Harry Cohn made Columbia Pictures and he ran the studio with a tight fist. He was once quoted,
“I don’t get ulcers—I give them.”
Cohn was the embodiment of the legendary Hollywood Mogul. As both president and owner of the studio, he answered to no one. He knew everything that was going on inside the gates, who entered, who left, and who was working overtime.
Under Harry Cohn’s guidance, Columbia Pictures never lost money, a feat viewed as remarkable to this day. If RKO (a major competitor) was eclectic, Columbia was solid and had a personality.
During the late 1920s and early ‘30s, Columbia was known for its pot boilers—films
low on the artistic scale—but profitable. Later it became known that Harry Cohn had a system: produce two or three important movies a year and produce B movies the rest of the time, thereby saving serious money.
Going to the movies in the early days was an entertaining night out, usually for the whole family. Part of the experience was to show two films, a short, a cartoon and a newsreel.
Early on, Harry Cohn had discovered that producing short films could be profitable. Over at MGM, the studio had a comedy act called Ted Healy and his Stooges. Early in 1933, MGM decided to keep Healy and get rid of the Stooges.
Cohn had always liked the Stooges—Moe Howard, his older brother Shemp, and Larry Fine—and decided to hire them for a short film with rhyming dialogue. By this time Shemp had dropped out and was replaced by the younger brother, who came to be known as Curly. Cohn quickly realized that 3 Rhyming Stooges were ridiculous—and not in a good way—so he had them do slapstick for 20 minutes. The audiences loved it. The 3 Stooges were a huge hit. For the next 23 years, they worked at Columbia Studios making 190 short films. Harry Cohn used their comedy shorts as bargaining chips to ensure that theater owners would rent his low budget features.
Another turning point for Columbia Pictures came in 1928. The studio was producing a movie called Submarine, a low budget thriller starring Jack Holt. Harry hated the bits and pieces he saw during production. After an argument, he fired the director and took a chance on a young slap- stick comedy director named Frank Capra, who practically begged him for the job.
Somehow, Capra made the movie into a nail-biting thriller that became a big box office success, so Capra was immediately assigned to bigger and better jobs.
In 1935, he made It Happened One Night, with Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert, big stars on loan from another studio. That was the film that put Columbia Pictures on the map, winning the Oscar for Best Picture of 1935—Columbia’s first.
Fueled by his sudden respectability, Harry Cohn, with a little help from his friends, was becoming a legend. Harry had always avoided having a stable of stars. He learned from Jack Warner, over at Warner Brothers, that stars and their salary demands could be hard to handle, annoying and expensive, but this was all about to change.
Next Month—Columbia starts to develop its own stars, Deanna Durbin, and Rita Hayworth.
Ric Pantale writer and director, is an independent film maker. His latest film, Delilah Rose, is scheduled for release soon.