Nathan Burkan and Samuel Goldwyn

Vaudeville impresario Jesse L. Lasky’s brother-in-law, a glove salesman named Samuel Goldfish, had long been urging him to get into the movie business. Lasky was reluctant. To him, the one- and two-reel moving pictures he had been including in his vaudeville programs were good for nothing but chasing out customers who would otherwise sit through multiple performances of the live acts. The quality of Zukor’s features changed his outlook, and one day when Lasky and his creative partner, Cecil B. DeMille, ran into actor Dustin Farnum and playwright Edwin Milton Royle at the Lambs Club, they struck a deal to make a film version of Royle’s The Squaw Man. The Jesse L. Lasky Feature Play Company was incorporated, with Goldfish as treasurer and general manager and DeMille as “director general.” The Squaw Man was released within days of Charlie Chaplin’s screen debut for Keystone in the winter of 1914. It was an enormous hit.

Lasky’s second feature, a comedy called Brewster’s Millions, ran into trouble with the Board of Censorship in Chicago, which ordered the deletion of scenes (“cutouts”) totaling about four minutes. Lasky’s distributor for the Midwest, Celebrated Players Film Company, intended to appeal the censor’s ruling prior to sending the film to exhibitors. But before it could do so, Sam Goldfish―asserting that “whether the cutouts are made or not is wholly immaterial as they do not in the least effect {sic} the value or attractiveness of the picture” ―precipitously terminated Celebrated’s distributorship contract. (Lasky and Goldfish had recently befriended Adolph Zukor; they were looking for a pretext to give one of Zukor’s affiliated companies the Midwest distribution rights.)

The Lasky Company filed suit in New York to have the contract voided declared void; Celebrated hired Nathan Burkan to defend. Burkan prevailed upon a federal judge to see an uncensored version of Brewster’s Millions at a New York theater where, Burkan knew, at least one of the scenes that the Chicago censor ordered deleted was considered important enough to be featured on the promotional materials on display in the lobby. The judge took notice of that and held that Goldfish had been “too anxious to get matters into a situation where a breach of contract might be forced.” He found that it was the Lasky Company, not Celebrated, that was in breach.

The sequence of events that followed makes for a quintessential Burkan tale. Lasky and Goldfish, impressed with Burkan’s performance, engaged their erstwhile adversary to represent their company in subsequent cases. After the Lasky Feature Play Company merged with Famous Players in 1916, Adolph Zukor forced Goldfish out, and Lasky’s sister, Blanche, divorced Goldfish. When Goldfish tried to renege on his property settlement with Blanche after she remarried, Burkan represented her. Goldfish v. Goldfish went all the way to New York’s highest court, which ordered Sam to continue making his monthly payments.

Harboring no ill will toward his ex-wife’s lawyer, Sam Goldfish “dragooned” Burkan into representing him in his post-Lasky ventures. He even sought out Burkan’s advice in disputes with Blanche over custody of their daughter.

Later, Sam Goldwyn (he had adopted as his own surname the portmanteau trademark of the movie studio he founded with Edgar Selwyn after his ouster from Famous Players-Lasky) was trying to hire director Henry King for a project. King, another Burkan client,  had previously refused to work with Goldwyn, whom he considered untrustworthy. Burkan arranged for the two men to meet face to face at the Ambassador Hotel, the swank Hollywood social hub that served as Burkan’s home base during his twice-yearly trips to the West Coast. As King later told the story:

Nathan turned to me—this was in Goldwyn’s presence—and said, “Look, Henry, this man will carry out to the letter every word there is in a contract he signs. But don’t believe anything he tells you or promises you that isn’t written.”

Sam almost tore the hotel down! “Nate,” he cried, “You’re my attorney!”

Nathan said, “I’m also Henry’s attorney and I’m telling both of you the truth.” He wrote the contract in longhand on Ambassador Hotel stationery. That was the contract for Stella Dallas.

As a Film Daily columnist once quipped, “Nathan Burkan has so many clients, when he starts a court action, he finds the opposing counsel is himself.”