a Family In Films
If you haven’t seen the TV series, The Roosevelts on PBS, KOCE, try to see it now! At a time when Americans are facing a mentally disturbed man at our country’s helm, we can remember that America has had three great presidents: George Washington (who did not cut down a cherry tree), Abraham Lincoln (who set all people of color free), and Franklin D. Roosevelt (who saved the entire nation). All Americans should learn about the lives and accomplishment of our great leaders and why they were great.
Roosevelt not only brought back work for Americans in a time of great disaster, but he used their paid labor to modernize America. He did not forget the arts. Painters, designers, writers, actors and the like, all found employment.
In HOLLYOOD ROYALTY: A Family in Films, I’ve written about one of these moments. My father-in-law was Jesse L. Lasky, who died before I could meet him. In 1913 the Jesse L. Lasky Feature Play Company, produced the first full-length feature film, The Squaw Man. With partners Cecil B. DeMille and Sam Goldwyn, Lasky founded Paramount Pictures, and planted eager roots in a tumbleweed California town. Hollywood was to grow into the movie capital of the world. When his final credits rolled on January 13, 1958, Jesse L. Lasky had personally produced over 1,000 films. This is an excerpt from the book:
SCENE SIX 1939 – 1943
In 1939, Lasky was still at RKO. On his next trip east, he was granted a private audience with Franklin D. Roosevelt. The president discussed Hitler’s progress through Europe and made a pointed suggestion to him to produce a film that would sway the hearts of isolationist America into entering the war on the side of Great Britain.
Back at RKO, Lasky was wracking his memory for a suitable subject when an executive reminded him of the inspiring story of a conscientious objector, turned World War I hero. The subject had been dormant in Lasky’s mind since May 22, 1919 when he had leaned out of an eighth-floor window in the Famous Players- Lasky offices at Forty-First and Fifth Avenue and watched the hysterical demonstrations for
Sergeant Alvin C. York.
This American soldier unbelievably, and practically unassisted, had wiped out a machine-gun battalion in the Argonne Forest in north-eastern France, and with just twenty-eight bullets in his rifle, had killed twenty-eight German soldiers, captured 132 more, and had taken possession of thirty-five machine guns. As war heroes went, nobody could top Sergeant York.
Back in 1919, the spectators had gone wild as the car carrying York and the young representative from Tennessee, Cordell Hull rolled down Fifth Avenue. Lasky, seeing the potential for a film, had tried back then to buy Sergeant York’s story. But the sergeant was adamant: ‘My life is not for sale.’
York’s life story would be the perfect choice, but there was no question in Lasky’s mind that it was not a picture he would ever want to make under Briskin (head of RKO). The producer decided to leave RKO and get on with his life and the creative work he wanted to do. He later wrote, ‘I can’t make a picture until I reach the state of self- hypnosis, and when I reach it, I have to make a picture.’ Twenty years had rolled by since he had approached York, but he decided that he would tackle him once again, and this time, not take no for an answer.
Sergeant York lived in the Valley of the Three Forks o’ the Wolf, Fentress County, Tennessee––real backwoods country. Lasky wrote him an inspiring letter, appealing to the hero’s sense of patriotism.
York didn’t even reply.
He next sent York a telegram, imploring a meeting to discuss ‘a historical document of vital importance to the country in these troubled times’, reminding him that President Roosevelt had proclaimed a limited national emergency.
York agreed to meet at a small hotel in ‘Jimtown’, as Jamestown was known locally. The flaming-haired giant arrived with a quiet little wife whom he called ‘Miss Grace’. With no hotel lounge, they relocated to Lasky’s room. The two men sat on the bed, Miss Grace taking the only chair. They talked and talked and got nowhere.
Back once more in Hollywood, the showman felt it was a time to be inventive – so he fabricated a telegram to York:
I HAVE JUST AGREED TO PLAY THE PART OF SERGEANT YORK FOR THE MOTION PICTURE PRODUCER JESSE L. LASKY ’S FILM OF THE STORY OF YOUR LIFE. I HAVE GREAT ADMIRATION FOR YOU AS A MAN, AND I WOULD BE HONORED, SIR, TO PLAY YOU ON THE SCREEN. GARY COOPER.
Lasky had not actually approached Cooper yet––although he fully intended to. A few weeks later, he traveled to Nashville to meet Sergeant York once again, this time at the Andrew Jackson Hotel, which had a lobby. He had arranged to have lawyers present for both sides, but York was still in refusal mode. A little more showmanship was required. Lasky asked him, ‘Sergeant York, you risked your life for your country in the first World War – and you’d do it again if your country needed you,
York nodded, tight-lipped against this fast-talking Hollywood film producer. ‘Then, Sergeant York’, Lasky proclaimed with his most theatrical passion, ‘that need exists right now! I know you will give your life to your country through the powerful medium of the screen! Because this country is in danger again––and the people don’t yet realize it. It’s your patriotic duty to let your life serve as an example to this nation. It’s the greatest lesson to American youth that could be told!’
York sat for a moment, taking this in. ‘Maybe we do have somethin’ to talk about’, York conceded. Lasky offered him $50,000 for the exclusive rights to his story, plus a small percentage of the gross receipts. The price was right—but for several days the lawyers argued over clause eight: determining whether the contract should be interpreted under California or Tennessee law. At an impasse, Lasky suddenly recalled that he’d met another Cooper: Tennessee’s Governor was Prentice Cooper. He hurried out to make a phone call in private. It was the Governor he phoned, to ask him if he would witness the signing of his contract with York, pointing out that it was a great coup for his state. Delighted, the Governor suggested they come immediately to the State Capitol Building.
He was leaving soon for the weekend.
‘There’ll be no signing of the contract with that clause eight!' York’s lawyer decreed.
‘I don’t think it’s wise to offend the governor’, Lasky declared with a slightly worried brow, adding, ‘But we don’t have to sign the real contract. We can let him witness a dummy contract. Then if we do sign the contract while the governor’s away, we’ll have a photograph of him as a witness. That would please him and be very good publicity for the picture – and of course, for the state of Tennessee.’
Sergeant York thought about it. ‘We could tear up the photograph if we don’t sign the contract’, he decided. ‘The governor is a good man. Let’s don’t keep him waitin’.’ Photographers from the national press services and the local Nashville papers hurried to record the ceremony. Later that evening, with an agreement still to be reached about clause eight, York heard newsboys in the street shouting,
‘EXTRA! EXTRA! CONTRACT SIGNED FOR SERGEANT YORK MOVIE!’
York sighed and shook his head.
‘Mr. Lasky, I guess we’ll have to sign it now!’
Regretting the subterfuge, Lasky hurriedly handed over a $25,000 deposit. Unfortunately, he had no money in the bank to cover the check, much less the rest of the $50,000, due in 60 days. Worse still, the only person who was perfect for the part was his earlier discovery, now a star, Gary Cooper, whose name he had used in vain. More trickery was called for.
Before boarding the plane, Lasky hastily sent Cooper a wire from the Nashville airport:
I HAVE JUST AGREED TO LET THE MOTION PICTURE PRODUCER JESSE L. LASKY FILM THE STORY OF MY LIFE SUBJECT TO MY APPROVAL OF THE STAR. I HAVE GREAT ADMIRATION FOR YOU AS AN ACTOR AND AS A MAN AND I WOULD BE HONORED SIR TO SEE YOU ON THE SCREEN AS MYSELF. SERGEANT ALVIN C. YORK.
Back in Hollywood, Lasky borrowed $25,000 on his life-insurance policy to cover his kited check. Then he got the good news! Cooper was willing––but that worried Lasky just slightly. Cooper’s salary was now the highest of any actor in the States. He’d have to find a major studio to finance the production before the second payment became due, and it seemed nobody had made a war picture for ages, nor wanted to. The consensus was that the president may have wanted one,
but not the public.
As a last resort, Lasky approached his friend, Harry Warner, whom he knew to be a great patriot, and offered him a slate of three pictures, Sergeant York being the first. Harry got his brother Jack on the phone. ‘Jack, I want you to make a deal with Jesse for a story he wants to do. I believe in it,
so do it for my sake.’
Jack Warner signed Lasky to produce three films for Warner Brothers, Sergeant York to be followed by either The Adventures of Mark Twain, or possibly a story about Lord Baden-Powell, founder of the Boy Scouts, or Rhapsody in Blue, a biography of George Gershwin. Lasky was back in business, all with ‘A’ picture budgets. It was the way he functioned best.
With a contract for the first film granting him twenty-five percent of the gross proceeds on Sergeant York after negative costs, Lasky’s next step was the script. He returned to Tennessee with writer Harry Chandlee to fill in the story gaps, taking along his youngest son, Bill, now an able cameraman.
York staged a typical turkey shoot and hillbillies came from miles around to win prize steers, provided by Lasky. York was somewhat surprised and impressed that the producer was an excellent shot. Bill photographed it all in 16 mm. He would later work as an apprentice assistant director on the film, renewing an acquaintance with Cooper and introducing him to his trained hawk.
When director, Howard Hawks saw Bill’s footage of the turkey shoot, he was intrigued by York’s characteristic gesture: wetting his thumb and touching the sight of his rifle before aiming it. Lasky explained it reduced reflection of the sun, permit- ting more accurate aiming of the old-fashioned rifle.
BILL, COOPER, AND HAWK
Hawks established this gesture early in the picture with York at a turkey shoot, as a symbol of a perfect shot: a dead turkey. And subsequently, those twenty-eight perfect shots that day in the Argonne.
The final script collaborator was a young film director/screenwriter/actor, John Huston, who contributed some outstanding scenes. With the script finished and clearances obtained, the immediate problem was to sign Lasky’s earlier discovery, who was now under contract to the ubiquitous Sam Goldwyn. ‘Cooper? You’re crazy!’ Jack Warner exploded. ‘Don’t waste your time asking Goldwyn. Look for another actor!’ ‘Cooper is the only actor who’s right for it’, Lasky replied, ‘and I’m going to get him if I have to remind Sam who made it possible for him to go into the picture business!’
Initially, he had approached Goldwyn about the project, but he’d turned it down. However, Lasky had heard that his ex-brother-in-law wanted Warner’s star Bette Davis for The Little Foxes, so with Warner’s cooperation, Sam agreed to loan Cooper in a trade for Davis—and everyone was happy.
York was brought to Hollywood as an advisor. Bess served him tea and Lasky took him to meet Gary Cooper, who lived across the street. The actor came to the door in his stocking feet for a meeting of two of the three most taciturn men Lasky had ever met. He later wrote, ‘If we’d had Calvin Coolidge there, it would have been a three-ring wake.’
Sergeant York came to New York for the world premiere and sat beside Lasky as their fleet of automobiles paraded down Broadway to the Astor Theatre with an American Legion band, a drum corps, and assorted bigwigs. The producer considered it the third lofty moment of his career. His first: as a young producer and competitor of Flo Ziegfeld’s, riding down Broadway with Bessie to the glittering opening of his ill-fated Folies-Bergère Theatre. The second, when he rode in state down Broadway to the opening of his newly built Paramount Theatre. Both had ended in disaster. This was a procession of honor down that same fabled street to the Astor Theatre for the screening of Sergeant York, and it was third time lucky. Once again, the intrepid showman had floated to the top.
LASKY, COOPER, SERGEANT YORK
Later, he heard York tell the governor’s wife, ‘All that talk you heard in the picture when I said goodbye to Miss Grace was just what I said when I went off to war.’ John Huston even made Sergeant York believe that scene had happened just the way Huston had filmed it. Lasky was to learn that York donated his full salary to complete a Bible school that he had started in ‘Jimtown’.
At the White House, the producer and the others were shown into President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s office. The president greeted everyone cordially, then turning to Lasky, seeming to take the producer to task. ‘Lasky, I saw your picture last night and you made one unforgivable mistake.’ Roosevelt paused for effect and with a roar of laughter added, ‘You should have got old Cordell Hull to play himself.’
PRESIDENTIAL RECEPTION 1941
At the opening of SERGEANT YORK
Behind Roosevelt, L to R, Congressmen Gore and Priest,
Gov. Prentiss Cooper, Representatives Este and Kefauver, Senator Kenneth Keller, Sergeant York, Miss Gracie,
and Jesse L. Lasky