Columbia Pictures began its corporate life in 1920 as the CBC Film Sales Company, a modest production operation specializing in "short subjects" created by Jack Cohn, Joe Brandt, and Harry Cohn. Before launching CBC, all three had worked for Universal Pictures—Brandt and Jack Cohn in the New York office, and Jack's younger brother Harry on the West Coast at the massive Universal City plant. The three young men created CBC (Cohn-Brandt-Cohn) with seed money of $100,000 from the Bank of Italy, a California-based concern run by A. H. and A. P. Giannini that was vital to Columbia's development. Brandt and Jack Cohn ran CBC and handled sales out of New York, while Harry set up production on Hollywood's legendary Poverty Row, a block-long stretch of low-rent offices and makeshift studios on Beechwood Drive between Sunset Boulevard and Fountain Avenue.

CBC's one- and two-reel productions sold well, and in 1922 the company began producing low-budget feature films that were sold through states-rights distributors. These cut-rate programmers also sold well, convincing Brandt and the Cohns to upgrade their operation. In January 1924 they incorporated CBC as Columbia Pictures, moving into new offices in New York while expanding their Hollywood plant. Brandt and Jack Cohn remained in New York as president and vice president in charge of sales, respectively, with Harry running the studio as vice president in charge of production. Columbia continued to expand in the following years, developing a national distribution setup and steadily absorbing its Poverty Row environs until it encompassed most of the city block bordered by Sunset, Beechwood, Fountain, and Gower Street—thus the appellation "Gower Gulch." Columbia churned out low-grade programmers at an impressive rate during the late silent era, many of them directed by Reeves ("Breezy") Eason (1886–1956) and George B. Seitz (1888–1944), but none was of any real note or suitable for first-run release.

Columbia's fortunes began to change in late 1927 with the arrival of Frank Capra, who was recruited by the studio manager, Sam Briskin (1896–1968), to write and direct a typically modest feature, That Certain Thing (1928). At age thirty (six years younger than Harry Cohn), Capra had considerable experience as a writer and director, notably on several Harry Langdon silent comedies for producer Mack Sennett (1880–1960). Capra quickly caught on at Columbia, directing five pictures in less than a year, and Cohn assigned him to the studio's most ambitious project to date, Submarine (1928), an action drama co-starring Jack Holt (1888–1951) and Ralph Graves (1900–1977). The film involved underwater photography and visual effects and was Columbia's first to utilize sound effects and a musical score. Launched with a Broadway premier, a rarity for Columbia, Submarine was a modest hit and solidified Capra's status as Columbia's top director. He then directed another hit "service picture" with Holt and Graves, Flight (1929), as well as Columbia's first all-talkie, The Donovan Affair (1929). By then Cohn was actively touting his star director to the trade press, announcing that "Capra will make nothing but 'specials' for Columbia from now on."

Columbia also issued its first successful stock offering in 1929, edging closer to the established Hollywood powers—although still a minor-league studio. In 1930, at the height of the talkie boom and one year after its first issue on the New York Stock Exchange, Columbia's assets of $5.8 million were dwarfed by those of integrated majors like Paramount ($306 million), Warner Bros. ($230 million), and MGM ($128 million). Even Universal, which like Columbia did not own a theater chain, had far greater assets of $17 million due to the value of its Universal City plant. Moreover, the quality and quantity of Columbia's productions were scarcely on a par with the other studios' output; they produced from fifty to sixty pictures per year in 1929 and 1930, with at least a dozen budgeted at $500,000 or more. Even Universal, with its relatively meager assets, was producing about forty films per year, including a few prestige pictures like Broadway (1929) and All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), each budgeted at over $1 million. Columbia, meanwhile, produced some two dozen features per year in 1929 and 1930, budgeted between $50,000 and $150,000, with an occasional project in the $200,000 range.

When the Depression hit the industry in 1931, however, Columbia was suddenly in a more favorable position than its competitors for three basic reasons. First, it owned no theaters and thus was not saddled with debilitating mortgage payments. Second, Harry Cohn's autocratic, tight-fisted management style ideally suited the depressed economic climate. And third, the efficient output of B-grade programmers, serials, and shorts, along with the occasional A-class picture and Capra-directed "special," jibed perfectly with the Depression-era penchant for double bills and evening-long programs. Thus, Columbia's production and market strategy paid dividends during the 1930s as the studio turned a profit year after year and saw its assets increase to $15.9 million in 1940—a phenomenal achievement matched only by MGM.

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