Empire of the Selwyns

For guys who DID so much, the name Edgar Selwyn (Edgar Simon, 1875-1944) and Archibald “Arch” Selwyn (1877-1959) are today remembered for surprising little. Let’s fix that!

Classic movie buffs may know that they partnered with Samuel Goldfish to form Goldwyn Productions (the name formed by merging their surnames) and that Goldfish then changed his name to Goldwyn (because, let’s face it Goldfish is a silly name for a person to have). Goldwyn Pictures, founded 1916, produced vehicles starring Mabel Normand, Will Rogers, Mae Marsh, and others before being absorbed by MGM in 1924.

Broadway buffs may know the name from the Selwyn Theatre on 42nd Street, built 1918, and acquired by the Roundabout Company in the 1990s and renamed the American Airlines Theatre in homage to its sponsor. It was one of three Broadway theatres the Selwyns built, which amazingly all still exist in one form or another, the majority of historical Broadway venues all having fallen prey to the wrecking ball. In time, the Selwyns built a nationwide theatre chain; your city may still have one.

Edgar was born in Cincinnati to a poor Jewish family (Cincy, as we know from our research on Adah Isaacs Menken, had a large and thriving Jewish community as early as the mid 19th century). Most of his childhood was spent in Toronto and Selma, Alabama. He worked at a variety of odd jobs before finally attaining employment as an actor and stage manager with various stock companies, notably that of William Gillette.

In 1896 Selwyn met actress, director and playwright Margaret Mayo (Lillian Slatten, 1882-1951), whom he was to marry in 1901. (Amusingly, Archie Mayo, though his name combines those of Arch Selwyn with Margaret Mayo, was no relation). She would partner with both Selwyn brothers in various creative projects.

Selwyn began appearing on Broadway regularly as an actor in 1899, in things like Sherlock Holmes (with Gillette), A Doll’s House (with Ethel Barrymore), and the original production of George M. Cohan’s Popularity. Selwyn’s first self-written play to be produced on Broadway was It’s All Your Fault (1906). Soon he would graduate to starring in his own plays, and then staging and producing them as well.

Meanwhile, Arch entered the business by working the box office end. They partnered with Elisabeth Marbury in a ticket brokering service and that is how they broke into producing. In short owner they would be moguls of both stage and screen and would remain so for decades. Here’s a timeline of some key landmarks in their lives and careers.

The Marriage of William Ashe: 1905: Margaret Mayo play on Broadway, made into a 1921 film

The Jungle: 1907: Mayo’s Broadway adaptation of Upton Sinclair’s novel, later a 1914 film, produced by Arch

Polly of the Circus: 1907: mayo play, made into films in 1917 and 1932

Pierre of the Plains: 1908: Edgar Selwyn wrote and starred in it on Broadway. Made into films in 1914, 1918 and 1942.

The Country Boy: 1910: Edgar wrote and directed on Broadway. Made into a 1915 film

Baby Mine, Mayo play produced on Broadway in 1910, 1918 and 1927; made into films in 1915, 1917 and 1928)

The Arab: 1911: Edgar wrote and starred in it on Broadway. Made into films in 1915 and 1924

The Wall Street Girl: 1912: written by Edgar and Margaret for Broadway

Also 1912: Edgar and Mrs. Selwyn considered sailing back from Europe with Henry B. and Renee Harris on the Titanic. At the last minute Selwyn decided that he needed to hang back and see a play in Paris. It likely saved both their lives.

1913: The Selwyns, the Shuberts and William A. Brady build the Princess Theatre.

Nearly Married: 1913: Broadway production. made into a film in 1917.

Twin Beds: 1914 Mayo play; made into films in 1928 and 1942

Rolling Stones: Edgar Selwyn wrote for Broadway in 1915; made into film the following year

Goldwyn Pictures formed 1916. More on that entity here.

The Crowded Hour: Edgar wrote for Broadway in 1918; made into a 1924 film

Smilin’ Through: 1919: Selwyn’s produced Jane Cowl’s biggest hit. They produced several of her vehicles.

1919: Selwyn and Mayo get divorced.

The Mirage: 1920: Edgar wrote and directed the play on Broadway, made into films in 1924 and 1931.

1923/24: Goldwyn Pictures swallowed up by MGM. Edgar would resume producing pictures years later.

Snapshots of 1921: Selwyn’s experiments with Broadway revues, in partnership with Lew Fields

The Circle: 1921: Selwyn’s produced Somerset Maugham’s play starring Mrs. Leslie Carter, reviving her Broadway career.

Battling Butler: 1922: Selwyns produce, later made into a Buster Keaton film.

Grand Guignol: 1923: Selwyns produce the actual Parisian horror troupe on Broadway

Charlot Revue: Selwyns import the legendary West End Revue hit in 1924 and 1925. After this the brothers produce separately.

Easy Virtue: 1925: Arch produces the Noel Coward play

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes: Edgar produced and directed the original 1926 Broadway production of Anita Loos and John Emerson’s hit play

Dancing Mothers: The 1926 film was based on a play of Selwyn’s. I suspect the better remembered 1928 movie Our Dancing Daughters is a riff on it.

In 1926 Selwyn married Ruth Wilcox, who’d been in George White’s Scandals of 1924, and later appeared as Ruth Selwyn in such things as Polly of the Circus (1932), Speak Easily (1932) and Baby Face Harrington (1935). She was the sister of Fred Wilcox, best known as the director of Forbidden Planet (1956), the 1949 version of The Secret Garden, and a couple of Lassie movies. Ruth and Fred’s sister was Pansy Wilcox, a vaudeville veteran who married Nicholas Schenck (thus explaining Ruth’s casting in the Buster Keaton vehicle Speak Easily).

The Girl in the Show (1929): Edgar directed and co-wrote movie starring Bessie Love, Raymond Hackett, etc

The Sin of Madelon Claudet (1931): Edgar Selwyn directed the film; Helen Hayes won an Oscar

Turn Back the Clock (1933) Edgar directed and co-wrote film starring Lee Tracy and Mae Clarke

Baby Face Harrington (1935): Edgar wrote and produced the Charles Butterworth vehicle.

Dulcy (1940): Edgar produced the screen adaptation of the George S. Kaufman play

Naturally this omits scores of other accomplishments by these folks, but in the name of sanity we must cut off somewhere!

For more on show business history, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, and for more on silent and early screen history read  Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.