Sol Lesser: From the Barbary Coast to “Kon-Tiki”

Sol Lesser (1890-1980) was one of the most successful of the independent producers during the classic studio era and there are many reasons to celebrate him.

Originally from Spokane, Lesser launched himself into show business in 1913 by taking film of San Francisco’s notorious Barbary Coast district prior to the razing of many of its historic saloons, gambling dens, and whorehouses. The resulting film The Last Night of the Barbary Coast, brought him enough profit that he was able to buy up his own string of nickelodeons. As with other early movie entrepreneurs such as William Fox and Marcus Loew, this then provided his springboard into production. His younger brother Irving M. Lesser was often his partner in these ventures.

An early example of Lesser’s acumen was the signing of Jackie Coogan to a contract in the wake of his success in Charlie Chaplin’s The Kid (1921). Lesser was able to extend Coogan’s early success by a number of years by starring him in a series of smartly calculated vehicles: Peck’s Bad Boy (1921), My Boy (1921), Oliver Twist (1922), Trouble (1922), and Daddy (1923). Another child star he worked with in the silent days was Baby Peggy, who appeared in such films as Captain January (1924) and Helen’s Babies (1924). He further revealed his knack for making a buck by diversifying, releasing a series of nature documentaries, as well as Balto’s Race to Nome (1925), about the heroic canine’s life-saving race, Lesser’s answer to Rin Tin Tin. In 1925 he released two Harry Langdon comedies, movies I believe were actually made prior to the comedian’s 1924 deal with Mack Sennett: Horace Greeley Jr and The White Wing’s Bride.

Following a five year hiatus, Lesser returned with a vengeance to make talkies starting with a series of Buck Jones westerns in 1930. In 1933 he made the first Tarzan films, in serial form, with Buster Crabbe. That year, amazingly, he also released Eisenstein in Mexico, a re-edited version of Que Viva Mexico! Lesser was clearly a visionary, who would try anything he felt might succeed with audiences. At the same time he was releasing like the Chandu the Magician sequels, starring Bela Lugosi. In 1934 he produced a remake of Peck’s Bad Boy, this time starring Jackie Cooper. In 1938 came Tarzan’s Revenge and Peck’s Bad Boy with the Circus, with Spanky McFarland, Edgar Kennedy, Billy Gilbert, William Demarest and Louis Beavers.

In the ’40s again some truly visionary producing: the screen version of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town (1940), the all-star WWII patriotic film Stage Door Canteen (1943), an adaptation of George Agnew Chamberlain’s The Red House (1947), and the Oscar-winning documentary Kon-Tiki (1950). From 1943 through the end of his career in 1960 he turned out skads more Tarzan movies. Over the course of his career, Lesser produced over 100 films.