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.

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Mogul Mania

Tonight begins TCM’s original documentary series Moguls & Movie Stars: A History of Hollywood, a seven-part series that will air every Monday till December 13, with each episode repeating on the following Wednesday. An ambitious, meticulously crafted interpretation of the history of American film, Moguls & Movie Stars focuses on the famous (movie stars) and the infamous (the moguls) as the threads that tie this history together.

While I have been anxiously awaiting the series since I first heard about it months ago, I feel especially eager because I have already seen the first two episodes, and I know the quality and level of detail to expect. At the Telluride Film Festival, director John Wilkman presented Episode 1: “The Peepshow Pioneers” and Episode 2: “The Birth of Hollywood.” Another reason I am excited about Moguls & Movie Stars is because I got to contribute in a small way to the terrific-looking website that supports the series. I wrote four of the site’s biographies of the legendary moguls: Sam Warner, Louis B. Mayer, Jesse L. Lasky, and Irving Thalberg. I urge everyone to peruse the website for the wealth of historical information it provides. However, I can’t help but wonder if the other writers experienced the same difficulty that I did in paring down the anecdotes and stories about the moguls into just a few paragraphs. Some of the information and insight I uncovered but discounted will pop up in the program’s interviews with the moguls’ relatives and offspring, including Carla Laemmle, Daniel Selznick, and Samuel Goldwyn, Jr. But much information I came across will be left out. I thought it might be fun and enlightening to offer a few extra facts and details on these larger-than-life moguls who, for better or worse, shaped the Hollywood industry.

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