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Biography

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Overview (3)

Born in Kiev, Russian Empire [now Ukraine]
Died in Los Angeles, California, USA
Birth NameLewis Zeleznik

Mini Bio (1)

Lewis J. Selznick, one of the pioneers of studio film production and the father of Oscar-winning Gone with the Wind (1939) producer David O. Selznick, was born Lewis Zeleznik in Kiev, Ukraine, Russian Empire, into a poor Jewish family with 18 children. Selznick migrated to London at the age of 12, and then to the US, eventually winding up as a small-time jeweler in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Fate intervened in Selznick's life in the guise of John P. Harris, who opened up the first dedicated cinema in Pittsburgh in 1905 (Pennsylvania officials claim that Harris' nickelodeon was the country's first, but there were dedicated theaters in the US for at least three years before Harris' theater--a dedicated cinema had opened in Los Angeles in 1902). Harris called his new theater, which he opened with a 20-minute, one-reel film from Lumiere, a "nickel-odeon," even though his admission price was ten cents ("odeon" is the Greek word for "theater," and "melodeon" had been a name given to music halls), which raises doubts over his claim to have invented the word, as well as the concept. Before the nickelodeon, movies had been shown in makeshift auditoriums and between variety acts in vaudeville houses as "chasers"--they were shown in order to chase lingering patrons out of the theaters to make room for paying customers for the next show. Two merchants with shops near Harris' nickelodeon became intrigued with the potential of the new industry--Harry Warner and Selznick. Both would go on to be the founders of major studios.

"Time" magazine, in a story about his son David in its July 1, 1935 issue, claimed that Lewis became a producer by walking into the headquarters of Universal Film Manufacturing in 1917, commandeering an abandoned desk and putting a sign labeled "General Manager" over it. The truth may be more mundane, but it is nonetheless fascinating and elucidates the evolution of the motion picture industry.

Selznick became general manager of the East Coast Universal Film Exchange, and eventually started Equitable Pictures with financial backing from Chicago mail-order magnate Arthur Spiegel and a Wall Street investment firm. In a familiar pattern of that time, Selznick created Equitable with the aim of raiding Vitagraph for Clara Kimball Young, a huge draw at the box office. Selznick was one of the investors behind World Pictures, headquartered in Ft. Lee, NJ, the first American movie capital. World had been created in 1914 to import foreign-made features and to distribute the movies of several newly established feature-film companies, including Selznick's Equitable Pictures. Selznick then merged his company with Shubert Pictures, which was the movie production arm of Shubert Theatrical Co., and Peerless Pictures, the movie production company created by motion picture raw film stock magnate Jules Brulatour.

World Pictures, now under the effective control of Selznick, released movies produced by Equitable, Peerless and Shubert Pictures, as well as those produced by independent companies, including the California Motion Picture Corp. of San Francisco. Movie production was centered at the Peerless Studio in Fort Lee, which had been built by Brulatour in 1914, and at the Paragon Studio, which was built in 1916. Gradually World Pictures began to dominate the companies whose movies it distributed. World Film Corp. was incorporated in February 1915, with Arthur Spiegel as president and Selznick as vice president and general manager.

"Photoplay" Magazine reported in 1915 that World Film was a large feature film company, both producing and distributing movies through its own exchanges. Its market capitalization totaled $2 million in stock--with a per-share value of $5.00--of which approximately $1.5 million was outstanding. For the fiscal year ending June 27, 1915, World Film reported a net profit of $329,000, equivalent to return of a little over 20% on the outstanding stock. At the time of the Photoplay article World Film had yet to pay a dividend, and its stock was active on the New York Curb Market at prices both above and below its par value.

World Film's market staples were traditional romances, comedies and dramas, starring the likes of Lillian Russell, Alice Brady, Marie Dressler and Lew Fields. Maurice Tourneur, who came over from Éclair America, proved to be World's top filmmaker. Other World Film employees who went on to greater careers included Josef von Sternberg, who worked as a film cutter, and Frances Marion, the future Oscar-winning screenwriter. Famed Broadway caricaturist Al Hirschfeld was appointed head of the art department by Selznick when he was still in his teens.

Lewis Selznick was ousted as general manager of World Film in 1916. Three years later he left World, taking Clara Kimball Young with him, and formed his own production company, the Clara Kimball Young Film Corp. The company leased studios from the Solax Co., which had been founded in Fort Lee by 'Alice Guy Blache' and her husband, Herbert Blaché (Alice Blanche was not only one of the first women movie executives but one of the first women directors as well). Selznick's company also released movies produced by the Schenck brothers, Joseph M. Schenck and Nicholas Schenck, who were partners with theater-owner Marcus Loew in his chain of movie houses, as well as in the Palisades Amusement Park in the Fort Lee/Cliffside Park area.

The early days of the film studios saw a constant spate of mergers and acquisitions as the industry underwent consolidation, and individual moguls jockeyed for position. Samuel Goldfish was ousted from two companies he co-founded in the 1910s, Famous Players-Lasky and Goldwyn Pictures (from which he took his name, being forever known as independent producer Samuel Goldwyn). Selznick merged with Adolph Zukor's Famous Players Pictures in 1917, creating Select Pictures, later reorganized as Selznick Film Co. Selzlnick eventually bought out Zukor and merged his two companies into Selznick-Select, then acquired World Pictures' film exchanges, which he renamed Republic Distributing Corp. He shifted his operation to California, completing the move in 1920, where he again linked up with Zukor and Jesse L. Lasky's Paramount-Artcraft, the successor to Famous Players-Lasky.

Colorful and flamboyant, a quote of Selznick's became one of the most famous aphorisms about the motion picture industry: "There's no business in the world in which a man needs so little brains as in the movies." He also showed a wicked sense of humor. As a Jew growing up in Czarist Russia, a land famous for its anti-Semitic pogroms, Selznick suffered persecution before he emigrated to England. When Tsar Nicholas II was overthrown in the Bolshevik Revolution of November 1917, Selznick sent a cable to him: "When I was a poor boy in Kiev some of your policemen were not kind to me and my people stop I came to America and prospered stop Now hear with regret you are out of a job over there stop Feel no ill will what your policemen did so if you will come New York can give you fine position acting in pictures stop Salary no object stop Reply my expense stop Regards you and family".

Unlike most of the other moguls, Lewis J. Selznick didn't take the movie business too seriously. The other magnates were outraged by his cavalier attitude toward the industry and the moguls themselves. Among the immigrant businessmen who created Hollywood and the American motion picture industry, it was the cultured and introspective ones who failed. Selznick had a self-deprecating cynicism that eventually diluted his ambition. It was said in the early 1920s that Selznick would rather stay at home surrounded by his ojects d'art. Apparently, he eschewed schmoozing with other industry insiders at their favorite haunts, the track, the polo grounds, the skeet range, and the speakeasies. Lacking their tastes and world view, Selznick wound up distrusted by the other movie magnates.

When Lewis J. Selznick Production, Inc., became financially troubled during the production glut of 1923 that roiled the industry, he had no one to turn to. His company went bankrupt in 1923 due to overexpansion, done in by the machinations of a vengeful Zukor. He never produced another movie, or as he'd prefer it, his days as a "presenter" were through (Lewis J. Selznick Productions' pictures were opened with a title card that read: "Selznick Presents." The slogan "Selznick Pictures Make Happy Hours" was, by the end of the second decade of the new 20th century, the best-known slogan in the entertainment industry).

His son David learned the ropes as a young man at Lewis J. Selznick Productions. As an independent producer, David later surpassed Lewis J., winning back-to-back Oscars for "Gone with the Wind" and Rebecca (1940). After his father went bankrupt, David quit Columbia and moved to California to get back into the industry without any help from his father. getting a proofreader's job at MGM. Famous for his facility with words and his writing ability, David quickly worked his way up to story editor, then became an assistant producer in producer Harry Rapf's unit. He began a secret romance with Irene Mayer, daughter of MGM boss Louis B. Mayer, and he eventually decided to quit and take a lower-paying job with better prospects at Paramount.

When he became betrothed to Irene L.B. was skeptical due to Selznick's being a "traitor" by leaving MGM. Actually, he respected David for striking out on his own and avoiding charges of nepotism. Mayer's real objection, it seemed, was rooted in his hatred of David's dad, a renegade who had tried to horn in on the original Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ (1925), claiming he had rights to the stage play. David apologized for his father, admitting it wasn't right for Lewis to have pulled such a con, and the two healed their rift, with David eventually working for his father-in-law after the death of Mayer's right-hand man Irving Thalberg (the news of the elevation of David to supervising producer at MGM was the source of the famous newspaper headline, "The Son-in-Law Also Rises.")

Lewis J. Selznick died on January 25, 1933, in Los Angeles, California. World Film and Lewis J. Selznick Productions Inc. no longer exist, and many of the films he produced are lost or forgotten, so his son David's output of great motion pictures remains Lewis J.'s Hollywood legacy. For it was at World Film Corp. that the banner "Quality Not Quantity" had first been unfurled.

- IMDb Mini Biography By: Jon C. Hopwood (qv's & corrections by A. Nonymous)

Spouse (1)

Florence 'Flossie' Sachs (15 October 1896 - 25 January 1933) ( his death) ( 4 children)

Trivia (11)

Father of producer David O. Selznick and agent Myron Selznick.
President of National Picture Theaters Inc., a film production company formed in 1919.
Co-founder (w/Owen Moore) of Owen Moore Film Corp., a production company formed in 1922.
Was Vice President/General Manager of World Film Corp., Fort Lee, NJ (?-1916).
Founder/president of Equitable Motion Pictures Corp., a film production company.
Founder/president of Lewis J. Selznick Enterprises, a film production company.
President of Clara Kimball Young Film Corp., 1916-1922.
President of film production company Select Film Corp. (1917-23).
President of Associated Exhibitors, Inc., a film distribution company.
Founder of Selznick Distribution Corporation (1923-24), a film distribution company.

Personal Quotes (2)

There's no business in the world in which a man needs so little brains as in the movies.
If Canadian stories are worthwhile making into movies, then companies will be sent into Canada to make them.

See also

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