Reel Culver City

by Marc Wanamaker



In 1935, the major studios in the Los Angeles area were MGM, Columbia, Paramount, RKO, Warner Bros., United Artists and Universal. Along with the majors there were many small studios producing either for the major companies or for the independent market.


David O. Selznick had already an impressive track record of being a film producer, first working for his father, Louis Selznick, and later, at RKO and at MGM.

In May of 1935, United Artists wanted to sign Selznick to a distribution deal as an independent company. At this time, Selznick already had investment money in hand from his friends, Irving and Norma Thalberg, and his agent brother Myron. He then accepted an offer from financier John Hay Whitney and his family and friends, as well as offers from New York bankers Robert and Arthur Lehman – and taxicab magnate John Hertz.

Shortly thereafter, Dr. Attilio Giannini, the younger brother of the founder of the Bank of America and a member of Selznick Board of Directors, took over as president of United Artists giving David’s company a major distributor and further financing if necessary. This completed his financial package and opened the door for the creation of Selznick International Pictures.

By October of 1935, Selznick was organizing his company and preparing a portfolio of projects for his initial releases through United Artists. A roster of production personnel was acquired from MGM and Paramount where David had worked. The new company began to lease the old RKO/Pathé Studios in Culver City because David knew the lot very well during his time as a producer for RKO.


It was decided that the first Selznick production would be Little Lord Fauntleroy with MGM star, Freddie Bartholomew, as the lead. The MGM contract players were loaned by David’s father-in-law, the head of MGM, Louis B. Mayer.

In February of 1936, it was announced that the second release for the company would be a Technicolor-produced production of The Garden of Allah starring Marlene Dietrich. After the film was completed, Selznick began the logistics of setting up a film studio that would be able to adapt itself to his working habits. Special departments were created that would work closely with the head office and the production teams.

By November of 1936, it was announced that Selznick International would make twelve pictures in the coming year, four of them in Technicolor. This new, enlarged schedule would require more studio space than what the company had been leasing on the RKO-Pathé lot. This led to arrangements to take over the entire lot, rename it Selznick International Studios, and operate the entire plant as a rental facility while still dominating the studio’s facilities for their own productions.


The next production was A Star Is Born starring Janet Gaynor. Shot in Technicolor, the production began on October 31st and was released in 1937. A Star Is Born was the first picture to use the Selznick International trademark which was a Technicolor view of the original Thomas Ince administration building on Washington Boulevard, with the Selznick sign adjacent to it. This proved to be a dignified trademark that Selznick was pleased with and identified a Selznick picture with that of an historical Culver City landmark.

By March of 1937, scenes were being shot for the next Selznick production, The Prisoner of Zenda. Starring Ronald Colman, Madeleine Carroll and Douglas Fairbanks Jr., the film became a box-office success.

On May 20, 1936, the first detailed synopsis of Gone With The Wind was reviewed by Selznick along with a copy of the book.

At the end of 1937, another lavish production was begun: The Adventures of Tom Sawyer which was shot at the RKO/Pathé Studio and its “40-acre” backlot, as well as the Paramount Ranch in Agoura. Following the success of Tom Sawyer, there was a succession of such films produced at the Selznick studios including Nothing Sacred, The Young in Heart, Intermezzo with Ingrid Bergman, Made For Each other with Carole Lombard, Gone With The Wind, Rebecca with Joan Fontaine and Laurence Olivier, Since You Went Away, Spellbound, Duel in the Sun with Gregory Peck, The Paradine Case with Charles Laughton, Portrait of Jennie with Jennifer Jones, and A Farewell To Arms with Rock Hudson.


By 1962, the Selznick Studio was being used by other production companies and renamed the Desilu Culver Studios which had been purchased by Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz in 1957. Selznick’s last production at his beloved studio was Tender Is the Night with his wife, actress Jennifer Jones. At this time Selznick had been headquartered in Culver City for twenty-seven years.

David O. Selznick died on June 22, 1965 and left a legacy of classic films still enjoyed by 21st Century audiences.

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