What I Didn’t Know About Harry Cohn

harryyoungI recently picked up a used audiotape of the biography of Harry Cohn by Bob Thomas, King Cohn: The Life and Times of Harry Cohn. First published in 1967, the book was revised in 1990 with additional interviews and material; in 2000, it was republished, including an audiotape edition with a forward by Peter Bart. King Cohn is not groundbreaking in structure or shocking in content, but I did learn a great deal about the meanest movie mogul in Hollywood as well as the love of his life, Columbia Pictures.

Most of the Golden Age movie moguls started at the bottom in the movie business and worked their way up to head of production at their studios. While Cohn was no exception, I discovered that his entrance into the film industry was quite unique. He was working as a song plugger for sheet-music publishers when he had a brilliant idea to increase sales. The latest songs were routinely plugged at movie theaters between films by the house orchestras who played them while slides of pretty pictures were shown to the audience. Cohn believed that audiences would respond better to movie footage than slides, so he began to produce footage for theaters to project during the songs.  To maximize the effect, Cohn learned to match the content of the images to the songs’ lyrics. Jack Cohn, Harry’s brother, worked for Universal Pictures at the time, and he showed Cohn’s innovation to studio owner Carl Laemmle. Laemmle was impressed enough to give Harry a job.  Eventually, Harry and Jack left Universal to form their own production company.

harryjack2I knew that Columbia began as a Poverty Row studio, but I did not realize that it never moved out of Poverty Row. Instead, it gradually swallowed up the small studios on Beachwood between Sunset Blvd. and Fountain. The name was changed to Columbia in 1924. Prior to this it was called C.B.C. Film Sales, which stood for (Jack) Cohn, (Joseph) Brandt, and (Harry) Cohn. Brandt was a long-time friend from New York City. Harry bought out Brandt’s shares in 1932. The original studio space still exists at this address, though it is now called Sunset-Gower Studios.

A few months ago, I wrote about a romantic comedy called If You Could Only Cook. One of my knowledgeable readers commented that the film was erroneously attributed to Columbia’s powerhouse director, Frank Capra, by the studio’s marketing department in England. They used Capra’s name to promote the film, and Capra ended his relationship with Columbia over the matter. I discovered there was more to the story, at least according to Thomas. Capra’s films had pulled Columbia out of Poverty Row and made the studio a major player in the industry. But, when Capra latched onto his dream project, Lost Horizon, in the mid-1930s, the experience did not go as smoothly as his previous films. The first previews for Lost Horizon were a disaster, because the audience laughed inappropriately at what Capra had intended to be serious scenes. His solution was to cut the first two reels, which he personally threw in the Columbia incinerator. Lost Horizon became a critical and popular success, but the studio did not make as much money the year the film was released as it had in the past. Columbia’s bankers back east pressured Cohn about the loss of revenue, and his response was not to pay Capra his very high salary until he started another film. The director was understandably angered over this arbitrary condition regarding his salary. When the mistake with If You Could Only Cook occurred, he told his lawyer to use it to get him out of his contract with Columbia.

FRED ZINNEMAN DIRECTS MONTGOMERY CLIFT AND FRANK SINATRA IN 'FROM HERE TO ETERNITY,' THE FILM THAT RE-LAUNCHED SINATRA'S CAREER. CONTRARY TO RUMOR, THE MOB DID NOT FORCE COHN INTO HIRING THE SINGER.

FRED ZINNEMAN DIRECTS MONTGOMERY CLIFT AND FRANK SINATRA IN ‘FROM HERE TO ETERNITY,’ THE FILM THAT RE-LAUNCHED SINATRA’S CAREER. CONTRARY TO MYTH, THE MOB DID NOT FORCE COHN INTO HIRING THE SINGER.

Harry Cohn noted on many occasion that he respected talented actors by claiming, “I kiss the feet of talent,” or more crudely, “If you have talent, I’ll kiss your ass.” However, his interactions with actors didn’t always match his colorful proclamations. During the 1930s, Cohn put Gloria Swanson under contract, telling her he was looking for just the right material for her. Over the next few months, Swanson made several suggestions, but Cohn repeatedly told her that the material wasn’t good enough. Finally, she called him to say she had found the perfect story, which David O. Selznick was willing to sell the rights to. After reading 25 pages to Cohn in his office, the mogul told her that he would think about it. He phoned her the next day to tell her he was going to pass on it, because “It can’t be any good if Selzick wanted to sell it.” Furious, Swanson launched a tirade at Cohn, ripping the phone out of the wall in the process. She left Hollywood for New York and did not star in another film until Sunset Boulevard. The material that Cohn passed out was purchased by Warner Bros. and turned into Dark Victory for Bette Davis.

WHEN ORSON WELLES TOLD WIFE RITA HAYWORTH TO CUT HER HAIR AND DYE IT BLONDE FOR 'LADY OF SHANGHAI,' COHN HAD A FIT.

WHEN ORSON WELLES TOLD WIFE RITA HAYWORTH TO CUT HER HAIR AND DYE IT BLONDE FOR ‘LADY OF SHANGHAI,’ COHN HAD A FIT.

In the late 1940s, Fred Karger brought Marilyn Monroe to Cohn’s office to sing for him, because she was about to appear in the musical Ladies of the Chorus. She was so nervous she called her Christian Science practitioner for moral support. The normally gruff and coarse Harry Cohn softened when he heard that because someone close to him had been involved with Christian Science. He put Monroe under contract for six months but then dismissed her after her option was up, because, “She can’t act.”

John Wayne was briefly under contract to Columbia in the early 1930s, but his dismissal from the studio was not because Cohn thought him a poor actor. The mogul was quite the starlet-chaser before his second marriage to Joan Perry, and he erroneously thought that Wayne had made a pass at an actress he was romancing. He punished Wayne by reducing him to the tiniest of parts (a corpse in The Deceiver). The young actor then languished around the studio for several months without appearing in a single film. Finally, he was let go. When he tried to get work at other studios, he discovered that Cohn had phoned various producers to warn them that Wayne was a bad egg who would show up for work intoxicated, then become belligerent on the set. A producer who wanted him for a b-western finally told Wayne about the rumors. Wayne confronted Cohn, “As long as I live, I will never work one day for you or Columbia no matter how much you offer me.” Later, Columbia offered the legendary star several film projects, including the lead in The Gunfighter (eventually made with Gregory Peck at 20th Century Fox), but he refused to work at the studio, even after Cohn had died.

HARRY AND JACK COHN BACK IN THE POVERTY ROW DAYS.

HARRY AND JACK COHN BACK IN THE POVERTY ROW DAYS.

I have always heard that Cohn was nasty, coarse, mean, short-tempered, short-sighted, brutal, cheap, and a thousand other unflattering adjectives. He once casually remarked to Margaret Sullavan, “William Wyler [Sullavan’s ex] tells me you’re great in the hay.” What he thought he could gain with this crude jibe is still a mystery. So, I was surprised to read that he had many admirable traits. Time and again, he paid medical expenses for associates and friends; he got costume designer Jean Louis into Europe when his mother fell ill despite the fact that Louis had no passport; when Frank Sinatra fell seriously ill in New York during a singing engagement, Cohn flew east and spent every afternoon with him. I guess stories about Cohn’s good side are not as well-known because they are not nearly as entertaining.

Shortly before he died in 1958, Cohn made a new will, requesting no funeral service be held for him. His widow did not heed her husband’s instructions and organized a massive funeral, which was attended by most of Hollywood. She requested that Danny Kaye give the eulogy, for reasons unknown to most, and she asked Danny Thomas to recite a passage that was “spiritual” but not religious. Cohn had been born a Jew, but he practiced no religion. Kaye asked writer Clifford Odets to help compose the eulogy, another odd choice considering the playwright penned the screenplay for the Hollywood expose The Big Knife, which featured a character supposedly modeled after Cohn. Kaye apparently delivered a terrific eulogy, prompting John Ford to lean to the person next to him and inquire, “Who is that nice young rabbi?” However, it is Red Skelton’s quip on the death of Harry Cohn that is best remembered. Hearing that most of Hollywood turned out for the service, Skelton noted, “Well, it only goes to show you that if you give the people what they want, they’ll come out for it.”

COHN'S "MONROE REPLACEMENT," KIM NOVAK, ATTENDS HIS FUNERAL.

COHN’S “MONROE REPLACEMENT,” KIM NOVAK, ATTENDS HIS FUNERAL.

This year marks Columbia’s 90th birthday. Today, the studio is part of the Columbia Tristar Motion Picture Group, owned by Sony Pictures Entertainment, a subsidiary of Sony Entertainment, a subsidiary of the Japanese-owned corporate conglomerate Sony. Douglas Belgrad is the current president of Columbia; according to his Sony bio, he began as a securities analyst at Kidder, Peabody. He joined Sony Pictures in 1989 as a management associate, specializing in strategic planning and business development. I am quite sure Mr. Belgrad never insulted an actress by calling her a great lay or set out to ruin a young actor’s career out of jealousy. Still, Harry Cohn’s plan for his little studio was to make the best movies that he could for as little money as he could get away with; he felt the key to accomplishing this goal was to find the most talented actors, writers, and directors. As noted by Peter Bart in the introduction to King Cohn, the plan of most studio execs of Mr. Belgrad’s era is to make a pricey product that can be turned into a pricey franchise that is part of a larger plan to sell another product, usually from a different division of the corporate conglomerate. You know, like this year’s release of Amazing Spiderman 2—the sequel to Columbia’s The Amazing Spiderman, which is part of a franchise that is a reboot of the studio’s earlier franchise that was barely a decade old. If you are confused, it doesn’t matter because the film is merely a two-hour ad for the simultaneous release of the The Amazing Spiderman 2 game.

I guess I kinda miss Harry Cohn.

13 Responses What I Didn’t Know About Harry Cohn
Posted By swac44 : February 10, 2014 5:47 pm

Two of my favourite films to be released under the Columbia imprint in the post-Cohn years are Dr. Strangelove and The Monkees’ film HEAD, which both coincidentally include footage of Coca-Cola machines being destroyed. Who wound up buying Columbia in the early ’80s before selling to Sony? Coca-Cola.

Posted By Doug : February 10, 2014 6:29 pm

Margaret Sullavan-some actors/roles touch us emotionally, and I have always felt ‘protective’ of Sullavan because of her sensitive portrayal of Klara Novak in “The Shop Around The Corner” and also from knowing her sad history off screen.
Which makes Cohn’s coarse remark all the more vile.
I appreciate all of the great films that Columbia has released over its history, but have little appreciation for Harry Cohn. I had Bob Thomas’s book years ago but it’s been too long past to remember many details.
Maybe Jack Cohn got all the good DNA.

Posted By Susan Doll : February 10, 2014 7:23 pm

Swac44: OMG! What a coincidence that you should mention HEAD. I am showing it this week in my advanced film hist class.

Posted By Susan Doll : February 10, 2014 7:24 pm

Doug: Alas, Jack was little better than Harry in terms of treating other people. After his wife was gone, he abandoned his daughters at school. Rose, Jack’s first wife, took them in because it broke her heart to see them so sad and lonely at their school. Jack did not have much to do with them after that.

Posted By robbushblog : February 10, 2014 9:01 pm

I’ve only ever heard awful things about Harry Cohn. This article didn’t change that perception a lot. Ha ha! I do greatly appreciate the movies that Cohn made during his lifetime.

And as big a fan of Spider-Man that I am, the newer batch of Spider-Man movies are exactly what you characterized them as. They decided that getting the characterization of Peter Parker right was not as important as just pumping out more product.

Posted By george : February 10, 2014 9:05 pm

Does the book/audiotape mention that Cohn was a great admirer of Mussolini and kept a bust of the dictator in his office? Columbia even released an admiring documentary, MUSSOLINI SPEAKS, in 1933. (Hal Roach was also a Mussolini fan and tried to produce pictures with his son, but that’s another story.)

Another anecdote from Cohn’s funeral: asked to say one good thing about Cohn, the rabbi paused and said, “He’s dead.”

Posted By george : February 10, 2014 9:42 pm

robbushblog said: “And as big a fan of Spider-Man that I am, the newer batch of Spider-Man movies are exactly what you characterized them as.”

I loved the first two Sam Raimi Spider-Man movies, and thought the third wasn’t that bad (then again, I also have nice things to say about GODFATHER III). But the 2012 reboot bored me silly. I bailed after 40 minutes or so. And I have no interest in this summer’s sequel.

It’s kind of sad to realize Columbia will crank out a Spider-Man movie every few years, probably for the rest of my life, just to keep the rights from reverting to Marvel and Disney.

Posted By AL : February 10, 2014 10:00 pm

At the S.F.Film Festival Tribute to RITA HAYWORTH (years ago), someone asked her a question about Harry Cohn. Rita’s response was polite, but firm: “I don’t want to talk about Harry Cohn.”

Posted By Susan Doll : February 10, 2014 10:03 pm

George: The anecdote about the rabbi at the funeral is likely one of the many myths about the service. There was no rabbi there. Cohn did not practice any religion, even as a young man, though he was Jewish by birth and kept up a front for his mother until adulthood. Joan Cohn asked Danny Thomas to say something spiritual but not necessarily religious and selected a Catholic prayer but left out the words “Jesus Christ.”

Posted By george : February 10, 2014 10:43 pm

Susan: Thanks, I assumed it was an urban legend. There’s also an anecdote about many people attending Cohn’s funeral because “they wanted to make sure he was dead.” I’ve heard that anecdote re Louis B. Mayer’s funeral, too.

The only person I’ve talked to who actually worked for Cohn was Kirk Alyn, who played Superman and Blackhawk in Columbia serials. He described Cohn as a “monster.” I don’t recall him going into detail, though. (I was a teenager at the time, so it’s been quite a few years).

Posted By jacques demy : February 11, 2014 6:45 am

It seems like we’re skirting around a lot of ugliness here — but it does seem important to acknowledge that it’s fairly reasonable to surmise that a large part of the reason many great actresses burned out early psychologically or otherwise was the result of having had to deal with predatory producers & their ilk … My own guess would be that all manner of shady practices & worse continue to this day, though perhaps in altered forms …

People should keep in mind that the main reason we don’t have more hard proofs of the specifics of these abuses is that any revelations or whistle-blowing immediately result in permanent black-listing … I’m reasonably libertine & if people want to look back with hindsight and rationalize it all as boys will be boys & producers will be producers & so on, then that’s just fine by me I guess … But I do think that Hollywood’s entire century has been as much a saga of exploitation and abuse as it has been the story of all the tremendous accomplishments which we admire so … A lot of peoples’ lives have been destroyed to feed the multifarious lusts of the machine …

I don’t believe that the former diminishes the majesty of the latter — but at the same time I also don’t believe that the majesty of the latter should so blind us that we only wish to whitewash all of the worst offenders & shrug off all their evils

Posted By Doug : February 11, 2014 7:06 pm

It’s the old adage of riches not changing who you are, just amplifying what is inside you. If the Cohn’s had not made it rich, they probably would have been the same nasty characters,
lording over their houses and businesses on a much smaller scale.
Please don’t pillory me for this, but for all the billions in Bill Gates bank account, he seems like a decent guy.

Posted By kingrat : February 11, 2014 11:46 pm

One of the few people who had a good word to say about Cohn was Kim Novak, in her Private Screenings interview with Robert Osborne. She thought that Cohn had good story sense and found projects which were right for her.

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