David O. Selznick (r) and Alfred Hitchcock. Image: aheykleingallery.com

Sometimes the best Hollywood stories are the ones off screen.

Take, for example, the uneasy partnership between director Alfred Hitchcock and producer David O. Selznick that – in spite of their very different approaches to filmmaking – produced some exquisite films: Rebecca (1940), Spellbound (1945), Notorious (1946), and The Paradine Case (1947).

Hollywood historian Leonard J. Leff explores this unlikely collaboration in Hitchcock & Selznick: The Rich and Strange Collaboration of Alfred Hitchcock and David O. Selznick in Hollywood.

It’s a story of creativity and business, told by someone who knows how to read movies. Leff revels in this account, and his exhaustive research makes this unique chapter of Hollywood history extraordinarily vivid.

The business arrangement that began in 1938 was Over by 1948. It was a Marriage of Convenience between Selznick the restless micromanager and Hitchcock the stubborn passive-aggressive. “Selznick and Hitchcock never fought like cats and dogs,” says Leff, “they preferred the subtler game of cat and mouse.”¹

But the movies were good. “Hitchcock added bite to Selznick’s style,” writes Leff. “Selznick added American gloss to Hitchcock’s.”²

Hitchcock & Selznick is a biography of a Hollywood partnership and reversal of fortune. Over their 10-year association, Hitchcock would gain Hollywood prestige, while Selznick, unable to duplicate the massive success of Gone With the Wind (1939), would recede.

Early days. Image: El Cinema de Hollywood

In the 1930s, before Selznick brought him to Hollywood, Hitchcock was considered a director of “British thrillers”, and he languished in a Career Rut.

“The [British] companies’ inefficient management as well as the instability of personnel, financing, and budgets severely limited growth,” writes Leff. “Furthermore, throughout the 1930s, accounting methods penalized successful filmmakers like Hitchcock, whose box office receipts were used to offset the commercial failures of his more prodigal associates.”³

Meanwhile, Selznick, the captain of Selznick International Pictures and producer of Gone With the Wind, realized he needed director-producers because he insisted on becoming too involved in each production. He couldn’t help himself, even though his health and home life were starting to deteriorate.

He wanted Hitchcock, even though he hadn’t seen his films, but he liked how the media wrote about the director. Selznick also had the impression – deliberately cultivated by the Brit – that Hitchcock was both a director and a producer.

An agreement was signed, Hitchcock moved his family to Hollywood, and sleeves were rolled with anticipation.

The filmmaking style of both men, along with the resulting friction, are detailed with colourful contrast. Selznick focused on character motivations and the beauty of language; Hitchcock saw plot as something of a technical challenge.

For example, during the pre-production of Rebecca, Leff writes, “Selznick never forced the issue of absolute control, for alienating Hitchcock made no sense. The critically-acclaimed director was already the media’s darling and potentially a major corporate asset.”4

Selznick viewed Hitchcock as both a creative filmmaking partner and a commodity, while Hitchcock chafed against his employer. He wanted to be – and eventually became – an independent producer, but it would be Tough Slogging in the interim, especially for one who disliked authority figures.

He sometimes revealed his contempt on screen. For example, look below at actor Raymond Burr, the villain in Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954), and how he bears a resemblance to Selznick.

To be fair, though, Selznick wasn’t the only Hollywood exec to wear Hitchcock’s target on his back.

Hitchcock & Selznick is a well-written book with insight and humour. Leff has many brilliant throwaway observations, such as Hitchcock preferring “wars of attrition not aggression.”

He also discusses Selznick’s fondness for verbose memos, and Hitchcock’s perceived boredom while on set. Leff doesn’t delve deeply into the personal lives of these men – he gives us just enough for perspective – yet he leaves us feeling like we actually know this unusual pair.

Leff, as biographer, is as objective as possible. He notes Selznick’s contributions often made films better, unlike other studio moguls at the time. He also notes Hitchcock’s ability to visualize the End Result, the meticulous planning he assigned to his shots, and how, over time, his filming schedules became more efficient.

“History subsequently proved that Selznick needed Hitchcock more than Hitchcock needed Selznick,” says Leff, “yet Hitchcock did not succeed despite Selznick any more than Selznick succeeded because of Hitchcock.”5

They would not end their days in acrimony. Shortly before his death in 1965, Selznick appeared at a Screen Producers event honouring Hitchcock. Leff says Selznick “affectionately recalled his early association with ‘Hitch, cool and imperturbable – undisturbed even by my memos – of which he received many.'”6

Years later, Hitchcock fondly remembered Selznick in an interview. Leff quotes Hitchcock as saying, “Are we missing some other stimulus that went with those earlier days – the great movie mogul, for example?”7

If you’re an Alfred Hitchcock fan, or have an interest in Hollywood history, you’ll love this book. It’s amusing and informative, and is as much a study of the mechanics of cinema as it is about the personalities involved.

This is a contribution to The MASTER OF SUSPENSE Blogathon hosted by Classic Film and TV Corner.

Leff, Leonard J. (1987) Hitchcock & Selznik: The Rich and Strange Collaboration of Alfred Hitchcock and David O. Selznick in Hollywood. New York, NY. Weidenfeld & Nicolson.
¹Ibid., p. 117
²Ibid., p. xii
³Ibid., p. 15
4Ibid., pp. 54-55
5Ibid., p. xii
6Ibid., p. 280
7Ibid., p. 280

Happily blogging about old movies and using the royal "We".

22 Comment on “Alfred Hitchcock and the Man Who Brought Him to Hollywood

  1. Pingback: The Master Of Suspense Blogathon Arrives! – Classic Film And TV Corner

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