Memos from David O. Selznick

Excerpts from the addictive Memo from David O. Selznick : The Creation of “Gone with the Wind” and Other Motion Picture Classics, as Revealed in the Producer’s Private Letters, Telegrams, Memorandums, and Autobiographical Remarks, part of the Modern Library “The Movies” series, and an absolute must-read for any film fan (or history-of-Hollywood fan). Selznick grew up in the fledgling movie business and started to work for his father early on (he headed up a department while he was still a teenager). He then, of course, went on to work for Paramount, RKO, MGM (he married Irene Mayer – daughter of Louis B. Mayer – so that was a bit of a contentious job for him, since it seemed like he only got it because he “married into it”, something he took very much to heart) – and created his own production company Selznick International. He’s responsible for some of the most successful films ever made, films that are now considered classics. He was an old-school producer, of the kind that you rarely find today. Nothing was too small a detail to escape his notice. He wrote an entire memo about Marlene Dietrich’s hair and the problems thereof. He handled casting, script development, hiring, advertising … He was much hated for his meddlesome ways (Michael Powell, in particular, is quite damning about Selznick in his fantastic autobiography), and yet he was also much sought after, due to his keen eye, efficient nature, and the fact that he did believe (to some degree) in giving directors and actors space to be individuals. He thought it was important. He was not infallible. He thought Stagecoach, for example, was a bad idea. Ford, of course, then went on to do Stagecoach elsewhere which was a big success and, among other things, helped create John Wayne, one of the most important American stars of the 20th century. Nobody’s perfect. David O. Selznick communicated with everyone via memo. Even if he was going to be meeting with them in half an hour. He got into the habit of writing everything down early on in his career (when he was self-conscious about how young he was, and how perhaps he wouldn’t be taken seriously – he felt that a memo would carry more authority) and never stopped. Apparently, after his death, when it was time to go through his papers, there were two thousand – yes TWO THOUSAND – BOXES of memos. The book here has obviously edited much of it out – it probably represents only two or three boxes of memos, in terms of the numbers – and editing must have been an incredibly challenging job. Kudos. Gone With the Wind is famous for many reasons, the least of which is (perhaps) the final film. The filming itself was tumultuous, difficult, with hirings and firings coming too quickly to count. I am now in the Gone With the Wind section which makes up the bulk of the book.

One of the things I am quite struck by in these memos is how literate Selznick is. He has read everything. He can talk about story in a way that makes you realize he knows story not because he has worked in the movies – but because HE READS. He can sit down and talk about what should be kept in Anna Karenina and what they could afford to lose – because he had read the damn book. He had respect for written material (especially if it was successful) and hesitated to muck about with things, because he knew the audience would be expecting such-and-such, since the book was so popular.

I haven’t finished the book yet, but I’ve been reading it non-stop since I’ve been out in Los Angeles, and it’s fun to read such a Hollywood book while I’m out here. I highly recommend it.

Here are some excerpts.

To Mr. Harry Rapf
October 15, 1926

It was my privilege a few months ago to be present at two private screenings of what is unquestionably one of the greatest motion pictures ever made, The Armored Cruiser Potemkin, made in Russia under the supervision of the Soviet Government. I shall not here discuss the commerical or political aspects of the picture, but simply say that regardless of what they may be, the film is a superb piece of craftsmanship. It possesses a technique entirely new to the screen, and I therefore suggest that it might be very advantageous to have the organization view it in the same way that a group of artists might view and study a Rubens or a Raphael.

To Mr. B.P. Schulberg
July 2, 1928


To: Mr. B.P. Schulberg
July 18, 1930

We have an opportunity to secure Dashiell Hammett to do one story for us before he goes abroad in about three months. Hammett has recently created quite a stir in literary circles by his creation of two books for Knopf, The Maltese Falcon and Red Harvest. I believe that he is another Van Dine – indeed, that he possesses more originality than Van Dine, and might very well prove to be the creator of something new and startlingly original for us.

To Mr. B.P. Schulberg
April 15, 1931

I wish you would give another minute’s thought to my suggestion that we do Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde with [Emil] Jannings. Granted that Jannings is not the Englishman of the book, and granted also that he has not the beautiful physical appearance of Dr. Jekyll, there is certainly nobody else in the world that could give the magnificent dual performance that could be counted upon from Jannings. Any script of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde would almost certainly be a pretty free adaptation – and certainly the character could be molded to fit the versatile Jannings. When one thinks of the variety of roles he has played so sensationally, from the kindly professor to the lascivious Nero, from Louis XV to the trapeze artist of Variety, one realizes that he is an artist without nationality and without limitation. I am certain that he could overcome even the limitations of dialect. For purposes of a horror picture no one, I am certain, would criticize us for having the artist Jannings play a Teutonic Dr. Jekyll.

To: Mr. [Daniel] O’Shea
September 9, 1932

I hear rumors that Miss [Katharine] Hepburn is under twenty-one, which we should take immediate steps to confirm, to find out whether it is necessary to get the approval of the courts. I understand she is prone to exaggerate her age and likes to be thought much older than she is.

To: Mr. Siff
January 26, 1933

Please arrange for the executives, including Brock, to see the test of Fred Astaire. I am a little uncertain about the man, but I feel, in spite of his enormous ears and bad chin line, that his charm is so tremendous that it comes through even in this wretched test, and I would be perfectly willing to go ahead with him for the lead in the Brock musical.

To. Mr. [L.B]Mayer
September 6, 1933

I have arranged with Ben Hecht to do the final script of Viva Villa! … On the quality we are protected not merely by Hecht’s ability but by the clause that the work must be to my satisfaction. It may seem like a short space of time for a man to do a complete new script, but Hecht is famous for his speed, and did the entire job on Scarface in eleven days. I do not think we should take into consideration the fact that we are paying him a seemingly large sum of money for two weeks’ work, because this would merely be penalizing him for doing in two weeks what it would take a lesser man to do, with certainly infinitely poorer results, in six or eight weeks.

To: Miss Greta Garbo
January 7, 1935

Fredric March will only do Anna Karenina if he is forced to by his employers, Twentieth Century Pictures. He has told me repeatedly that he is fed up on doing costume pictures, that he thinks it a mistake to do another; that he knows he is much better in modern subjectsand that all these reasons are aggravated by the fact that Anna Karenina would come close on the heels of the [actress] Anna Sten-[director Rouben] Mamoulian-[producer Samuel] Goldwyn picture, We Live Again, from Resurrection, a picture which has been a failure and in which March appeared in a role similar to that in Karenina. Mr. March is most anxious to do a modern piture and I consider his judgment about himself very sound.

Selznick’s Notes on Anna Karenina (this is just a short excerpt from a long and fascinating document)
September 1935

Our first blow was a flat refusal by the Hays office [the office that made sure films followed the “code” of self-censorship] to permit the entire section of the story dealing with Anna’s illegitimate child. This decision was so heartrending, especially as it meant the elmination of the marvelous bedside scenes between Anna, her husband and her lover, that we were sorely tempted to abandon the whole project – but even what remained of the personal story of Anna seemed so far superior to such inventions of writers of today as could be considered possibilities for Miss Garbo, that we went on with the job. There is no point in detailing the censorship problems beyond this. 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. But enough about censorship …

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 … We retained only such of the story of Kitty and Levin as crossed the story of Anna and Vronsky. We naturally eliminated most of the discussions about the agricultural and economic problems of Russia of the day, considering these of little interest to the large part of our audience who came to see Greta Garbo as Anna Karenina and Fredric March as Vronsky.

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.

To: Mrs Kate Corbaley
June 3, 1935 (an interesting context for this letter is Selznick’s lifelong love of Charles Dickens, books he devoured as a child. He said later on in life that he could point out punctuation errors in new editions of Dickens’ novels, so well did he know all of those books.)

It is amazing that Dickens had so many brilliant characters in David Copperfield and practically none in A Tale of Two Cities, and herein lies the difficulty. The book is sheer melodrama and when the scenes are put on the screen, minus Dickens’s brilliant narrative passages, the mechanics of melodramtic construction are inclined to be more than apparent, and, in fact, to creak. Don’t think that I am for a minute trying to run down one of the greatest books in the English language. I am simply trying to point out to you the difficulties of getting the Dickens feeling, within our limitations of being able to put on the screen only action and dialogue scenes, without Dickens’s comments as narrator. I am still trying my hardest and think that when I get all through, the picture will be a job of which I will be proud – but it is and will be entirely different from David Copperfield.

My study of the book led me to what may seem strange choices for the writing an direction, but these strange choices were deliberate. Since the picture is melodrama, it must have pace and it must “pack a wallop”. These, I think, Conway can give us as well as almost anyone I knew – as witnessed by his work on Viva Villa! Furthermore, I think he has a knack of bringing people to life on the screen, while the dialogue is on the stilted side. (I fought for many months to get the actual phrases out of David Copperfield into the picture, and I have been fighting similarly on Two Cities, but the difference is that the dialogue of the latter, if you will read it aloud, is not filled with nearly the humanity, or nearly the naturalness.

As to Sam Behrman, I think he is one of the best of American dialogue writers. Futhermore, he is an extremely literate and cultured man, with an appreciation of fine things and a respect for the integrity of a classic – more than ninety per cent more than all the writers I know. He can be counted upon to give me literacy that wiol match. On top of this, he is especially equipped, in my opinion, to give us the rather sardonic note in [Sidney] Carton.

Mr. Nicholas M. Schenck
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Inc.
October 3, 1935

I should like also to call to your attention the danger of treating this picture [Tale of Two Cities] as just another [Ronald] Colman starring vehicle. Granted that Colman is a big star; that any picture with him achieves a good gross; A Tale of Two Cities, even badly produced, would completely dwarf the importance of any star … The picture is beautifully produced. If I do not say this, no one else in the organization will. It has been splendidly directed by Jack Conway; and Colman is at his very top. Further, bear in mind that the book of A Tale of two Cities would without Colman have a potential drawing power equaled only by David Copperfield, Little Women, and The Count of Monte Cristo among the films of recent years because only these books have an even comparable place in the affections of the reading public. This is no modern best seller of which one hundred thousand copies have been published, but a book that is revered by millions – yes, and tens of millions of people here and abroad.

To: Mr. Richard Boleslawski
[Director of The Garden of Allah]
April 14, 1936

I told [Marlene Dietrich] that my one other worry was about her performance – that she had demonstrated to the world that she was a beautiful woman, but that she had failed to demonstrate to the world, undoubtedly through lack of opportunity, that she was an emotional actress; that she had demonstrated very nicely in Desire that she was capable of an excellent comedy performance, but she had yet to make audiences cry. She said she had been wanting to prove this for years and certainly was anxious to make the attempt to show her stuff in this respect. I told her also, frankly, that I thought she worried most unnecessarily about her camera angles – that she was not Helen Hayes or Norma Shearer who had to worry about their faces, and that from any angle, it was impossible for her to be photographed as anything but beautiful and for God’s sake and her own, she should forget about camera angles when it came to the playing of an emotional scene. She agreed with this also. Maybe I am just naive!

However, here again, I think you should go right ahead as though you were directing some newcomer, and not worry about any legend of Dietrich difficulties.

To: Mr. Richard Boleslawski
June 17, 1936

Would you please speak to Marlene about the fact that her hair is getting so much attention, and is being coiffed to such a degree that all reality is lost. Her hair is so well placed that at all times – when the wind is blowing, for instance – or when Marlene is on a balcony or walking through the streets – it remains perfectly smooth and unruffled; in fact, is so well placed that it could be nothing but a wig. The extreme in ridiculousness is the scene in bed. No woman in the world has ever had her hair appear as Marlene’s does in this scene, and the entire scene becomes practically unusable because everything is so exatly in place that the whole effect of a harassed and troubled woman is lost … Surely a little reality can’t do a great beauty any harm.

To: Mr. Lowell V. Calvert
cc: Mr. Ginsberg
December 19, 1936

Concerning the tragic ending [of A Star is Born], this is the sort of comment about pictures that dates back twenty years, and that I didn’t think any body seriously advanced today. I will be satisfied with a long line of pictures that do as well as Anna Karenina, in which Garbo threw herself under a railroad train, or A Tale of Two Cities, in which Mr. Colman had his head chopped off; and if anybody wants further examples, I will sit down and list about fifty sensational successes with tragic endings.

I make the flat statement that pictures have reached the stage where audiences demand the proper ending to a story, whether it be happy or unhappy. If there is anybody in the business that hasn’t learned this, it is high time they did.

To: Mr. Bill Wellman
cc: Miss Keon
January 25, 1937

I have been thinking about my new idea for the end [of A Star is Born], and I believe that we can retain [Janet] Gaynor’s entire approach up the aisle in front of the Chinese [Grauman’s Chinese Theatre in Hollywood], simply retaking the reaction to the footprints, more or less as is; with her then pulling herself together’ the announcer asking her if she will say a few words; [Adolphe] Menjoy saying something to the effect of “No, no – Miss Lester will not speak!”; Gaynor saying she will, advancing with all the pride in the world, throwing her head back, with tears in her eyes, and saying, “This is Mrs. Norman Maine speaking” – with an alternate take on “This is Vicki Lester speaking” …

To: Mr. Fredric March
April 28, 1937

You must have heard from any number of people the most laudatory sort of opinoins on your performance in A Star is Born. Yet I fear that many of these statements may have seemed to you automatic flattery of a type you must be used to, and that perhaps you wonder which congratulations are on the level. It is for this reason that I thought I should send you this note to tell you that on all sides I have seldom heard such praise of any actor in any picture. In New York, as here, people are saying that your job is one of the most able and honest that has ever been done for the screen. That it will do a great deal for you, as it has for the picture and therefore for us, is a certainty.

May I add my congratulations (as well as my thanks) to the others? As to whether this is on the level, I remind you of what I told you about certain other performances.

At long last I salute you as I have wanted to through these years, with complete admiration and unstinted admiration …

To: Miss Katharine Brown
August 30, 1937

This was one of my long-standing arguments with Max [Steiner, composer], and his point in turn was based upon something else which was the root of our decision to get a divorce, which was my objection to what I term “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. It has long been my contention that this is ridiculous and that the purpose of a score is to unobtrusively help the mood of each scene without the audience being even aware that they are listening to music – and if I am right in this contention, why can’t the score be prepared from the script even though cuts and rearrangements may be necessary after the picture is edited – for the basic selection of music and general arrangement would not be affected by these cuts.

To: Norman Taurog
January 8, 1938

The only criticism that we had in the preview cards [for The Adventures of Tom Sawyer] – and this appeared in a number of them – was that the cave sequence was somehow too horrible for children. This worried me, because we certainly want the picture to be for a family audience, and I made it my business both to study this criticism and to ask innumerable questions of many people. My conclusion was that this horror was not based upon the melodrama of this sequence, but upon two things: the bat sequence, because of the feeling of horror born of weird and flying animals, and upon what I had thought was your brilliant execution of my hysteria idea for Becky. I didn’t like to lose the bat sequence entirely, so for tonight’s preview I have left it in, simply trimming it – and if we get the same reaction we may have to cut it further.

Since I feel that the hysterical scene is one of the high spots of the picture, I studied this even more carefully and came to the conclusion that the offensive part was, hopefully, only the unusually horrible close-up of Becky in which she is laughing hysterically and in which her mind is obviously completely gone, and in which she looks like a little witch rather than like a little girl – her hysteria perhaps a shade too much that of a very ill woman, than that of a little girl. I found that all the women I spoke to about this close-up were of one mind on it, and hence I have dropped it with regrets.

To: Mr. Stradling
cc: Mr. Ratoff, Mr. Klune, Mr. Westmore
June 9, 1939

There is no single thing about the physical production of the picture [the American remake of the Swedish film Intermezzo, for which Selznick had brought Ingrid Bergman to America] including the photography, that even compares in importance with the photography of Miss [Ingrid] Bergman. Unlike Mr. Howard, and unlike almost any player of importance that I know of, the difference in her photography is the difference between great beauty and a complete lack of beauty. And unless we can bring off our photography so that she really looks divine, the whole picture can fall apart from a standpoint of audience effectiveness…

It is entirely possible that we haven’t yet learned enough about her angles or about exactly how to light her.

(Selznick was not the only one to make this observation. Cameramen who understood Bergman’s angles said that if you photographed her head on, she appeared plain – it has to do with the size of her forehead and how the planes of her face photographed. But at a slight profile, 3/4s or so, her beauty flowered forth. That is why you RARELY see a close-up of Bergman that is head-on, facing the camera. She is always turned slightly to the side. Of such details are great cameramen made. Movie actresses understand their faces better than anyone, and those cameramen who knew how to make them look “divine” were (and still are) in high demand.)

From the same letter, Selznick reiterates hisp oint:

I cannot tell you how strongly I feel about this matter or how important I feel it to be. I think it is the difference between a successful picture and an unsuccessful picture; the difference between a new star and a girl who will never make another picture here…. The curious charm that [Bergman] had in the Swedish version of Intermezzo – the cominbation of exciting beauty and fresh purity – certainly ought to be within our abilities to capture.

To: Mr. Gregory Ratoff
cc: Mr. Gregg Toland
June 22, 1939

The Toland tests of Miss Bergman prove indubitably what we have been saying since before the picture started – that more than with any other girl that I know of in pictures, the difference between a great photographic beauty and an ordinary girl with Miss Bergman lies in proper photography of her – and that this in turn depends not simply on avoiding the bad side of her face; keeping her head down as much as possible; giving her the proper hairdress, giving her the proper mouth make-up, avoiding long shots, so as not to make her look too big, and, even more importantly, but for the same reason, avoiding low cameras on her, as well as being careful to build people who work with her, such as Leslie Howard and Edna Best (as well, as of course, as the children, beside whom she looks titanic if the camera work isn’t carefully studied); but most important of all, on shading her face and in invariably going for effect lightings on her. This means that there should not be a single sequence of the picture that is not staged for real effect lighting – whether it be morning, afternoon, or night. One might say with justification that almost any dramatic picture benefits from this sort of careful attention to lighting effects, but in the case of Intermezzo the mood of the picture is dependent upon it to an extent far greater than what is true of most pictures. Thus, in photographing Miss Bergman properly we will be benefiting the picture as a whole.

To: Mr. Birdwell
November 9, 1939

Ann Rutherford, whom I saw on the train, told me something which might be the basis of some excellent publicity [for Ingrid Bergman’s American debut], which is that all the girls she knows are letting their eyebrows grow in as a result of Bergman’s unplucked eyebrows, and that she herself now feels very strongly about unplucked eyebrows, not merely because of Miss Bergman but because of Miss [Vivien] Leigh, whom we also should have eyebrows au naturel. So apparently our decision about Miss Bergman’s eyebrows, based upon this studio’s feeling that the public was sick and tired of the monstrosities that had been inflicted on the public by most of Hollywood’s glamour girls, is going to have a national reaction!

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8 Responses to Memos from David O. Selznick

  1. Bruce Reid says:

    If even Selznick found Astaire’s test “wretched” perhaps we all owe an apology to the exec who famously despaired of his talents based on the footage.

  2. Doc Horton says:

    What a treasure! I especially love the painter comparison in reference to Eisenstein’s ‘Battleship Potemkin’. I’ve always said ‘Ivan the Terrible Part 2’ isn’t a motion picture, it’s a motion painting.

  3. Steven_O says:

    So great to read these!

    I especially like the note to Frederic March. I’ve always loved his performance in “I Married A Witch”… It’s one of those performances that seems so modern in an otherwise kind of dated film. There’s a naturalness to him that seems not of that era.

  4. george says:

    Endlessly fascinating, one after the other.

    “… she [Deitrich] was not Helen Hayes or Norma Shearer who had to worry about their faces, and that from any angle, it was impossible for her to be photographed as anything but beautiful and for God’s sake and her own, she should forget about camera angles when it came to the playing of an emotional scene. She agreed with this also. Maybe I am just naive!”

    It just never ends, does it?

  5. red says:

    Bruce – ha, I know!! Just goes to show you that some people just do not “test” well. They shine when they are working, but the whole “trying to get the job” thing is difficult.

  6. red says:

    Doc – Oh, I loved that comment too! Movies are probably still seen as “low art”, so his comment was rather insightful and revolutionary! It’s amazing to think of seeing that film for the first time – DURING that time. It’s incredible, as is, but still – Selznick’s comments there are really illuminating.

    I think it brought out his competitive nature, too. He was quite open about that in these memos – he saw Intermezzo, with Ingrid Bergman, and was determined that HIS studio would ALSO be able to capture her beauty – and if some “cameraman in a small studio in Sweden” could make her shine, then certainly HE could as well.

  7. red says:

    Steven – I love to hear the love for Fredric March – he’s just fantastic. I love him in Merrily We Go to Hell, a pre-Code movie that was just released in a box set – he plays a man married to Sylvia Sidney, and both of them seem totally contemporary – timeless, really – with good connected acting, no artifice – he’s just fantastic.

  8. red says:

    George – hahahaha Turns out, he WAS a bit naive. Dietrich was obsessed with her looks and her angles – she just couldn’t let it go!! I love the memo about her hair, and how her hair in the scene in bed looks unlike any hair ever seen on any woman in bed EVER.

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