David O. Selznick 1902-1965)

David O. Selznick
David O. Selznick

David O. Selznick was a movie phenomenon. He was one of the first and most successful independent film producers, most famous for bringing 'Gone with the Wind' to the screen. For ten successive years in the 1930's and 1940's, he was voted the top producer of box-office successes, by the country's motion-picture exhibitors.

In all he produced sixty-seven feature films and, to date, he is the only Hollywood producer to have won consecutive Best Picture Academy Awards (for 'Gone with the Wind' in 1939 and 'Rebecca' in 1940.) As well as these two wins Selznick produced six other movies which received Best Picture Award nominations. Four of his movies have been selected for inclusion in the National Film Registry as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically important": 'King Kong', 'The Prisoner of Zenda', 'Gone with the Wind' and 'The Third Man'.


David O. Selznick was born David Selznick on May 10, 1902 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, into a well to do Jewish family. He later added the 'O' to his name as he thought it gave it more dignity. It was natural that he should enter the movie business as his father, Lewis J Selznick, after an early career as a jeweller, was one of the foremost producers and distributors of Silent Movies before his bankruptcy in 1923. David had four siblings, one of whom. elder brother, Myron, became one of Hollywood's top agents.

Early Movie Career

David attended private schools in New York and then went to Columbia University. He was a precocious child and from an early age his father ensured that his business education was given priority over scholarship, and whilst still a student David began regular visits to his father's office to work as a story analyst. Within a few years he was responsible for hundreds of his father's employees, but in 1923 his father's business, Lewis J. Selznick Productions, which had over-expanded, collapsed shortly after moving from the East coast to Hollywood. At the age of twenty-one David found himself unemployed.

Always ambitious and full of self-confidence, after his father's bankruptcy David himself moved west to California to join his older brother, Myron, who was already establishing himself as an agent in Hollywood. In 1926 David joined MGM as proofreader and he began to prosper. He had a natural ability with words and he was promoted to story editor and then assistant producer. In 1928, in the first in a series of job moves which saw him relentlessly climb the ladder of Hollywood power, he moved to Paramount Pictures as assistant to B.P. Schulberg, quickly gaining promotions until eventually become Paramount's chief of production, and guiding the studio into the new era of Talking Pictures.

In 1931, with his relationship with Schulberg deteriorating, he resigned from Paramount and tried for the first time to form his own production company, in partnership with director Lewis Milestone, but failed to achieve adequate financial backing. He changed studios again, to become production vice-president at RKO where he worked on many films including 'Bill of Divorcement' in 1932, which gave Katharine Hepburn her movie debut, and the classic'King Kong' in 1933. He had a keen eye for movie talent and he also brought director George Cukor to RKO.

MGM 1933

In 1933, after preparing for the production of 'Little Women', Selznick returned to MGM, to replace Irving Thalberg, who was seriously ill. He worked for his father-in-law, MGM chief, Louis B. Mayer, who appointed him as a vice-president of his own film production unit. The two years he spent at MGM were a period of unbroken success with eleven feature movies being created from his unit including elegant adaptations of classical novels such as 'Anna Karenina' in 1933 and 'David Copperfield' and 'A Tale of Two Cities', both in 1935. The last two were nominated for Best Picture Academy Awards together with 'Viva Villa!' starring Wallace Beery, in 1934.

Selznick International Pictures 1935

After two years Selznick tried again to form his own production company and this time succeeded. He left MGM in 1935 and formed Selznick International Pictures, financed primarily by multi- millionaire, Jock Whitney, who put up $870,000 and also became Chairman of the new company. Other investors included Irving Thalberg of MGM and David's brother Myron. A notable non-investor was David Selznick himself, who, nevertheless, owned more than half of the new company.

Selznick's intention was to put quality over quantity, with the aim of creating a few prestige films each year. Fewer films meant greater attention to detail and Selznick was a details man.He intended to oversee every aspect of every movie in order to create as near to perfection as possible.

He continued to produce successful adaptations of classic novels. In 1936, his first full year as an independent, he produced 'The Garden of Allah', starring Marlene Dietrich which was one of the first movies to be made in Technicolor, and also 'Little Lord Fauntleroy' starring Freddie Bartholomew. He continued the theme with 'The Prisoner of Zenda' in 1937 and 'The Adventures of Tom Sawyer' the following year. Also in 1937 he brought out 'A Star is Born', starring Janet Gaynor, which was the first color film to be nominated for the Best Picture Oscar. Two years later he was responsible for introducing Ingrid Bergman to Hollywood in her American film debut 'Intermezzo'. Selznick International Pictures had made a flying start but these highly successful movies were just a prelude to Selznick's next project, his movie masterpiece which came out in 1939: 'Gone with the Wind'.

'Gone with the Wind' 1939

Selznick recognised early the potential of Margaret Mitchell's blockbuster novel about unrequited love and passion against the background of the American Civil War, and in 1936 he paid her $50,000 for the movie rights. He brought it to the screen finally in 1939 in partnership with Louis B. Mayer and MGM. He was determined to obtain the services of Clark Gable to play Rhett Butler, but the deal he struck left MGM with the lion's share of the profits. The movie became, and still is, one of the biggest earners in Hollywood history, but Selznick International received a relatively small financial reward.

Nevertheless the film received eight Oscars, including Best Picture, and Selznick and his company received worldwide praise and immense prestige. It was undoubtedly the highpoint of his career. To his great credit, Selznick later realized he had underpaid Mitchell for her novel's movie rights and he doubled her payment with an additional $50,000.

Whilst working on 'Gone with the Wind', Selznick made an inspired decision to bring the brilliant English director, Alfred Hitchcock, to Hollywood and put him under long term contract. Hitchcock's first film, 'Rebecca', in 1940 was a massive hit and gained Selznick his second, consecutive Best Picture Academy Award. Hitchcock did not enjoy the restrictions of working for Selznick and his main value proved to be as a commodity to be loaned out to other studios for large sums of money.

During the war Selznick made some documentary shorts for the U.S. Office of War Information and spent some time organising the liquidation of his company, which was necessary in order to pay a substantial tax debt, to adequately repay his shareholders who had had such faith in him and to fund his future expansion. He began producing movies independently again in 1943 and in 1944 brought out 'Since You Went Away', a dramatic movie which co-starred a young actress called Jennifer Jones who would later have a dramatic effect on Selznick's life.

The first movie produced by Selznick after the war was a superb thriller from Alfred Hitchcock, 'Spellbound' in 1945, starring Ingrid Bergman and Gregory Peck, and again in 1947, Hitchcock directed for Selznick 'The Paradine Case', his last film under his seven year contract with Selznick.

Jennifer Jones

Selznick met actress Jennifer Jones, (then named Phyllis Isley), in 1942 when she attended a playreading for him. Both were married and she was seventeen years his junior, but they started an affair and Selznick began to spend enormous amounts of time and money developing her career. The success of 'Gone with the Wind' had left Selznick needing to replicate it as soon as possible and he tried hard in 1946 with 'Duel in the Sun' starring Jennifer Jones and Gregory Peck. Selznick himself wrote the script which caused a stir with its risqué nature, and the movie was a great commercial success, (although panned by the critics).

Selznick's output began to slow down as he became more and more preoccupied with his romance with Jennifer Jones. She starred in his poorly received romantic drama 'Portrait of Jennie' in 1948 and he had one more major success with the classic British film noir, 'The Third Man' in 1949, which he co-produced with Alexander Korda and the director, Carol Reed.

In 1950 Selznick also co-produced 'Gone to Earth', another British film starring Jennifer Jones. It is an interesting example of his habit of interfering, as he took his co-producers to court to get parts of the finished film altered. He was unsuccessful but discovered that he was able to have the film changed for its American release. This he did, including more close-ups of Jennifer Jones, and the film was released in America in 1952 with the new name 'The Wild Heart'.

As Selznick's career slowed down he entered the new medium of television by producing a two hour documentary in 1954, 'Light's Diamond Jubilee' to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the invention of the electric light. The program was historic in that it was broadcast simultaneously on all four US TV networks.

Selznick's last feature film, again, inevitably starring Jennifer Jones, was 'A Farewell to Arms' in 1957. It was given a big budget and co-starred the current screen heartthrob, Rock Hudson, but it performed very poorly at the box-office. After this Selznick retired from the movie business.


Selznick revolutionised the business of filmmaking by demonstrating that an independent producer could successfully challenge the dominance of the major studios. He was a dynamic, dominant personality with enormous energy, determination and drive. These qualities were necessary for him to achieve the successes he did, but there is no doubt that these same qualities drove his friends, family and colleagues to distraction. Determined to keep on top of every aspect of every phase of his films, he sent literally thousands of detailed memos to the directors, performers and crew of the films he produced.

A naturally charming man with an infectious laugh, Selznick was a notorious womanizer and an inveterate high stakes gambler who constantly used amphetamines to get through extremely long hours of work.

Selznick married twice, firstly in 1930 to Irene Mayer, the youngest daughter of Louis B. Mayer. The marriage produced two sons and ended in divorce in 1948. By then Selznick had fallen head over heels in love with one of his leading ladies, Jennifer Jones. They married in 1949 and had one daughter, Mary, who committed suicide aged 21, in 1976.

After a series of heart attacks, David O. Selznick died in Los Angeles on June 22, 1965. He was 63 years old.

David O. Selznick Academy Awards

Two Wins:
Best Picture ... Gone with the Wind (1939)
Best Picture ... Rebecca (1940)

Six Unsuccessful Nominations:
Best Picture ... Viva Villa! (1934)
Best Picture ... David Copperfield (1935)
Best Picture ... A Tale of Two Cities (1936)
Best Picture ... A Star Is Born (1937)
Best Picture ... Since You Went Away (1944)
Best Picture ... Spellbound (1945)

Honorary Award:
Won the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award (1939)

David O. Selznick Filmography
(As producer unless otherwise stated)

Will He Conquer Dempsey? (documentary short)
Chinatown Nights (associate producer)
Betrayal (associate producer)
The Man I Love (associate producer)
The Four Feathers (associate producer)
The Dance of Life (associate producer)
Street of Chance
The Lost Squadron (executive producer)
Girl Crazy (executive producer)
Young Bride (executive producer)
Symphony of Six Million (executive producer)
The Roadhouse Murder (executive producer)
Cardigan's Last Case (executive producer)
Westward Passage (executive producer)
Is My Face Red? (executive producer)
What Price Hollywood? (executive producer)
Roar of the Dragon (executive producer)
Beyond the Rockies (producer - uncredited)
Bird of Paradise (executive producer)
The Age of Consent (executive producer)
Thirteen Women (executive producer)
Hounds of Zaroff (executive producer)
Hold 'Em Jail (executive producer)
Hell's Highway (executive producer)
A Bill of Divorcement (executive producer)
The Phantom of Crestwood (executive producer)
Little Orphan Annie (executive producer)
The Sport Parade (executive producer)
The Conquerors (executive producer)
Rockabye (executive producer)
Renegades of the West (executive producer - uncredited)
The Great Decision (executive producer)
Secrets of the French Police (executive producer)
The Penguin Pool Mystery (executive producer)
The Half Naked Truth (executive producer)
The Woman in His House
Dancing Lady (executive producer)
Meet the Baron
Night Flight (executive producer)
Dinner at Eight (uncredited)
Cross Fire (uncredited)
Scarlet River (executive producer - uncredited)
Christopher Strong
King Kong (executive producer)
Our Betters
The Great Jasper
Lucky Devils (executive producer)
The Cheyenne Kid (executive producer - uncredited)
The Past of Mary Holmes (executive producer)
No Other Woman (executive producer)
Viva Villa!
Manhattan Melodrama
David Copperfield
Anna Karenina
A Tale of Two Cities
Little Lord Fauntleroy
The Garden of Allah
A Star Is Born
The Prisoner of Zenda
Nothing Sacred
The Adventures of Tom Sawyer
The Young in Heart
Made for Each Other
Escape to Happiness
Gone With The Wind