|Classic Coming Attractions #106
Welcome to another Classic Coming Attractions column. In this edition, I have taken inspiration from a number of recent releases of David O. Selznick films on Blu-ray to update an old column that focused on that fine producer. In addition, I have included reviews of the aforementioned Blu-rays: A Star Is Born, Nothing Sacred and A Farewell to Arms (all from Kino) and Rebecca, Notorious, and Spellbound (all from MGM). Selznick's connection to each title ranges from the direct to the very tenuous.
This latest column also includes the usual classic release news updates and several non-Selznick reviews including MGM's The Apartment in Blu-ray, B2MP Inc.'s Blu-ray of Lady for a Day (via Inception Media), and coverage of the WB Archive's MOD DVD releases of Taxi, Frisco Kid, The Sisters, Slim, and One Sunday Afternoon.
Note that I have also updated the new announcements database as usual.
David O. Selznick
This winter's Blu-ray releases of a number of Selznick pictures by MGM and by Kino have brought the work of producer David O. Selznick firmly back into the classic film enthusiast's consciousness. While Gone with the Wind may have been his crowning achievement, Selznick's filmography numbers some 68 titles originally released between 1924 and 1957 and reveals a staggering number of top-flight pictures dating from the early 1930s and continuing throughout the 1940s. Money troubles, indecision, and Selznick's constant desire for complete control eventually ground his output to a virtual standstill in the early 1950s and his largely unsuccessful mounting of A Farewell to Arms spelled the end in 1957. In the following paragraphs, I provide a short overview of Selznick's career and information on the availability of his films on Blu-ray and DVD. My overview draws on "David O. Selznick's Hollywood" by Ronald Haver and "Showman" by David Thomson, both of which are informative, highly-readable biographies and recommended for those seeking more information.
Selznick on Film
David Selznick was born on May 10, 1902 in Pittsburgh and moved to New York in 1910 with his parents and two brothers. His father, Lewis Selznick, was a jeweler by trade but finding success in that area in New York was difficult and Lewis eventually gravitated to the film industry. After an abortive start with the World Film Company, Lewis soon formed Selznick Pictures and by 1916, David was working in the company's publicity department after school each day. In 1923, David was in charge of publicity and was immersing himself in all aspects of film production when the company went broke due to excessive spending by his father and a failure to get the distribution for its films on the larger booking circuits needed to ensure adequate profits. For the next couple of years, David remained in New York dabbling in both writing and the movie business. It was during this time that he produced his first feature film - Roulette (1924). In 1926, he moved to Hollywood and eventually landed an entry-level job at MGM.
He quickly demonstrated his film instincts to the company and moved rapidly up the ladder so that by April 1927, he was an assistant producer under Harry Rapf who headed up MGM's B-picture production. Westerns were an important component of the film business at that time and Selznick, despite his dislike of the genre, found himself assigned to producing several of the studio's Tim McCoy films. He sold the studio on the idea of filming two features together on location and after a couple of months of work by director W.S. Van Dyke in Wyoming with Selznick coordinating things in Hollywood, he had his first two MGM production credits - Spoilers of the West (1928) and Wyoming (1928). Unfortunately, they would be his last at MGM for some time as he soon ran afoul of production chief Irving Thalberg and was fired.
Selznick did not remain unemployed for long. He was hired as assistant to B.P. Schulberg, head of production at Paramount which was then in the process of developing a new studio facility in Hollywood. Over the next three years, Selznick found himself extremely busy as he took responsibility for supervising production of a number of features during Paramount's transition from silent to sound films. Of the twelve films for which he was credited with production, included were one of the company's last silent films - Forgotten Faces (1928); a version of The Four Feathers (1929) directed by the documentary filmmakers Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack; and Street of Chance (1930, with William Powell, Kay Francis, and Jean Arthur), the first film in which Selznick felt he had a truly personal interest. It was during this time that Selznick had his first taste of complete control as he oversaw production for the whole studio for a six-month period in late 1929 during which Schulberg was away on a world tour. This was probably the high point of Selznick's days at Paramount, for over the following two years, the studio's financial position declined as a result of the stock market crash and Selznick's relationship with Schulberg deteriorated. This culminated in Selznick's resignation from the studio in mid-1931.
Once again, however, Selznick was not long without a job. This time, he took charge of production for both RKO and Pathé, which would be merged under him. The opportunity came about partly through the intercession of Merian Cooper who had an idea for a film about a giant gorilla and felt that he could get it made under Selznick, based on his previous positive experience working with Selznick at Paramount. Selznick would remain at RKO for 16 months during which he would personally supervise production on 20 films while maintaining general control over the entire studio output. It is from this block of 20 films that come the first Selznick titles whose reputation has endured. King Kong (1933) is the most famous, of course, but other worthy efforts were State's Attorney (1932, a fine John Barrymore vehicle with snappy dialogue), What Price Hollywood? (1932, starring Constance Bennett, and an inspiration for the various later versions of A Star Is Born), A Bill of Divorcement (1932, Katharine Hepburn's first film), and The Animal Kingdom (1932, a sophisticated drama with Leslie Howard, from the Philip Barry play).
Due to the poor economic conditions of the times, Selznick had found himself working under fairly strict financial constraints at RKO. The situation worsened throughout 1932 and RKO's parent company, RCA, declared itself unable to bankroll the studio further. Facing further restrictions on his production budget and also unhappy because his decisions were still subject to the authority of the RKO president, Selznick decided to accept an offer from MGM to head up a production unit of his own there. In early 1933, he moved to MGM where he would report only to studio boss Louis B. Mayer himself. It helped too that Mayer was by then Selznick's father-in-law, as Selznick has married Mayer's youngest daughter Irene.
During 1933 to 1935, Selznick would produce 11 films for MGM. Dinner at Eight (1933) was an all-star extravaganza about the build-up to a society dinner. Directed by George Cukor, it starred the likes of Lionel Barrymore, Marie Dressler, Jean Harlow, and Wallace Beery and ends with the well-known exchange between Harlow and Dressler about Harlow's baseless fears about being replaced by machinery. Night Flight and Dancing Lady (both 1933) were a couple of entertaining Clark Gable vehicles, the latter with Joan Crawford and Fred Astaire (his film debut). Viva Villa! (1934) was an exciting telling of the life of Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa starring Wallace Beery. The production was initially directed by Howard Hawks, but after problems with one of the actors (Lee Tracy), considerable recasting and reshooting had to be done. Hawks dropped out and was replaced by Jack Conway. Costs mounted to $1 million which was an unusually high amount for the times, but the film was well reviewed and eventually made a modest profit. Manhattan Melodrama (1934) was a slickly made tale of three boys whose parents are lost in a boating disaster. One grows up to be an attorney, another a minister, and the third a gangster (William Powell, Leo Carillo, and Clark Gable respectively). Myrna Loy provided the main female support, first as Gable's mistress and later Powell's wife.
With these successes under his belt, Selznick was now able to convince Mayer to let him indulge his childhood love of the classics. He first embarked on David Copperfield (1935) with George Cukor as director. This was probably the first major feature that would be indelibly Selznick's in terms of demonstrating his obsessive involvement that resulted in having his personal stamp on every aspect of the production. The film was budgeted at just under $1 million, which was quite high even for MGM and a bit of a risk as the industry consensus at the time was that adaptations of classics didn't sell well. Foreshadowing the search for an actress to play Scarlet in Gone with the Wind, Selznick organized an extensive search in Britain and the United States for a boy to play the young David Copperfield. Only after some last minute immigration hurdles did he finally get the actor he wanted in Freddie Bartholomew. The rest of the cast was impressive, ranging from Basil Rathbone to Lionel Barrymore, W.C. Fields, Lewis Stone, Edna Mae Oliver, Roland Young, Maureen O'Sullivan, and Frank Lawton. The completed film at almost 130 minutes in length was considerably longer than the industry average at the time and there was concern over retaining audience interest. It proved to be unfounded, however, as the film turned out to be tremendously popular with critics and the film-going public.
After next supervising the Jean Harlow film Reckless (1935), Selznick then turned to the production of a film for Greta Garbo, something he had long wanted to do. His preference was to see her in a modern story, but she was determined that an adaptation of Anna Karenina would be her next film. After reluctantly agreeing, Selznick threw himself wholeheartedly into the project. He again lined up a sterling cast including Fredric March, Basil Rathbone, and Freddie Bartholomew and settled on Clarence Brown to direct. Brown was particularly accomplished with women's pictures for MGM and worked well with Garbo. The completed film was another successful entry on Selznick's resumé.
Shortly before the release of Anna Karenina, Selznick had finally made up his mind to strike out entirely on his own and he decided not to renew his MGM contract. He resigned in mid-1935 although in a separate agreement undertook to complete two final films for MGM that he still had in production. One was the aforementioned Anna Karenina and the other was A Tale of Two Cities (1935). The latter was another of Selznick's favourite classics and one that contained the theme of unfulfilled love that figured in many of Selznick's films. Ronald Colman was signed to play the lead role of Sydney Carton, with other keys parts going to Edna Mae Oliver, Basil Rathbone, and Reginald Owen. The film was lavishly mounted with some good special effects and ably directed by Jack Conway. Upon release, it was another great success for Selznick although he had despaired of MGM's marketing approach to the film and had almost burnt his bridges at the studio in the process of his departure.
Selznick now set up his own production company called Selznick International Pictures. His intention was to produce a limited number of pictures, but make them all of high caliber. Leasing the old Thomas Ince studio and concluding a distribution arrangement with United Artists, he quickly decided on another classic as his first film - Little Lord Fauntleroy (1936). With this first film, Selznick established the policy of total involvement and control that he would exercise over the films he made during the rest of his life. He also set in motion his plans for developing a roster of players that would be associated with Selznick International on an ongoing basis. His approach was somewhat different from that of the major studios in that he very actively loaned out actors and directors under contract to him whereas most of the majors did so only rarely. This policy came into play almost immediately, as by loaning out director George Cukor to MGM, Selznick was able to secure Freddie Bartholomew from MGM to play the lead role of Ceddie in Little Lord Fauntleroy. Despite the misgivings of a number of Selznick's associates that the Little Lord Fauntleroy story was too old-fashioned, Selznick's instincts once again proved to be correct and the film was a huge success, getting the new company off on the right foot.
Part of the agreement with his financial backers to set up Selznick International called for the new company to make use of the new 3-strip Technicolor process in a number of its productions. For his second picture, Selznick proposed to make the sombre melodrama Dark Victory in Technicolor, but the recent success of Paramount's outdoor adventure, The Trail of the Lonesome Pine, which was made in colour prompted him to change his mind. Instead he turned to the rather lanquid desert romance, The Garden of Allah (1936). Selznick had toyed with making the film with Greta Garbo when he had been at MGM, but that had not happened, so he now purchased the story rights from MGM for use at Selznick International. Marlene Dietrich and Charles Boyer were finally cast in the lead roles and exterior shooting was done in Arizona's Mojave Desert. The film cost an (for then) astronomical sum of almost $1.5 million and did not make money despite reasonable reviews. It did, however, have luminous colour that was easily the film's greatest asset, and that gave a substantial boost to the reputation of both Technicolor and Selznick International.
In 1937, David Selznick embarked on his most productive period of independent film making. Over the next three years, Selznick International would turn out eight pictures culminating in Selznick's greatest achievement, Gone with the Wind. The preparation for and actual filming of the latter would be in progress throughout the period and as it has been well documented in articles, books, and reviews, will not be rehashed here. Selznick was so busy with that film that it is amazing that he was able to devote the attention he did to the other seven films, at least four of which are among the finest films turned out by Hollywood during that period. A Star Is Born (1937, directed by William Wellman and starring Janet Gaynor and Fredric March) remains as good a portrait of Hollywood as has ever been produced. The Prisoner of Zenda (1937, directed by John Cromwell and starring Ronald Colman, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Madeleine Carroll and Raymond Massey) is one of the great costume adventure films. Nothing Sacred (1937, directed by William Wellman and starring Fredric March and Carole Lombard) is a screwball comedy filmed in Technicolor and among the better ones despite a bit of a letdown in the ending. Intermezzo: A Love Story (1939, directed by Gregory Ratoff and starring Leslie Howard and Ingrid Berman) is a truly touching and unaffected romance that introduced Selznick's discovery, the Swedish actress Ingrid Bergman, to North America. The other three titles to come from Selznick International during this period are somewhat lesser known, but all are thoroughly entertaining items of their kind: The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1938, classic Americana with Tommy Kelly and Ann Gillis), The Young in Heart (1938, a modest but heartfelt comedy with Janet Gaynor and Douglas Fairbanks Jr.), and Made for Each Other (1939, a comedy-drama with James Stewart and Carole Lombard).
While finishing up production on his three 1939 films, Selznick had purchased the rights to Daphne du Maurier's gothic novel, "Rebecca". He saw it as a starring vehicle for Ronald Colman and also as the first American film of director Alfred Hitchcock whom he had signed to a contract in late 1938. Colman was not happy with the proposed script, however, and he dropped out to be replaced by Laurence Olivier. The female lead was given to Joan Fontaine after much consideration of Anne Baxter, Margaret Sullavan, and Vivien Leigh. The shooting ran considerably over schedule and the final budget of about one and a quarter million dollars was some half million dollars higher than originally planned. Rebecca was, however, a considerable success both financially and critically. It eventually won the Best Picture Oscar for 1940, marking Selznick's second such award in a row.
The early years of the war represented a period of consolidation for Selznick. Wanting to take a rest after the intensive period of production involvement with Gone with the Wind and Rebecca, he terminated Selznick International and set up David O. Selznick Productions as an entity to carry on his film-related activities that initially did not involve new film production. (A secondary company, Vanguard Films was created to produce films to meet a commitment to United Artists that remained after the termination of Selznick International. Selznick would not generally oversee these films, although he was eventually executive producer on one, I'll Be Seeing You [1944, starring Ginger Rogers and Joseph Cotton].) Much of Selznick's activities under the banner of David O. Selznick Productions took the form of talent and story searching, and managing the contracts of directors and actors he had signed. The three principal actors in this category were Ingrid Bergman, Jennifer Jones, and Gregory Peck. For each, he attempted to locate the best existing or new properties and loaned them out accordingly. That was how Bergman came to star in Casablanca and For Whom the Bell Tolls, Jones in The Song of Bernadette, and Peck in The Keys of the Kingdom (produced at Warner Bros., Paramount, Fox, and Fox respectively).
Selznick decided to get back into active production himself after seeing Mrs. Miniver, inspired by it to do a film about life on the American homefront. The film was Since You Went Away (1944), a lengthy film that Selznick himself adapted from material that had originally appeared in the "Ladies Home Journal". The film focused on the life of a wife and two children left at home after the husband and father has gone into the service. Claudette Colbert was persuaded to star and Jennifer Jones and Shirley Temple (cajoled out of temporary retirement) played the daughters. Good roles also went to Joseph Cotten, Monty Wooley, and Robert Walker (Jones's real-life estranged husband). The three-hour film opened to mixed reviews, but seemed to hit a chord with filmgoers so that it generated a substantial profit despite being the most costly Hollywood production since Gone with the Wind.
In 1945, Selznick managed to put some of the talent he had under contract to work on a project of his own instead of loaning them out. The film was a mystery with psychoanalytical elements called Spellbound, directed by Alfred Hitchcock and starring Ingrid Bergman and Gregory Peck. Uniquely, it included a dream sequence based on some paintings by Salvador Dali. As well the music by Miklos Rozsa introduced the sound of the theremin, a form of electronic musical instrument, to film. The picture whose release was delayed almost a year after its principal shooting began (due to retakes and difficulties in getting the dream sequence right) was another great success financially.
Selznick was by now convinced that only expansive productions could yield real profits from film-making and he set out to effectively re-create the success of Gone with the Wind with a sumptuously mounted western entitled Duel in the Sun. An impressive cast that included Gregory Peck, Jennifer Jones, Joseph Cotten, Herbert Marshall, Lillian Gish, and Lionel Barrymore was lined up for a tale about a half-breed woman who comes to the vast McCanles ranch in Texas to live after her father is killed. She becomes romantically but eventually tragically involved with one of the McCanles sons while the ranch itself is faced with change caused by the increasing effects of civilization on the West. Selznick invested two years of his time in Duel in the Sun and between $5 and 6 million before the film was finally released in late 1946. The critics were not kind, but the filmgoing public liked what they saw, making it the second highest grossing film of 1947, behind only The Best Years of Our Lives.
By now, Selznick's personal life had been disrupted by his increasing infatuation with Jennifer Jones. His wife Irene had left him as a result. Further, the organization of Selznick's business was such that virtually everyone he employed seemed to report directly to him. The result was an immense work load that compromised Selznick's ability to devote as much time to his film productions as he would have liked. Over the next ten years, he would produce only six more films. Profits would be hit and miss so that monetary issues were also an ongoing concern. Both Hitchcock's final film for Selznick - The Paradine Case (1947, with Gregory Peck) - and a romantic fantasy that Selznick was greatly enamored of - Portrait of Jennie (1948, with Jennifer Jones and Joseph Cotten) - lost excessive amounts of money, so that Selznick saw no other alternative to shutting down his Hollywood production operations and reducing his company (by then known as the Selznick Releasing Organization) to a bare minimum. During this time, Selznick also sold off the rights to several properties (including the script and cast arrangements) to RKO where they were made into such films as The Spiral Staircase and The Farmer's Daughter. As a consequence, those films are sometimes identified as David O. Selznick Presentations although he had nothing to do with their production. They are not included in Selznick's filmography as a result.
In 1949, Selznick left for Europe where he married Jennifer Jones. While in Europe, he concentrated on trying to pay off the debts that remained from his final Hollywood productions. During that time he also dabbled in the co-production of several European-made features, including the British made The Third Man (1949) and Gone to Earth (1950, re-edited as The Wild Heart for North America), and the Italian-made Stazione Termini (1953, later re-edited and released in North America as Indiscretion of an American Wife).
By late 1953, Selznick returned to a Hollywood substantially different from the one he had left four years previously. Film-making was no longer the major industry of southern California and what remained, while still significant, was now trying to counteract the impact of television. It took Selznick almost two years before he settled on the property that would become his final feature film production - Ernest Hemingway's "A Farewell to Arms". As usual, nothing seemed straight-forward for Selznick. He first had to wrangle with Warner Bros. over the rights to the novel and then had to shop around at the major studios before Fox agreed to finance and distribute the picture. The script went through nine drafts while Selznick firmed up his cast, which would include Jennifer Jones and Rock Hudson (fresh off his Oscar-nominated performance in Giant). John Huston was signed to direct, but he walked off the picture after a barrage of Selznick criticisms early in the shooting and was replaced by Charles Vidor. Principal shooting was conducted in Italy with interiors being done in Hollywood. A Farewell to Arms initially opened strongly in late 1957 and actually generated a modest profit, but poor word of mouth combined with a number of poor reviews, singling out Jennifer Jones as being miscast and blaming Selznick for the picture being old-fashioned and tedious, resulted in the film having little staying power. Selznick was disappointed but recognized the film's inadequacies and realized he had lost touch with his audience.
Selznick never produced another picture. On June 22nd, 1965, he died of a heart attack in Hollywood. He was 63 years of age.
Selznick on DVD and Blu-ray
None of Selznick's early films at Paramount are available on DVD and that seems unlikely to change. Most of the titles are obscure and none have ever been available on any form of home video to my knowledge. The Paramount films are controlled by Universal (except for Forgotten Faces, which being a silent film and if it still exists, remains under Paramount control).
The rights to the 20 films from Selznick's RKO period (1932-1933) are generally held by Warner Bros., although some RKO films seem to be treated as being in the public domain. Thus, The Animal Kingdom has been released on DVD by Alpha and Bird of Paradise by several sources, of which the Roan Group release is quite workable. King Kong is of course available in a very nice Blu-ray version while a few of the others have been released by the Warner Archive of MOD (Manufactured-on-Demand) DVDs. It seems likely that other early Selznick RKOs will make their appearance eventually via the same route. In late news, Kino will release Bird of Paradise on Blu-ray and DVD on May 1st, as part of its Selznick Collection of titles authorized by the Selznick Estate and drawing on source material from George Eastman House.
The 11 films from Selznick's MGM period (1933-1935) were almost all major releases originally and most were previously available on laserdisc. Most have made their way to pressed DVD courtesy of WB, with one title (Reckless) coming via the MOD route. Given the lesser-known titles that the Archive has been giving us, the remaining MGM Selznick titles (Viva Villa! and Vanessa: Her Love Story) are reasonable bets to come out.
Of the 17 films that Selznick produced under the various incarnations of his own company from 1936 to 1948, virtually all are available on DVD in Region 1. The exception is The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (available in Region 2). Gone with the Wind is obviously the centerpiece of these films and as it was originally released by MGM under the agreement that allowed Clark Gable to star in the film, its DVD rights are now controlled by Warner Bros. The film is gloriously available from that studio on Blu-ray and DVD. The other films were either released by United Artists or by Selznick's own releasing company and over the years their rights have migrated to American Broadcasting Companies (ABC) Inc., now controlled by Disney which undertook restoration of the films. Anchor Bay licensed a number of these titles and issued very nice DVDs of Little Lord Fauntleroy, The Garden of Allah, Rebecca, Spellbound, Duel in the Sun (both standard and a preferred road show version), The Paradine Case, and Portrait of Jennie. These titles went OOP when that license expired. (Little Lord Fauntleroy and The Paradine Case have not subsequently been issued by anyone else and the Anchor Bay versions are recommended, as copies can still be found though with increasing difficulty.) It should be noted, however, that Kino plans a Blu-ray and DVD release of Little Lord Fauntleroy for June 26th, 2012 as part of its authorized Selznick Collection. Criterion had the rights to the Hitchcock titles several years ago and issued DVDs of Rebecca and Spellbound. For those two films, the Criterions were the versions to have. Now MGM has issued Blu-ray versions (reviewed below) of the two films plus Hitchcock's Notorious (which Selznick had a connection to by virtue of his making available Hitchcock and Ingrid Bergman whom he had under contract). For titles such as of Duel in the Sun, The Garden of Allah, The Young in Heart, Intermezzo: A Love Story, Since You Went Away, I'll Be Seeing You, and Portrait of Jennie, MGM acquired the rights and then issued DVDs. Having access to the same restored source material, there's little to choose between Anchor Bay's and MGM's efforts on Duel in the Sun, The Garden of Allah, and Portrait of Jennie. There are minor variations in image sharpness, but both of them have generally produced discs with superior image quality and acceptable mono sound. The supplements may be the determining factor. All the MGM discs offer English, French, and Spanish subtitling while the Anchor Bay ones have none. On the other hand, some of the Anchor Bay discs offer poster reproductions and trailers which few of the MGM discs have. Only MGM has released The Young in Heart, Intermezzo, Since You Went Away, and I'll Be Seeing You. All offer consistently fine transfers, mono sound, and subtitling in English, French, and Spanish, but generally nothing else (The Young in Heart does have a trailer). All are recommended.
Three films from this period seem to have fallen into the public domain and one other has apparently not been released in Region 1. A Star Is Born and Made for Each Other have appeared in numerous DVD versions from the usual public domain suspects. For A Star Is Born and Nothing Sacred, the new Kino Blu-rays (see reviews below) are your best bets. For Made for Each Other, the existing MGM release is definitely the one to get. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer is seemingly only available outside of Region 1.
Of the final five films produced or co-produced by Selznick, Criterion has released excellent DVD editions of The Third Man (also in Blu-ray) and Statione Termini (including the original and re-edited versions). Both are highly recommended. Gone to Earth is only available on a Region 2 disc, which I have not seen but is reportedly a very nice presentation. The status of Light's Diamond Jubilee which was produced for television is unknown, but has never appeared on home video. Selznick's final film, A Farewell to Arms, is available on DVD from Fox.