Screenwriting Advice from Jesse Lasky: How to Sell a Picture to Paramount in 1921

Since we had so much fun with the last bit of movie writing advice, I thought we would go for more of the same. This article found in The Photodramatist of 1921 is of particular interest because it was written by Jesse Lasky, one of the founding players of what would/had become Paramount Pictures. Let’s see what our friend Mr. Lasky has to say about writing for one of his productions.

As always, my notes will be in italics. Paramount is my favorite feature era silent studio, so this should be extra fun for me!

“Clean pictures have always been the aim of Famous Players-Lasky Corporation. The people of the United States want wholesome amusement, free from suggestive or morbid incidents.”

The first picture released by the Lasky corporation was The Squaw Man, which centered on murder and suicide. But do go on…

“It is obvious therefore, that no pictures showing improper situations or scenes will be tolerated in our pictures. True, practically every photodrama must contain love interest which involves some form of sex attraction. The problem is therefore to present wholesome love and to avoid any sensuality. It is, again, the price of visualization and that which will not shock on the printed page and, even on the stage, will only be mildly suggestive, may become distinctly offensive on the screen.”

Bebe vamps up a storm in Why Change Your Wife?

Have they… have they spoken with Mr. DeMille about this? Cuz Why Change Your Wife is…

“The subject of white slavery is taboo — the evil is no longer a matter of public
moment and therefore has no place in motion pictures.

The only excuse for showing illicit relationships is to prove that virtue is rewarded
while vice is punished. Drama must occasionally contain elements of this nature, but to make them the basic theme of a photoplay is to run grave risks — therefore only the closest scrutiny is adequate to avoid pitfalls.”

Oh my!

The Captive centers around a Turkish POW on a forced labor detail that, it is broadly hinted, is not nearly as wholesome as Mr. Lasky might pretend.

“There are certain forms of dancing which have no place on the screen — certainly the danse du ventre is inadmissable.

The cave-man sense is out of date and it follows that passion depicted in brutal terms forms one of the subjects to be avoided. “

Danse du ventre means bellydancing and “cave-man” love scenes were, you know, the rough stuff. And both were featured prominently in Paramount’s smash hit adaptation of The Sheik, which would be released just months after this article went to press.

“Comedy sometimes gives rise to the possibility of offending through suggestion even more than drama, and as a result this type of story should be watched and handled with delicacy and due regard for the proprieties.

There is no need to depict bloodshed unnecessarily. Remember that the public as a whole must be considered and no one can say that playgoers actually delight in such scenes. The screen is not a pathological survey, nor should it give scope to the harrowing details of an ensanguined encounter.”

Paramount obviously had its share of trash, but they particularly had no room to talk as they distributed Behind the Door, one of the bloodiest, nastiest silent films ever made. Ensanguined doesn’t begin to describe it.

“Subtitles that are offensive, advertising matter that is objectionable, are alike to be
avoided.

It will be seen that there is no unnecessary prudery involved in a consideration of the subjects to be left out of the picture which conforms to the requirements of good taste. The world is full of fine, enobling, inspiring and beautiful things. To make these stand out in their full grandeur, it is necessary at times to depict their reverse, but the normal producer will see to it that decency is observed and that the ill effects of indulgence in any form of vice is clearly shown. “

Well, Mr. Lasky, all I can say is this:

That’s from M’Liss, which was distributed by– you guessed it– Lasky’s own company.

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4 Replies to “Screenwriting Advice from Jesse Lasky: How to Sell a Picture to Paramount in 1921”

  1. Interesting article! It is quite funny because the advice given sounds more like it is being given from Will Hays than Jesse Lasky. I’m guessing that this article was deliberately written to throw the competing production companies off from adopting the traits Lasky knew proved successful for his own company.

  2. This is PR, intended to help the company’s image, rather than actual advice. Paramount was hit harder by the early ’20s scandals than any other studio. Arbuckle, William Desmond Taylor, Mary Miles Minter and Wallace Reid were all Paramount people.

    I like William Gaines’ advice for writing for EC Comics, where he said that good doesn’t have to triumph over evil. The soon-to-be-imposed Comics Code put an end to that.

    1. It’s definitely PR but the scandals you mention would not be a factor because the article was published in May and the Arbuckle Scandal did not trigger until September. The others were even later.

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