Abacus: Small Enough to Jail
A remarkable tale of immigrant success, wrapped around a crime story.
This book represents only the tip of the iceberg. When Daniel Selznick, David O. Selznick's younger son, asked Rudy Behlmer to edit a selection of his father's memos, Behlmer had little notion of the task involved. The archive was lodged at that time at Bekins Moving and Storage in Los Angeles and Behlmer wrote: "I'll never forget walking into the building in which the files are stored for the first time and being confronted by approximately two thousand file boxes!" Those were only the memos--the written record of substantially every thought Selznick had about his career from 1916 to 1965. to When the David O. Selznick Collection was acquired by the University of Texas in 1981, it included countless other boxes, containing scripts and all their revisions, bills and statements, publicity materials, fan mail, receipts, and the continuity record of every day's shooting on almost every film. On an ordinary day Selznick used two secretaries, sometimes more, to take his dictation, and executives were not surprised when a Selznick memo arrived 15 minutes before they were scheduled to meet with him in person.
This extraordinary outpouring is invaluable for the way it preserves the day-to-day operation of a major player during Hollywood's golden age. It is also intriguing as a glimpse into a life. The most revealing biographical detail about David O. Selznick may not be that in 1940 with only three productions ("Gone With the Wind," "Rebecca," "Intermezzo") his independent operation was the highest-grossing studio in Hollywood. The key detail may be that at the age of 17 he was already in the family business: "I was, after school hours, in charge of a monumental publicity and advertising department." The word "monumental" is not an exaggeration; his father at that time was the movie industry's biggest advertiser. Later, "still after school hours," he became editor of the "Selznick Newsreel," and while still in his teens negotiated a deal with Will Rogers, then one of the biggest stars, to contribute quips and comments for the title cards between the news clips. At first Selznick got the comments for free. Later, Rogers asked for $100 a week. "Since this was still cheaper than any other footage I could get, I agreed to it." It was a good deal for Rogers, too, leading eventually to his syndicated newspaper column.
The key here is that David O. Selznick was a boy doing a man's job--hiding in a man's job, we might guess. No matter how well-placed his father's confidence, no matter how cocky and precocious the son, he was a high school student masquerading as an adult: "I was self-conscious about my youth and in giving orders and expressing myself verbally, but dictating permitted me to hide behind the front of what I liked to think were impressive memos." There are times throughout this book when we sense the voice of that bright teenage boy, especially in the soul-searching memos (some of them never sent) begging this or that studio head to release him from a contract or allow him to resign. Some of the longest and most impassioned memos in this book are not about movies but about Selznick--his achievements, his abilities, the recognition he has not been granted and feels is his due. He wants the father figures to bless him. The man who produced "Gone With the Wind" makes this extraordinary statement: He and his brother Myron inherited some of their father's traits, but "neither of us has his vision or genius for big-scale operations." This about a parent who went bankrupt not in the Depression but in the boom years after the war. After Selznick married Irene Mayer, Louis B. Mayer's daughter, the Hollywood quip was that "the son-in-law also rises." Actually, I think, it was always the son rising.
It is crucial that in the early years Selznick was brought by his father into the business side of the family firm (Myron was handed production responsibilities, also at an early age). He remembers riding to and from work with his father, listening to a running commentary on actors and directors, who were to his father, as they became to him, not artists but employees. He wants recognition from L. B. Mayer or Ben Shulberg, who he respects, but he writes. "I am getting to the end of the rope of patience with criticism based on [the] assumption that actors know more about scripts than I do." John Ford and George Cukor "both are great directors," he writes, but "both have to have their stories selected for them and guided for them." A falling-out with Ford came when Selznick wanted him to direct "Lafayette Escadrille," which he never made; Ford, freed from his contract and Selznick's guidance, went ahead to make the project he had been stubbornly insisting on, "Stagecoach."
If Selznick learned early to feel more comfortable dictating memos than meeting face-to-face with his colleagues, there may have been more than one reason. "Socially, he was such a disaster that one could hardly believe it was true," remembered the British director Michael Powell, who worked with him on "The Wild Heart." In her memoir (ital) A Private View, (unital) Irene Mayer Selznick recalls that David so often arrived two hours late for dinner invitations that if he arrived only 45 minutes late he felt no explanation was necessary. He drove himself relentlessly--and that, combined with what she says was an underactive thyroid and the Benzedrine he took to compensate, made him prone to unexpected crashes; he would nod off during dinners, and then bounce back, eager for more. "These pills gave David what amounted to a couple of days extra a week," she wrote. "They also took years off his life, he later agreed. Much later."
Selznick had no patience with small talk, and terrorized subordinates who he felt were wasting his time. "My memo-writing probably had its beginning," Selznick mused, "through my working with my father, who was terribly impatient of interviews with people. I remember hearing him complain many times that most people took fifteen minutes to say what they should say in ten seconds." He also liked memos because they set down in black and white exactly what had been said, ordered, or agreed upon, and could be referred to when subordinates pleaded memory lapses. There is the zeal of the control freak in Selznick's minutes about Marlene Dietrich's hair, Gable's tailor, Bergman's eyebrows. Of course, he is usually right in these details, and therefore correct to want them remembered. There is also, in some of the memos, the peculiar combination of drone and intensity that suggests they were written on speed.
One realizes, midway through the book, that Selznick would have seized upon the invention of e-mail, which sidesteps small talk and allows instant gratification of the need to give instructions. "I find," he wrote, "that I can think a thing through to its conclusion more clearly if I can express my views completely without interruption and without argument." Indeed, the one note lacking in this book is a sense of collaboration. We don't read about story conferences, we don't see exchanges of views about characters and plot points. We read his instructions. He was not a collaborator. He knew he was right.
Creative people did not always much like him. "He was so eager to understand things that were not to be understood, only appreciated," wrote Powell, whose autobiography is the best ever written by a director. "Art made no impression on him, only size." And later: "He never had the guts to direct a picture himself. He shunned the responsibility. He preferred to spend hours and days of his life dictating memos telling other people how to direct films. This made him a rather pathetic figure."
Pathetic through Powell's eyes, although not to his fellow mogols, who envied his success and grudgingly praised his famous attention to detail. If he never directed a film himself, Selznick became adept at pulling strings from behind his wizard's curtain. His correspondence on "Gone With the Wind," which by itself could be spun out into a larger book than this, shows a man engrossed in a dream of making the longest, most expensive and most successful movie of the sound era, and succeeding. "He confused greatness with size," the director Bertrand Tavernier told me. And size was achieved through countless atoms of detail. No detail was too small to escape his notice, because to the Selznick eye all details were equally large; Clark Gable, denied by a Selznick underling the tailor he usually worked with, wins the boss's sympathy: "A more ill fitting and unbecoming group of suits I have never seen on a laboring man, much less on a star."
The replacement of George Cukor on "Gone With the Wind" by Victor Fleming, Sam Wood and two or three other hands has been much written about. Cukor once told me it might have had something to do with Gable's feeling that he was paying excessive attention to Vivien Leigh's scenes. The memos here suggest it was not Gable but Selznick who could not work with Cukor; the implication is that Cukor would not follow Selznick's detailed suggestions for every scene. Ten years later, producing "The Third Man," Selznick complains that director Carol Reed "has seen fit to take only those changes which suit him." Yet if we consider Selznick's complaints in view of Reed's finished film, it appears that many of them were justified; the movie's distinctive portrait of a city divided into zones of occupation was lost, Selznick complained, in Reed's early draft of a story preoccupied with the British.
S. N. Behrman, the prolific writer who worked in several Selznick projects, said in his introduction to the first edition of this book, "Whatever relationship David had with anybody, providing he or she was in the film business, was a Pygmalion relationship." Certainly Selznick played Henry Higgins in the life of Ingrid Bergman. Seeing her for the first time in the Swedish version of "Intermezzo," he wired a New York employee, "take the next boat to Sweden and [do] not come home without a contract with Miss Bergman." Later, looking at the Swedish picture again, "A cold shudder has just run through me on the realization that maybe we are dealing for the wrong girl. Maybe the girl we are after is Gosta Stevens. You had better check on this." Relief: He had the right girl. Then he fretted over her name, which was not good for a marquee, he thought. He considered "Ingrid Berjman" and "Ingrid Berriman" before conceding that she already had a reputation under her real name. Then he feared that she would prove too tall: "do you think we will have to use stepladders with Leslie Howard?"
Volumes of memos went out about the correct way to photograph Bergman: "The difference in her photography is the difference between great beauty and a complete lack of beauty." Harsh words about one of the great beauties of the screen, but Selznick was right. I remember joining the cinematographer Haskell Wexler in a shot-by-shot analysis of "Casablanca" at a film festival. Wexler tapped the laserdisc freeze-frame button to deconstruct a shot in which Bergman turns from left to right. He froze it midway. "You could never photograph her head-on," he said. "It wasn't a good angle for her." Selznick knew that before Bergman had been in a single frame of American film.
Of all the memos in this book, the most astonishing is the one that Selznick wrote to Bergman as if it came to him from her. She wanted out of her contract, and in January 1947 he wrote a memo as if in her own abject voice, in which she reviews their relationship and her own ingratitude: "Unfortunately for you, when I returned from Europe, and had everything that I wanted, I forgot all about my promises and statements through the years. I forgot everything you had done for me..." The effect of the memo is one of boiling anger and sarcasm on his part. "It is a great idea for a letter," writes David Thomson in his invaluable Selznick biography (ital) Showman, (unital) "but one that a grown man should have abandoned in the morning."
Some of Selznick's memos, on the other hand, could be sent out again today, and still apply usefully. He scorned "Mickey Mouse" scoring, "an interpretation of each line of dialogue, and each movement musically, so that the score tells with music exactly what is being done by the actors on the screen." He liked Bergman's natural eyebrows and wanted Vivien Leigh to have "eyebrows au natural," observing, "the public was sick and tired of the monstrosities that had been inflicted on the public by most of Hollywood's glamour girls." He had good taste on pictures that were not self-evidently good to most Hollywood executives, congratulating Val Lewton on "Cat People" (1942).
Selznick's most complex artistic relationship was with Alfred Hitchcock. They made "Rebecca" together and it won the Oscar for best picture, but such other collaborations as "The Paradine Case" were less successful, and eventually the director broke free to produce his own films. Selznick resisted the director's supreme air of self-confidence in knowing exactly what shots he needed. Hitchcock was known for story-boarding his films and cutting "in the camera," in the sense that he did not shoot extra coverage from angles he felt would not be needed. Selznick missed the whole point of this, seeing it only in budgetary terms: "...reducing the number of angles required is highly desirable, and no one appreciates its value more than I do, but certainly it is of no value if you are simply going to give us less cut film per day than a man who shoots twice as many angles."
"How naive were the judgments upon which he based his decisions," Michael Powell remembered. "Later on, when we worked with him, I tended to ignore his advice and opinions, which was a mistake. Hitch, that great diplomat, knew how to handle him and puzzled him so, that he retained David's respect long after he became his own producer."
Powell also recalls a day when he visited the set of "Duel of the Sun," Selznick's last great production and a showcase for Jennifer Jones, the woman he married after Irene divorced him. The film was being directed by King Vidor, a great figure since silent days, and Powell was surprised to discover that Selznick had hired another silent veteran, Joseph von Sternberg, as Vidor's "consultant." "Only either a supreme optimist, or a complete idiot like David," wrote Powell, "would have tried to drive in double harness the romantic realism of King Vidor, the champion of the common man, and the romantic kitsch of von Sternberg, the exploiter of female eroticism." Yes, but it turned out to be a good picture.
Do today's directors save their memos and e-mails? Perhaps, but my guess is they wouldn't be as revealing as Selznick's, because so much of their important work is done face to face. The Selznick written legacy is invaluable precisely because so few other filmmakers work the way he did. For a period spanning the birth of sound and the arrival of television, he wrote down just about anything of any substance that happened in his professional life. His particular judgments, right or wrong, are not the issue: What we're given is a seat in his office, daily access to his schemes and visions, the Nixon tapes of Hollywood's golden age.
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