David O. Selznick was one of the most talented filmmakers in the golden age of Hollywood. He produced several classic films including “Gone With the Wind” and “Rebecca” that were released in 1939 and 1940, respectively. Selznick brought great enthusiasm to film making, but he also was subject to moments of deep melancholia. Such a moment is detailed in the recently published “The Big Screen, The Story of The Movies” by David Thomson.
In 1951, it is reported that Selznick was strolling through a movie studio with screenwriter Ben Hecht. As they passed one unused film stage he said to Hecht “Hollywood is like Egypt, full of crumbled pyramids. It will never come back. It will just keep crumbling until the winds blow the last studio prop across the sands.” Selznick was deeply in debt at that time, and many in the film industry felt that his creativity had peaked when he made “Gone With the Wind.” Thomson offers that anecdote as proof of the filmmaker’s pessimistic mood. But Selznick’s statement about Hollywood also can be seen as being somewhat prophetic.
While Hollywood was still the center of film making in 1951, most movies made today are shot on location using cameras and technology that do not require a studio. And while large studios located in Hollywood were responsible for the films that Americans watched at that time, in recent decades independent film makers have made many of those movies. Some of the studios that are still in operation in Hollywood offer guided tours to the public since most of their sets are not being used for filmmaking. The MGM Studio, where Selznick oversaw the making of several scenes for Gone With the Wind, is now owned by Sony Pictures and is among the studios that offers tours.
And part of the studio’s empire was the chain of theaters that they owned throughout the nation where their movies were shown. Many of those theaters were built in the 1920s and were known as “movie palaces” and featured ornate facades and interiors. “We are selling tickets to theaters, not movies,” one early Hollywood studio mogul was quoted as saying, and those theaters were part of the mystique of Hollywood and movies.
But the popularity of television in the late 1950s resulted in the closing of many of those theaters. Most of the movie palaces that were built in Oklahoma ceased operation decades ago. In some of the state’s smaller communities, rusted metal stubs that were once part of theater marquees that protrude from faded buildings on town squares are the only visible reminders of their presence today.
But images of many of those theaters are featured in an exhibit at the Oklahoma History Museum that is titled “Oklahoma and the Movies.” That exhibit is also on the museum’s website, and viewers can search for theaters by county and by name and also leave comments on the site. Surprisingly, neither the Gem nor Bronco, which were among the first movie theaters in Edmond, are listed on that website. And the exhibit documents how several of the state’s movie palaces managed to survive, and remain in limited operation today. They include the Ramona in Frederick and the Coleman of Miami, and both of those theaters have been designated historic structures by the U.S. Department of the Interior. And it is possible that the growth of the Internet and the availability of movies on cable television may in time doom many of the multiplex theaters of today to the same fate as their more ornate and stylized predecessors.
WILLIAM F. O’BRIEN is an Oklahoma City attorney.