The rise of Columbia Pictures to Hollywood prominence is as unlikely as the plot of a Frank Capra (1897–1991) film, and in fact it was a run of Capra-directed hits that fueled Columbia's ascent. No other studio relied so heavily in its formative years on the talent and output of a single filmmaker, as Capra's early hits put Columbia on the industry map in the late 1920s, and then his Depression-era comedies like It Happened One Night (1934) and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) defined its house style and secured its stature among the studio powers. Columbia continued to thrive after Capra's departure in 1939, thanks largely to the equally singular talents of Harry Cohn (1891–1958). Reviled by Capra and widely dismissed as a tight-fisted philistine, Cohn in fact was unique among Hollywood's movie moguls in that he served as president of a studio he owned and operated while overseeing production in its decidedly substandard Hollywood plant.

Cohn guided the studio's steady growth and shaped its collective output from its founding until his death in 1958, turning a profit every year—a phenomenal accomplishment in light of Hollywood's Depression-era and postwar travails. In fact, Columbia enjoyed its greatest success in the postwar era, complementing its trademark screwball comedies with superior dramas like All the King's Men (1949), From Here to Eternity (1953), On the Waterfront (1954), and Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)—solid hits that brought Columbia four Best Picture Oscars ® in less than a decade. Columbia's post-war success was due to its quick and canny response to a range of industry challenges—the rise of independent production, freelance talent, and location shooting, for instance, and the concurrent rise of commercial television. That openness to industry change continued after Cohn's death, as Columbia took even greater risks than it had under Cohn and rose to unprecedented heights—and experienced more severe declines as well. Its distinctive house style steadily dissipated with the rise of the New Hollywood, but Columbia did maintain its corporate autonomy longer than most of the other studios, finally succumbing to conglomeration in the 1980s—first in an ill-fated merger with Coca-Cola, and then in a historic "hardware-software" alliance with Sony that stands as a watershed in modern Hollywood history.

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