Well, whether you accepted last week’s challenge or not, it’s time to lay down a few little riffs on how this film brilliantly–and in at least one case, unintentionally– mirrors Hollywood history:
1. Norman Maine’s descent has been described as what happened to Johns Barrymore and Gilbert (below left and right), neither of whom were exactly amateurs at bending their elbows.
But I choose to believe another story that’s been mooted; that the inspiration for this was the Frank Fay/Barbara Stanwyck marriage (below right). Fay was a huge star on Broadway and came to Hollywood with fanfare and a fat contract. His thin-skinned orphan of a wife accompanied him, and got little work–until Fay talked Capra into auditioning her, and one of the great collaborations of 30s film began with Ladies of Leisure in 1930. Capra fell in love with Stanwyck’s naturalness and her ease, and filmed the young actress so her skin glows like wet paint, lush in its tactility. She became one of the greatest actresses of the era, and was the highest paid woman in America by 1944. Fay meanwhile, leaned hard on the bottle, lost work, began to knock his wife around and basically bought himself a one-way ticket out of town.
2. The sanitarium scene is said to be based on the a visit George Cukor (a frequent Selznick collaborator) made to a facility where Barrymore had been sent to dry up. Cukor was there to talk about a potential role in “Camille”, and was touched by Barrymore’s gentle awkwardness on this rare sober occasion.
3. The scene where Vicky’s veil is snatched off is modeled on what happened to Norma Shearer at her producer husband Irving Thalberg’s funeral, which occurred during production, and led the way for Selznick to move to MGM and begin working with Louis B. Mayer. Of course, working for his wife’s father prompted all sorts of nepotism slurs around town (“The Son-In-Law Also Rises”), despite Selznick’s constant struggle for independence.
4. The colorization itself was part of a deal Selznick signed with his friend and partner, Jock Whitney, who along with Cornelius Vanderbilt had a 15% stake in Technicolor. The arrogant yet chronically insecure Selznick was thrilled to be allied with genuine east-coast aristos, and he never anticipated that their ruthlessness could match that of Hollywood. Boy, was he naive. In 1942, Selznick had to sell his share in Gone with the Wind due to chronic gambling debts and IRS problems. Whitney generously offered $500,000, then showed his robber-baron roots by turning around and selling the movie on to Selznick’s own controlling father-in-law, the aforementioned head of MGM Louis B. Mayer, for nearly $3,000,000. The old man had been trying to get his hands on the picture for years. Like that, and like Norman Maine, Selznick’s usefulness was done.
5. The little fillip of lurve and showmanship at the end was inspired by the wife of silent film actor Wallace Reid.
He had been one of the first silent stars, a dashing, teeth-flashing sort who was started on morphine after an on-set injury, and became terribly addicted. He died in a sanitorium desperately trying to kick the drug. His wife travelled the country afterward, talking about the dangers of drugs and of Hollywood, always calling herself Mrs. Wallace Reid.
6. In the saddest twist of all, Selznick’s career somehow slowly collapsed into a more sordid, sadder reflection of Norman’s love for Esther/Vicky. After years of chasing secretaries and showgirls around his desk, he finally got caught by the big eyes and gentle melancholy of shiksa Jennifer Jones.
Selznick (reluctantly) lost his marriage over her. In divorcing Irene Mayer–and her redoubtable father–he was taking on Hollywood itself, in the form of two powerful people who’d never been fooled by the town’s Technicolor prettiness. Selznick spent the rest of his life trying vainly to make Jones a great enough star to make his defection seem worth it. It never was; they both knew it. Selznick retreated to amphetamines and travel, bullyingly trying to recreate the glittering success of his past. . .and it all turned to clay in his hands, slush beneath his feet. Meanwhile, in a twist-of-the-knife development, Irene Mayer herself became one of the discoverers of the Next Great Star: As producer of A Streetcar Named Desire on Broadway, she brought Marlon Brando to the world’s attention.
Selznick had started out to prove that someone could make a successful movie about Hollywood at a time when it was believed it couldn’t be done. The irony is that the poor bastard did it by revealing the frailty of those whose success depends on the most evanescent of sources: the charm of youth and the whim of the public. As for himself, he thought hard work would be enough to keep the demons of the past at bay. . .and it wasn’t. Which makes one wonder: What was Vicki Lester’s second marriage like?