The Tarnished Age

Richard Mayne

  • David O. Selznick’s Hollywood by Ronald Haver
    Secker, 425 pp, £35.00, December 1980, ISBN 0 436 19128 8
  • My Early life by Ronald Reagan and Richard Hubler
    Sidgwick, 316 pp, £7.95, April 1981, ISBN 0 283 98771 5
  • Naming Names by Victor Navasky
    Viking, 482 pp, $15.95, October 1980, ISBN 0 670 50393 2

Fourteen inches by 11, and weighing six pounds 13 ounces, David O. Selznick’s Hollywood is less a coffee-table book than a coffee table without legs. Its credits ape a blockbuster movie’s: ‘Executive Producer: Robert Gottlieb – Associate Producer: Martha Kaplan’, etc; and its first page opens like cinema curtains on a wider-than-Panavision main title modelled on Gone with the Wind. A good half of the book is pictorial – playbills, posters, designers’ sketches, views of Hollywood, facsimiles of memoranda and old newspapers, publicity stills and frame enlargements, pages of shots from David Selznick films. All it lacks is a disc in the binding with a score by Dimitri Tiomkin.

And yet, despite the hype, the book repays the muscular effort of reading it. (Stonemasons’ Weekly: ‘I found this book hard to lay down.’) Selznick’s progress – through Paramount, RKO and MGM to independent production and post-war decline – makes his career emblematic. Recounting it, Ronald Haver chronicles Hollywood’s tarnished golden age, teeming with cut-throat movie moguls, touchy stars, voluptuous ‘discoveries’, toxic columnists, frenzied press-agents, writers in gilded cages, directors on assembly-lines. It’s the world of Garson Kanin’s artful factoid novel, Moviola – a glittering kitsch dream-world of overblown extravagance, ruthlessness, sentimentality and greed.

David Selznick came of age in that world. His father, Lewis Selznick, was an early, unsuccessful mogul. In a line not quoted here, he allegedly told his sons: ‘Live expensively! Throw it around! Give it away! Always remember to live beyond your means. It gives a man confidence.’ But if father was a joker, he was also a pedagogue, urging his children to read the classics and encouraging David, plump and studious, to write analyses of them – the germ of future ‘treatments’? By 14, the boy was already reporting for father on the work of assorted film-makers (‘Tourneur is one of America’s greatest film directors. He came here from France ...’). We next see Selznick in Hollywood, at the wheel of an open roadster. Aged 24, he looks a dyspeptic 60.

What he brought to films was ferocious energy, fuelled perhaps by a passion to expunge his father’s failures. He first scored by cutting costs on low-budget quickies: but before long he was known as a lavish, relentless perfectionist, intent on shaping every detail himself. This upset ambitious directors. When Alfred Hitchcock made Rebecca, Spell-bound and The Paradine Case, he was told to stop ‘cutting in the camera’, and to shoot enough film for Selznick to control the editing. Not surprisingly, these were three of Hitchcock’s feebler films.

Much of Selznick’s work was inspired by his boyhood reading. Apart from the freakish King Kong, his most characteristic Thirties productions were lovingly middlebrow adaptations of books. The best was probably David Copperfield (1935), with W.C. Fields as Micawber; one of the worst, three years later, was a plodding Tom Sawyer. Was Selznick wary of greater challenges – Bleak House or Huckleberry Finn? When he tackled Anna Karenina, also in 1935, he turned it into a glossy vehicle for Garbo; and his very last film, A Farewell to Arms, was an over-reverent flop. The best picture he produced, Carol Reed’s The Third Man, was the one in which he interfered the least – although he had the gall to re-edit it for the United States. To this film Ronald Haver alludes only in a caption.

Where Haver spreads himself is on Gone with the Wind. He admits to having seen it nearly a hundred and fifty times; and his account of it is a mine of superfluous information. But critical evaluation it’s not. ‘Steiner’s music for Gone with the Wind is one of the most superb scores ever written for any picture at any time ... It stands as a testament to his spirit as much as the picture itself does to Selznick’s genius.’ Amid the hyperbole it’s refreshing to hear that one Selznick employee thought Margaret Mitchell’s novel ‘ponderous trash’ and that another, John Van Druten, was sacked after calling it ‘a fine book for bellhops’.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

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