We all know that beautiful lady standing white robed on a pedestal, carrying a torch. The Columbia Pictures Logo is world famous. Over the course of the years she has changed from time to time—sometimes draped in the US flag, sometimes in the company of white clouds and even for, a while, when the studio was owned by Coca-Cola, her figure mysteriously resembled a coke bottle. Today, Columbia Pictures is a powerhouse corporation owned by Sony, that produces motion pictures, distributes them, and is a leader in television production.
It wasn’t always this way. Once upon a time, it was a struggling little studio that sat squarely on a parcel of land called Poverty Row, next door to little-respected studios like Republic, Monogram and Allied Artists, who produced a menu of lowbrow B movies.
Often, when the larger studios wanted to keep an unruly star in line they threatened —or actually—lent him or her to Columbia as punishment.
Like most Hollywood Studios, Columbia had its beginning in New York City, and like other Hollywood studio success stories, it was the invention of Jewish immigrants trying to make a better life in America.
Joseph Cohn came to America in 1880, met and married a Polish woman named Bella, and had five children. The family that included Jack & Harry, future moguls, lived in a cramped apartment on East 88th Street.
The first brother to enter the fast-growing world of show business was Jack. He started work for a struggling film company owner named Carl Laemmle, who would someday own Universal Pictures. Eventually Jack brought his more aggressive and creative brother, Harry, into the business. Harry flourished working with Laemmle, but always wanted something more. He yearned to be self employed. So with twelve years of experience, he formed a company known as CBC, with his brother Jack as president and a partner named Brandt. (Cohn, Brandt, Cohn). They bought pictures and started to distribute them.
Meanwhile, the owner of a little orange grove in the Hollywood hills was selling off its cheap property. Harry traveled out to the newly-named Hollywood and leased some land off Sunset Boulevard, in an area called Poverty Row. He bought film that was left over from reels and used it to make his own movies. Soon CBC was in the business of making films—mostly shorts.
Harry was never satisfied. He felt disrespected; worst of all, he was laughed at for his cost-conscious ways. A common joke in the fledgling industry was that CBC stood for Corned Beef & Cabbage. Before long, Harry had all he could take, so he changed the company name from CBC to Columbia Pictures. Some say he got the name from a ship in the Hudson; others say Harry got it from a Times Square clothing billboard.
The year was 1924 and Columbia Pictures was born in New York City. Production
facilities were to be in Hollywood—3,000 miles from his brother, Jack, who stayed in New York. By this time, Jack and Harry were fiercely competitive, arguing about everything. Harry loved Jack, but the distance between them suited him just fine.
Next month—Harry meets the 3 Stooges, and Columbia finds a little-known director named Frank Capra.
Ric Pantale writer and director, is an independent film maker. His latest film, Delilah Rose, is scheduled for release soon.