14 October 2018

To memo or not to memo

Mega-producer David O. Selznick first started to dictate memos when he was a teenager working as an apprentice for his father, silent film producer and distributor Lewis J. Selznick. "I was self-conscious about my youth and in giving orders and expressing myself verbally, but dictating permitted me to hide behind the front of what I liked to think were impressive memos", he later recalled. Selznick got into the habit of writing memos early on and it became his way of communicating with everyone. He liked memos because they were written proof of what had been said and agreed upon and could be referred to if necessary. Also, like his father, he had no patience for small talk, so communicating via memos served him well. But while Selznick was an avid memo writer --the memos collected in Rudy Behlmer's wonderful Memo from David O. Selznick (1972) are only a fraction of what he actually wrote-- every once in a while he did try to cut down on them.

During the filming of his production of Rebecca (1940), Selznick decided to abandon his usual communication via memo by giving verbal instructions regarding the 'look' he wanted for the second Mrs de Winter, played by Joan Fontaine. However, as Selznick would later discover, his instructions were communicated wrong, leading to confusion on the set. Apparently someone had said that Selznick wanted Fontaine to look 'glamorous' while in fact he wanted the exact opposite. Appalled that people were given the wrong message, Selznick wrote to production manager Ray Klune (via memo of course), complaining about the situation and also wishing to know who the culprit was.
October 6, 1939
To: Mr Klune
Every time I try to cut down on my memos by giving verbal instructions, something happens which discourages me.
For months now I have been trying to tell everybody connected with Rebecca that what I wanted in the girl, especially in the first part, was an unglamorous creature, but one sufficiently pretty and appealing, in a simple girlish way, for it to be understandable why Maxim would marry her. But I was apparently unsuccessful with everybody for a long period of time.
The other day I sent verbal word to the set to be sure there was no misunderstanding that I wanted the girl to look as pretty and appealing as she could as long as she was not glamorous. The message was delivered to Miss Fontaine, to the cameraman, hairdresser, and everybody else that I wanted her to look "glamorous... more than at Manderley." This naturally threw everybody into confusion and obviously must have made everybody think I had suddenly gone mad. For the sake of whatever is left of my reputation for sanity, I should appreciate it if you would trace this error and explain what happened to those who received the message. And I should like to know, for my own sake, just who, stupidly or mischievously, delivered the message wrong.
 Source: Memo from David O. Selznick (1972); selected and edited by Rudy Behlmer 

Above: David Selznick with two of his secretaries Virginia Olds (back to camera) and Frances Inglis while dictating a memo in 1941. Below: Joan Fontaine as the unglamorous second Mrs de Winter in Alfred Hitchock's Rebecca (1940).

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