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article number 603
article date 10-11-2016
copyright 2016 by Author else SaltOfAmerica
The Battle to Control Hollywood: A Newcomer Challenges the Leader, 1916-20
by Terry Ramsaye

From the 1926 book, A Million and One Nights.

* * *

ADOLPH ZUKOR had little more than well begun to organize his feudal barony of the screen in 1916 when a jester, with cap awry and bells a-jingle, cartwheeled into the banquet hail to thumb his nose toward the head of the table and make impertinent remarks while he helped himself to the wine and meats.

This invader was the blond stranger from Pittsburgh, Lewis J. Selznick, whose entry into the films we have traced by a trail of salt herring and diamonds.

The motion picture industry which was being permanently Zukored, was now also to be transiently but utterly Selznicked.

Selznick was officially vice president and general manager of the World Film Corporation. He had also appointed himself the general disturbance of the motion picture industry.

When Carl Laemmle of Universal, who had “accepted a resignation” from Selznick two years before, signed a series of advertisements pleading with exhibitors to “use the brains that God gave you,” Selznick issued the remark that the motion picture business “takes less brains than anything else in the world.”

In the conduct of the World Film Corporation, Selznick was hampered slightly by a board of directors, including some bankers.

Carl Laemmle starts Universal Studios at “Universal City” north of Hollywood.

The bankers were in the World as a result of a pleasant bit of Selznickery. Early in the history of that enterprise Selznick found himself at the helm of the World Special Films Corporation, an importing concern acquired from Emanuel Mandelbaum and Philip Gleichman of Cleveland.

Selznick had a company and wanted capital. He went looking for it where it is, namely Wall street. He had the American rights on a prophetically entitled drama, ‘Whom the Gods Would Destroy’. The picture cost him $4,250.

Selznick ventured below the deadline into the financial belt and personally sold to ninety-nine bankers one share each at $42.50. He kept a share himself.

It was easy for Selznick to find ninety-nine financiers so busy and impatient they preferred writing a small check to spending the week in argument. The investment made money and from the ninety-and-nine Selznick hand-picked backers for the World Film Corporation.

Selznick inaugurated the ornate special preview functions for motion picture promotions, now mentioned in screen trade parlance as “throwing a party.” The Astor hotel was the scene of these operations, stimulated with cut flowers, corn and grape juice and dancing. The Ritz-Carlton has since supplanted the Astor as the scene of these rites.

One of Selznick’s exploitation functions accidentally made a star. He had invited the Who’s Who and What’s What of Broadway to a Roman festival for the first screening of ‘The Seats of the Mighty’, a Canadian production of a story by Sir Gilbert Parker.

The print did not arrive and at the last moment the only available World picture, ‘The Wishing Ring’, was presented. The picture made an impression, starting a career of stardom for Vivian Martin and success for Maurice Tourneur, the director.

Selznick often disagreed with the bankers in the World Film Corporation and usually triumphed. But at last, one day, he picked himself up outside, dusting himself off. The next week, January 29, 1916, ‘Variety’, a trade journal, contained this item:

“Clara Kimball Young left Monday for Havana, accompanied by Mrs. Lewis J. Selznick. Mr. Selznick leaves next week for Jacksonville.”

Accurately interpreted this meant that Selznick was “going South” with the World Film Corporation.

Clara Kimball Young was the vital part of the World Film Corporation’s program. Broadly, her pictures sold the rest of the output.

Shortly Selznick announced the formation of the Clara Kimball Young Film Corporation, with himself as president and general manager. It was proclaimed that exhibitors would now be able to book the profitable Clara Kimball Young pictures without swallowing a whole program of less acceptable pictures. The Young pictures were to come at the rate of one a month beginning the approaching October.

Clara Kimball Young, the star with whom Lewis J. Selznick set forth on the selling war that won him success and millions and a name in the electric lights.

Selznick operated from the Hotel Claridge as a base and proceeded to evangelize the film industry with his new principle of star merchandising.

Selznick by super-salesmanship made his project finance itself. He sold franchises to exhibitors and collected advance deposits against rentals, enabling the making of the pictures.

Selznick started with an idea, rented a street number and got to a crest of several million dollars.

When, in August, the Mary Pickford Film Corporation announced distribution through Artcraft Pictures Corporation, Selznick seized opportunity. In Artcraft, Adolph Zukor was operating behind a light screen. His name did not appear in the slightest outward connection with the project.

Selznick now punctured this screen with an open letter, published in the trade journals:

“I congratulate you, Mary. You are a pretty shrewd, as well as a pretty little girl.

“What stronger evidence could there be that the Clara Kimball Young Corporation is organized on the most progressive basis than your adoption in the Mary Pickford Film Corporation of the very idea and ideal that I have originated?

“Will you please express to my friend, Mr. Adolph Zukor, my deep sense of obligation? It is indeed delightful to encounter among one’s co-workers a man so broad-gauged that neither false pride nor shortsightedness can deter him from the adoption of an excellent plan, even though conceived by another.


“Miss Mary Pickford,
270 Riverside Drive,
New York City.”

This letter served to make the friendship between Zukor and Selznick a great deal warmer but not much thicker.

Meanwhile an electric sign, among the first to be used for general motion picture advertising purposes apart from a theatre showing, blossomed at Forty-sixth street and Broadway, at large expense, announcing Clara Kimball Young in ‘The Common Law’, to be distributed by Lewis J. Selznick Enterprises, Inc.

The confused public, never having seen an electric sign except at theatres, tried to buy admissions to ‘The Common Law’ at the drug store soda fountain below.

Oliver Twist, an early production of Paramount Pictures, a merger of Zukor’s Famous Players and Lasky Feature Pictures.

Selznick was busily and alarmingly financing his project by the selling of franchises on his product to leading exhibitors, including Jones, Linick & Schaefer of Chicago, A. H. Blank in Iowa, Stanley Mastbaum in Philadelphia and elsewhere.

This was making mighty inroads on the plans of his contemporaries, especially Zukor’s Famous Players-Lasky-Paramount combine. Selznick’s star series bookings broke into program schedules of all the other distributors.

War started.

William A. Brady, who had taken up the leadership of the World Film Corporation, advanced to upstage, center, and addressed himself to the motion picture world with great feeling, warning exhibitors against, “adventurers, grafters and petti-foggers.”

Brady mentioned no names and he did not need to. Nothing could have served Selznick better. Publicity by denunciation is still publicity.

Others were more practical. Selznick was ill at the Hotel Astor when Adolph Zukor went to call. He doubtless hoped there was nothing trivial the matter with Selznick. He wanted, to end this disturbance. He was exasperated.

Zukor offered Selznick $5,000 a week for life if he would go to China and stay there. Selznick refused. Otherwise he would be emperor of China today.

One source of Selznick’s strength was in an apparently remote part of the background. This was his friendship with Marcus Loew. Loew appears to have enjoyed both admiration for and amusement at the gyrations of Selznick, who was playing battledore and shuttlecock with the film game.

Also there perchance lingered some of the atmospheric condition which had led Adolph Zukor to depart from the Loew concern in 1912. Selznick was heckling Zukor. Personal loans from Loew and aid at hard moments saved Selznick in crises.

This intimacy with Marcus Loew and the Loew organization added the Talmadges to the array of Selznick stars. Selznick had been in unavailing negotiation with Norma Talmadge, a lesser star of the Triangle constellation. When she married Joseph Schenck, booking manager for the Loew theatres, things were different. Selznick secured Talmadge and the Loew theatres booked her pictures.

Of these ingredients came success and fame. The first Selznick picture with Norma Talmadge was ‘Panthea’, produced in the autumn of 1916 by Allan Dwan.

Again the Selznick enterprises scored with Alla Nazimova, famous Russian actress. She had been appearing in ‘War Brides’, a sensational skit playing the Keith vaudeville circuit. Selznick paid her $30,000, or about $1,000 a day, to appear in a “picturization” of her act, under the direction of Herbert Brenon, of the Herbert Brenon Corporation.

Alla Nazimova in the 1916 Selznick film, ‘War Brides’.

Selznick organized a company for any star who wanted one. Certificates of incorporation made inexpensive but handsome premiums. Richard Barthelmess, who had been in vaudeville with Nazimova, made his screen advent in ‘War Brides’. The picture was a box-office triumph and earned a gross of $300,000.

Selznick built mightily and prospered upon his initial success with the Clara Kimball Young pictures. With the Talmadges in the height of star favor, sold on series contracts by themselves, Selznick was shooting large yawning holes in the solid program booking schedules of the Zukor-Famous Players policy.

One morning Selznick awoke to discover that the news headlines screamed of revolution in Russia and the overthrow of the Czar. Selznick wrapped a brocaded silken dressing gown about him, rang for Ishi and demanded tea from the samovar.

A secretary came panting, pencil poised, to take dictation. It was a cablegram, sent paid, which, translated from the Russian read about thus:




Selznick was disappointed when he did not get a reply. If the Czar had arrived he would have got the job, and perhaps a percentage of the profits.

Selznick played the film game and all other games with a dash and zip intended to take away the breath along with the loose change. He was willing to stand pat on the lowest hand in the deck and bet five grand before the draw.

He acquired Ishi, a Japanese major-domo, and instructed him in the art of marinated herring. He rode in a Rolls-Royce and in the velvety depths of his Park avenue apartment soothed his eyes with Italian marbles and great vases from the Orient.

Selznick was a rollicking film success, proclaimed to the skies of the night every kilowatt hour.

“Lewis J. Selznick, who entered motion pictures selling diamonds and stayed to play big hands for high stakes in the hectic game of the film trade.”

Whereat Adolph Zukor waxed exceeding wroth. Selznick was a buzzing fly in the cream pitcher.

There is an ancient political adage; “If you can’t lick ‘em, join ‘em.”

Zukor decided to join and work from the inside.

It is the old story of the wooden horse at the gate of Troy.

On March 15, 1917, there was an inconspicuous paragraph in the trade journals announcing that Aaron Jones of Chicago had arrived in New York for a visit. His name was the first one in the celebrated triumvirate of Jones, Linick & Schaefer, Chicago theatre magnates, proprietors of a local distribution system, known as the Central Film Company, and related enterprises. They had Selznick picture franchises.

It seems a bit roundabout, but Jones came from Chicago with messages from Adolph Zukor at 485 Fifth avenue to Lewis J. Selznick, 729 Seventh avenue, New York, N. Y.

Selznick has subsequently stated that Jones received a pleasant little $50,000 for his services as messenger. Conferences between Zukor and Selznick ensued.

Plans were evolved which promised to make Selznick Pictures even more profitable, accompanied by the acquisition of an exact 50 per cent interest in the Selznick concern by Zukor. Selznick was to remain president. Their pictures were to be made at the Lasky studio of Famous Players-Lasky in Hollywood, with all of the vast facilities of that concern and sundry economies.

Also as a personal token, Myron Selznick, son of Lewis J., then growing up to the maturity of almost seventeen years, was to go into the studio to become a production authority, understudying Jesse Lasky and Cecil DeMille.

Geraldine Farrar in the 1917 film, ‘The Woman God Forgot’, directed by Cecil DeMille for Zukor’s Artcraft Pictures.

Of course there was to be no outward merger. The Selznick concern was to continue in vigorous competition on the market after the pictures left the studios. The brand name, however, was changed to Select Pictures Corporation. This was the joker, and the source of much subsequent action.

Now that he had become Selznick’s partner, Zukor moved to eliminate the irritating sight of his name from the electric lights of Broadway, the film maintitles, and the billboards all the way from Eastport, Maine, to Point Loma, California. It was a city-beautiful movement.

Selznick sat back in silence and acute nyctitropism. A great obscurity fell on him. His name disappeared entirely, save for one shining spot.

Some months before when the Schenck interests, for family reasons, set out to launch Constance Talmadge, sister of Norma, with Selznick pictures, Lewis J. was riding high in power. He was induced to lend the brilliance of his sibilant name by contracting that the maintitle of each of the new star’s pictures should read: “Lewis J. Selznick presents Constance Talmadge in” etc. The contract held now and kept the name on the screen.

In some way the plan to have Myron Selznick go West to understudy Lasky and DeMille at the studios fell through. Probably there never was any real intention of letting a scion of the House of Selznick through those gates in Vine Street, Hollywood.

1917 Selznick production, ‘The Fall of the Romanoffs’.

Also Lewis J. Selznick was prospering in discomfort. Select Pictures Corporation was making money for him as well as for Zukor, but Selznick wanted action. Then came the last straw, which made the camel buck.

There was a message from Hollywood stating that the Talmadges wanted the line “Lewis J. Selznick presents” dropped from Constance’s pictures. Selznick’s sleuths reported that the message had originated at a point geographically identical with the top of Adolph Zukor’s desk at 485 Fifth avenue. These same reports indicated that the Talmadges had been offered inducements and favors for their subscription to the request for the elimination of Selznick’s name.

“If they’re going to do that, I’ll put my own name on some pictures,” exclaimed Myron Selznick. “They can’t stop that.”

“Boys will be boys,” quoth Lewis J., father, as he helped himself to a gold tipped cigarette decorated with the double-headed eagle.

Young Selznick went shopping for stars and came back with a contract with Olive Thomas. It was a signal stroke for the youngster. He was still a minor, and his mother signed the contract as a measure of legal responsibility.

Myron closed his contract with Miss Thomas at $1,000 a week against competing offers from established concerns at twice that figure. Behind that apparently strange decision of the star is one of the countless sentimental and pathetic real life stories which fill the shadows back of the tinsel of stage and screen.

Olive Thomas was clutching at romantic adventure and the play of a childhood she never had had when she chose the contract with this Selznick boy. He and his glowing plans made an appeal which was stronger than the larger offers of staid routine business.

Miss Thomas was fated to unhappiness. She was born Oliveretta Duffy, and grew up in a depressing, smoky Pennsylvania community. She married into that life of grime, labor and sweat.

The marriage was a desperately unhappy one. The girl fled to New York, taking refuge in a cousin’s household in Harlem. She haunted the streets of uptown New York looking for work and found it at last behind a basement counter in a department store. She had escaped the grime of Pittsburgh for the grind of a shop-girl in Harlem.

Then came one of those bits of Aladdin magic which are the lure of New York. A newspaper bidding for shop-girl circulation announced that Howard Chandler Christy, the famous artist, was holding a competition for a perfect model, the supreme New York beauty. There were prizes to be awarded, and the glory of having one’s picture in the paper.

Oliveretta Duffy had recovered a bit from the depressions of Pittsburgh, and there was a radiant Irish beauty just back of her eyes, ready to bloom.

She took a chance, reported sick at the store and in her pathetic best clothes went downtown to the Christy studio to sit waiting with the throng of the ambitious. It was a convention of the piquant beauties of the New York shop girl. Every race of the metropolitan melting pot was represented in that array. Oliveretta Duffy won—the prize, the picture in the paper, the publicity, everything.

Over in Broadway Florenz Ziegfeld was engaged in his business of “glorifying the American girl” per the “Follies.” His merchandise was and is feminine beauty, preferably famous beauty. Here was youth and beauty, with a brand new fame in the papers.

Oliveretta Duffy went to the Follies and burst into fame as Olive Thomas. She was a sudden sensation, the toast of Broadway. Strong men grew dizzy under her eyes. She was overwhelmed with admiration and gifts of treasure, diamond necklaces, pendants, rings, parties, orchids, everything that the dreaming little shop girl might fancy on the screen of her imagination.

On this wave of adulation Miss Thomas was signed by Triangle Pictures Corporation for the screen. Her screen appearances were successful enough with Triangle, but Triangle was driven more with promotion than performance, and its decline had set in when her contract expired.

Olive Thomas had won the world, and still had not found happiness. Her triumphs were all in the desperate, hard, grown-up world.

The Myron Selznick contract was a chance to be a kid. She wanted to play, not with the thrill of millionaires and diamond necklaces, but the simple fun of a couple of youngsters breaking into business.

Olive Thomas in ‘The Flapper’, a 1920 production of Myron Selznick.

Master Myron Selznick was now launched in redemption of the family name from obscurity. He took offices at 729 Seventh avenue, near the offices where his father presided as the suppressed head of Select Pictures. A new electric sign burst upon the gaze of Broadway:


Now it was really a very good sign. But Adolph Zukor did not like it. He had been to a lot of trouble, not to say expense, to obliterate that name. Here it was sprouting up again, as vigorously persistent as a dandelion on the front lawn.

Furthermore, it was reported at 485 Fifth avenue that over at 729 Seventh avenue, the office of the president of Select was filled with posters, sketches and advertising matter pertaining to Myron Selznick’s enterprise. The young man seems to have been getting considerable fatherly advice.

This led to an open discussion and an open letter from Adolph Zukor in the trade press discussing the president of Select. It had become a public fight.

Selznick, holding half of the stock and being in office, successfully resisted efforts to dislodge him. Before long it was announced that he had purchased the Zukor interest in Select.

Some swift moves and developments ensued.

The Selznick organization began to lose its stars, all of them through the usual paths of departure except Olive Thomas.

Tragic death from poison ended Olive Thomas’ career in Paris, where she had gone in an interlude between pictures. Probably all of that story has not been told and never will be told. She had won success, as it is called, beyond measure. She had money, adoration, yet another marriage, and it all was nothing.

Outwardly the House of Selznick continued strong, with a brave show of electric lights and advertising. But decline was under way.

Zukor launched a new concern, Realart Pictures Corporation, with Mary Miles Minter and a secondary line of stars, in pictures well designed to give Selznick direct competition. Realart drew to its service many members of the Selznick selling organization.

Realart 1920 production of Mary Miles Minter in ‘Judy of Roques’ Harbor’.

Selznick increased the effulgence of his advertising to support a product of waning star value. A heavy campaign of painted bulletins told the world that: “Selznick Pictures Make Happy Hours,” an echo of the ancient “Mutual Movies Make Time Fly.”

Selznick picked the slogan out of a conversation with Al Lichtman, who was once again with Zukor as sales manager for Famous Players-Lasky. Ostensibly as a lavish gesture of gratitude, Selznick presented Lichtman with a costly watch, the back of which flamed with inlaid diamonds illuminating the inscription:

In grateful appreciation of SELZNICK PICTURES MAKE HAPPY HOURS”

Lichtman was properly pleased with the watch, and in his travels showed it in pride to the world of the motion picture.

Selznick was pleased with it, too. He felt that he had put a Selznick twenty-four sheet in the vest pocket of the opposing sales department. “Beware of the Greeks when they come bearing gifts.”

Selznick’s banking strength began to wane. Loans of millions were called with abruptness. Eventually the corporation fell from its effulgence into a receivership and ultimate liquidation.

In the summer of 1925 Lewis J. Selznick, with more backers and a new bankroll, descended on Florida to investigate the real estate excitement.

Paralleling his pleasant diversions with Selznick, Adolph Zukor pursued his program with lengthening strides. Late in 1916 he announced the addition of George M. Cohan to Artcraft pictures in ‘Broadway Jones’, released in March, 1917. Cohan was not a motion picture hit.

Zukor was still trying that old “famous player” idea. His last, and probably final, experiment with it was in 1918 when Famous Players made two pictures with Enrico Caruso. The first of these, ‘My Cousin’, went to its premier showing at the Rivoli theatre where the great Caruso sat in a loge box to regard it.

“It is good, not silly like the rest of the pictures,” Caruso modestly commented to the author of this history. But the box office results across the nation proved that Victrola fame has nothing to do with the screen. Caruso’s second picture stayed in the can.

Following up the acquisition of Cohan in 1917, Zukor gathered into Artcraft all the major stars of Triangle when that aspiring concern began to expire. He took over John Emerson and Anita Loos, and Fairbanks, then Thomas Ince, D. W. Griffith and Mack Sennett. The Aitken triangle was absorbed into the Zukor polygon.

Mack Sennet with Gloria Swanson in the early “Ukelele Period.” Mack Swain was a comedian of Keystone origin.

Zukor was out to surround all the box office value in the world. Roscoe Arbuckle, a comedian who had risen in Keystone and Sennett comedies after Chaplin’s departure, was acquired through a new company organized by the Schencks, and “Fatty” went into the Paramount pot.

Douglas Fairbanks had been driving himself upward into the top rank of stardom by dint of ability and crafty management.

When Chaplin arrived in Los Angeles with the crowning fame of his great $670,000 contract in 1916, Fairbanks began to be seen about with the comedian a great deal.

And when shortly Mary Pickford signed her million dollar contract with Adolph Zukor, it happened that the three were often together, Douglas, Mary and Charlie. Usually there was a still camera about, and the pictures of the trio got into the papers.

Benny Zeidman, an office boy of the old Lubin concern, now grown up into ruthless ingenuity, represented Fairbanks. A good deal of copy went forth along with those pictures containing the phrase “Doug will soon be in the same class with Charlie and Mary.”

Fairbanks occasionally grew offended at Zeidman’s enthusiasm and fired him, but Benny paid no attention to that. He got the pictures in the paper.

The master stroke of this campaign was a result of an impromptu athletic match between Fairbanks and Chaplin along side the studio fence. They frolicked and broad-jumped and leap-frogged to Fairbanks’ delight.

On the other side of the fence was Benny Zeidman with a cameraman. They made a half reel of film which went into private non-commercial circulation among exhibitors and movie magnates. It carried ocular argument that Doug and Charlie were intimate, therefore inferentially box office equals.

And Benny probably got fired again for that. But it did not interfere with his salary. Fairbanks made good on his campaign. He was, indeed, soon in the same star class with Charlie and Mary. That got him into Zukor’s Artcraft.

Excepting only Chaplin, Zukor had all of the topmost of the great names on the screen. May 1, 1917, he announced that Famous Player Lasky Corporation had acquired control of Artcraft. Now all of the eggs were in one very large basket.

Over at Vitagraph in Flatbush, J. Stuart Blackton, one of the founders, was growing unhappy as he grew obscure. Vitagraph, one of the first and once one of the mightiest picture concerns in the world, was falling behind with the rest of the old Patents Company group. Edison, Kalem, Lubin and Biograph, glorious in their day, had shut down and quit.

1918 Vitagraph production, ‘The Man Who Wouldn’t Tell’. “Vitagraph, one of the first and once one of the mightiest picture concerns in the world, was falling behind with the rest of the old Patents Company group.”

Blackton decided to leave the old home and seek a share of Zukor’s place in the sun. He withdrew from Vitagraph and entered into a contract to produce independently or Famous Players. This arrangement was short lived.

When once again Sir Thomas Lipton came over to sail the ‘Shamrock’ through the publicity seas of the newspapers, Commodore J. Stuart Blackton was a guest aboard the yacht on which Lipton enjoyed his tea and the races.

William Dunn, formerly a Vitagraph actor and director, was in Blackton’s retinue. Dunn had been Blackton’s “idea man.” Below decks, somewhere adjacent to the buffet, Dunn overtook a new idea. He beckoned his chief, Blackton aside.

“Say, if Lipton can get it for selling tea, and Lever for selling soap, and Dewar for selling whisky, then you ought to get it for making pictures!”

“Get what, Bill?”

“Listen, Sir Thomas Lipton, Lord Leverhulme, Sir John Dewar.”

Blackton went back to watch the races.

A few months later Blackton sailed for London to launch a new film project, whether on Dunn’s idea or not, it does not matter. He arranged for a spectacular effort, a long feature drama to be made in natural color by the Prizma process. ‘The Glorious Adventure’, a scenario of the days of King Charles and the great fire of London, was written by Felix Orman to give the camera color opportunity.

Blackton scanned the peerage and cast Lady Diana Manners as the heroine. Promotional literature made note of the fact that Blackton was of British birth.

The picture was a fair success abroad, but an indifferent attraction in the United States. It marked the beginning of serious efforts with natural color in screen drama.

‘The Glorious Adventure’ paved the way for Lady Diana Manners’ stage appearances in the United States in Morris Gest’s presentation of ‘The Miracle’. Also Flora Le Breton and Victor McLaglan, introduced by the Blackton production, came over to join the Hollywood film colony.

Commodore Blackton, after a number of other productions, returned to the United States and Vitagraph, with which he remained until the sale of the concern to Warner Brothers, in 1925.

Adolph Zukor didn’t own all of Hollywood. 1920 production of ‘Madame X’ produced by Goldwyn Pictures predecessor to the merged corporations, Metro, Goldwyn and Mayer. Fox Films, among others would also remain independent of Zukor.
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