Alan David Vertrees challenges the popular image of Selznick as a megalomaniacal meddler whose hiring and firing of directors and screenwriters created a patchwork film that succeeded despite his interference.
Series: Texas Film and Media Studies
Gone with the Wind has generated interest in every aspect of its production. Yet one crucial aspect has never been fully understood or appreciated—the vital shaping role played by executive producer David O. Selznick.
In this book, Alan David Vertrees challenges the popular image of Selznick as a megalomaniacal meddler whose hiring and firing of directors and screenwriters created a patchwork film that succeeded despite his interference. Drawing on ten years of research in the Selznick archives, and examining the screenplay's successive drafts, dramatic continuity designs and "storyboard" sketches (many of which are reproduced here), and production correspondence and memoranda, Vertrees interprets the producer's actions as manipulation, not indecision, establishing Selznick's "vision" as the guiding intelligence behind the film's success.
In his drive to create a cinematic monument, Selznick also reformed many key facets of studio filmmaking, inventing jobs such as "production designer" (inaugurated by William Cameron Menzies), which persist today. This book thus adds an important chapter to the story of classical Hollywood cinema and the making of the film that has been lauded variously as the "Sistine Chapel of movies" and the "single most beloved entertainment ever produced."
- Foreword by Thomas Schatz
- One. "The Vision of One Man"
- Two. Sidney Howard and the Screenwriting of Gone with the Wind
- Three. William Cameron Menzies and the "Script in Sketch Form"
- Four. Film Direction and Production Design of Gone with the Wind
- Five. Executive Producers and Classical Hollywood Film Production
The most successful motion picture of the classical Hollywood period is Gone with the Wind. For almost a quarter of a century after its release in the final month of 1939, this film surpassed every record established at the box office and at award ceremonies of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Its virtual sweep of the 1939 Academy Awards which were presented in February 1940—only weeks after this picture premiered—appears all the more impressive in view of the strength of the major competitors—Dark Victory, Goodbye, Mr. Chips, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Ninotchka, Stagecoach, The Wizard of Oz, and Wuthering Heights—which were released earlier during this annus mirabilis of American filmmaking.
In addition to its producer David O. Selznick receiving the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award for "consistently high quality of motion picture production," Gone with the Wind won Oscars for best picture, best actress (Vivien Leigh for her portrayal of Scarlett O'Hara; see Figure 1), best supporting actress (Hattie McDaniel for "Mammy"), best screenplay (Sidney Howard), best direction (Victor Fleming), best interior decoration (art director Lyle Wheeler), best color cinematography (director of photography Ernest Haller and Technicolor associates Ray Rennahan and Wilfred Cline), and best film editing (Hal Kern and associate James Newcom). A special award also was presented to production designer William Cameron Menzies for "outstanding achievement in the use of color for the enhancement of dramatic mood." Until very recently, in terms of theatrical box office performance (in figures adjusted for inflation), Selzmck's adaptation of Margaret Mitchell's "story of the Old South" remained incontestably the greatest draw in the history of the cinema.
Although this film's success may be attributed to a remarkable confluence of individual and contextual elements—not the least of which are a star-studded cast and a phenomenally best-selling novel from which the movie was adapted—David O. Selznick himself was a most significant influence, supervising every major aspect of the picture's making, from scriptwriting and production to editing and marketing. Paradoxically, the extent of this producer's involvement in the creation of what is regarded widely as the most "Hollywood" of movies was both exemplary and exceptional with regard to the conventions of the film industry. What appears to be indisputable is that Gone with the Wind is Selznick's magnum opus and that it epitomizes classical Hollywood cinema.
While praise as the "greatest motion picture ever made" has been questioned by critics for some time and although classical Hollywood produced a number of excellent motion pictures, few—if any—have offered an aura equal to that generated by Gone with the Wind. Two decades after Selznick undertook to produce this picture, Bosley Crowther, senior film critic for the New York Times, observed that "of all the motion pictures produced since the screen began, [Gone with the Wind was] the one that has reached the most people and may fairly be judged the most popular:" Ten years later, in 1967, Crowther was even more enthusiastic in his appraisal of this work's stature in his book The Great Films: Fifty Golden Years of Motion Pictures, in which he claimed:
Of all the American motion pictures entitled to be designated great on the basis of all their qualifications, including the extent of the excitement they have caused, Gone with the Wind] towers above all the rest.... Never before or since its making has so much attention been fixed upon the urgency and the responsibility of bringing a film into being. Never has the public's interest been so attracted in the preparation stage, and never has a national volition been so generously fulfilled and satisfied.... There have been more ambitious, more expensive and longer historical-spectacle films made in the years since this one. And there have been a few that have had more critical riclame. But there has never been one more effective than Gone with the Wind. There may never be.
When polled in 1977 to select the "greatest American film of all time," 35,000 members of the American Film Institute awarded this honor to Gone with the Wind (Citizen Kane  and Casablanca  were elected to second and third place, respectively). Selznick's epic picture had been broadcast for the first time on national network television the previous year and had received unchallenged ratings, earning it the additional distinction of being the "most popular film ever shown on U.S. television," according to a movie-related Guinness record book. In 1979, it was considered the "only film in history which could be profitably revived for forty years." Half a century after its premiere and on the occasion of the release of a newly restored Technicolor print in 1989, noted newspaper and television critic Roger Ebert observed that Gone with the Wind remained "one of the greatest of all Hollywood productions." The film also has been lauded variously as the "quintessential Hollywood studio system product," the "Sistine chapel among movies," and the "single most beloved entertainment ever produced." As a motion picture, television, and videographic presentation, it has been described—albeit wryly—as the "eternal flame of popular culture" in Time, whose reviewer speculated that "it is a safe bet that somewhere in the world, day and night, Clark Gable's Rhett Butler and Vivien Leigh's Scarlett O'Hara flicker across a screen."
Another measure of the film's ongoing popular fascination is the secondary market that developed over the last two decades with the publication of a large number of histories of the picture's production. Many of these books' titles incorporated such prefixes and phrases as the following: The Filming of..., The Making of..., The Art of... , The Ultimate Pictorial Treasury of.... as well as The Official ... Companion, The Complete Reference, The Complete ... Sourcebook, and The Complete ... Trivia Book. In some cases, the film title's mere initials, GWTW served for effective exploitation. However appealing these volumes may be to the film's many fans, few have served the study of film history beyond publishing production stills (i.e., photographs of players receiving direction and/or of technicians operating on the shooting sets); many repackaged previously published information and anecdotes involving the film's stars and have perpetuated a received knowledge of the production itself. In 1989, in a review of several of these books on the fiftieth anniversary of the film's premiere, David Finkle, a contributor to the New York Times Book Review, pragmatically identified the primary value of these "redundant tributes" for their public. "Whether the contents of the books are 100 percent authentic may be beside the point," Finkle admitted, "for it's apparent that to the bona fide fan [these] books are not, first and foremost, books ... they are collectibles."
In the majority of these volumes, the making of the film adaptation is related in a manner that imitates the epic dimensions of Mitchell's novel. Framed by the legends of the book's history and of the film's premiere in Atlanta, the story line begins with Selzmck's acquisition of the screen rights in the face of much skepticism expressed by other Hollywood studio chiefs and continues with anecdotes about the pursuit of an actress to portray Scarlett, for which a highly publicized national talent search was undertaken, together with auditions of numerous starlets. The deal with MGM for the loan of Clark Gable and Selznick's difficulties with screenwriters and directors also serve to complicate the plot. Scarce attention is given generally to the creative and interpretative aspects of screenwriting, production design, cinematography, directing, and editing. Instead, only the same few technical details are recounted at any length—for example, a common subject is the filming of the celebrated mobile aerial view of Scarlett's crossing of the Atlanta railyard, which is crowded with prostrated, wounded Confederate soldiers (a shot which—one reads—exhausted the resources of Central Casting and required use of great numbers of dummies and construction of a concrete drive so that a mechanical crane, from which the camera was suspended, would roll smoothly backward during the filming).
Another characteristic of the majority of these publications is their dismissal of Selznick. Invariably, these treatments rely on negative testimony and hearsay to affirm the producer's egotism and the degree of chaos engendered by his domination of others on and off the sets. Arguments are informed almost exclusively by the opinions of a selected number of Selznick's surviving subordinates without either modification of these claims in view of practices characteristic of other studios' producers or their verification by closer examination of the specific filmmaking acts in question (for example, there is no analysis of the development of a particular scene in order to determine its progress or degradation after executive influence). Production documents (including correspondence, script drafts, call sheets, production logs, and continuity and set designs) are analyzed rarely to a satisfactory degree but, rather, are presented in the manner of mute reliquaries. To date, the making of the most popular film in history has been presented by commentators—with few exceptions—as the creation of a "natural" screen entertainment which achieved its incomparable degree of success in great part despite the industry of the man most responsible for its realization. The result has been that, notwithstanding the many books published on the filming of Gone with the Wind, neither the producer nor the production itself have been understood adequately or accurately.
Although Margaret Mitchell persistently declined to participate in her novel's adaptation, the reputation of her best-selling book is credited by implication in many of these accounts for the film's enormously favorable reception. The picture's success is attributed also to the exploitation of its stars and of its early Technicolor format and to the post-Depression, pre-World War II period of its American premiere. In contrast, Selznick is characterized as a meddler and tinkerer. The reader of many of these histories is informed that Selznick suffered from indecision and as a result, hired and fired directors, cameramen, and screenwriters throughout the film's lengthy period of production. At the same time, the producer's insistence upon his adaptation's fidelity to the novel is portrayed as having posed a serious limitation to the more creative contributions of his collaborators.
In contrast with Margaret Mitchell, who willed that the manuscript and all drafts of her novel were to be destroyed following her death (in 1949), Selznick preserved approximately half a million documents pertaining to this film's production. His personal archives, comprising over three million items covering in detail most of the motion pictures that he produced during the course of his career, were acquired by the University of Texas at Austin in 1980 for the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center. Ironically, many scholars may be biased against Gone with the Wind as an appropriate subject for academic inquiry because of the exploitative, commercial nature of most of the popular books published on this film's making and the bold aesthetic claims that have attended the picture's release.
This negative attitude has been fostered also in part by the ascendancy and persistence of auteurism, a trend in American film criticism introduced by Andrew Sarris in 1962. Accordingly, the director has been privileged over other participants in the filmmaking enterprise to the extent that film authorship is bestowed repeatedly upon a technician whose primary influence on classical studio productions was the direction of actors. The fact that scenes in Gone with the Wind were directed by at least four individuals compromised its artistic integrity in many critics' minds. More recently, the orientation of Marxist psychoanalytic semiology, which succeeded auteurism as the dominant theoretical scheme in film studies, eschewed attributions of authorship and traditional hermeneutics altogether as valid pursuits and addressed issues involving reception and ideology rather than those of production. The analyses of documents from the adaptation of Gone with the Wind that are offered in this book challenge the prejudices of the above-mentioned conventional points of view and raise significant questions concerning the creation of motion pictures.
Consider, for example, the making of the "fire" sequence—the most spectacular episode in the film, in which Scarlett O'Hara and Rhett Butler escape the burning of Atlanta on the eve of its invasion. Most commentaries have noted that this sequence's production required the destruction of great numbers of preexisting sets on the studio lot (made over to simulate street scenes in Atlanta) and that it inaugurated the picture's filming on the evening of December 10,1938, at which time Selznick also was introduced to Vivien Leigh by his brother, the agent Myron Selznick. Unacknowledged is the fact that the fire episode in Mitchell's novel was severely abbreviated in Sidney Howard's initial scripts because the screenwriter doubted the value of this scene to the film presentation.
In contrast, Selznick recognized its potential for spectacle and enlisted production designer William Cameron Menzies and several screenwriters—including Ben Hecht—to embellish on what Mitchell had written. The producer also considered filming much of its action in a pioneer widescreen format, although ultimately this idea was rejected. For the most part, the picture's initial director, George Cukor, observed the pyrotechnical drama from the sidelines that evening as the staging of several pairs of doubles was directed by Menzies, following specific continuity designs, before seven Technicolor cameras—the total number available for lease by studios at the time. Close-ups of Leigh and Gable were filmed the following year under the direction of Cukor's successor, Victor Fleming, and the sequence itself was revised many times under Selznick's supervision. The result was identified by a Gallup poll as the film's most memorable scene.
In view of the abundance of documentation concerning the many changes made to the fire sequence and to other scenes in Gone with the Wind, the contributions of the principal creative technicians-the directors, the screenwriters, the production designer, the art director, the special-effects director, the cinematographers, and the editors-may be examined now vis-à-vis those of the "executive producer" (a title which purportedly was coined a few years earlier by Selznick himself). In this book, successive versions of the screenplay by different authors, dramatic continuity designs and "storyboard" sketches credited to the first production designer in film history, and the producer's correspondence and memoranda are analyzed in this concerted manner, emending the history of this film's making, establishing the critical importance of Selznick's central role, and disclosing both chaotic and creative aspects of his collaboration with his staff. The value of the documents in the Selznick archives to an understanding of how Gone with the Wind and other classical Hollywood films were produced argues for the publication of another book on this film.
David O. Selznick and "Prestige Unit" Film Production
Selznick firmly believed that producers should dictate and monitor every aspect of the filmmaking enterprise and not delegate responsibility for the supervision of production details to middle managers, or associate producers, on whom the major studios' central managers had relied routinely during the early part of the classical Hollywood era. Irving Thalberg (production chief of MGM from 1923 to 1933) and Darryl F. Zanuck (production chief of Warner Bros. from 1929 to 1933 and of 20th Century-Fox from 1935 to 1956) were notable central producers. In contrast, Selznick championed the use of "unit" production, which allowed individual producers to devote full attention to a limited number of film projects and to perfect their own work. Although renowned principally as the "producer of Gone with the Wind," Selznick already had risen dramatically as a motion picture producer at Paramount between 1927 and 1931, at RKO from 1931 to 1933, and at MGM from 1933 to 1935 before going independent with Selznick International Pictures (SIP), from 1936 to 1940, and David O. Selznick Productions, from 1940 to 1949. At Paramount, Selznick served as the executive assistant to Ben Schulberg, the managing director of production, and was responsible for reorganizing the story department and dictating script development policies during the studio's transition from silent to sound film production. During the final year of his tenure (1931), forty of the sixty-five films that Paramount produced were supervised personally by Selznick, who, never idle or immodest, professed to Schulberg that at MGM "the equivalent of my work is handled by no less than six high-salaried executives." Schulberg's son, Budd, who befriended Selznick and who parodied Hollywood in the novel What Makes Sammy Run?, recalled in his autobiography that, contrary to the "major studio 'factory' system ... with 'supervisors' standing in for the studio chief but never completely responsible for the finished product, [Selznick] advocated a personal approach, with supervisors becoming full-fledged producers heading their own independent units"—a new mode of film production which was viewed as a "system of creative decontrol."
Nevertheless, at the age of 29, Selznick himself assumed the duties of a central manager when he was hired as production chief of RKO, a major film studio formed in 1928 by David Sarnoff, president of RCA, and Boston financier Joseph Kennedy. Whereas Irving Thalberg waived the right to acknowledgment of his influence as production chief in the credits of MGM releases, Selznick publicized his own authority as RKO pictures' "executive producer." Although his responsibilities as vice president in charge of production were administrative, Selznick closely monitored and influenced the development of A Bill of Divorcement and What Price Hollywood? both of which were directed by George Cukor in 1932; in fact, the basic story line of the latter film derived from his own original idea. Selznick resigned from RKO when the financial office and ownership in New York refused to grant him the freedom that Thalberg enjoyed from Nicholas Schenck, president of Loew's (the Manhattan-based theater chain which owned the MGM film studio in Southern California), and instead expected the deference that Ben Schulberg had given Paramount. Discontented with this arrangement, Selznick demanded the "final word in story purchase and assignment, as well as in all production matters."
Ironically, Thalberg's poor health between 1932 and 1933 and the desire of Schenck and Louis B. mayer to reestablish control over their own studio made Selznick's employment as a "prestige unit" producer extremely appealing to MGM. Although the quip "the son-in-law also rises" was circulated for a time (Selznick had married Mayer's younger daughter, Irene, in 1930), the company benefited immensely from his productions. His first film, Dinner at Eight (1933), was an auspicious beginning and was directed by George Cukor (who was hired from RKO by MGM following completion of Little Women, much of which Selznick himself had planned before his own departure). Over the next two years, this producer also supervised three literary adaptations—David Copperfield (directed by Cukor), A Tale of Two Cities (featuring Ronald Colman), and Anna Karenina (played by Greta Garbo)—as well as three Clark Gable vehicles—Night Flight, Dancing Lady (with Joan Crawford), and Manhattan Melodrama (with William Powell and Myrna Loy).
High financing from John Hay ("Jock") Whitney and his family (who also had invested heavily in Technicolor), the availability for rental of the RKO-Pathé studio (which was located in the proximity of MGM facilities in Culver City), and a distribution contract with United Artists afforded Selznick the means of forming his own production company. In addition to making Gone with the Wind (distributed by MGM, which bore half of the initial budget and allowed the services of Clark Gable), SIP produced such classic films between 1936 and 1940 as Rebecca (1940; directed by Alfred Hitchcock and starring Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine), A Star is Born (1937; the first of several remakes of What Price Hollywood?), The Prisoner of Zenda (1937; featuring Ronald Colman and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.), Nothing Sacred (1937; starring Carole Lombard and Fredric March), Made for Each Other (1939; with Carole Lombard and James Stewart), and Intermezzo (1939; which introduced Ingrid Bergman to American audiences).
Gone with the Wind and Rebecca won back-to-back Academy Awards for best picture of 1939 and 1940, respectively, and established Selznick as Hollywood's most successful film producer at the zenith of the industry's classical period. Although the major studios distributed as many as one feature per week each, none of these companies were rewarded with figures comparable to those that SIP earned from its smaller number of releases. Ironically, this independent studio was too small for its profits to have been amortized or defrayed in the manner of the majors, and thus it was liquidated for tax purposes in August 1940. In addition, Selznick's intense participation in his films' making had aged him considerably.
Although he quickly formed another production company which created a number of popular films, including three starring his second wife, Jennifer Jones—Since You Went Away (1944), Duel in the Sun (1947), and Portrait of Jennie (1949)—as well as Spellbound (1945), which was directed by Hitchcock, Selznick's attempts to achieve the phenomenal level of success that had been attained between 1939 and 1940 proved to be in vain. The critical consensus to date is represented by Douglas Gomery's report in Movie History: A Survey that, "after Gone with the Wind, Selznick then squandered his career by spending the rest of his life unsuccessfully trying to make a film to best it." More harshly, it was proclaimed by Ezra Goodman in The Fifty-Year Decline and Fall of Hollywood, published in 1961, that by this same date, Selznick himself was "'Gone with the Wind' as far as Hollywood is concerned." (The producer died of heart failure four years later in 1965.)
Much less professed is the fact that during the latter half of his career, Selznick had shifted his principal activity from producing independent films to "packaging" film projects—that is, acquiring literary properties which he sold at a profit to major studios for both production and distribution. Selznick continued to develop the filmscripts, to contract directors, and to cast the principal roles. Two examples of this form of enterprise are Jane Eyre (starring Joan Fontaine and Orson Welles) and Notorious (starring Ingrid Bergman and Cary Grant and directed by Alfred Hitchcock), which were produced by 20th Century-Fox and RKO in 1944 and 1946, respectively. Although his exploitation of "packaging" was an inspired career move and provided the industry with a model for practice, his influence on a project waned after a studio acquired a property, and the responsibility for production was assumed by others who often were less qualified and who were wary of the "overproduced" reputation of Selznick's own films.
In particular, the producer resented 20th Century-Fox's reluctance to invest in its 1962 adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald's Tender is the Night along the dimensions that he had envisioned and their characterization of his aspirations as extravagant and as ars gratia artis. "I have never gone after 'honors instead of dollars,'" he remonstrated in his letter of December 8,1961, to studio president Spyros Skouras. "But I have understood the relationship between the two." Selznick continued with an assessment of his reputation as a film producer and a résumé of his professional philosophy:
No pictures in the history of the industry ever received, picture for picture, as many honors as my own; no pictures in the history of the industry, picture for picture, have ever achieved comparable grosses or comparable profits.... I have seen studio administration after administration go under, because of the failure to realize that honors in the picture business are not only a satisfaction to the recipients, and proper rewards for work well done, but (a) worth millions in gross; (b) an incentive to better work; (c) invaluable to a studio's morale, and to its commercial—that is, "dollars," not "honors"—results on an over-all basis.
In another letter to Skouras on January 16,1962, Selznick admitted the limitations of "packaging" and defended the contributions of creative producers.
You continue to believe that if you hire a good director, and get a good title and put down a couple of casting names on paper, the picture is made. You fail to realize, apparently, that ... great producers have not achieved their reputations in this fashion; that picture after picture is a failure despite these elements, because they have not been produced (whether by producer/director or by producer) with the skill and the experience and the showmanship to know what pays off, dramatically and commercially.
Summing up his own beliefs, Selznick argued that "great films, successful films, are made in their every detail according to the vision of one man, and through supporting that one man, not in buying part of what he has done."
Criticism of Selznick's Influence on Filmmaking as Producer
Ironically, Selznick's profession of a single "vision" was expressed in the same year as the publication of Andrew Sarris's "Notes on the Auteur Theory in 1962" in Film Culture. Although this producer's opinion paralleled Sarris's critical approach with respect to the issue of an individual personality's domination of a filmmaking enterprise, "auteur theory" designated the director as the legitimate "author" of a film text. Since Andrew Sarris's application of auteurist policy in The American Cinema: Directors and Directions, 1929-1968, a film's success has been determined to a significant degree by the director's mastery of the production system and influence on the shooting set. "The auteur theory derives its ratioaanale from the fact that the cinema could not be a completely personal art under even the best conditions," Sarris admitted. "The auteur theory values the personality of a director precisely because of the barriers to its expression," he explained. "It is as if a few brave spirits had managed to overcome the gravitational pull of the mass of movies."
Sarris recognized that Gone with the Wind presented a "notable exception to the notion of directorial authorship" because of Selznick's employment of at least four directors on this production, and the producer was slighted by the critic for "incessant interference with a project that was always too big to be controlled by a single directorial style." This attitude has continued to influence the film's critical reception. For example, although it is conceded in this producer's entry in A Biographical Dictionary of Film that Gone with the Wind resounds with the power of "vast entrepreneurial aplomb," the author David Thomson posited that the film is, "not surprisingly, void of creative personality"; he declared also that while "Gone with the Wind is film history, ... Rebecca is a masterpiece without qualification," presumably because of Hitchcock's direction.
Sarris was not the first critic to devalue Selznick's role. In a 1944 edition of Time, James Agee described Margaret Mitchell's novel as "perhaps the greatest entertainment natural in screen history" and added that the "duck that hatched a swan was lucky compared to ... Selznick [who] hatched Gone with the Wind and has been trying to hatch another ever since." Still prejudice against this producer burgeoned from auteurism's influence. Citing the many directors and writers employed on Gone with the Wind, Leslie Fiedler described the film in The Inadvertent Epic: From "Uncle Tom's Cabin" to "Roots" as a "patchwork job with no controlling intelligence behind it.." The most vitriolic invective came from Richard Schickel, who declaimed:
Selznick, whose devotion to literacy was largely self-proclaimed (in Hollywood in those days anyone who could read without straining was like the one-eyed man in the blind kingdom) and belied by a career-long devotion to talky kitsch ... busied himself with his insufferable memos, fretting over such trivia as sets, costumes, and make-up and guaranteeing that men of independence would not stay long at his side. The result was a film entirely worthy of its source—glossy, sentimental, chuckleheaded—not one that would transcend, as have so many that have been pulled from literature's bottom drawers, the original work."
"No movie role has been so idolized, denigrated, or misrepresented as that of the producer," acknowledged Michael Webb in his catalog of an exhibition organized in 1986 by the Smithsonian Institution and entitled, Hollywood: Legend and Reality. Noting the fictional Monroe Stahr in F. Scott Fitzgerald's novel The Last Tycoon (reputedly inspired by Thalberg) and Sammy Glick in Schulberg's What Makes Sammy Run?, Webb admitted that "a favorite image is the cigar-chomping philistine, fondling flesh and spouting figures, fawned upon by acolytes as he takes a meeting beside a pool in Beverly Hills." The casting of Selznick among this ilk is found in at least two historical surveys—namely, Philip French's The Movie Moguls and Norman Zierold's The Moguls. "Contempt for these men comes easily, and the terms to describe them—mogul, cinemogul, tycoon, czar and the rest—have a certain sneer about them, conjuring up as they do an unfavorable image of a cigar-chewing, language fracturing, power-mad, philistine ignoramus," wrote French, who added that "this image unfortunately is not entirely without foundation in fact."
In contrast, Bob Thomas's biography of Selznick in 1970 echoed Bosley Crowther's assessment that accompanied the producer's obituary in the New York Times and stated that Selznick's principal contribution to filmmaking was the promotion and embodiment of the role of the "creative producer." Proclaiming that "nearly all of the Hollywood films were the product of the big-studio factory-like system" and "had the look of manufactured entertainment," Thomas lauded Selznick for having believed that "a motion picture was like a painting that had to be painted and signed by a single artist." More specifically, this biographer postulated that Selznick was convinced that the artist must necessarily be the producer and he felt that he had proved his theory with Gone with the Wind.
Thomas's accounts of Selznick's film productions were supplemented two years later by Rudy Behlmer, who published a representative sampling of the extensive professional memoranda in Selzmck's archives under the title Memo from David O. Selznick. Acknowledging that "the story of the creation of each of Selznick's films could fill its own book," Behlmer chose Gone with the Wind to serve as the principal "in-depth example" of this producer's oeuvre. The inordinate extent of Selznick's personal supervision of most of the motion pictures that he produced is represented satisfactorily by the documents that are reprinted in the 550-page Memo, and that span his career. Most importantly, the selection demonstrates that Selznick's memo writing was crucial to his modus operandi as a creative producer. All the same, it was a source of chronic irritation to his directors—among whom (in addition to George Cukor, Victor Fleming, William Cameron Menzies, and Sam Wood on Gone with the Wind and on other films) were William Dieterle, Howard Hawks, John Huston, Alfred Hitchcock, King Vidor, and William Wellman—and as such formed the basis of much of the general disdain for this producer by auteurists.
David Thomson professed in his 1992 biography, Showman, that the documents reproduced in Memo comprised only a "tiny selection" of the extensive memoranda preserved among the "three million items, 57,000 pounds of paper, [and] some 6,000 Hollinger boxes" that form Selznick's total archival collection. According to Thomson, Behlmer's sample "emphasized the trait of decisiveness ... whereas the full weight of the memos reveals a less certain and more beleagured man, compelled sometimes to take decisions." While acknowledging that "no one who worked for [Selznick] ever doubted that he had all the power on a project," Thomson posited that the producer's authority "never helped him make up his mind" and that his work should be evaluated as the "weary, frustrated product of indecision, confusion, luck, and accident."
Pace Thomson, it should be recognized that Selznick relished multiple choices and that he eagerly sought menus of options when making decisions. To characterize this producer as "indecisive" is to deny the definite record of his achievements. The medium of the memo was one that Selznick radically exploited in order to petition superiors, to query subordinates, and to prescribe details, thereby advancing his own career. "I honestly don't remember in all the time I was working at MGM—or for that matter ... [at] most other studios (except Paramount)—seeing a single memo written from one executive to another when these executives were in offices anywhere near [each other]," admitted Selznick, whose own prolixity with memoranda was described in 1942 in an article for the Saturday Evening Post wryly entitled "The Great Dictater."
In 1958 Life magazine published a sample of the ten thousand memos purportedly generated by Selznick during his 1957 adaptation of Ernest Hemingway's 1929 novel A Farewell to Arms—the last motion picture which he personally produced and one which followed a hiatus from full-scale filmmaking of almost ten years. It was noted in this publication that "[Selznick's] memos have been famous in Hollywood for their content, range of interest and staggering volume. Those on Farewell, from 30 pages to a single sentence in length, give a revealing and fascinating look at both a movie and the perfectionist who, absorbed in every detail, made it." Ironically, this article proved to be poor publicity for both the picture and its producer. "I take credit for my pictures when they are good, so I must take the blame when they are disappointing," Selznick himself acknowledged afterward, adding that A Farewell to Arms was "not one of the jobs of which I am most proud."
Tension between producer and director reached a climax during this film's making when the director, John Huston, resigned following receipt of a typed, single-spaced, sixteen-page letter from Selznick on March 19, 1957 (a portion of which appeared in Life). In his letter, Selznick argued that Huston was not "entitled to the privileges of an artist with an investment" because of the director's salary. The producer admitted that he himself "would be up against an even more serious situation than when Cukor left Gone with the Wind" if Huston left the project. "But I can only be true to myself—and this is my show—and you yourself have repeatedly stated that it is my show," he reiterated. "I can only say what I said to Cukor: 'If this picture is going to fail, it must fail on my mistakes, not yours.'" Huston dismissed A Farewell to Arms in his autobiography as a "debacle."