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Edgar Selwyn Poster

Biography

Jump to: Overview (4)  | Mini Bio (1)  | Spouse (2)  | Trivia (4)

Overview (4)

Born in Cincinnati, Ohio, USA
Died in Los Angeles, California, USA  (cerebral hemorrhage)
Birth NameEdgar Simon
Height 5' 10" (1.78 m)

Mini Bio (1)

What a life! Edgar Selwyn was born Edgar Simon on October 20, 1875, in Cincinnati, OH. As a child he and his family lived in Toronto, Canada, before moving to Selma, AL, where his parents died. He moved to Chicago at the age of 17 to seek his fortune, but Fortune would not let the young man take her as his mistress. Penniless, one night he decided to commit suicide and jumped off a bridge spanning the Chicago River. Instead of drowning, he landed on ice. Picking himself up, he made his way back to shore, where he was promptly accosted by a stickup artist, who jammed a gun into his back. "Your money or your life!" the thug thundered in time-honored fashion. The calm Selwyn replied, "My life." The perplexed thief began conversing with his intended victim, with the result that they both went to a pawnshop, where the gun was pawned and the proceeds divided between the two. This real-life comedy-drama served as the basis for Selwyn's 1915 play "Rolling Stones."

Busted flat in Chicago, Selwyn moved to New York in the 1890s, where he eventually achieved success as an actor, playwright and theatrical producer. First, though, he had to struggle. He became a haberdasher, selling neckties for $9 a week. Subsequently, he found employment as an usher at the Herald Square Theatre at the princely wage of 50 cents a night, but was soon was fired for imitating actor Richard Mansfield, who was starring in a play at the theater.

Actor-impresario William Gillette hired Selwyn for "Secret Service" in 1896, in which he played the role of a Confederate soldier, for $8 a week. Later he became the assistant stage manager for Gillette's company at the same salary. Gillette believed in the "realism of action," and minimized unnecessary dialog in favor of physical action that would elucidate the characters' behavior, a production philosophy that influenced the nascent movie industry, which, of course, was silent. Eventually Selwyn left Gillette and toured with a stock company, which put on his first play, the one-act "A Night in Havana."

After his apprenticeship in stock companies in Rochester, NY, and at New York City's Third Avenue Theatre, Selwyn made it back to Broadway in 1899, appearing in "The King's Musketeers" at the Herald Square Theatre, where he had first ushered. The next year he appeared in Augustus Thomas' "Arizona", moving with the production to London in 1902. Other plays he performed in on Broadway before becoming a star were Charles Frohman's 1902 production of "Sherlock Holmes", with his former employer Gillette in the title role, and two plays starring Ethel Barrymore: "Sunday" in 1904 and a 1905 revival of Henrik Ibsen's masterpiece "A Doll's House", with Barrymore as Nora Helmer.

Selwyn appeared in George M. Cohan's stinker "Popularity" in 1906. That same year he turned to playwriting, with his "It's All Your Fault" running for 32 performances at the Majestic in September 1908. His adaptation of Anglo-Canadian writer Gilbert Parker's novel about French-Canadians, "Pierre and His People", hit the Broadway boards that October, running for 32 performances as "Pierre of the Plains" (it was made into a movie in 1914, Pierre of the Plains (1914), starring Selwyn and produced by his own company, the All Star Feature Film Corp.; it was remade by MGM in 1942 as Pierre of the Plains (1942), with John Carroll). "The Country Boy" opened at the Liberty on August 30, 1910, and ran for 143 performances. According to his "New York Times" obituary, Selwyn had the biggest success of his career as a dramatist as playwright-star of his own original play "The Arab" in 1911. This drama was made into a film in 1915 (The Arab (1915)) by Cecil B. DeMille, with Selwyn recreating his stage role.

His first musical, "The Wall Street Girl", opened at George M. Cohan's Theatre on June 1, 1912, and ran for 56 performances. The book was written by Broadway playwright Margaret Mayo, Selwyn's first wife. He produced "Within the Law" that same year, and it was a huge success, generating a net profit of $1 million (approximately $19 million in 2003 dollars) in the days just before the advent of federal income tax. He also produced his wife's play "Her First Divorce", which ran for eight performances at the Comedy Theatre in 1913.

Edgar's younger brother Archibald Selwyn had followed him to New York and gone into business with a loan from the theatrical literary agent Elisabeth Marbury. Archibald had acquired the rights to operate a Coney Island concession that required the purchase of a penny-slot weighing machine, which he did with Marbury's money. After much frustration with the rusting machine, Arch and his partner one day garnered 1,300 pennies from a Coney Island crowd mindful of their waists. The two partners promptly lost their loot, which was wrapped in a blanket, although they did recover it from a restaurant trash can. It was time for a new career for Arch.

Edgar, Arch and future Broadway producer-director Crosby Gaige launched Selwyn & Company, Inc., in 1914, a theatrical production company and play brokerage that Edgar headed as president until 1924. The Selwyn Theater was built in 1918 at 229 W. 42nd St. behind their six-floor office building. It was inaugurated on Oct 2, 1918, with "Information Please", co-written by Jane Cowl, who had appeared in "Within the Law" and acted in other Edgar Selwyn plays. Its second offering was Edgar's own "The Crowded Hour", which opened 11 days after the end of World War I.

Construction of the theater--which was rechristened in 2000 as the American Airlines Theater--was bankrolled by infamous gambler Arnold Rothstein, the man who fixed the 1919 World Series (one of the inspirations for the character of Meyer Wolfsheim in F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatsby," Rothstein pioneered New York's narcotics trade, in addition to being a gangster, swindler and political fixer).

The most popular play to appear at the Selwyn was Edna Ferber's and George S. Kaufman's "The Royal Family," which burlesqued the Barrymore family. Opening on December 28, 1927, the play, which was produced by Broadway legend Jed Harris, ran for 345 performances.

The Selwyns also built the Times Square Theater on 42nd Street in 1920. It opened with Edgar's own play, "The Mirage," which turned out to be a hit that ran for six months. The second play at the theater, Avery Hopwood's "The Demi-Virgin," ran for eight months. Eight of the 23 plays that followed these two inaugural hits were successful, and its boards were trod by the likes of Beatrice Lillie, Tallulah Bankhead and Robert Cummings. Gertrude Lawrence co-starred with the young Laurence Olivier and Noël Coward in Coward's 1931 hit comedy "Private Lives" at the theater. Other famous productions there were "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes" in the 1926-1927 season, "The Front Page" in 1928 and "Strike Up the Band" in 1930.

The Times Square Theater's exterior featured an open-colonnaded limestone facade that had an entrance for the Selwyns' Apollo Theater. Built in 1919 as a movie-cum-vaudeville house named The Bryant, it was taken over by the Selywns in 1920 and rebuilt. It was converted to a legitimate theater showcasing plays and musicals, sharing a single marquee with the Times Square Theater.

The Apollo didn't have its first hit until 1923's "Poppy," starring W.C. Fields. The theater then was taken over exclusively for George White's "Scandals," a Ziegfeld Follies-like show that ran annually from 1924-31. The productions were famous for their chorus lines of gorgeous--and undressed--showgirls. The Apollo closed as a legitimate theater after the musical "Blackbirds of 1933" flopped, lasting only 25 performances. It then began showing movies until it was acquired by the Minskys, who ran it as a burlesque theater from 1934-37. In 1938 the Apollo transformed itself into a movie theater specializing in foreign films, then devolved into a Times Square grindhouse, an incarnation that lasted many years.

In 1933 the Times Square Theater ceased to be a legitimate theater after the closing of the play "Forsaking All Others," starring Tallulah Bankhead. Produced by Arch Selwyn, it opened on March 1, 1933, and closed after 110 performances. The theater was refitted as a movie house in 1934, as was the Selwyn, before being converted into a retail store in 1940. The Selwyn degenerated into one of Times Square's many double-feature grindhouses before being reclaimed as a theater in the 1990s, when the Wooster Group staged "The Hairy Ape" there in 1997.

Edgar Selwyn personally produced the Anita Loos comedy "Gentleman Prefer Blondes" in 1926, which ran for 199 performances at the family's Times Square Theater. He was also the producer of the musical "Strike up the Band", with music and lyrics by George Gershwin and Ira Gershwin and a book by Morrie Ryskind, based on George S. Kaufman's libretto, and the play racked up 191 performances at the Times Square in 1930. Edgar's last Broadway productions were "Fast Service" in 1931, a flop that lasted only seven performances at the Selwyn, and "The Wookey" ten years later, which ran for 134 performances at the Plymouth. His brother Arch continued to produce on Broadway throughout the 1930s.

Although Selwyn wrote many plays solo and in collaboration, the new medium of motion pictures was to become his future. Edgar and Arch Selwyn started producing films in 1912 through their All Star Feature Films Corp. In December 1916 they merged their company with that of producer Samuel Goldfish, creating the Goldwyn Pictures Corp. The symbol of the new company was a reclining lion, surrounded by a banner made from a strip of celluloid film, reading, in Latin, "Ars Gratia Artis" ("Art for Art's Sake"). Designed by advertising-publicity guru Howard Dietz, who later became a Broadway lyricist and movie executive, it adorned the front gate of the studio's Culver City, CA, production facilities, which ranked with the finest in the film industry (the inspiration for the original "Leo the Lion" likely were the stone lions fronting the New York Public Library on 44th St., which was across from the All Star Feature Corp.'s offices.)

Edgar's wife Margaret Mayo, a success in her own right as a playwright, and Broadway impresario Arthur Hopkins also were partners in the deal, but the dominant figure at Goldwyn Pictures and Goldwyn Distributing was Sam Goldfish. Goldfish, a founding partner of the Jesse L. Lasky Feature Film Co. in 1914, was forced out of that company in early 1916 when studio chief Jesse L. Lasky more closely integrated his production company with Adolph Zukor's Famous Players Film Co. The two firms served as the basis of Paramount Pictures. Goldfish, who had immigrated to Canada as Schmuel Gelbfisz, liked the name of his new company so well he adopted it as his surname--thus the world was introduced to Samuel Goldwyn.

Disliked by his partners, he dominated Goldwyn Pictures for three years until he lost an ownership struggle in September 1920. He resigned and, tired of partners, became an independent producer, a status he maintained for the rest of his career. Subsequently, the Goldwyn-less Goldwyn Pictures bought the old Triangle Studios in Los Angeles and leased two more New York studios while ceasing operations in New Jersey. The company eventually was merged with Loew's Inc.'s Metro Pictures in 1924 through a stock swap, creating Metro-Goldwyn, which subsequently merged with Louis B. Mayer Productions, with Louis B. Mayer as studio chief. The "Leo the Lion" trademark was adopted by MGM, and after being modified, would become one of the most famous and enduring trademarks in history.

Selwyn was hired by MGM as a writer-director in 1929. There he directed the Broadway star Helen Hayes to an Academy Award in the melodrama The Sin of Madelon Claudet (1931). Divorced from Margaret Mayo, Selwyn married Ruth Selwyn (born Ruth Wilcox), who was 30 years his junior. The marriage made him the brother-in-law of Loew's Inc. President Nicholas M. Schenck, who was married to Ruth's sister Pansy (aka Mrs. Nicholas M. Schenck).

Marcus Loew, the capo di tutti capo of MGM, was a firm believer in nepotism. Going along with the family tradition, Selwyn put his wife Ruth in several of the films he directed and produced. He mentored Ruth's brother, Fred M. Wilcox, who eventually became a director at MGM himself (Lassie Come Home (1943) and the sci-fi classic Forbidden Planet (1956)). Selwyn adopted Ruth's son Russell from an earlier marriage (Edgar and Ruth eventually divorced),

When Louis B. Mayer replaced the position of central producer with a "college of cardinals" concept of production units after Irving Thalberg's 1932 heart attack, Selwyn became a producer. He eventually served as Mayer's editorial assistant while simultaneously running his own production unit.

Edgar Selwyn died at the age of 68 at Los Angeles' Cedars of Lebanon Hospital on February 14, 1944, from a cerebral hemorrhage he had suffered the previous night. He was survived by his brother, Arch, two sisters, Mrs. Michael Isaacs and Mrs. S. M. Goldsmith, and his stepson, Russell "Rusty" Selwyn.

- IMDb Mini Biography By: Jon C. Hopwood

Spouse (2)

Ruth Selwyn (7 January 1926 - ?) ( divorced) ( 1 child)
Margaret Mayo (1901 - 23 August 1919) ( divorced)

Trivia (4)

Before "going Hollywood", he was a successful playwright and producer on Broadway. In 1912 he produced the hit play "Within the Law," which netted approximately $1 million (approximately $19 million in 2003 dollars) in those pre-income tax days. He was president of Selwyn & Company, Inc., a theatrical production company he owned with his younger brother Archibald Selwyn and Crosby Gaige, from 1914 to 1924.
He was an actor-playwright in stock companies and on Broadway after the turn of the last century. His first play was the one-act "A Night in Havana" for a stock company. He adapted Gilbert Parker 's novel "Pierre and His People" as "Pierre of the Plains" and acted in it on Broadway in 1911. Also in that year he had his biggest success with his play "The Arab," in which he also starred.
He became a movie producer with his brother Archibald Selwyn in 1912, eventually merging their All-Star Feature Films Corp. with Samuel Goldfish's (soon to change his name to Samuel Goldwyn) studio to create Goldwyn Pictures Corp. in 1916. He was hired by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in 1929 as a writer and director, eventually becoming a producer and serving as an editorial assistant to Louis B. Mayer while operating his own production unit.
Edgar and Ruth Selwyn divorced before his death in 1944. They had one son, Russell (nicknamed "Rusty"), who was born during Ruth's previous marriage to a man surnamed Synder, and who was adopted by Edgar during their marriage.

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