He was crude, uneducated, foul and, even on his best behavior, abrasive. No major studio executive of the so-called "Golden Age" was more loathed (although at times the dictatorial Samuel Goldwyn and the hard-nosed Jack L. Warner came close) than Harry Cohn.
Born in the middle of 5 children to Joseph Cohn, a Jewish tailor, and Bella, a Polish émigré, Harry was raised on New York's rough lower-class East 88th St., where he followed his older brother Jack Cohn into show business. Harry's life and the origins of Columbia Pictures are closely associated with Jack, whose early career paved the way for Harry's own ambitions, despite the fact that the two brothers fought bitterly and each harbored deep resentment over the other's success. By 19 Jack had left a job with an advertising agency to work for Carl Laemmle's newly formed Independent Motion Picture Company (IMP), rapidly working his way from entry-level job in the processing lab and through various positions where he founded Universal Weekly, one of the first newsreel outfits, for Laemmle. Jack soon found himself in charge of IMP's shorts as an uncredited producer. He was involved in Laemmle's first stab at feature production, Traffic in Souls (1913), which returned a then-whopping $450,000 on a $57,000 negative cost, convincing Uncle Carl to head west and invest in his own studio, Universal City. During this period Jack had convinced Laemmle to hire Joe Brandt, an attorney he'd worked for in advertising. Brandt, who would become the head of Universal's East Coast operations, would later be a key factor in the brothers' success.
Harry had grown up in his brother's shadow, working for much of the first decade of the 20th century as a lowly shipping clerk for a music publishing company. In 1912 he teamed with Harry Ruby at a local nickelodeon, singing duo for $28 per week, with Ruby receiving the biggest slice of the pie. The act would split up within a year and, after a brief stint as a trolley-car fare collector, Harry hit on the idea of applying song plugging to motion pictures. He produced a handful of silent shorts in which popular songs were mimed by actors, inviting the audiences to join in. His relatively modest success at this greased the skids for his brother to recommend him for a job at Universal. At age 27 Harry was working for Laemmle.
By 1919 Jack was itching for a change and wanted to become an independent film producer--he produced a series of shorts called Screen Snapshots, which purported to show stars' lives off-screen. Their popularity encouraged Jack to jump ship and Harry, sensing an opportunity, went with him. With them went Joe Brandt. The three formed CBC Film Sales, which released shorts, mostly terrible--so terrible, in fact, they earned the studio the nickname "Corned Beef and Cabbage Productions" (Harry would explode into a rage whenever he heard this). Desperate to put distance between he and his brother, Harry headed for Hollywood to oversee CBC productions there. By design or opportunity he ended up working out of the old Balshofer Studio on Hollywood Boulevard and gradually created his own studio, renting out the Independent Studios lot on Sunset and Gower. This was the heart of "Poverty Row"--so-called because it was an area filled with the offices of low-budget production companies and fly-by-night producers, who ground out ultra-cheap programmers (mostly westerns) hoping to make a few bucks. Harry was home.
He began producing two-reelers cheaply and nearly everything he sent east made money for CBC. It soon dawned on him that the big money wasn't in shorts but features, and the company scraped $20,000 together and produced More to Be Pitied Than Scorned (1922). Through the then-complex system of exchange releasing and so-called states rights sales, CBC netted $130,000 on the picture and, even more importantly, scored a deal for five additional features. By the end of 1923 CBC had released ten features, none of which lost money--a remarkable event along Gower Gulch. Harry was extremely conscious of his place in Hollywood and took offense at the derision CBC films received. He finally had enough, and on January 10, 1924, the company's name became Columbia Pictures Corporation. The next year the company paid $150,000 for a property at 6070 Sunset Boulevard. The partners made a fateful decision about the same time: unlike most of the other major studios (and this definition certainly didn't include Columbia at the time), they opted to forego theater ownership. This decision would prove extremely wise over the next 3three decades. Under Harry, Columbia rose from the Gower Gulch ash heap. His releases rarely featured A-list stars but consistently made money. Columbia took its first tentative stab at A-list feature production with The Blood Ship (1927) (its first featuring the now-familiar torch lady logo), and even that was made using a faded star, Hobart Bosworth, who agreed to appear in the melodrama for free.
Fate smiled on Harry when former Mack Sennett writer/director Frank Capra became available, and he was able to initially secure Capra's services for $1000 per picture. Capra's importance to the fortunes of Columbia Pictures cannot be overstated and, to be fair to Cohn, he recognized it. With rare exceptions the studio utilized competent journeymen directors like Erle C. Kenton, Malcolm St. Clair or Edward LeSaint, usually assigned to projects starring capable B-level actors hired on a one-shot basis (every so often Columbia would splurge and hire an "A"-list director like Howard Hawks. With each of his features, Capra's significance to Columbia grew, and with each hit Capra was given increasing carte blanche; the congenitally tightfisted Cohn would still fight bitterly with his star director over budgets, but would usually relent to the demands of his productions. Strangely, Columbia's status as a Poverty Row outfit actually helped. The major studios loaned them temperamental stars who demanded pay raises or script approval--since working for a "low-rent" studio like Columbia was considered punishment in the class-conscious world of Hollywood--and Harry enthusiastically assigned them to Capra's pictures, a tactic that usually paid off big. A top actor from MGM or Warners was expected to suffer in the low-budget purgatory of Gower Gulch but usually left eagerly wanting to work for Capra again. One such production, It Happened One Night (1934), single-handedly propelled the studio into the ranks of the majors and garnered Columbia its first Oscars (although the studio had been nominated for productions infrequently since 1931). Cohn never looked back; signing directors to contracts was one thing, but hordes of potentially unruly actors was another thing entirely--he held firm to his long-standing belief that contract stars were nothing but trouble, after paying keen interest to Jack L. Warner's battles with James Cagney, Bette Davis and Olivia de Havilland. In 1934 he signed The Three Stooges (who would enjoy a 22-year run at Columbia) and recent German émigré Peter Lorre (Cohn was at a loss on how to utilize him and Lorre would spent most of his time at Columbia being loaned out to other studios) to long-term contracts, but wouldn't begin to build a roster of contract stars in earnest until the late 1930s, beginning with Rosalind Russell, and always he kept their numbers comparatively small (William Holden, Glenn Ford and Rita Hayworth were among the select few in the late 1930s and early 1940s).
The vast majority of Columbia's output remained at the B-level well into the 1950s, but most of its films were profitable. It took Columbia until 1946 to experience its first bona fide blockbuster with The Jolson Story (1946), which netted $8 million on a $2-million investment and resulted in a profitable sequel in 1949. Among the major studios only Paramount and Columbia eagerly welcomed the intrusion of television, and Columbia responded by creating a subsidiary, Screen Gems (created by Harry's nephew Ralph Cohn) in the early 1950s. The division would pay off handsomely over the next 20 years.
Harry and his brother Jack continued to fight fiercely over business matters until Jack's death in 1956. Harry himself died of a heart attack in 1958. Despite his undeniable crudeness--the boorish, thuggish, crooked, loudmouthed "Harry Brock" character in Garson Kanin's classic Born Yesterday (1950), memorably played by Broderick Crawford, was largely based on Cohn), Harry Cohn's Columbia Pictures never had a negative year during his 30-year-plus reign--a record only approached by Louis B. Mayer, who ruled MGM from 1924 through mid-1951. Columbia began from a far more disadvantaged position than MGM did, though, and it thrived due to Cohn's keen judge of talent and his near-fanatical adherence to early business policies that were originally ridiculed.
|Joan Perry||(31 July 1941 - 27 February 1958) (his death) 4 children|
|Rose Barker Cromwell||(18 September 1923 - 28 July 1941) (divorced)|
Uncle of Robert Cohn.
Appears in the novel "The Vertigo Murders: An Alfred Hitchcock Mystery", by J. Madison Davis.
It was absolutely no secret that many people loathed Harry Cohn, but Cohn actually enjoyed his reputation of being the most hated man in Hollywood. In February 1958 when he died, the classic comment (usually attributed to Red Skelton) upon seeing the large number of people showing up for Cohn's funeral: "Give the people what they want, and they'll turn out for it!" When a member of the Temple asked the Rabbi to say "one good thing" about the deceased, he paused and said "He's dead".
The career of Oscar-winning screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz, who achieved cinematic immortality writing Citizen Kane (1941) for Orson Welles, was effectively scuttled by his alcoholism. By the end of the 1930s he had been reduced to working for Columbia Pictures, a former Poverty Row studio turned into a major because of the huge success of movies directed by Frank Capra. Despite the wealth brought into the studio by Capra, it was a stingy place and the bottom of the barrel for a self-respecting screenwriter, a last stop before actually falling off the map in Hollywood. Mankiewicz had been fired by almost every other studio in Hollywood and was, by the late 1930s, a "ruined man," according to fellow screenwriter F. Scott Fitzgerald. Cohn was known for getting talent discarded by the major studios at bargain prices, and he signed Mankiewicz for $750 a week. On his part Mankiewicz was contrite, but Columbia producer William Perlberg, knowing Mankiewicz was an alcoholic with a sharp tongue who enjoyed baiting his bosses, banned him from the executive dining room in an effort to head off trouble. However, one day Mankiewicz defied the ban and wound up sitting at a table with Cohn and other executives. Cohn started the conversation with: "Last night I saw the lousiest picture I've seen in years." After mentioning the title, one producer reported that he had seen it with an audience and they had loved it. He suggested that maybe Cohn would have had a different reaction if he had seen it with an audience. Cohn replied, "That doesn't make any difference. When I'm alone in a projection room, I have a foolproof device for judging whether a picture is good or bad. If my fanny squirms, it's bad. If my fanny doesn't squirm, it's good. It's as simple as that." There was a momentary silence, which was broken by Mankiewicz. "Imagine," he said to the other members of the table. "The whole world wired to Harry Cohn's ass!" Mankiewicz was once again out of a job and eventually wound up writing scripts for Welles' Mercury Theater on the radio.
In the mid-'30s Cohn hired a relatively unknown cowboy actor, John Wayne, for a several-picture contract at Columbia with its "B" western unit. Cohn, a married man, soon got the idea that Wayne had made a pass at a Columbia starlet with whom Cohn was having an affair. When he confronted Wayne about it Wayne denied it, but Cohn called up executives at other studios and told them that Wayne would show up for work drunk, was a womanizer and a troublemaker and requested that they not hire him. Wayne didn't work for several months afterward, and when he discovered what Cohn had done, he burst into Cohn's office at Columbia, grabbed him by the neck and threatened to kill him. After he cooled off he told Cohn that "You son of a bitch, as long as I live I will never work one day for you or Columbia no matter how much you offer me." Later, after Wayne had become a major star, he received several lucrative film offers from Columbia, including the lead in The Gunfighter (1950) (which was later made by 20th Century-Fox with Gregory Peck in the role), all of which he turned down cold. Even after Cohn died in 1958, Wayne still refused all offers from Columbia Pictures, including several that would have paid him more than a million dollars.
His daughter, Jobella, was born in 1942 to his wife, Joan Perry. She died in infancy. They later had two sons, John Perry Cohn and Harrison Perry Cohn, and a daughter, Catherine Perry Cohn.
Gower Street [location of Columbia Studios] is paved with the bones of my executive producers.
If I wasn't the head of a studio, who would talk to me?
It's not a business, it's a racket.
If you want to send messages, use Western Union [Telegram Company].
Let me give you some facts of life. Every Friday, the front door of this studio opens and I spit a movie out onto Gower Street . . . If that door opens and I spit and nothing comes out, it means a lot of people are out of work--drivers, distributors, exhibitors, projectionists, ushers, and a lot of other pricks . . . I want one good picture a year, and I won't let an exhibitor have it unless he takes the bread-and-butter product, the Boston Blackies, the Blondies, the low-budget westerns and the rest of the junk we make.
I kiss the feet of talent.
I don't have ulcers; I give them.
[on being a studio head] It's better than being a pimp.
I have never met a grateful performer in the movies.
All I need to make pictures is an office.
[Rejecting Peter Falk's screen test] For the same price I can get an actor with two eyes.
[on Julie Harris] She scares small children.
The word 'gratitude' is not part of the Hollywood dictionary.
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