Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Born Today May 2: Lewis J. Selznick


Studio and movie pioneer Lewis J. Selznick was born Laiser Zeleznick in Grinkiskis, then part of the Russian Empire, now part of Lithuania. He grew up in Kiev, now the capital of Ukraine, but then, also part of of the Russian Empire.  At the age of 12, he left Kiev for London.  Then in 1888, at the age of 18, he immigrated to the U.S.  He settled in Pittsburgh, set up a jewelry shop and married.  Though he is best remembered today for being the father of David O. Selznick and Myron Selznick, Lewis was a much more important early film pioneer than either of his two sons.   In 1903, Selznick moved his family to Brooklyn, retaining a series of successful jewelry stores back in Pittsburgh.  He initially established a large jewelry store in Manhattan, but had sold out of it by 1907.  In 1910 or 1911, he moved his family into Manhattan, where he worked in patent promotion and started selling electrical supplies.  In 1913 an old contact of his from Pittsburgh convinced him become involved in the Universal Film Manufacturing Company (now Universal Pictures). He became a successful cinema manager of the East Coast Universal Film Exchange.  In 1914 he and a shipping magnate from Chicago Arthur Spiegel organized their own World Film Company in Fort Lee, NJ--with the backing of a Wall Street investment firm.  The company quickly moved to get into the film distribution business for the studios that were already established there.  The first film that the company distributed came in 1915 with Old Dutch (not to be confused with My Old Dutch, which also dates from 1915) starring Lew Fields and produced by the Shubert Film Corporation.  Indeed, one of the Shubert brothers sat on World Film Company's board.  Next came The Boss (1915), then Trilby (1915) directed by Maurice Tourneur, and Wildfire (1915) starring Lionel Barrymore.  The company then merged with the Shubert brothers' company and with Peerless Pictures Studio.  After this, World Film became wildly successful.  Selznick was personally responsible for luring Tourneur away from Pathe'--then a much bigger company and director Sidney Olcott away from Kalem.  Josef von Sternberg at one time also worked for the company.  The first film that he was a direct producer on was War Brides in 1916. However his personality clashed with others and he was forced out of the company in 1916 by the company's board of directors.  This did not stop Selznick from continuing on in the motion picture business however.  He was able to wrest away one the studio's majors stars in Clara Kimball Young; with her, he formed the Clara Kimbell Young Film Corp.--which is how she became one of the first female film producers.  The company would go on to lease a studio in Fort Lee to Solax, a company founded by Alice Guy Blanche, who is credited with being the very first female film director.  He would go on to partner with the New York area's largest owner of film houses--this made Selznick extremely rich.  Selznick made the move to Hollywood in 1920, eventually teaming up with Adolph Zukor and Jesse L. Lasky.  But, Selznick was not well liked by other studio magnates: he possessed a brash personality, refused to take the motion picture business seriously and would not hob-knob with other wealthy elites in any way.  One of his most famous sayings was "There's no business in the world in which a man needs so little brains as in the movies."  In 1923 a production glut hit Hollywood quite hard and many companies went through extremely lean times.  Selznick's company quickly found itself in serious financial trouble--with no one to turn to for help, because of his unpopularity--the company went bankrupt.  He officially retired from the film production business.  The last film for which he has a production credit was Reported Missing in 1922.   However, he had long been giving himself credit as "presenter" of films, in the silent era, that is the same thing as a producer.  He started this practice back on the east coast (see The Common Law (1916)), but accelerated it when arriving in Hollywood.  So in reality, the actual last film that he "presented" aka produced, was Rupert of Hentzau in 1923.  There does not appear to have any real catalog of produced films at any of his production companies, so it is thought that he made many more films that have been lost AND forgotten.  Selznick died on the 25th of January in Los Angeles, he is interred in a family niche of the Great Mausoleum at Forest Lawn Memorial Park.  He was 62 years of age. 

For More:

Leave Virtual Remembrances @ Find A Grave (note: that this 
           entry gets his birth date wrong)

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