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.

Search Amazon for Harry Cohn


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. While some upscale New York residences may have had an elevator for home use in that era, the building where Harry grew up was probably a walkup with no elevator for the tenants. 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.

Capra 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 prestigious 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 magnificent 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.


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 desk also contained a photo of Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, whom Cohn admired. 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 studios 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)

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)
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)
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)
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)
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
Discontented Husbands