Jesse L. Lasky - Writer

Producer. Nationality: American. Born: Jesse Louis Lasky in San Jose, California, 13 September 1880. Education: Attended San Jose High School. Family: Married Bessie Ginzberg, 1909; sons: the writer Jesse L. Lasky, Jr., and William Raymond; daughter: Bessie Dorothy. Career: 1897–98—reporter, San Francisco Post ; 1898–1900—cornetist in San Francisco theatre; 1900—joined Alaska gold rush, then cornet player in Honolulu; for the next 10 years in duo act with his sister Blanche in vaudeville, and promoter and impresario: produced Cecil B. DeMille's operetta California , 1912; 1913—cofounder, with Samuel Goldfisch (later Goldwyn; his brother-inlaw) and DeMille, Jesse L. Lasky Feature Play Company: served as president: first film, the feature-length The Squaw Man , was big hit; 1916—merged with Adolph Zukor's Famous Players to form Famous

Jesse L. Lasky (left)
Jesse L. Lasky (left)
Players-Lasky, eventually Paramount; 1932—ousted from his executive post, and became independent producer, for Fox, Warner Bros., and RKO; 1935—formed short-lived partnership with Mary Pickford, Pickford-Lasky Company; 1938–40—produced radio talent show Gateway to Hollywood ; 1945—formed Jesse L. Lasky Productions; mid-1950s—returned to Paramount, but died before first production was begun. Died: In Beverly Hills, California, 13 January 1958.

Films as Producer (Selected List):


The Covered Wagon (Cruze)


Underworld (Von Sternberg)


Berkeley Square (Lloyd); The Power and the Glory (Howard); Zoo in Budapest (Lee)


As Husbands Go (MacFadden); Grand Canary (Cummings); Springtime for Henry (Tuttle); Coming Out Party (Blystone); The White Parade (Cummings); I Am Suzanne (Lee)


Here's to Romance (Green); Helldorado (Cruze); Redheads on Parade (McLeod); The Gay Deception (Wyler)


One Rainy Afternoon (Lee); The Gay Desperado (Mamoulian)


Music for Madame (Blystone); Hitting a New High (Walsh)


Sergeant York (Hawks)


The Adventures of Mark Twain (Rapper)


Rhapsody in Blue (Rapper)


Without Reservations (LeRoy)


The Miracle of the Bells (Pichel)


By LASKY: book—

With Don Weldon, I Blow My Own Horn , New York, 1957.

By LASKY: articles—

"Production Problems," in The Story of the Films as Told by Leaders of the Industry , New York, 1927.

"Hearing Things in the Dark," in Collier's (New York), 25 May 1929.

On LASKY: articles—

Current Biography 1947 , New York, 1947.

Cinéma (Paris), March 1958.

Zierold, Norman, in The Moguls , New York, 1969.

National Film Theatre booklet (London), September 1980.

Cinématographe (Paris), May 1984.

In The First Tycoons , edited by Richard Dyer MacCann, London, 1987.

Higashi, S., "Cecil B. DeMille and the Lasky Company," in Film & History , no. 4, 1990.

Lasky, B., " Zoo in Budapest : Lasky's Poetic Redemption," in American Cinematographer (Hollywood), April 1995.

Berg, A. Scott, "Jesse Lasky," in Architectural Digest (Los Angeles), April 1996.

* * *

Jesse L. Lasky, along with Cecil B. DeMille and Samuel Goldwyn, was literally one of the three founding fathers of Hollywood. In the words of his son, Jesse, Jr., he was "a gentle man who was more interested in the creative than the commercial aspect of film." As first president of the Jesse L. Lasky Feature Play Company, then first vice-president in charge of production of Famous Players-Lasky (the precursor of Paramount), Lasky was one of the movies' preeminent moguls. His roller-coaster success story is synonymous with the history of Hollywood.

His first upstart company purchased the rights to Edwin Milton Royle's play, The Squaw Man for $15,000 and hired the Broadway matinee idol Dustin Farnum to star. Rather than film the picture in nearby Fort Lee, New Jersey, they opted for the authenticity of the real west, and sent DeMille, Farnum, and the crew to Flagstaff, Arizona, because it sounded at once authentic and romantic. Upon arrival in Flagstaff, the green New Yorkers found the town in the midst of a cattlemen-sheepmen war. They traveled further west where DeMille shot off the following wire to Lasky: "Flagstaff no good for our purpose. Have proceeded to California. Want authority to rent barn in place called Hollywood for seventy-five dollars a month. Regards to Sam. Cecil." And so in January 1914 the motion picture industry arrived in Hollywood with "one barn, one truck and one camera."

The Squaw Man , the first large-scale western, was a huge success, and the company moved its business west where Lasky prided himself in attracting writers to his company because he believed "the play was the thing." Economical vicissitudes forced the company to merge with Adolph Zukor's Famous Players in 1915. Famous Players-Lasky had Zukor as president, Lasky as first vice-president in charge of production, Goldwyn as chairman, and DeMille as director-general. Zukor believed in stars and that is the direction the new company pursued. Subsequent mergers eventually resulted in the creation of the Paramount Famous Lasky Corporation (1917) and the Paramount Publix Corporation (1930). These mergers helped Lasky amass a $12 million fortune and have his name listed as "presenter" of over 350 films. This prolific period saw Paramount present such talent as Valentino, Lubitsch, von Sternberg, Dietrich, Pickford, and Chevalier.

However, gradually it was Zukor's name as presenter, and in 1932 the Depression brought what Lasky, Jr., describes as "a revolution of power" in which the senior Lasky was ousted by the obvious machinations of his personal assistant, "a ruthless little bastard named Manny Cohen." Lasky suffered bankruptcy but managed to organize J.L. Lasky Productions via a distribution deal with Fox. These independent productions included Zoo in Budapest and Berkeley Square . In 1935, he created Pickford-Lasky Productions with Mary Pickford and supervised One Rainy Afternoon and The Gay Desperado . He joined RKO in 1937 and produced a radio show called Gateway to Hollywood , then moved over to Warners producing such films as Sergeant York , The Adventures of Mark Twain , and Rhapsody in Blue . The amiable and well-liked Lasky was never able to regain the prominent position he had once held. Heavily in debt to the IRS, he was in the midst of production plans with Goldwyn and DeMille for a film called The Big Brass Band when he died in 1958.

His son says, "When the success and fortune go, many people have nothing to turn to except suicide. Curiously, my father turned to metaphysical philosophy. I think he must have learned about it from my mother most likely by osmosis. She was attuned to that kind of sensitivity while he never appeared to be so."

—Ronald Bowers

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