I’ve had this entry, a history of Columbia Pictures, done for some time but it never seemed the right time to publish it last year given 2012 was a year of Centennial celebrations for both Paramount Pictures and Universal Studios. It didn’t seem quite right to post the Columbia story then, but it does now. This week in particular as it was on January 10 in 1924 that those who headed the former C.B.C. Film Sales Corporation renamed their fledgling studio, Columbia Pictures.
Columbia Pictures, one of the studios that reigned during Hollywood’s golden age, has had a rich and interesting story. Of the eight Studios that “owned” the movie business by the end of the 1920’s, Columbia Pictures had the worst reputation and smallest budgets. Prominent members of the industry expected nothing from it. The company struggled at the onset but it did survived – in a way no one could have foreseen, including its leadership.
It could be said that Columbia Pictures was the Studio System’s version of Cinderella or “the little studio that could,” as it rose from the ashes of Poverty Row to become a real competitor among giants. Normally, Poverty Row studios couldn’t even dream of making it in the highly competitive world of high-tiered film production and distribution but Columbia became an exception. Following is Columbia’s story, one that has always fascinated me due to the stories associated with its infamous leader, Harry Cohn.
The Studio System – in brief
A study of any of the Hollywood studios would not be complete without first laying a foundation based on the principles that made the collective environment of the entire studio system unique. The reason for this is that the standards set by the system as a whole were followed strictly by each individual studio. It was a productive, successful and effective system. And simply, no one ever found a better way to run a business like a movie studio, particularly in the early days.
During the 1910s, a small number of companies with production based in Southern California and distribution based in New York began to form a monopoly that would dominate the film industry. Adolph Zukor, who was to become head of Paramount
Pictures, lead the pack and helped develop a system by which to manufacture, distribute and present popular feature-length movies. At the onset, Zukor looked to other industries to see how they developed their economic power, borrowed their strategies and molded them to fit the movie business. In brief, he took the star system from Vaudeville, incorporated classic story-telling techniques, initiated a factory-like system borrowed from Ford’s car-making factories with specific duties assigned each step of an assembly line, and developed a distribution division to sell the product around the world. By 1915 Zukor had consolidated all steps – production, distribution and exhibition – under one company, Paramount Pictures. The Studio System was born.
Though not alone in the movie industry at that point, Zukor was the best and the definitive industry leader. Along with the Brothers Warner, William Fox and Marcus Loew (creator of MGM), Zukor became so successful that by the 1920s European companies gave up film production completely. Paramount was the dominant motion picture company in the world and remained so throughout the 1920’s and beyond.
By the end of the silent movie era (1929) the movie moguls were fully formed and their corporations – the Hollywood Studios – symbolized the movie industry and would total eight, as mentioned above. Of these, led by Zukor’s Paramount, five (referred to as The Big Five), held strong positions in production, distribution and exhibition, with exhibition being the distinguishing factor between The Big Five and The Little Three because the latter did not own their own theater chains. This distinction guaranteed The Big Five’s product always reached audiences and in a timely fashion while the small three had to struggle to get their product shown.
The Big Five Studios – in order of financial success, power and prominence:
- Paramount – Adolph Zukor
- Loew’s/MGM – Marcus Loew (William Schenck in 1924)
- Fox – William Fox
- Warner Bros. – Harry and Jack Warner
- RKO – no one leader
The Little Three
- Universal – Carl Laemmle
- United Artists – Joseph Schenck
- Columbia Pictures – Jack and Harry Cohn
The Birth of Columbia
In 1920, Jacob (Jack) Cohn, who worked for Carl Laemmle at Universal left to start his own company, joined by Laemmle’s executive secretary at the time, Joe Brandt and Jack’s younger brother Harry, who also worked at Universal. Together the three men formed C.B.C. Films Corporation (CBC – Cohn-Brandt-Cohn), initially a distributor of film shorts. The Cohns, better known than Brandt, were often referred to as the “short subject kings.” Before long CBC wanted to delve into feature-length movies but no one took it seriously. Everyone in the industry referred to the company as “corned beef and cabbage.” Anxious to forge a more positive reputation the company’s name was changed to the more prestigious-sounding, Columbia Pictures. But a name change alone did nothing to the corned beef and cabbage image. The three men knew they needed to own their own space, like the other studios did by that time, and to create a studio head synonymous with the corporation, like Louis B. Mayer (someone Harry Cohn always envied) was synonymous with MGM studios.
The change in venue came to fruition when Columbia bought Sunset Gower Studios in a section of Los Angeles called Poverty Row. The purchase changed the studio’s image from “corned beef and cabbage” to “poverty row” because of where it was now housed, a low-income strip alongside other fly-by-night studios that were deemed irrelevant by industry powerhouses. For Columbia, however, it was an improvement as they now had three small sound stages that could be transformed.
At the beginning, Columbia Pictures conformed to the industry model of leadership. Joe Brandt was President, Jack Cohn was VP, Sales and Harry Cohn was VP and Director General of Production. Though the other studios had also started with a set-up that based production in Hollywood and distribution in
New York, Columbia was the only studio that remained true to this paradigm throughout its existence. Jack Cohn handled all the accounting and the tough job of distribution in New York. Because Columbia didn’t own its own theater chains, Jack had to wait
his turn and fight to show even Columbia’s best movies. By all accounts, Jack was the power broker and the brains behind Columbia Pictures. However, Harry Cohn received all the publicity. Harry’s reputation was Columbia’s reputation, and his name was the one that would become synonymous with the studio. (Gomery, 2005)
The fact that Columbia functioned from both the East and West coasts, as mentioned above, was a blessing for Columbia and probably one of the best reasons it was able to survive. The brothers Cohn, it turns out, agreed on very little and their fights are legendary, often spending months at a time communicating only by telegram. Neither could understand the other’s temperament. Harry accused Jack of not knowing anything about the art of making movies and Jack accused Harry of not knowing anything about the business. Both men were right, to a degree. The truth was that both men had to deal with different “types” of people the other didn’t understand. Harry dealt with actors, agents, directors, etc. and “to New York these people were simply assembly line workers manufacturing the dream they (N.Y.) sold to the world.” (Dick, 1991) Despite the fact the brothers disliked each other they each knew the other knew what they didn’t. Of the two, Harry was bothered by the feuds much more than Jack. Harry always wanted complete control, if only in Hollywood, but he had to consult with New York on marketing, distribution and often even casting (the New York office had the contact with the exhibitors who knew what the public wanted). However, despite the fact they agreed on very little they had one common goal, the success of their studio.
Joe Brandt, in the meantime, mostly a silent President, couldn’t live with the brother’s constant fighting and quit in 1932. Harry, who’d never been happy with being only the head of production, wanted more. That more was a hunger governed, in large part,by Harry Cohn’s jealousy of
Louis B. Mayer – Mayer had never achieved, the title of President. Upon Brandt’s quitting, Harry bought out his shares and assumed the position of President and head of production (note that despite his new position as president, Harry could still not act without consulting with Jack back in New York because Jack controlled all the money). Jack Cohn became Executive VP, a position he held for the rest of his life.
The feuds between the Cohn brothers proved both creative and lucrative and also served as a system of checks and balances. Harry, who did have a knack for business, though Jack would never have admitted it, was very frugal about production costs and budgets and that fact, along with the blessing in disguise that was Columbia’s lack of theater chains, helped them through the Great Depression. While the Big Five studios had to deal with drops in attendance in their theaters, Columbia could concentrate on improving their product as cheaply as possible.
For most studios it was standard procedure that production heads concerned themselves with the quality of the movies while the presidents concerned themselves with profit. Because Harry was both, he concerned himself with both and as a result, Columbia had more specialized contracts and tailor-made deals than any other studio. Harry also made sure all his productions stayed true to extremely tight budgets, limiting the money mostly on sets and wardrobe. Due to this
Columbia produced very few movies requiring elaborate sets or large casts, such as costume dramas or big musicals. Instead, it excelled at comedies and film noir (Harry’s limiting the lighting actually accentuated and enhanced the mood of these films). He also employed new tactics not used by other studios. For instance, he limited directors to one take for printing, signed very few long-term contracts with anyone vying instead for 2-3 – picture commitments or borrowing stars from other studios. Because Columbia didn’t have the best reputation, he’d sometimes get name stars for very cheap. When big stars were on the outs with their own studio, their bosses, who’d want to punish them, would send them to work at Columbia and with Harry. These things, along with some other of Harry’s money-saving methods, resulted in Columbia Pictures being only one of two studios (the other was MGM) who made a profit in the early 1930’s – over $500,000 in each of 1931 and 1932, all while ensuring a steady improvement in their product. (This is also a good time to mention that Columbia was never in the red during the Cohn’s tenure.)
Columbia’s Shining Light
Despite Columbia’s success in 1931 and 1932, “exhibitors still ranked it sixth in consistency of product.” (Gomery, 2005) Just three years later, however, the studio would be at the top. At the 1935 Academy Awards, surprising to everyone, Columbia swept with a total of seven Oscars, including Best Picture for Capra’s It Happened One Night. After that, the “Poverty Row studio earned its place among the best.” (Heeley, 1999)
While Harry Cohn could take credit for much of Columbia’s success at this time, he wasn’t the one who gave the studio stature and who improved its reputation. The man responsible for that was director extraordinaire, Frank Capra. Capra worked at Columbia from 1927 to 1939 and his name was recognizable and popular with both exhibitors and audiences. Although he was one of the very few who worked for Harry that dared to fight with him and still end up doing much of what he wanted, like almost everyone else Capra was in constant disagreement with the man and referred to him as “His Crudeness.” (Heeley, 1999)
In fact, in 1936 Capra tried to force the cancellation of his contract with the studio with formal complaints against Cohn. The director initiated a lawsuit against Columbia and had plans in place to start his own independent company. But Columbia, no doubt recognizing the director’s value, reconciled with Capra and the director fulfilled his contract through 1939. (Aberdeen, 1999) No one, even Harry Cohn, could discount the power of this talented director and during his tenure at Columbia, Capra was the star and boy wonder, often referred to as “the matinee idol.”
Throughout the 1930s Columbia continued to gain prestige, mostly due to Frank Capra’s collaboration – again winning Oscars for his You Can’t Take it With You in 1938, which was his highest-grossing picture at that studio, and making an important contribution to what many consider the golden year for American movies, 1939, with Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.
After Mr. Smith, contract now fulfilled, Frank Capra joined with his chief collaborator, screenwriter Robert Riskin in July 1939 to form Frank Capra Productions, and landed a one-picture distribution deal with Warner Bros. The highly favorable terms, a 20 percent distribution fee and all rights to the film returning to Capra after five years, were an indication of the softening attitude of the major studios toward independent films, which was an important shift. Back at Columbia, Harry Cohn compensated for the loss of Capra by extending unit-production deals to other filmmakers like Leo McCarey and Howard Hawks. (Aberdeen, 1999)
STAY TUNED – Coming up in Part 2 of the History of Columbia Pictures – the business, the brand, the legacy and a woman named Rita. You can access Part 2 here or via this blog’s home page.
Aberdeen, J. A. Hollywood Renegades: The Society of Independent Motion Picture Producer. Cobblestone Enterprises, 1999.
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 2A November 14, 1999 40. February 9, 2007 ; January 10)