Harry Cohn (1891-1958)


Harry Cohn
Harry Cohn


Harry Cohn was the president and production director of Columbia Pictures Corporation from the 1920's until his death in 1958. He was one of the most controversial of the Hollywood studio moguls but under his leadership Columbia rose from being a cut-rate minnow to one of the biggest and most profitable production factories in Hollywood.

During his career he gained a reputation for his combative and autocratic manner and he ran Columbia as a one man dictatorship, becoming in the process one of the most unpopular men in Hollywood. Nevertheless his methods worked and he created stars out of such talents as Barbara Stanwyck, Rita Hayworth, Glenn Ford and James Stewart. Under his stewardship Columbia became famous for dramatic movies such as 'It Happened One Night' in 1934, 'Mr. Smith Goes to Washington' in 1939, 'From Here to Eternity' in 1953 and 'The Bridge on the River Kwai' in 1957, all multiple Oscar-winning movies.

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Biography

Harry Cohn was born on July 23, 1891 in New York City the third of five children of German-Polish Jewish immigrant parents. His father was a tailor and Cohn grew up in a poor environment on New York's rough East 88th Street, forced to learn from an early age that everything in life had to be fought for. He left school at fourteen and for several years took a wide range of jobs including salesman, shipping clerk and streetcar conductor. His first show business job was for a short time in a vaudeville singing act with composer Harry Ruby and in 1910, at the age of nineteen, he started his own business publishing and plugging sheet music. One of his ideas which had some success was producing his own short movies of actors miming to popular songs and inviting the audience to join in. He served in the US army and was discharged just after the start of World War I, after which he got a job with Carl Laemmle's Universal Pictures, where his elder brother, Jacob (Jack) Cohn, was already forging a successful career in charge of the short subject department where he had created a successful series called 'Screen Snapshots', which showed informal glimpses of the off-screen lives of the stars.

In 1919 the two brothers left Universal and joined with a lawyer friend, Joe Brandt, to found CBC Film Sales Corporation. The initials CBC officially stood for Cohn, Brandt, Cohn, but the company's low-budget and initially low quality output of one-reelers caused it to be nicknamed "Corned Beef and Cabbage."

Harry moved west and opened a studio on Gower Street in Los Angeles and began producing shorts and to use his promotional skills to the full. The company continued the successful 'Screen Snapshots' series and after buying the rights to the popular comic strip, "The Hallroom Boys", signed a contract with the National Film Company to produce a filmed series of the strip, with Harry supervising production.

In August 1922 the company produced its first feature film, 'More To Be Pitied Than Scorned' which was a commercial success and showed that the fledgling studio could compete with the majors.in 1924, Joe Brandt sold his share of the company to Cohn and it changed its name to Columbia Pictures in the same year, with Harry Cohn as head of production and Jack heading the sales division. Harry had undoubted business acumen and a fierce determination to make Columbia a major force in Hollywood. He began to purchase competing smaller studios in the area to create one large studio.

Initially Columbia used inexpensive newcomers or ex-stars, past their peak, to keep down costs and as a result their early movies were unfailingly profitable but always of 'B' movie standard. Harry Cohn began to change this with his ability to recognise underused talent which greatly improved the quality of Columbia's output. During his tenure at the studio he signed and cultivated a number of young performers who went on to become important stars, such as Barbara Stanwyck, James Stewart, Gary Cooper, Rosalind Russell, Glenn Ford, Judy Holliday and Rita Hayworth. His first step towards Hollywood respectability came in 1928 when he signed a director - Frank Capra.

Capra, who had not previously had a conspicuously successful directorial career, responded well to the creative freedom which Harry Cohn gave him, and made a long string of films for Columbia all of which were profitable, starting with 'That Certain Thing' in 1928. He gained the company its first Oscar nomination for 'Lady for a Day' in 1933 and went on to create some movie classics for the studio, beginning in 1934 with 'It Happened One Night' which won five Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director. With this film Columbia's prestige rose dramatically and it would not, in future, be regarded as a "poverty row" studio. In the following years Columbia continued to produce large numbers of popular, economically made shorts, serials and cartoons interspersed with more prestigous movies such as Lost Horizon in 1937, 'Mr. Smith Goes to Washington' in 1939, both directed by Capra, and 'The Jolson Story' and 'Gilda', both in 1946.

Cohn's formula continued to work with great success for the rest of his career and in the 1950's he produced such magnicicent classics as 'From Here to Eternity' in 1953, 'On the Waterfront' the following year, and 'The Bridge on the River Kwai' in 1957. He recognised that television would become an important competitor to movies and he set up the "Screen Gems" TV production division of Columbia, which proved increasingly lucrative.

Cohn was in charge of Columbia for over thirty years and the company never once made an annual loss during this time.

Personal

Harry Cohn was not a prepossessing character and was one of the most unpopular men in Hollywood. He was a blustering, foul-mouthed, abrasive taskmaster and acted like a tyrant at Columbia. His office there contained a large height adjustable desk for Cohn and small seats for his visitors, enabling him to seemingly dwarf them. His height adjustable desk also contained a photo of Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, whom Cohn admired. It would be amazing if such a height adjustable desk was available today from somewhere such as beyondtheofficedoor.com. Cohn also delighted in eavesdropping on employee's conversations using concealed microphones on sound stages and in dressing rooms.

He developed a reputation for using the "casting couch" - expecting sexual favors from actresses in return for career advancement. Rita Hayworth, Joan Crawford and Kim Novak were three of the better known actresses who rejected his advances. Cohn was known to have ties to organized crime and was friendly with mobsters such as Chicago gangster, John Roselli.

Despite his dictatorial methods, he inspired great loyalty in his staff and he returned it. He gave generous Christmas bonuses and gave financial help to staff who had fallen on hard times.

Jack and Harry Cohn were never close and each resented the success of the other. In the early 1930's Harry had to fight off an attempt by Jack to take over the studio and they continued to fight fiercely over business matters until Jack's death in 1956.

Cohn married twice, firstly to Rose Barker from 1923 to 1941 and then from July 1941 until his death in 1958 to actress Joan Perry, with whom he had two sons and two daughters.

Harry Cohn died on February 27, 1958 in Phoenix, Arizona from a heart attack. He was aged 66 years. His funeral was held at the Columbia sudios at Sunset and Gower and over 2,000 mourners attended, prompting the famous remark by Red Skelton: "It proves what Harry always said: Give the public what they want and they'll come out for it."


Harry Cohn Filmography (as Producer)

1915
1916
1917
1918
1919
They Do It on $8 Per
Almost Heroes (short)
Nothing But Nerve (short)
A Howling Success (short)
Pretty Soft (short)
The Chicken Hunters (short)
Taming the West (short)
1920
Wrong Again (short)
Oh, Baby! (short)
Neck and Neck (short)
Passing the Buck (short)
Can You Beat It (short)
Breaking Into Society (short)
This Way Out (short)
Four of a Kind (short)
Tit for Tat (short)
Misfortune Hunters (short)
Back on the Farm (short)
Tell Us, Ouija! (short)
Wild Wild Women (short)
Stung Again (short)
Movie Madness (short)
Clever Cubs (short)
Some Champs (short)
Hired and Fired (short)
All Balled Up (short)
A Close Shave (short)
This Is the Life (short)
1921
A Doggone Mix-Up
In Again, Out Again (short)
High & Dry (short)
Tough Luck (short)
False Roomers (short)
Their Dizzy Finish (short)
In Bad Again (short)
Circus Heroes (short)
A Chili Romance (short)
We Should Worry (short)
Friday, the 13th (short)
After the Dough (short)
We'll Get You Yet (short)
Two Faces West (short)
Meet the Wife (short)
Put and Take (short)
Beach Nuts (short)
Stars and Stripes (short)
Start Something (short)
At Your Service (short)
Matinee Idols (short)
Taking Chances (short)
Step on It (short)
1922
Nobody's Baby (short)
From Soup to Nuts (short)
Game Birds (short)
Better Late Than Never (short)
Beware of Blondes (short)
The Dentist (short)
Breaking Into Jail (short)
No Money to Guide Him (short)
More to Be Pitied Than Scorned
Still Going Strong (short)
The New Mama (short)
A Tailor-Made Chauffeur (short)
The Spirit of '23 (short)
All at Sea (short)
The Dumb Waiters (short)
Only a Shop Girl
High Flyers (short)
My Mistake (short)
1923
Bridle Grooms (short)
West Is East (short)
Holy Smoke (short)
Full o' Pep (short)
Day by Day in Every Way (short)
Oh, Ma the Rent Taker (short)
Only a Husband (short)
Tin Knights in a Hallroom (short)
Ham and Yeggs (short)
Monkeying Around (short)
Seaside Simps (short)
Yesterday's Wife
The Marriage Market
Innocence
1924
Discontented Husbands
1925
When Husbands Flirt
The Lure of the Wild
1926
The Belle of Broadway
Sweet Rosie O'Grady (supervising producer)
1927
Stolen Pleasures (supervising producer)
The Price of Honor
Birds of Prey
Paying the Price
Pleasure Before Business
Poor Girls
Rich Men's Sons
The Romantic Age
The Kid Sister
The Blood Ship
The Swell-Head
Alias the Lone Wolf
Sally in Our Alley
The Clown
By Whose Hand?
Forgotten Women
The College Hero
The Tigress
Stage Kisses
The Opening Night
The Warning
The Siren
1928
That Certain Thing
The Lost Heiress
So This Is Love?
A Woman's Way
The Stronger Love
The Matinee Idol
The Desert Bride
Sinner's Parade
The Street of Illusion
Submarine
Runaway Girls
Court-Martial
The Scarlet Woman
Virgin Lips
Lady Raffles
The Reckoning
Beware of Blondes
The Way of the Strong
Ransom
Name the Woman
Modern Mothers
Golf Widows
After the Storm
Girl of the Night
1929
Behind Closed Doors
Trial Marriage
The Quitter
The Donovan Affair
The Bachelor Girl
Light Fingers
The College Coquette
Flight
Hurricane
Acquitted
Broadway Scandals
Wall Street
Dancing Feet
Mexicali Rose
1930
Melody Man
Murder on the Roof
Personality
Vengeance
Guilty?
A Royal Romance
Prince of Diamonds
Ladies of Leisure
Around the Corner
Soldiers and Women
Call of the West
Sisters
Hell's Island
Ladies Must Play
Rain or Shine
The Squealer
The Last of the Lone Wolf
Shadow Ranch (executive producer - uncredited)
Brothers
The Dawn Trail (executive producer)
Madonna of the Streets
1931
The Criminal Code
Ten Cents a Dance
Dirigible (uncredited)
The Good Bad Girl
Arizona
The Miracle Woman
Branded
Border Law
Platinum Blonde
The Guilty Generation
1932
Forbidden
Behind the Mask (uncredited)
Shopworn (uncredited)
Attorney for the Defense
American Madness
Vanity Street
1933
Mussolin Speaks! (documentary)
So This Is Africa (executive producer)
Lady for a Day (executive producer - uncredited)
Let's Fall in Love (uncredited)
1934
It Happened One Night (executive producer - uncredited)
Twentieth Century (executive producer - uncredited)
Black Moon
Whom the Gods Destroy
One Night of Love (uncredited)
Strictly Confidential (uncredited)
1935
Air Hawks (uncredited)
1936
1937
Lost Horizon (executive producer - uncredited)
1938
1939
What a Woman (uncredited)
Coast Guard (supervising producer - uncredited)
La charrette fantôme (uncredited)
1940
1941
1942
1943
1944
1945
1946
1947
The Lady from Shanghai (executive producer - uncredited)
1948
1949