SIMPP Member (1942-1958)
Excerpt from Hollywood Renegades by J. A. Aberdeen
Lesser - independent filmmaker who at various times in his career
served as indy producer, distributor, and exhibitor.
One of the three new additions to SIMPP in 1942 was industry pioneer Sol
Lesser whose experience in all three branches of the film industry made him a
unique SIMPP member.
At the age of 17, Lesser inherited his family's San Francisco nickelodeon
upon the death of his father in 1907. Following an aggressive expansion into
distribution, he became a leading film exchange operator in California. He also
ventured into production, and became a vertically-integrated mainstay at First
National. In 1920, Lesser founded the West Coast Theatres, in partnership with
Abe and Mike Gore, which also rapidly expanded until it became the main
first-run theater chain in the Pacific states. With plans of a leisurely
retirement, Lesser sold his West Coast interests to a financier in 1926. Shortly
thereafter the independent chain fell under the control of William Fox, and the Fox
West Coast Theatres became the scourge of the independent producers for many years.
His retirement was short; and boredom prompted his reentry to the film
industry as an independent producer with his own company called Principle
Pictures. His purchase of a small Los Angeles theater became the start of his
Principle Theatres chain. He even formed the Principle Distributing Corporation,
and later created his own financing operation, the Principle Securities
His friendship with other veteran independents also created strong ties at
both United Artists and SIMPP. When Joseph Schenck
was at UA, Sol Lesser was
closely associated with him in several film and theater ventures. The Lessers
were instrumental in bringing Walt Disney
to United Artists in the early 1930s,
and remained life-long friends of the Disneys.
National child star Jackie Coogan.
Lesser's association with Charlie Chaplin went back even further. Back at
First National, Lesser claimed that part of his responsibility was to deliver
Chaplin his payment upon delivery of his films. In the early 1920s, Lesser began
producing pictures with child star Jackie Coogan concurrent with Chaplin's
masterpiece The Kid (1921). Lesser respected Chaplin's desire to postpone
the release of the Lesser-Coogan films until after Chaplin completed his film.
By doing so, Lesser not only ensured a friendship with Chaplin that lasted for
years, but Lesser also found that his films with Coogan were far more valuable
by waiting until after the success of The Kid. Chaplin even invested in
the Progressive Theatres at a time when Chaplin refused to become a partner in
even the United Artists Theatre Circuit. Chaplin held on to the Progressive
stock for many years, and during his exile in the 1950s, Lesser visited Chaplin
in Switzerland and repurchased the shares of the theater company.
Lesser's Tarzan series.
Sol Lesser also produced the Tarzan movies beginning in the 1930s, another
excellent example of the urbane business methods of the respected producer. In
1931 when MGM was making the highly-anticipated Tarzan the Apeman (1932),
Lesser announced that he had previously acquired the film rights to the Tarzan
character from another independent producer who had optioned the rights from
Edgar Rice Burroughs himself in 1928. The courts upheld Lesser's rights, and
Lesser was in a position to put the screws to MGM. Surprisingly, Lesser allowed
MGM to continue with its version for a nominal fee. This resulted in a
tremendous coup for Lesser. By momentarily stepping aside, just as he had with
the Chaplin-Coogan arrangement, Tarzan the Apeman became a sensation for
MGM in 1932, and left Lesser with the lucrative film rights to future film
adaptations. By not alienating the creator of Tarzan, Lesser also entered into a
close association with Edgar Rice Burroughs. Lesser released his own Tarzan
films through his Principle Distributing Corporation in 1933, and the series
became one of the mainstays of his independent operation.
In the fall of 1941, Sol Lesser took an executive producer position at RKO
but found it lacking the excitement of independent production. During a
management shakeup at RKO shortly after SIMPP was formed, Lesser decided to
return to independent filmmaking during this exciting time for the independents.
He quit RKO in February 1942, after only six months as an executive, and joined
the Society of Independent Motion Picture Producers.
Sol Lesser: Biography of Sol Lesser, AMPAS; "Sol
Lesser, 90, Predated Nearly All Industry Pioneers; 117 Features," Variety,
September 24, 1980, p. 4; "Producer Sol Lesser, 90, Movie Industry Pioneer,
Dies," LAT, September 20, 1980, sec. II, p. 1; "Sol Lesser Busy
in Chicago," New York Morning Telegraph, January 16, 1921; "Sol
Lesser, Benedict Quit RKO," DV, February 2, 1942, pp. 1, 6; Hildy
Crawford, "Sol Lesser: History of Films," Palm Springs Life,
January 1965, p. 20; Essoe, Tarzan of the Movies, pp. 72-82; Lasky, RKO,