Examining the life and legend of a major movie manufacturer

January 17, 1993|By George Grella


David Thomson.


791 pages. $35.

Film scholars who measure their subject in millimeters, theoreticians who discuss it in abstruse polysyllables, and critics who rhapsodize about the high art of cinema often forget that movies, like beans or tuna fish, are also a consumer product sold in cans. The creators of the American film industry, we must remember, were not necessarily brilliant, sensitive, talented artists, but manufacturers, managers, and salesmen; some have been less kindly termed cheats, crooks, and hustlers. They were, in short, people who excelled at making and selling products in cans.

The history of Hollywood, then, as David Thomson's biography of David O. Selznick reminds us, is also the biography of some ambitious, powerful entrepreneurs, interested in making not only movies but money, and achieving great success at both. Many of those studio heads, producers and financiers were larger than life themselves, as much a part of myth and legend as the stars and pictures they created. Of a crowd of extraordinary individuals that includes Louis B. Mayer, Irving Thalberg, Samuel Goldwyn, Harry Cohn and Adolph Zukor, the author makes a convincing case for David O. Selznick as perhaps the most creative and most fascinating.

Studying Selznick's life in exhaustive detail, Mr. Thomson shows how closely his career paralleled the trajectory of the American film industry. In the great tradition of nepotism that now runs through the third or fourth generation, he was the son of L. J. Selznick, a dubious finagler who made and lost several fortunes in various enterprises, but settled on the movies when they were a young and highly profitable area of show business located on the East Coast. Before he was 30, David had moved west with the industry and had won and lost any number of jobs with several studios; he'd also been linked romantically with a dozen different actresses and, in another great tradition, married Irene Mayer, the boss' daughter.

Full of energy, blessed with perhaps more ideas than ability, gifted with the sort of imagination that inspired him to adapt literary classics and compose appalling poetry, Selznick participated in the production of some of the great movies of Hollywood's Golden Age, a period he helped to create. He

produced his first film, a two-reeler about boxing, in 1923, and his last, "Tender Is the Night," in 1962.

Throughout his long career he was associated with many pictures that shaped the course and quality of American film. Among scores of titles, some of the best known are "Dinner at Eight," "David Copperfield," "Anna Karenina," "A Star Is Born" and "Duel in the Sun." With "Rebecca," he helped turn Alfred Hitchcock into an American director, and worked with a great many other gifted directors, writers and actors.

Most of all, of course, he will be forever known as the man who produced "Gone With the Wind," one of the crowning achievements of the greatest decade in the history of film. The author understandably devotes a long and compelling section of the book to the complicated story of the adaptation, scripting, casting and directing of that acknowledged masterpiece.

Mr. Thomson balances Selznick's career with a detailed examination of his personal life, especially his relationships with any number of beautiful women, culminating in his falling in love with a young actress who was married to the actor Robert Walker. Following in yet another Hollywood tradition, Selznick renamed her Jennifer Jones, creating her all over again.

Mr. Thomson enjoyed unparalleled access to the voluminous Selznick papers -- his subject was a legendary composer of memos, notes, letters and telegrams -- and that accounts for the enormous size of the biography. He controls the material with grace and intelligence, however, and he handles both David O. Selznick and the tangled history of Hollywood with grace and skill. Ultimately, he seems to believe that the man represents not only the development of American film but some sort of #i American hero as well, a character perhaps out of Fitzgerald; Selznick "vibrated, like a thrilled violin note, somewhere between the urge to escape and the hope of rescue . . . always hurrying on in his search for liberty, the pursuit of happiness, and the dream of a retained childhood."

Dr. Grella teaches English at the University of Rochester. He writes frequently about film.

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