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Harry Cohn, Hollywood's Hated Dictator

Updated on September 13, 2011

Harry Cohn

Harry Cohn was, for over thirty years, the president of Columbia Pictures Corporation and during that time he oversaw the rise of the company from its formation to become one of the biggest and most profitable studios in Hollywood.

In the process he became known for his coarse and aggressive character and his dictatorial, autocratic style of management. He also gained a well deserved reputation for his use of the Hollywood "casting couch" and by the time of his death he had become one of the most hated figures in Hollywood.

It is undeniable that his tyrranical methods worked and during his career he showed a gift for identifying and nurturing new talent, creating opportunities for such performers as Barbara Stanwyck, Rita Hayworth, Glenn Ford and James Stewart. Columbia developed from a "Poverty Row" studio to a major Hollywood player, creating Oscar-winning classics such as 'It Happened One Night' in 1934, 'Mr. Smith Goes to Washington' in 1939, 'From Here to Eternity' in 1953 and 'The Bridge on the River Kwai' in 1957.

Joe, Harry and Nate Cohn
Joe, Harry and Nate Cohn

Early Days

Harry Cohn was born in New York City on July 23, 1891, into a poor Jewish immigrant family. He was the middle child of five and his father, Joe Cohn earned a meagre living as a tailor on New York's East 88th Street. Harry grew up in a tough environment and one of his first lessons in life was that everything had to be fought for and that nothing came easy.

After leaving school when he was fourteen he tried his hand at a variety of jobs including shipping clerk, fur salesman and pool hustler until in 1910, aged 19 he teamed up with songwriter Harry Ruby in a vaudeville singing act. He followed this by starting his own song publishing and promoting business, plugging sheet music such as "Ragtime Cowboy Joe" which he relentlessly promoted to a hit.

After army service Cohn joined Universal Pictures where his brother, Jack Cohn was already having considerable success as producer of the Universal weekly newsreel and other short subjects.

Young Harry Cohn
Young Harry Cohn

The Cohn brothers were anxious to gain a bigger share of the rapidly growing movie market and in 1919 they left Universal, and with a lawyer colleague from Universal, Joe Brandt, they formed CBC Film Sales Corporation. Harry moved west and opened a studio in Los Angeles whilst Jack and Brandt stayed in New York. Harry began to earn a reputation as a tenacious, hard-nosed businessman producing movie shorts and using his promotional skills to plug them.

The company's low-budget, one-reel comedies and low quality documentaries, earned CBC the nickname "Corned Beef and Cabbage", but they made a profit which enabled it to produce its first feature film in 1922,'More To Be Pitied Than Scorned' which was a box-office success and demonstrated that they could compete with the major studios.

By the end of 1923, CBC had released ten features all of which had made money but there was friction betwwen the partners, all strong characters, and in 1924 the company was restructured. Joe Brandt sold his share to Harry Cohn and the name was changed to Columbia Pictures with Harry as head of production and Jack in charge of the sales division. Harry was fiercely ambitious and was determined to make Columbia one of the biggest names in Hollywood.

Jack and Harry ( fifth and sixth from left) with early Columbia employees
Jack and Harry ( fifth and sixth from left) with early Columbia employees

Expansion and Frank Capra

He expanded by buying up small local competing studios and kept his production costs to a minimum by making use of either fading ex-stars or movie newcomers. Harry proved to have a gift for discovering and nurturing talented young performers and he gave opportunities to such gifted newcomers as James Stewart, Gary Cooper, Rosalind Russell, Glenn Ford, Judy Holliday and Rita Hayworth. Columbia's low budget output had caused it to be regarded as a "poverty row" studio along with other shoestring operations like Republic, Mascot, Chesterfield, and Astor Pictures. Cohn managed to take the difficult step to becoming a major player when he signed top director Frank Capra in 1928.

Cohn and Capra
Cohn and Capra

Cohn gave Capra a creative freedom whch he had previously lacked and the director responded by making a series of profitable feature films for Columbia such as 'That Certain Thing' and 'Submarine' in 1928, and 'The Younger Generation' in 1929 and he gained Columbia its first Best Picture Oscar nomination for 'Lady for a Day' in 1933.

During the remainder of the decade Capra became the number one director in Hollywood and he enabled Cohn and Columbia to enter the major league of studios, leaving the "poverty row" tag behind forever. In 1934 he directed the classic 'It Happened One Night' which won five Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director. Capra made more prestigious movies such as Lost Horizon in 1937, and 'Mr. Smith Goes to Washington' in 1939 whilst Cohn continued to produce large numbers of popular, economically made shorts, serials and cartoons.

Cohn with Rosalind Russell
Cohn with Rosalind Russell
Cohn with Rita Hayworth
Cohn with Rita Hayworth
Cohn with Judy Holliday
Cohn with Judy Holliday


Cohn's run of success never faltered and Columbia made a profit every year during his time in charge. His method was to borrow big name actors such as Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn, Mae West, Humphrey Bogart, and Dorothy Lamour from the bigger studios, to use to pre-sell the film, whilst bringing out and nurturing Columbia's own home-grown, and cheaper, talent such as Rita Hayworth, Larry Parks, Lloyd Bridges, and Jock Mahoney. Some of these young performers became stars in their own right. As well as Rita Hayworth, Cohn was responsible for starting the careers of William Holden, Judy Holliday, Glenn Ford and Kim Novak. He also had a gift for finding the best writers, producers, and directors such as the gifted Howard Hawks to work on his productions.

Cohn was a notorious penny-pincher and would use and re-use sets, costumes and scenery, in order to save on production costs. His methods worked and Columbia continued to economically produce classics such as 'The Jolson Story' and 'Gilda', both in 1946, 'From Here to Eternity, in 1953, 'On the Waterfront' in 1954, and 'The Bridge on the River Kwai' in 1957, these last three all being Best Picture Academy Award winners. He did not at first embrace the new medium of television but soon realised its vast importance and in 1951 he founded the lucrative television production and distribution subsidiary 'Screen Gems' which syndicated Columbia's theatrical film library to television, including the extremely successful 'Three Stooges' series. Cohn became one of the most successful studio heads in film history and Columbia, by the time of his death, was the most profitable studio in Hollywood.

Cohn's second wife, Joan Perry
Cohn's second wife, Joan Perry

Personal

Harry Cohn was married twice. His first marriage was in 1923 to Rose Barker and ended in divorce in 1941 and then from July 1941 until his death in 1958 he was married to actress Joan Perry, with whom he had two sons and two daughters.

Harry Cohn had many unpleasant personal characteristics which made him a deeply unpoular, even hated, member of the Hollywood community. He acted like a tyrant at Columbia, and even had a photograph of the Italian dictator Mussolini, on his desk. "I am the king here. Whoever eats my bread sings my song" was one of his many notorious sayings.... "I don't get ulcers, I give 'em!" was another.

He was aggressive, bullying and foul-mouthed and was notorious for his use of the Hollywood casting couch - demanding sexual favors from young actresses in return for parts in movies.

Cohn also liked to eavesdrop on employee's conversations using listening devices hidden around the studio. His relationship with his brother, Jack Cohn, was not amicable and each was jealous of the other. They fought divisively over business matters throughout their lives.

Harry Cohn died of a sudden heart attack on February 27, 1958 in Phoenix, Arizona. He was sixty-six. His funeral, held at the Columbia studios in Hollywood was extremely well attended, giving rise to the famous remark by comedian Red Skelton: "It proves what Harry always said: Give the public what they want and they'll come out for it."

Harry Cohn's Funeral, 1958
Harry Cohn's Funeral, 1958
Harry Cohn in Screening Room
Harry Cohn in Screening Room | Source

More Reading on Harry Cohn

King Cohn: The Life and Times of Harry Cohn (Revised and Updated)
King Cohn: The Life and Times of Harry Cohn (Revised and Updated)

"King Cohn" is a marvellous book, full of interesting anecdotes about the stars and "behind the scenes" information what it was like to be in charge of a busy Hollywood studio and with such a fantastic character as Harry Cohn running things there are many wonderful stories to tell.

 

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