The most powerful man in Hollywood during the heyday of the silent film, Jesse Lasky (1880-1958) was a pioneering movie mogul who co-founded Paramount Studios. A studio executive known for being prolific, Lasky was credited with producing more than 350 motion pictures between 1921 and 1930. He continued making films for several decades after that as an independent producer.
Lasky was one of the men responsible for putting Hollywood on the map. In 1913, he formed a production company with Cecil B. DeMille and Samuel Goldfish (later known as Samuel Goldwyn). The Jesse L. Lasky Feature Play Company had a big hit with its first film, DeMille's western epic The Squaw Man, and its success jump-started the southern California film industry. For many years after that, the likeable Lasky showed he had the knack for turning out profitable pictures.
Hollywood's Founding Fathers
Lasky was the descendant of German immigrants. His grandparents crossed the United States in a covered wagon and settled in California. He was born in San Francisco in 1880 to Sarah (Platt) and Isaac Lasky. The family moved to San Jose, where Jesse attended high school and learned to play the cornet. He acquired some business skills by helping out in his father's store.
As a young man, Lasky dipped his toes in several possible careers. He learned show business by being an assistant in a traveling medicine show, the popular western U.S. entertainment of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. For awhile he was a newspaper reporter.
After his father's death, his destitute family raised $3,000 to send Lasky to join the gold rush in Alaska. But instead of gaining a fortune, he lost all his money. He paid his return fare by playing cornet at a nightclub where miners threw coins and sacks of gold dust at dancing women. Lasky next moved to Hawaii, where he became a popular band-leader.
Returning to the U.S. mainland, he teamed up with his sister Blanche, who also played cornet, and they formed a touring vaudeville act. Lasky eventually turned from performing to promoting short plays and other vaudeville acts. As a booking agent operating in New York City, he became wealthy despite losing $110,000 bringing the French musical Foilies Bergiere to New York City. In 1912, after years in vaudeville management, Lasky set up a restaurant in New York, but it failed and he lost $100,000.
Meanwhile, Blanche Lasky had met and married Goldfish, who changed his name a few years later in an attempt to downplay his Jewish ancestry. Goldfish and Lasky teamed up with DeMille, then a struggling but ambitious young director, and founded the Jesse L. Lasky Feature Play Company with an initial capital investment of $20,000. Despite the name, Lasky was vice-president of the company and Goldfish was president.
The trio decided to shoot their first film in Los Angeles, a place where no movie had ever been made. The company set up a production studio on Sunset Boulevard. At the time the area was rural, with few amenities. But DeMille's ambitious picture would change all that. The remarkable success of The Squaw Man, the first fictionalized western to establish a mass following, turned Hollywood into the center of American film production. During the town's formative years as a movie capital, Lasky and his partners played a key role.
In 1916, the company merged with Adolph Zukor's Famous Players, a group which had a well-oiled distribution network, to form Famous Players-Lasky. Zukor was a formidable money-raiser, on good terms with West Coast businessmen, and he competed with Lasky and Goldfish in a complicated power struggle for control of the new company. Meanwhile, DeMille was happy turning out evermore-lavish films, and the corporation prospered. Zukor eventually became president and Lasky was named vice-president in charge of production. Goldfish, upset by Lasky's alliance with Zukor, left the group; he would go on to found MGM Studios. After a few more mergers, the Famous Players-Lasky Company became Paramount, which would be a major force in filmmaking for the rest of the century and into the next.
From 1916 through 1932, Lasky was in charge of Paramount's productions in both Hollywood and New York. Under his guidance, the studio cranked out hit after hit. Lasky also pioneered a near-monopolistic distribution method, which ensured his company's success. For a theater owner to show a Paramount film, the exhibitor had to agree to book all the studio's productions for an entire year. By 1921, Paramount dominated the field of film distribution, running the first national movie advertising campaigns and showing its movies in more than 11,000 theaters in the United States. The company owned several hundred theaters, including the three largest in New York and two of the largest in Los Angeles. Control of theaters in key cities meant the studio could effectively freeze out competitors.
Despite his ruthless business methods, Lasky was a well-liked man in Hollywood. He encouraged his directors to be independent and rarely interfered with their creativity. As Paramount consolidated its dominant position in the American film industry, it began luring the biggest stars of the silent film era from other studios, or, in some cases, discovering them and giving them their starts. By the early 1930s, the roster of Paramount recruits included Mary Pickford, Rudolph Valentino, Marlene Dietrich, Gary Cooper, Gloria Swanson, Fatty Arbuckle, Mae West, Carole Lombard, the Marx Brothers, W.C. Fields, Claudette Colbert and Maurice Chevalier.
Lasky and Zukor also attracted directors, who were impressed by the big budgets that DeMille commanded for his famous epics of the era, such as The Ten Commandments and The Covered Wagon. From Germany came directors Ernst Lubitsch and Josef von Sternberg. Top writers groomed at Paramount during the 1920s and early 1930s included future writer-directors Billy Wilder and Preston Sturges.
In 1927, Lasky's worth was estimated at $20 million, an enormous sum in those days. On his estate in Hollywood he had built the first tennis court and swimming pool in town. He was the epitome of a movie mogul.
A Change of Fortune
Everything changed at Paramount in 1932. The company's key investments in the stock market evaporated in the wake of the Wall Street meltdown. The Great Depression hit Lasky especially hard. His personal stock holdings were all but wiped out. A belt-tightening was inevitable in order for Paramount to survive. For their poor management of the company's investments, Zukor and Lasky were both disciplined. Zukor, who had assumed a more important role than Lasky in the company, remained as the president, but Lasky was forced out of the studio. The company declared bankruptcy but eventually reorganized as Paramount Pictures in 1935.
Lasky joined Fox Studios and for three years produced films for that studio, including The White Parade, which was nominated for an Academy Award for the best film of 1934. In 1935, Lasky was again the odd man out after Fox merged with Twentieth Century Pictures, headed by mogul Darryl Zanuck. Lasky briefly formed a partnership with the savvy silent film star Mary Pickford, called the Pickford-Lasky Corporation. Lasky then moved on to United Artists, where he produced two more films, and next signed up with RKO Pictures, where he lasted a year.
The career of the once-most powerful man in Hollywood had deteriorated so quickly that by the late 1930s Lasky began working as a radio producer, taking charge of a talent show. He had lost almost his entire fortune. In 1941, however, Lasky made a comeback. Director Howard Hawks and actor Gary Cooper, an old friend of Lasky, signed onto a project that Lasky had been trying to get produced for some time. The film was sold to Warner Brothers. A patriotic war story named Sergeant York, it became a critical and commercial success.
Following the success of Sergeant York, Lasky made several more films for Warner Brothers, including The Adventures of Mark Twain in 1944 and Rhapsody in Blue, a biography of George Gershwin, in 1945. These three films—among many others that he produced—reflected his undying belief in the virtues of the American democratic system and its ability to produce high achievers out of common men.
After 1945, Lasky returned to RKO and produced films such as The Miracle of the Bells in 1948. In 1950, he moved to MGM, the studio founded by his first partner, Goldwyn.
Moviemaking was in Lasky's blood. His marriage to Bessie Ginzberg in 1909 produced a daughter, Bessie Dorothy Lasky, and two sons. The sons both went on to succeed in the movie business. Jesse Lasky Jr. became a screenwriter, working mainly in westerns and adventure films. Among his credits were Union Pacific and DeMille's 1956 remake of The Ten Commandments. His brother William, 14 years younger, became an assistant director.
In the waning years of his life, Lasky was hounded by tax collectors. All the years of uncertain employment had exacted their toll. He owed so much in back taxes to the federal government that he could never again hope to succeed financially. In 1957, he returned at last to Paramount, the studio he had helped to establish, and he was trying to finance a new movie project when he died in January 1958.
Lasky's career is difficult to assess in critical terms. As a mogul at Paramount, he produced hundreds of films, including many that were famous and memorable, but it is impossible to know which of those he personally had a hand in. As an independent producer after 1932, Lasky had few notable successes except for Sergeant York. That film was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture in 1941, but did not win, and no Oscars ever were bestowed on Lasky.
Clearly, Lasky left a lasting impression on Hollywood in the studio system he helped to create. But beyond that, there might never have been a Hollywood as it is known to moviegoers worldwide were it not for the enterprising spirit of Jesse Lasky.
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