Tarzan’s Producer: Week of December 13th, 1919

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Sol Lesser

One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley reported that yet another optimist had gone into the filmmaking business:

The latest film luminary to branch out as a producer is Sol Lesser. Not only is he to handle at least four stars in the near future, but he will build a new studio in Hollywood, according to announcement made yesterday. At present Mr. Lesser has two stars signed up, viz. George Beban and Annette Kellerman.

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Kon-Tiki

Sol Lesser had been part of the industry from close to the beginning. He inherited his father’s nickelodeon in 1907, which he built into a chain of theaters. He went on to a very successful career. He didn’t build the studio Kingsley mentioned, but he remained an independent film producer until he retired in 1958 (except for six months as an executive at RKO in 1941, where he got bored and quit). He made over 100 films, including Jackie Coogan’s movies in the 1920s like Oliver Twist (1922), the Tarzan films of the 1930’s-40’s, and the all-star Stage Door Canteen (1943). He won an Oscar for Best Documentary Feature in 1956 for Kon-Tiki, and the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award in 1960.

Remarkably, much of his success came about because he wasn’t a jerk. For instance, in 1932 MGM was making Tarzan the Apeman, but Lesser had the rights from Edgar Rice Burroughs, which the courts upheld. He asked them for only a nominal fee. They released the film, it made lots of money, and he was left with a much more popular character to feature in sequels (and he made many, many sequels). You can learn more about him at the Society of Independent Motion Picture Producers site, or if you want the full Lesser experience, you can rent his former estate in Palm Springs.

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Kingsley’s favorite film this week was “one of the comedy hits of the year.”

It is pleasant to be able to announce that it seems this subtlest form of dramatic art, viz: satirical comedy, has come to filmland to stay.

It seems to me with the impression of Strictly Confidential freshly with me, that this is the very most delightful one of the sort ever filmed, with Miss [Madge] Kennedy shining at last in a supremely suitable vehicle for her very original and sparkling comedy talents. It has to do with the daughter of a servant maid in a staid, conservative old English nobleman’s house coming back to the castle where all the servants are her relations, through a series of incidents, as the wife of Lord Bantock. Whereupon the old butler tries to run the house according to precedent, but fails, an ‘the first Lady Bantock’ is given as and example to the young mistress. It turns out, however, that the first Lady Bantock was a butcher’s daughter, so everything comes out right.

Unfortunately, all that remains of it is reel 2, preserved at the Library of Congress. I’d like to see if the comedy holds up. Strictly Confidential was based on a play by Jerome K. Jerome called Fanny and the Servant Problem (1909). Now he’s mostly remembered for his novel, Three Men and a Boat (1889), which has stayed in print since it was first published. It’s still a hoot.

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The most dad remark made in Kingsley’s columns in a long time came from Will Rogers this week:

That frisky Will Rogers has made a swift trip to San Francisco in his big car, accompanied by his wife and four children. The lariat expert hit the high spots, spending only twelve hours and a half aboard his car. He says he could have made it in twelve, but the kids insisted on stopping for lunch.

Kingsley didn’t mention the real feat of human endurance from the story: his four children were all under the age of 8 (Will Jr. was 7, Mary was 6, Jim was 4 and Fred was 1). That couldn’t have been fun for any of the participants—no wonder he drove fast. I hope your holiday travels are better than theirs!

 

 

 

 

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