM, Selznick,
Walter Wanger, Hunt Stromberg, and Irving Thalberg. All of these producers would
become influential figures in the independent movement, although Thalberg’s
career would be tragically cut short with his death in 1936 at age 37.
Thomas Ince Studio on Washington Boulevard in Culver City, California.
Later, the Selznick International Studio.
David Selznick was anxious to leave the studios to go independent. The market
for independent films was heating up, with new companies like Daryl Zanuck’s
Twentieth Century Pictures, Walter Wanger Productions, and Merian Cooper’s
When Selznick finally went independent, his connections and reputation made
him one of the most high-profile independents nearly overnight. Merian C. Cooper
got his Pioneer partners interested in a deal with Selznick. Pioneer evolved
into Selznick International Pictures, formed on October 15, 1935. Thalberg
invested $100,000. Myron Selznick brought another $200,000. Selznick
International was capitalized at a remarkable $3 million — without one dollar
contributed by David O. Selznick.
and Myron Selznick at the Grauman's Chinese Theatre premiere of
Selznick International Pictures' Prisoner of Zenda (1937).
He moved into the colonial style studio built by Thomas Ince, and formerly
owned by Cecil B. DeMille. The Mount Vernon-esque building became the company
trademark. He also signed an eight-picture deal with United Artists, and
released his films through the company along with Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford,
Samuel Goldwyn, Alexander Korda, Walter Wanger, and Walt Disney. All of whom
would later join together to form the Society of Independent Motion Picture
It was as an independent producer that David O. Selznick made the most
expensive movie up until that time — Gone With the Wind. The Civil War
epic, which cost $4 million, made an unbelievable $10 million is only a few
months, surpassing the $8 million record gross set by Snow White and the
Seven Dwarfs (a figure which had seemed untouchable at the time). Gone
With the Wind would be hailed as the grandest of Hollywood epics, and would
bring in many more million over the years.
With the Wind makes the cover of Time magazine in December 1939.
David O. Selznick used the profits from Gone With the Wind to fuel a
massive expansion of his organization. Selznick International Pictures, which
had been losing money before Gone With the Wind, was liquidated —
forcing Selznick to relinquish the future rights of his Civil War blockbuster,
but providing cash needed for other Selznick ventures.
Shortly before he founded SIMPP, he formed David O. Selznick Productions, and
organized a company called the Selznick Studio. He turned his efforts to
film-packaging and deal-making. He organized Vanguard
Films, as well as a
division to specialize in medium-budget movies headed by Dore
Schary. David O.
Selznick’s empire recaptured the prominence held by L. J. Selznick a
generation earlier. But more and more, the Selznick operation began to resemble
the major studios, leaving some to question what was the real difference between
a major studio and a large independent.