History of Columbia Pictures, Part 2
This is the second part of a two-part post. To read part 1, which covers the early years of Columbia Pictures, please go here or access it on this blog’s home page. Reading Part 1 first is highly recommended.
The History of Columbia Pictures, Part 2…
The culture within Columbia Pictures was complex, as was the case with most major Hollywood studios of the time. As discussed in part 1 of the history, Jack Cohn worked in New York handling all the accounting and fighting for exhibition, while Harry worked in Hollywood on the production end. Whether they liked it or not, the two remained in constant touch by any means possible because that’s the way Jack wanted it. And many of those communications entailed Harry having to consult with Jack for approval.
However, these interactions between the brothers were behind the scenes and no one in Hollywood was privy to this weakness in Harry’s leadership, if he could help it. In Hollywood Harry ruled with an iron hand, he was “the boss” and no one questioned his authority. His vision and intention was to run a monarchy and he stayed as true to that as Jack would allow. So the West Coast operations centered around Harry. When the culture at Columbia Pictures is mentioned here, therefore, it is strictly referring to Hollywood.
The power model at Columbia conformed to that of other studios’ pyramid scheme, with the staff at the bottom (writers, actors, directors, assembly line workers, etc.), executives in the middle and the studio head at the top. The pyramid at Columbia, however, was top-heavy with Harry carrying to its full extent, the weight of both his titles. “For all studios the moguls set the tone and were solely responsible for their studios’ success or failure. Studio workers on all levels thought themselves as a family and the moguls encouraged that mentality, it was good for morale and the moguls could play father.” (Dick, 1993) This conformed perfectly with Harry’s need to control all aspects of everyone’s lives and everyone’s job. In short and by all accounts “Harry wanted a part in everything. He quizzed writers, dictated notes on scripts, controlled budgets, chose lighting and sets, and even interrupted staff and executives’ phone calls to see who people were speaking to or to ensure they were working. If it had been up to him he would have done everyone’s job and would have cloned himself to do so.” (Dick, 1993)
Adjectives used to describe Harry Cohn by those who worked with and for him varied from vulgar to foul-mouthed to a tyrant. He had frequent tantrums and didn’t care who witnessed them. His communication style was unique and those who worked for him learned the signs of when to steer clear of his wrath. Harry Cohn wore Carnival of Venice cologne and his scent preceded him around corners. He also carried “a cigar tucked within his breast pocket, covered with a colored handkerchief. Said one associate, “When he reaches for that cigar – duck!” (Heeley, 1999)
Harry was also known to enjoy eavesdropping on employee’s conversations using concealed microphones on sound stages and in dressing rooms. He also abhorred weakness and exploited it in those he controlled and enjoyed belittling people that worked for him.It is said that he had a picture of Benito Mussolini on his desk because he so admired the dictator. With a leader like that one would think Columbia Pictures would have been in trouble. After all, he was often disruptive and destructive but instead the studio thrived. Harry demanded loyalty and got it. His motto was “he who eats my bread sings my song.” However, despite that, most Columbia executives stayed for life, (with the exception of Harry’s assistants who couldn’t do his bidding for long periods of time). On the very few occasions when an executive left Columbia, Harry demanded the one leaving find his own replacement.
Columbia Pictures had very clear values and beliefs – Harry’s. Everyone agreed on what was most important, the product and they took pride in their work. Morale was not a problem unless Harry dealt with the people directly and most avoided it whenever possible. I must add, because I read this in several places, that despite Harry dictatorial methods, the loyalty of those who worked for
him was reciprocated. He (reportedly) gave generous Christmas bonuses and if staff had fallen on hard times, he was known to give financial support.
Not surprising for the industry and the times, during the years when the Cohn brothers ran Columbia Pictures, it was a definitive patriarchy comprised of fathers and sons and brothers and brothers-in-law (aside from being editors, writers or assembly line workers, women played a small part, with the exception of in front of the camera). Columbia Pictures never had to worry about disappearing as long as relatives were being hired because the principle of succession worked and ensured longevity. Two of Jack and Harry’s other brothers worked at Columbia, though not in prominent roles. Jack Cohn’s three sons also worked there and many other examples of nepotism abounded.
The Inner Sanctum
Harry Cohn’s office was an ordeal just to enter it. Visitors were made to wait as long as Harry wanted, having to go through several layers of outer offices before they were admitted into his secretary’s where they’d wait longer before he pressed the final buzzer to allow entrance into the inner sanctum. His office door had no knob so as to ensure he had complete control. Once inside visitors would see an office decorated completely in white – chairs of differing heights to intimidate those he saw fit, a piano, a couch, and a 40-foot carpet leading up to his desk. The desk was elevated 8 inches so visitors were forced to look up at him and he down at them. Behind the desk were the Oscars Columbia had won, spotlighted to emphasize his achievements. Behind the Oscars were other merchandise, also neatly lined up. These items – nylon stockings, perfumes, etc. – would be chosen by young women in return for their “favors.” (Dick, 1993) By all accounts, the casting couch was another fixture in Harry’s office. Stories abound about his expecting sexual favors from actresses in return for career advances. I remember reading somewhere that Rita Hayworth, Joan Crawford and Kim Novak are three who famously refuted his offers.
With the success of such films as You Can’t Take it With You in the late 1930’s, Columbia was able to expand its horizons. It bought 40 acres, of an eventual 88 acres, of ranch land in Burbank, CA, used for all types of location shooting. Also notable was the fact that the studio was praised by Wall Street for not having succumbed to bankruptcy as Paramount, Fox and RKO had done by this point. But in the early 1940’s the Cohns knew that World War II would decrease foreign grosses so Harry established new priorities for Columbia’s production end, a new pyramid hierarchy with “quality films” at the apex and the “series films” at the base. No studio could afford to produce only “A” movies with name stars and Columbia’s bread and butter had always been the “B” films and shorts, the most popular by far being The Three Stooges productions. Despite Harry’s new priorities, cheap remained the operative word. “Only 1 in 10 of Columbia’s movies cost over $500,000, with most averaging around $250,000 (in contrast, MGM’s “B” movies averaged $400,000).” (Dick, 1991) As a result, wartime attendance boomed and by 1943, though still considered a “little three” studio, Columbia’s stock rated as highly as Warner Bros. and 20th Century Fox. Again, Harry took all the credit. And although one can’t separate Columbia’s success from either Cohn brother, they weren’t solely responsible. Some of the accolades of the booming attendance at Columbia’s pictures at that time had to fall on two ladies – the first, as recognizable and comforting a symbol as any company has ever had to represent it and the second, a woman with star power the likes of which had not been seen before (or since) in Hollywood.
The “brand” of any company usually refers to what is instantly recognizable, if the “brand” is a good one, that is – its logo. Columbia Pictures’ logo is one of the best ever conceived.
The Lady with the Torch, as Columbia’s logo has always been referred to, is as American a symbol as there has ever been. When one thinks of the years during which Columbia Pictures enjoyed its greatest success, it’s no coincidence that the company’s “brand” looked a lot like one of America’s greatest symbols, Lady Liberty. The Lady with the Torch symbolized American pride when national pride was at its height and when going to the movies showed national unity, especially during the Second World War. In my opinion, when she appeared on-screen to introduce a Columbia production, the message would have been clear – “you’re watching an American production.” The picture below shows the lady as she appeared during WWII. Initially introduced in 1924, she went through several incarnations through the years. However, with slight variations, she has always resembled lady liberty, has always been draped by an American flag (or has given the impression it was an American flag), and she has always held a torch. No doubt she’s always welcomed sight.
The other lady who has to be credited with Columbia’s success during the war was known as “the love goddess,” Rita Hayworth, a woman whose star power is still unequalled. Columbia had very few superstars whose contracts they owned, unlike MGM whose slogan was “more stars than there are in the heavens.” Rita Hayworth was an exception. When Hayworth was first a contract player at Columbia, Harry lent her out to other studios more often than not. She acquired fame during those years and when she returned, Harry Cohn and Columbia benefited. Rita returned a star and proved stars could save a studio as she alone kept Columbia in the black during those years. She made a total of 32 pictures at Columbia and at the height of her fame she was one of the few people who got Harry Cohn to do as she asked. He couldn’t argue with the fact the public adored her. But if asked, Harry would have said he owned her, Hollywood’s greatest sex symbol. He ignored the fact that during the time Rita’s star shone brightest, people referred to Columbia Pictures as “Rita’s studio.” (Turner Classic Movies, 2007)
There’s a great piece of trivia to this effect available at Turner Classic Movies about Rita Hayworth’s most popular film and role, Charles Vidor’s, Gilda, which was such an enormous financial success for Columbia Pictures that Hayworth’s agent, Johnny Hyde, demanded that Harry Cohn give his client a share of profits for subsequent pictures. Cohn refused, but when Rita called in “sick” for several days during production of her next film, Alexander Halls, Down to Earth, Cohn relented. There was no doubt that Rita held the reigns. To take advantage of her new agreement, Rita Hayworth formed Beckworth Corporation to collect twenty-five percent of the net profits from the remaining films of her Columbia contract. There are also plenty of stories about Cohn’s obsession with Rita well beyond the role of mogul to his star but the details elude me, although they’d be a lot of fun to research and read about.
Screen Gems, Inc.
Although 1947 was a big year for Columbia, having produced its biggest money-maker to date with Alfred E. Green’s, The Jolson Story, the postwar years were tough for all studios for many reasons. The most significant of those being the advent of television. Audiences were no longer going to the movies in record numbers when they could get free entertainment at home. The Studio System was declining rapidly. However, Columbia was not about to lie down and allow the small screen to take over.
In 1948, Ralph Cohn, Jack’s son, was named president of Columbia’s new subsidiary, Screen Gems, Inc. (SG). During its first two years, Screen Gems devoted itself to commercials and produced no filmed programming. However, by 1951 more than 5 million people owned TV sets across the country and that demanded attention. SG then began to produce popular radio programs (like Cavalcade of America) and develop new series for television (like The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin). Screen Gems grew steadily having jumped on the bandwagon of the new medium early. In 1956 it proved itself an innovator when it began to show Columbia movies on TV. These were mostly the studio’s “B” pictures, which were enormously popular. “Two years later SG signed a 7-year lease with Universal for license to show its movies as well (a 600-film library). Screen Gems became the largest distributor of theatrical films to television.” (Dick, 1991) No one envisioned what the public response would be to classic movies shown in homes across the country, but it was huge. As Screen Gems grew, however, Columbia had its ups and downs and before long many wondered if the subsidiary didn’t keep the master afloat.
Since I mentioned the importance of the logo as far as its role in the branding of a company, I thought it would be fun to share a clip of Columbia Pictures’ television logo history. If interested, you can access it here. “From Columbia Pictures, a Screen Gems Production.”
The End of an Era
By the end of the 1950’s, not only had the Studio System all but ended in Hollywood but so had the Cohn era. Despite the bothers’ turbulent relationship, Harry was devastated when Jack died in 1956. His brother’s death affected everything Harry did. Two years later, in 1958, Harry died as well, taking with him Columbia’s “driving force and stability (after his death Columbia went into the red for the first time).” (Heeley, 1999)
Despite being such a maligned and unlikable man, Harry Cohn’s funeral procession was the biggest Hollywood had ever seen – the ceremony was held at one of the massive sound stages that had been turned into a chapel. Everyone who was anyone in Hollywood was in attendance. Ralph Cohn became VP of Columbia Pictures while continuing his role as president of Screen Gems. But in 1959, Ralph Cohn died suddenly at age 45.
Columbia Pictures continued its history, in large part due to the legacy left behind by Jack and Harry Cohn. However, it was never the same after the Cohn’s had gone. They had a philosophy that simply worked. As Harry said, “Every Friday the front door opens and we just spit out a movie into Gower Street…we want one good picture a year. That’s our policy…and we won’t let an exhibitor have it unless he takes the bread and butter product…and the rest of the junk we made.” (Dick, 1993)
The Sixties and Seventies
In the 1960’s, like all studios, Columbia Pictures, Inc. transformed to a corporation, Columbia Pictures Corporation. Until Harry Cohn’s death artistic values were paramount even with his frugality, but now business prevailed. “Entertainment took a backseat to real estate acquisitions and re-sales. But, Columbia had survived with its name in tact, which was more than other studios could attest to. RKO ceased production altogether in 1957 and Universal had merged with International Pictures to become Universal International and had been absorbed by Decca Records in 1952.” (Dick, 1991)
In 1967 Columbia’s stock soared as a result of several hit movies throughout the decade. However, fearful of a stockholder takeover, Columbia
merged with Screen Gems to become Columbia Pictures Industries in 1968. Leo Jaffe, with CBC since 1922, became president and, for the most part, the same old family players continued on with their roles. These men simply moved up the ladder as others died.
The end of the 1960’s brought forth a new type of personality to the movie business, a new mogul. “These new executives straddled the fence between business and art and were equally at home in Wall Street and in Beverly Hills.” (Dick, 1991) The old moguls had little to no formal education. But these men were “CPA’s and MBA’s and dealt as easily with bankers as with agents.” (Dick, 1991) What remained the same was that the new corporations were still run by and for men. This world was still a masculine world with masculine ideals. Columbia resisted the new leaders as long as it could but as the old players died it too succumbed fully to Corporate Hollywood. And throughout the 1970’s it survived the deaths of its remaining founding members, a few scandals and several presidents and CEOs.
1980’s to Sony
Columbia Pictures Industries went through a few significant changes in the last few of decades. The TriStar formation was a result of a merger between Columbia Pictures Industries, HBO and CBS. The purchase of Loews Theater Management gave Columbia access to Loews’ 850 screens. In 1987 Coca Cola and TriStar merged to form Columbia Pictures Entertainment. “In 1989 Sony bought Columbia Pictures Entertainment for $3.4 billion, a purchase that turned out to be quite controversial. According to a Newsweek poll done the week of the purchase, 43% of the American public saw the Japanese acquisition as a bad thing for the country.” (Dick, 1991) Columbia was the second studio sold to a foreign owner (the first was 20th Century Fox, which had been sold to Rupert Murdock’s News Corp.) However, the Columbia sale hit a nerve with the American public that the Fox sale had not. Could it have had something to do with that most American of symbols?
When Columbia moved to the Burbank Studios in 1990, site of the old MGM studios, Harry’s company moved to where he’d most envied. What he’d coveted most became a part of the legacy.
When film pioneers and innovators like Jack and Harry Cohn came to this country to follow their dreams, they produced a product that became the pride of the country – fantasies that came to life. Columbia Pictures played as significant a role in that as did the other studios of the golden age of Hollywood. The studio’s pictures and television shows – its artifacts – stand as proof that Columbia is an enduring part of American lore and its culture bled over to our popular culture. Its artifacts leave us a rich legacy of those who came and went, a culture that has all but disintegrated but of which we will always have enduring tales.
Collins, Jim. Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap…and Others Don’t. Collins, 2001.
Dick, Bernard F. Columbia Pictures: Portrait of a Studio. University Press of Kentucky, 1991.
Dick, Bernard F.. The Merchant Prince of Poverty Row: Harry Cohn of Columbia Pictures. University Press of Kentucky, 1993.
Gomery, Douglas. The Hollywood Studio System: A History. British Film Institute, 2005.
The Lady with the Torch. Dir. David Heeley. Perf. Glenn Close, Narrator. Videocassette. 1999.
“Rita.” Rita. Rita Hayworth, Yasmine Khan. Turner Classic Movies, Atlanta. March 23, 2007.
Rozen, Leah. “It Happened With One Movie: A Studio Transformed.” The New York Times section 2ANovember 14, 1999 40. February 9, 2007 ; January 10)