Q & A: The Movie Classics of David O. Selznick

I get a lot of e-mails from people asking me about television shows, made-for-TV movies or miniseries they remember from years or decades past. I try to answer each question as best I can. Every now and then I like to dig through my inbox and pull out a few choice e-mails to answer here at Television Obscurities for everyone to read. Keep reading for today’s questions and answers.

I am trying to pin down a recollection. In the early Seventies, one of the networks — I believe it was ABC — ran a summer series of classic black-and-white movies over several weeks. Two of them were definitely Portrait of Jennie and The Spiral Staircase. Can you or any of your readers help me identify which other films were screened in this series? It was my introduction to classic Hollywood as a young adolescent, and I have always been grateful for it.

I was impressed with Patrick’s memories of this short-lived summer movie series that did indeed air on ABC. The Movie Classics of David O. Selznick was broadcast over the course of four weeks during the summer of 1971, presenting a new film produced by Selznick each week. It was the first time any had been seen on television. The films ran from 8:30-10PM on Tuesdays, taking over the time slot usually held by The Movie of the Week.

Here’s the schedule for the series:

Tuesday, June 22nd, 1971

“The Spiral Staircase”
Tuesday, June 29th, 1971

“Portrait of Jennie”
Tuesday, July 6th, 1971

“Made for Each Other”
Tuesday, July 13th, 1971

Martin Starger, ABC’s vice president in charge of programming, explained that “the great films of the past have usually been relegated to something other than primetime exposure on television. We are proud to present four of David O. Selznick’s great films on ABC this summer in primetime” [1]. Ruby Gentry was originally intended to be shown as part of the series but was ultimately replaced by The Spiral Staircase [2].

I assume the films were preceded by an introduction or at the very least a credit sequence.

Works Cited:

1 “Selznick Classics Slated.” Sumter Daily Item. TV Item Supplement. [Sumter, SC]. 28 May 1971: 7.
2 Ibid.

10 Replies to “Q & A: The Movie Classics of David O. Selznick”

  1. RUBY GENTRY was eventually shown on ABC, airing Wednesday March 28th, 1973, garnering a 15.0HH/24%.

    ABC really stood out in the 1970s in their willingness to experiment with theatricals and made-fors (‘Movie of the Week’, ‘ABC Theater’, ‘ABC Novels for Television’). Mr. Marty Starger was a true visionary in longform for television, and I believe he was responsible for airing the acclaimed Soviet version of Mr Sergei Bondarchuck’s 7-hour WAR AND PEACE (VOYNA I MIR), made at a reported US$100 million and winner of the Best Foreign Film Academy Award. It was Mr. Starger’s vision to play the film in its entirety over four consecutive nights (a tactic that Mr. Silverman borrowed to play off ROOTS later in the decade). And ABC’s special presentation of WAR AND PEACE paid off in the ratings:

    Sat.Aug.12/1972: WAR AND PEACE, PART 1 -> 10.9HH/24%
    Sun.Aug.13/1972: WAR AND PEACE, PART 2 -> 14.1HH/28%
    Mon.Aug.14/1972: WAR AND PEACE, PART 3 -> 12.5HH/23%
    Tue.Aug.15/1972: WAR AND PEACE, PART 4 -> 11.0HH/22%

    The slow death spiral we see in broadcast television today is in no small part due to the disappearance of visionaries like Mr. Starger, who actually relished the opportunity to do something innovative that had never been done before on television like the summer series ‘The Movie Classics of David O. Selznick’.

  2. The reason WHY ABC aired those David O. Selznick “movie classics”, of course, is because they owned the rights to those films, having purchased them from the Selznick estate several years before. Today, The Walt Disney Company (which owns ABC) controls the rights to the Selznick library {except “Gone With the Wind”}…but they’re on Turner Classic Movies these days. Why should Disney/ABC schedule them when they have such wonderful summer programming as “BACHELOR PAD”, “WIPEOUT”, “SHAQ VS….” and “PRIMETIME: WHAT WOULD YOU DO?”? Why should younger viewers- the network’s #1 demographic- CARE about old black and white movies they don’t want to see, anyway? Am I cynical about network television’s future? YOU BET!!!!

  3. As the asker of the question about the Selznick series, I’m really grateful to have all this information, from the kind email reply, this post, and the comments on it. I have to tip my hat to Mr. Starger (still alive at 78). I also watched the complete four night broadcast of War and Peace and was enthralled by it. I strongly recall that ABC did a very good job promoting both the Selznick films and War and Peace, making them into “event television” that caught my attention as a boy. Significant broadcasts like this, which used to be more common on PBS as well, can have a profound and formative effect on impressionable minds. We don’t show much belief in this nowadays, but how can children come to love film or literature or art without exposure to them? I feel lucky to have grown up at a time when such exposure was not uncommon.

  4. I miss the days when WNEW in New York used to show the old Bowery Boys? movies sunday mornings in the 70s.

    These days its all about so-called Reality.

  5. This was a case of reverse trajectory – films previously shown on local stations going on to a network, albeit very briefly. “The Spiral Staircase,” for example, was the last film shown on New York station WABC-TV’s 1966-68 late afternoon/early evening “6 O’Clock Movie,” on Jan. 5, 1968, before moving 90 minutes earlier to what a year later would become “The 4:30 Movie” (alas, neither this nor any of the other Selznick movies as on this list would air on WABC’s earlier afternoon movie show, though on the afternoon of June 3, 1968 – only two days before Bobby Kennedy was assassinated – the station aired the Selznick-produced, Alfred Hitchcock-directed “Notorious” at 4:30; alas, this was when WABC was still using the ancient 1963-era title of “The Big Show” for such a showcase). Before then, “The Spiral Staircase” had been a staple of WOR-TV’s “Million Dollar Movie” in the late 1950’s. As of the early 1960’s “Portrait of Jennie” had been on WNEW-TV.

  6. I loved Million Dollar Movie and all the other movie programming on the New York area stations in the Sixties and Seventies. We were incredibly lucky (I now realize) to have seven VHF stations — three network affiliates, a public television station, and three independents at Channels 5 (WNEW), 9 (WOR), and 11 (WPIX). Several of them showed movies through the wee hours of the night, a fact I often took advantage of. Sure, the movies were shown with commercials, cut for time and content, and sometimes broadcast in pan-and-scan — still, it made for quite a cinematic education.

  7. I remember that there was a second season of Selznick films on ABC that included Hitchcock’s Notorious and The Paradine Case. Interestingly, Notorious and The Spiral Staircase, both from 1946, were released as RKO films. Apparently, Selznick — preoccupied with the work on his epic Duel In The Sun — yielded production on those two to Hitchcock and Selznick’s protege, Dore Schary, respectively. However, he must have retained partial ownership for those two to run as part of the ABC Selznick package. Also, it appears that Made For Each Other (1939) fell into the public domain at some point as several cheaper companies have issued it on VHS.

    1. As a youngster, I recall watching DUEL IN THE SUN(1946) on THE ABC SUNDAY NIGHT MOVIE on January 23, 1972. ABC presented the television network premiere as a “Special Showing.”

  8. I remember watching the Selznick films on ABC back in the 70’s. The movies HAD been on TV prior to this, and I have seen 16mm prints from the early 60’s of the Selznick films which had been run on TV. National Telefilm Associates (NTA) had the early right to the package for TV.

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