Producer. Nationality: American. Born: New York City, 27 July 1891. Family: Married 1) Rose Barker (divorced); 2) the actress Joan Perry, 1941: two sons, one daughter. Career: 1906—song plugger in vaudeville; 1913—personal secretary to Carl Laemmle at IMP (to become Universal) Studios; 1920—with Jack Warner, partnered Joseph Brandt in forming CBC Film Sales Company, soon to become Columbia; 1924—the studio produced its first full-length features, and took up premises in Hollywood; 1929—became president of the company; 1937—Columbia began the first of over sixty sound serials. Awards: 45 Academy Awards for films produced by Columbia, including five for It Happened One Night , 1934; and eight for
Films as Executive Producer:
My Four Years in Germany
Only a Shop Girl (Le Saint)
Her Accidental Husband (Fitzgerald); Mary of the Movies (McDermott); Temptation (Le Saint)
More to Be Pitied Than Scorned ; The Barefoot Boy (Kirkland); Yesterday's Wife (Le Saint)
The Way of the Strong (Capra)
The Blood Ship (Seitz)
Submarine (Capra); The Matinee Idol (Capra); Say It with Sables (Capra); The Power of the Press (Capra); That Certain Thing (Capra); So This Is Love (Capra)
Flight (Capra); The Donovan Affair (Capra); Younger Generation (Capra)
Vengeance (Mayo); Ladies of Leisure (Capra); Rain or Shine (Capra)
Miracle Woman (Capra); The Criminal Code (Hawks); Dirigible (Capra); Platinum Blonde (Capra)
American Madness (Capra); Love Affair (McCarey); Forbidden (Capra)
Bitter Tea of General Yen (Capra); Man's Castle (Borzage)
It Happened One Night (Capra); Twentieth Century (Hawks); One Night of Love (Schertzinger); Lady for a Day (Capra); Broadway Bill (Capra); Lady by Choice (Burton)
The Whole Town's Talking (Ford); Crime and Punishment (von Sternberg); In Spite of Danger (Hillyer); She Couldn't Take It (Garnett); She Married Her Boss (La Cava)
Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (Capra); The King Steps Out (von Sternberg); Love Me Forever (Schertzinger); Theodora Goes Wild (Boleslawsky); It's All Yours (Nugent)
Lost Horizon (Capra); The Awful Truth (McCarey); What Price Vengeance (Lord); When You're in Love (Riskin); I'll Take Romance (E. Griffith)
Holiday (Cukor); You Can't Take It with You (Capra); There's Always a Woman (Hall); There's That Woman Again (Hall); Juvenile Court (Lederman)
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (Capra); Golden Boy (Mamoulian); Only Angels Have Wings (Hawks); Good Girls Go to Paris (Hall); His Girl Friday (Hawks)
Angels Over Broadway (Hecht and Garmes); Arizona (Ruggles); Too Many Husbands (Ruggles); He Stayed for Breakfast (Hall); The Lady in Question (Charles Vidor)
Adam Had Four Sons (Ratoff); Here Comes Mr. Jordan (Hall); The Face behind the Mask (Florey); This Thing Called Love (Hall); Our Wife (Hall); You'll Never Get Rich (Lanfield)
The Talk of the Town (Stevens); You Were Never Lovelier (Seiter); Flight Lieutenant (Salkow); My Sister Eileen (Hall); They All Kissed the Bride (Hall)
The More the Merrier (Stevens)
Cover Girl (C. Vidor); Together Again (C. Vidor); A Song to Remember (Seiter)
Tonight and Every Night (Saville); Over 21 (C. Vidor)
Dead Reckoning (Cromwell); The Jolson Story (Buchman); Gilda (C. Vidor)
Johnny O' Clock (Rossen); Down to Earth (Hall)
The Lady from Shanghai (Welles)
All the King's Men (Rossen); The Reckless Moment (Ophüls); Knock on Any Door (Ray); Jolson Sings Again (Buchman)
Born Yesterday (Cukor); In a Lonely Place (Ray)
M (Losey); Death of a Salesman (Benedek)
The Marrying Kind (Cukor); Affair in Trinidad (Sherman)
It Should Happen to You (Cukor); The Big Heat (Lang); The Wild One (Benedek); From Here to Eternity (Zinnemann); The Member of the Wedding (Zinnemann); Miss Sadie Thompson (Bernhardt)
The Caine Mutiny (Dmytryk); On the Waterfront (Kazan); Phfft! (Robson)
The Man from Laramie (Mann); The Long Gray Line (Ford); Five Against the House (Karlson)
Jubal (Daves); Picnic (Logan); The Solid Gold Cadillac (Quine); The Harder They Fall (Robson); Storm Center (Taradash); The Eddie Duchin Story (Sidney)
3:10 to Yuma (Daves); Pal Joey (Sidney); Night of the Demon (Tourneur); The Bridge on the River Kwai (Lean); Full of Life (Quine); Fire Down Below (Parrish)
On COHN: books—
Thomas, Bob, King Cohn , New York, 1967, 1990.
Larkin, Rochelle, Hail Columbia , 1975 + filmo.
Dick, Bernard F., The Merchant Prince of Poverty Row: Harry Cohn of Columbia Pictures , Louisville, 1993.
On COHN: articles—
Films in Review (New York), vol. 9, no. 4, April 1958.
Views & Reviews , vol. 1, no. 4, Spring 1970, and vol. 2, no. 1, Summer 1970.
Film en Televisie (Brussels), no. 308, January 1983.
Classic Images (Muscatine, Iowa), no. 145, July 1987.
Sight and Sound (London), vol. 57, no. 1, Winter 1987–88.
Gabler, Neal, in An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood , New York, 1988.
Leifert, Don, "The Horrors of Columbia: Karloff & Cohn," in Filmfax (Evanston), April-May 1991.
Rubin, Mann, "The Day Harry Cohn Died," in Creative Screenwriting (Washington, D.C.), Summer 1994.
Cohn, H., "From the Mailbag: Offended by Honor to Riefenstahl," in Classic Images (Muscatine), November 1997.
Tobin, Yann, "Prés des yeux, près du coeur: Les gros plans de "La Dame de Shanghai," in Positif (Paris), July-August 1998.
* * *
President and head of production for Columbia Pictures, Harry Cohn was a late-comer in the main second wave of motion picture business tycoons. Starting with $250 in 1920 and facing the competition of Paramount, Universal, Fox, First National, Warner Brothers—and after 1925, MGM—he steered his company from Poverty Row to the status of a major studio. Thanks in large part to hiring Frank Capra as director in 1928 and Robert Riskin as writer in 1931, he could claim at the time of his death 45 Academy Awards for his films.
His father (a tailor) was born in Germany, his mother in Russia. Their family of five children shared four rooms with the two grandmothers on 88th Street in New York City. Harry quit school at 14 to take his first paying job in the "choir" of a popular play, The Fatal Wedding (which at one time included in its touring company Mary Pickford and family).
Brother Jack had moved from advertising to Universal Pictures, where he learned lab work and editing and collaborated with George Loane Tucker in the surreptitious production of Traffic in Souls (1913), a five-reel film about the white slave traffic. Harry, who had been working as a "song-plugger," both live and on film, was hired by Carl Laemmle as his secretary. By 1920, they were certain they knew enough about movies to start their own shop. Taking Joe Brandt with them, they set up a company named by their initials CBC—soon to be known, because of its rockbottom budgets, as Corned Beef and Cabbage Productions.
Beginning with a nonfiction series about movie stars called Screen Snapshots , and The Hall Room Boys , based on a comic strip, the new company became Columbia while making its first feature film, More to Be Pitied Than Scorned (1924). In 1929 the brothers bought out their partner. Jack, as head of sales and distribution, stayed in New York. Harry produced the pictures in Hollywood. They quarreled constantly.
Skilled at betting on talent, Harry nevertheless refused to offer long-term contracts, but watched for cheaper opportunities: actors "on the way up and on the way down." He was quick to accept the chance L.B. Mayer gave him to "punish" a young newcomer at MGM, Clark Gable, by loaning him out. Riskin's handling of the inexpensive short story, Night Bus , under Capra's direction, brought Columbia the five top Oscars for It Happened One Night (1934).
Jack Cohn was equally mean in denying Columbia expansion into theaters. This minimized real estate burdens and risks but put pressure on the company to make outstanding popular films and win time on the screens of the theater chains. Capra did it with comedy in Mr. Deeds Goes to Town , Mr. Smith Goes to Washington , and You Can't Take It with You . After Capra left to try independence, the studio continued to be a source of top-notch films, and there were still some major successes in terms of Academy Awards. Cohn himself was in effect executive producer for From Here to Eternity which won eight Oscars in 1953. On the Waterfront also got eight awards in 1954, and The Bridge on the River Kwai seven in 1957, but both of these were produced on the new "independent" basis by Sam Spiegel—an augury of the Hollywood transition away from studio boss rule.
Generally viewed as the most vulgar, loud-mouthed, and autocratic of all the studio bosses, Cohn customarily shouted insults at writers until they stoutly defended their work—after which he claimed to have more confidence in them. Hated and feared by some, sneered at by others for his limited education and experience, he could not seem to operate without four-letter words. Yet when he died there were many, like Jack Lemmon and Glenn Ford, who said he "would be missed."
In an early statement about his views on film making (1928) Harry Cohn stressed economy—original scripts, fewer scenes and set-ups, fewer close-ups. He tried to create stars—Rita Hayworth, Kim Novak. But his unique loyalty was to the talent of the writer, even though it was very often a love-hate relationship. It is suitable that the index of films in Larkin's studio profile called Hail, Columbia lists only titles, dates, and screenwriters.
He was also conscious of what might be called an American style. Knowing that theater bookers might not watch new releases beyond the first reel or two, he said: "Like newspaper writers, we put a punch in the first reel of our picture that demands immediate respect and attention." Then, "if your picture has novelty, human appeal, humor, and pathos without being too morbid, your chances are very good."
He knew what was in the scripts. According to the Bob Thomas biography, Capra confronted him in 1933 with last-minute qualms on Lady for a Day —a picture which later won four Academy Award nominations. "Do you realize you're spending $300,000 on a picture in which the heroine is seventy years old?" Cohn thought about it, but told him to go ahead: "All I know is—the story packs a wallop."
—Richard Dyer MacCann