Harry Cohn


Executive

About

Birth Place
New York City, New York, USA
Born
July 23, 1891
Died
February 27, 1958
Cause of Death
Heart Attack

Biography

When asked his thoughts on running a major Hollywood studio like Columbia Pictures, its president and chief of production, Harry Cohn replied, "It's better than being a pimp." The statement summed up Cohn's outlook and reputation in the business as one of its most hard-nosed, combative and unlikable figures, but that assessment obscured the fact that from the 1920s until his death in 195...

Family & Companions

Joan Perry Cohn
Wife
Actor. Married 1941 until Cohn's death; died September 15, 1996 at age 85.

Bibliography

"King Cohn"
Bob Thomas (1967)

Notes

Many people had many memorable insults to sling Cohn's way. One such stab is "You had to stand in line to hate him" but perhaps the topper was comedian Red Skelton's remark when it was pointed out to him that Cohn's funeral drew a substantial crowd. Skelton replied, "It just proves the old adage: give the public what they want to see and they'll come out for it."

Rather surprisingly, Cohn did have his defenders, including, of all people, actress Ethel Barrymore: "He knew the score."

Biography

When asked his thoughts on running a major Hollywood studio like Columbia Pictures, its president and chief of production, Harry Cohn replied, "It's better than being a pimp." The statement summed up Cohn's outlook and reputation in the business as one of its most hard-nosed, combative and unlikable figures, but that assessment obscured the fact that from the 1920s until his death in 1958, Cohn turned Columbia from a cut-rate film studio to one of the biggest movie factories in Hollywood, with such films as "It Happened One Night" (1934), "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" (1939), "From Here to Eternity" (1953) and "The Bridge on the River Kwai" (1957) among his accomplishments. Cohn watched his books with a miserly eye, and reduced stars, directors and executives to ashes with his venomous tongue, but he also possessed an unerring eye for quality films, and focused the same amount of energy towards creating great movies as he did towards terrorizing his employees. In the end, Harry Cohn's reputation as a world-class tyrant and as a top-notch mogul remained one of Hollywood's greatest legends.

Born to Jewish tailor Joseph Cohn and his wife, Bella, a Polish immigrant, in New York City on July 23, 1891, Harry Cohn grew up in poverty, learning rather quickly to fight for every penny he could earn. He worked a variety of jobs, including streetcar conductor, as well as less scrupulous ambitions like pool hustling, before teaming with composer Harry Ruby to form a vaudeville act. Cohn also worked as a song promoter, which helped him open a door to Universal Pictures, where his brother Jack worked, by retaining the movie rights to some of his songs. Harry soon left promotion behind to toil as secretary to studio chief Carl Laemmle, but quit in 1919 to form his own company, CBC Film Sales Corporation, with his brother and partner, Joe Brandt. CBC's bread and butter was low-budget, one-reel comedies and threadbare documentaries, which earned the company the nickname "Corned Beef and Cabbage" on account of its cheap product. But Cohn had sharpened his sales skills through his tenure as a song promoter, and by the mid 1920s, he was getting CBC product into first-run movie houses. He was also earned a reputation as a tenacious, even combative personality, both with potential buyers and within his own company. His relationship with his brother Jack was best described as contentious, and in 1924, Joe Brandt sold his share of the company to Cohn in order to avoid the stress of dealing with him. The reorganized company, with Cohn at its head as president and head of production, was dubbed Columbia Pictures in order to distance itself from its humble origins.

Unfortunately, Columbia's material was still mired in modest features and short subjects, which kept it firmly entrenched as part of Hollywood's "poverty row" set of studios, including Monogram and Republic. But the arrival of director Frank Capra to Cohn's stable helped to boost its status with exhibitors and theater owners. Capra pushed the notoriously tight-fisted Cohn to give him larger budgets and more freedom to create films that could compete in the market with larger studios, and the gambit worked. A string of hits, starting in 1928 with "So This is Love?" brought Cohn greater acclaim and a stronger foothold in Hollywood; by 1933, Capra had brought the company its first Oscar nomination for "Lady for a Day." The following year, "It Happened One Night" (1934) swept the Oscars with five major awards, including Outstanding Production for Capra and Cohn, as well as Best Actor and Actress for Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert, respectively. The win signaled Columbia's emergence as a major studio.

Under Cohn's command, Columbia divided its production slate between major features, like Capra's "Lost Horizon" (1937) and "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" (1939), and more modestly budgeted fare, including vast numbers of serials, short subjects and even cartoons, including Walt Disney's early Mickey Mouse efforts. He later launched his own animation company, Screen Gems, which produced its own low-quality but popular cartoons. Cohn was devoted to his short subject department, which was anchored by the Three Stooges comedy team, and eventually produced 190 shorts between 1934 and 1957. Since Cohn kept a close eye on the studio's bottom line, it could not afford its own major stars, but worked out deals to borrow top actors from other studios. Such talents as Cary Grant, Jimmy Stewart, Mickey Rooney, Katherine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart all made pictures for Columbia. A few of the studio's minor players eventually worked their way up to stardom, including Glenn Ford, William Holden, Judy Holliday, Kim Novak and a young dancer of Spanish and Irish descent named Margarita Carmen Cansino, whom Cohn signed to a contract, changed her hair color to a flaming red, and renamed Rita Hayworth - Columbia's biggest asset during the 1940s and one of the screen's greatest sex symbols. The actress and the studio chief would have a contentious relationship during her tenure with the studio, with Hayworth receiving frequent suspensions for alleged insubordination. She often stated that the animosity was the result of her refusal to sleep with Cohn, who had gained a reputation for bedding his prospective starlets.

Maintaining a casting couch was one of many unpleasant attributes that Cohn had cultivated during his rule at Columbia. He played down and even disparaged his Jewish heritage, and counted mobsters and other unsavory types among his friends. His office featured an oversized desk some 40 feet from its door, small seats that allowed him to tower over visitors, and a photo of Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, whom Cohen had met in 1933, on his desk. Cohn also reportedly employed listening devices on all of his sound stages and in some dressing rooms, and demanded absolute loyalty from his employees. Those that displeased him were dressed down and dismissed. Then again, so were those that he favored; though he showed an inordinate fondness for the Three Stooges, he forced Curly Howard to continue working on shorts after suffering a series of strokes that eventually led to his death.

Many who worked with Cohn contended that his tyrannical nature was a deliberate construct aimed at motivating his employees. Having learned to fight for what he wanted from life, Cohn expected the same from those who worked for him, and frequently rewarded those who had endured his tirades with exceptional loyalty. By refusing to close his short subject department until 1957, Cohn kept dozens of actors and directors employed long after other studios had sent their own one-reeler casts packing. He also kept 1930s action star Jack Holt under contract long after his star had dimmed, was generous with bonuses, and even supported talent that had fallen on hard times. Despite his womanizing reputation, Cohn often promoted women to significant positions, most notably screenwriter Virginia Van Upp, who eventually became an executive producer at Columbia. And in 1945, Cohn refused to fire writer John Howard Lawson after he had been outed as an alleged Communist by the House Un-American Activities Commission. However, Cohn was less kind to actor Larry Parks, who had been forced to testify before the Commission. The actor, who had delivered his testimony in tears, was summarily dropped by Columbia shortly after his appearance, which effectively ended his once blossoming movie career.

No matter how bad a taste Cohn left in the mouths of the Hollywood community, there was no denying that the Columbia czar was one of the most successful moguls in film history. Under his command, the studio released a staggering amount of hits, many of which became legendary films, including "You Can't Take It With You" (1938), "Here Comes Mr. Jordan" (1941), "All the King's Men" (1941) and Best Picture winners "From Here to Eternity" (1953), "On the Waterfront" (1954) and "The Bridge on the River Kwai" (1957). Columbia was also the only studio to turn a profit during the Depression, and by the mid-1950s - when his reign as studio chief was reaching its zenith - it was the most profitable company in the film industry. Part of the reason for its success was Cohn's notorious cheapness; he frequently recycled sets, costumes and props in other films, and refused to use color film until 1943.

But penny-pinching was only part of the reason for Columbia's ascent. Cohn made a number of shrewd business decisions in the late '40s and early '50s that filled the company's coffers. He dissolved the Screen Gems animation department, but retained the name for a number of smaller activities, including a film rental agency and a television production subsidiary, which eventually produced such hit comedies as "Father Knows Best" (CBS, 1954-1960), "The Donna Reed Show" (ABC, 1958-1966) and "Bewitched" (ABC, 1964-1972). Screen Gems also distributed cartoons by Hanna-Barbera Productions, including "The Flintstones" (ABC, 1960-66) and "The Jetsons" (ABC, 1962-63). Cohn also kept a hand in low-budget features, and through producer Sam Katzman, released countless science fiction, action, horror and rock-n-roll films that won over teen audiences. Columbia also owned no theaters, which allowed it to avoid the crippling losses suffered by other studios after the 1948 United States v. Paramount Pictures lawsuit, which forced film companies to divest themselves of their theater chains. By the end of the 1950s, Columbia was part of the Big Five studios - an astonishing leap in status from its lowly origins on Poverty Row.

On February 27, 1958, Cohn died in Arizona shortly after finishing dinner. His funeral was one of the best attended in the industry, leading Red Skelton to famously quip, "Give the people what they want, and they'll turn out for it!" In the wake of his death, Columbia struggled to maintain its identity, releasing top films like "Oliver!" (1968) and "Easy Rider" (1969) but without Cohn's particular vision. It faltered in the 1970s before being rescued by Warner Bros., Coca-Cola and Sony. But it could never reproduce the quality of its past, which had been shepherded, for better or worse, by the vision of Harry Cohn.

Filmography

 

Cast (Feature Film)

American Lifestyles (1987)
Marigold Man (1970)
George

Producer (Feature Film)

Twentieth Century (1934)
Associate Producer
Among the Missing (1934)
Executive Producer
The Captain Hates the Sea (1934)
Executive Producer
It Happened One Night (1934)
Producer
American Madness (1932)
Producer
Forbidden (1932)
Producer
Attorney for the Defense (1932)
Producer
War Correspondent (1932)
Producer
Platinum Blonde (1931)
Producer
Ten Cents a Dance (1931)
Producer
The Miracle Woman (1931)
Producer
Arizona (1931)
Producer
The Criminal Code (1931)
Producer
The Good Bad Girl (1931)
Producer
A Dangerous Affair (1931)
Producer
Branded (1931)
Producer
Border Law (1931)
Producer
Lover Come Back (1931)
Producer
The Fighting Sheriff (1931)
Producer
Dirigible (1931)
Producer
Desert Vengeance (1931)
Producer
The Lion and the Lamb (1931)
Producer
Men in Her Life (1931)
Producer
Personality (1930)
Producer
Madonna of the Streets (1930)
Producer
Murder on the Roof (1930)
Producer
For the Love o' Lil (1930)
Producer
The Last of the Lone Wolf (1930)
Producer
Rain or Shine (1930)
Producer
Hell's Island (1930)
Producer
The Melody Man (1930)
Producer
Hurricane (1930)
Producer
Men Without Law (1930)
Producer
A Royal Romance (1930)
Producer
The Squealer (1930)
Producer
Soldiers and Women (1930)
Producer
Prince of Diamonds (1930)
Producer
Guilty? (1930)
Producer
Sisters (1930)
Producer
Ladies of Leisure (1930)
Producer
Vengeance (1930)
Producer
Ladies Must Play (1930)
Producer
Shadow Ranch (1930)
Producer
Tol'able David (1930)
Producer
The Dawn Trail (1930)
Producer
Call of the West (1930)
Producer
Around the Corner (1930)
Producer
Brothers (1930)
Producer
Temptation (1930)
Producer
The College Coquette (1929)
Producer
Mexicali Rose (1929)
Producer
Father and Son (1929)
Producer
The Broadway Hoofer (1929)
Producer
Acquitted (1929)
Producer
The Donovan Affair (1929)
Producer
The Bachelor Girl (1929)
Producer
Behind Closed Doors (1929)
Producer
Broadway Scandals (1929)
Producer
The Faker (1929)
Producer
Light Fingers (1929)
Producer
The Fall of Eve (1929)
Producer
The Flying Marine (1929)
Producer
Flight (1929)
Producer
Trial Marriage (1929)
Producer
The Song of Love (1929)
Supervisor
Wall Street (1929)
Producer
The Quitter (1929)
Producer
The Eternal Woman (1929)
Producer
Say It With Sables (1928)
Producer
The Sporting Age (1928)
Producer
Broadway Daddies (1928)
Producer
The Matinee Idol (1928)
Producer
Name the Woman (1928)
Producer
That Certain Thing (1928)
Producer
The Way of the Strong (1928)
Producer
The Desert Bride (1928)
Producer
After the Storm (1928)
Producer
Fashion Madness (1928)
Producer
Beware of Blondes (1928)
Producer
Golf Widows (1928)
Producer
Lady Raffles (1928)
Producer
Sinner's Parade (1928)
Producer
Court-Martial (1928)
Producer
Ransom (1928)
Producer
So This Is Love (1928)
Producer
Modern Mothers (1928)
Producer
The Street of Illusion (1928)
Producer
The Wife's Relations (1928)
Producer
Virgin Lips (1928)
Producer
Runaway Girls (1928)
Producer
A Woman's Way (1928)
Producer
The Scarlet Lady (1928)
Producer
Submarine (1928)
Producer
Isle of Forgotten Women (1927)
Producer
Stage Kisses (1927)
Producer
The Price of Honor (1927)
Producer
The College Hero (1927)
Producer
Birds of Prey (1927)
Producer
Wandering Girls (1927)
Supervisor
The Kid Sister (1927)
Producer
The Clown (1927)
Producer
The Wreck (1927)
Supervisor
Alias the Lone Wolf (1927)
Producer
Pleasure Before Business (1927)
Producer
The Bachelor's Baby (1927)
Supervisor
By Whose Hand? (1927)
Producer
For Ladies Only (1927)
Producer
The Opening Night (1927)
Producer
The Romantic Age (1927)
Producer
Paying the Price (1927)
Producer
Rich Men's Sons (1927)
Producer
Poor Girls (1927)
Producer
The Swell-Head (1927)
Producer
The Tigress (1927)
Producer
The Warning (1927)
Producer
The Siren (1927)
Producer
Sally in Our Alley (1927)
Producer
Stolen Pleasures (1927)
Supervisor
The Blood Ship (1927)
Producer
Remember (1926)
Supervisor
There You Are (1926)
Supervisor
When the Wife's Away (1926)
Supervisor
The Belle of Broadway (1926)
Producer
The Lone Wolf Returns (1926)
Supervisor
Obey the Law (1926)
Supervisor
Sweet Rosie O'Grady (1926)
Supervisor
The Better Way (1926)
Supervisor
The False Alarm (1926)
Producer
The Truthful Sex (1926)
Supervisor
The Fate of a Flirt (1925)
Producer
The Unwritten Law (1925)
Supervisor
The Lure of the Wild (1925)
Producer
When Husbands Flirt (1925)
Producer
Discontented Husbands (1924)
Producer
Forgive and Forget (1923)
Producer
The Marriage Market (1923)
Producer
Innocence (1923)
Producer
More To Be Pitied Than Scorned (1922)
Producer
Only a Shop Girl (1922)
Producer

Film Production - Main (Feature Film)

Speed Mad (1925)
Production Manager

Production Companies (Feature Film)

I Am the Law (1938)
Company
The Lady Objects (1938)
Company
Start Cheering (1938)
Company
Extortion (1938)
Company
Making the Headlines (1938)
Company
Racketeers in Exile (1937)
Company
Lost Horizon (1937)
Company
It Can't Last Forever (1937)
Company
Roaring Timber (1937)
Company
Woman in Distress (1937)
Company
When You're in Love (1937)
Company
Women of Glamour (1937)
Company
Murder in Greenwich Village (1937)
Company
She Married an Artist (1937)
Company
Two Fisted Sheriff (1937)
Company
A Fight to the Finish (1937)
Company
Motor Madness (1937)
Company
I'll Take Romance (1937)
Company
The Old Wyoming Trail (1937)
Company
A Dangerous Adventure (1937)
Company
Stampede (1936)
Company
Secret Patrol (1936)
Company
The Cowboy Star (1936)
Company
Killer at Large (1936)
Company
Dangerous Intrigue (1936)
Company
The King Steps Out (1936)
Company
Meet Nero Wolfe (1936)
Company
Devil's Squadron (1936)
Company
Adventure in Manhattan (1936)
Company
Alibi for Murder (1936)
Company
And So They Were Married (1936)
Company
The Man Who Lived Twice (1936)
Company
The Music Goes 'Round (1936)
Company
Pride of the Marines (1936)
Company
You May Be Next! (1936)
Company
More Than a Secretary (1936)
Company
Theodora Goes Wild (1936)
Company
Shakedown (1936)
Company
Tugboat Princess (1936)
Company
Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936)
Company
Awakening of Jim Burke (1935)
Company
Carnival (1935)
Company
The Girl Friend (1935)
Company
Air Hawks (1935)
Company
A Feather in Her Hat (1935)
Company
Too Tough to Kill (1935)
Company
The Unwelcome Stranger (1935)
Company
Love Me Forever (1935)
Company
Party Wire (1935)
Company
Death Flies East (1935)
Company
She Couldn't Take It (1935)
Company
The Lone Wolf Returns (1935)
Company
Lawless Riders (1935)
Company
After the Dance (1935)
Company
The Black Room (1935)
Company
Gallant Defender (1935)
Company
Atlantic Adventure (1935)
Company
If You Could Only Cook (1935)
Company
Escape from Devil's Island (1935)
Company
It Happened One Night (1934)
Company
Broadway Bill (1934)
Company
Whom the Gods Destroy (1934)
Company
Lady by Choice (1934)
Company
One Night of Love (1934)
Company
Jealousy (1934)
Company
The Lady Is Willing (1934)
Company
The Party's Over (1934)
Company
Social Register (1934)
Company
Whirlpool (1934)
Company
Speed Wings (1934)
Company
White Lies (1934)
Company
Ann Carver's Profession (1933)
Company
Lady for a Day (1933)
Company
Before Midnight (1933)
Company
Night of Terror (1933)
Company
The Bitter Tea of General Yen (1933)
Company
Let's Fall in Love (1933)
Company
Child of Manhattan (1933)
Company
Cocktail Hour (1933)
Company
Air Hostess (1933)
Company
Brief Moment (1933)
Company
My Woman (1933)
Company
Police Car 17 (1933)
Company
Virtue (1932)
Company
The Night Club Lady (1932)
Company
Washington Merry-Go-Round (1932)
Company
Behind the Mask (1932)
Company

Life Events

1912

First vaudevillian performance

1918

Became secretary to Universal chief Carl Laemmle

1920

Formed CBC Film Sales Company with Joe Brandt and brother Jack Cohn

1924

CBC becomes Columbia Pictures

Videos

Movie Clip

Lady For A Day (1933) - Open, Apples Opening credits and first scene featuring Annie (May Robson) and a cop (Ward Bond) from Frank Capra's Lady For A Day, 1933, from a Damon Runyon story, also starring Warren William.
Lady For A Day (1933) - Nice Work Shakespeare Dave the Dude (Warren William) comes to Annie (May Robson) to buy his lucky apple, before her daily visit to butler John (Halliwell Hobbes) in an early scene from Frank Capra's Lady For A Day, 1933.
Lady For A Day (1933) - She Thinks I'm In High Society Dave (Warren William) and crew (Ned Sparks, Nat Pendleton) drop in on Annie (May Robson) who's in a panic over her daughter's visit, in Frank Capra's Lady For A Day, 1933.
It Happened One Night (1934) - Long Line Of Stubborn Idiots Madcap heiress Ellie (Claudette Colbert) establishing bona-fides with some bite, for her father Alexander (Walter Connolly), opening Frank Capra's It Happened One Night, 1934, also starring Clark Gable.
Captain Hates The Sea, The (1934) - Down To The Sea In Ships Opening with extensive use of a real ocean liner, which director Lewis Milestone persuaded Columbia studio boss Harry Cohn to spring-for, we meet Walter Connolly in the title role, Frederic Howard and Fredric Santly his audience, Leon Errol the steward, in the all-star comic-melodrama, The Captain Hates The Sea, 1934, with Victor McLaglen and John Gilbert.
Captain Hates The Sea, The (1934) - Could I Slit Your Throat And Love It? We discover here that Fred Keating (as thief Danny) is actually in league with Helen Vinson (posing as Janet, a librarian) over the stolen bonds, Victor McLaglen the friendly private eye Schulte, Alison Skipworth as Mrs Magruder, buying drinks for Wynne Gibson as reformed party girl “Goldie,” John Wray her indignant husband, John Gilbert her ex-pal Steve, Walter Catlett the barkeep Joe, in The Captain Hates The Sea, 1934.
Captain Hates The Sea, The (1934) - To Part Is To Die A Little Just away from Los Angeles, Akim Tamiroff as Salazaro misses his family, with new shipmates, John Gilbert as ex-reporter Steve, Victor McLaglen as gumshoe Schulte, who, while Helen Vinson introduces herself, predicts that their other pal, Danny (Fred Keating), his suspect in a big bond theft, will turn up, in The Captain Hates The Sea, 1934.
Captain Hates The Sea, The (1934) - I Haven't Got Any Trunks Introducing Tala Birell as Gert, Inez Courtney as friend Flo, Raymond Turner the chauffeur but mainly John Gilbert as Steve, leaving LA by ship, with problems not unlike Gilbert’s own at the time, his first appearance in his last feature, in a role won for him by his friend, the director Lewis Milestone, in The Captain Hates The Sea, 1934.
Theodora Goes Wild (1936) - Sexy Trash Rebecca (Spring Byington) leads the ladies in denouncing a novel serialized in the town paper, editor Jed (Thomas Mitchell) and incognito author Theodora (Irene Dunne) playing along, in Richard Boleslawski's Theodora Goes Wild, 1936.
Theodora Goes Wild (1936) - You Ought To Meet Me Theodora (Irene Dunne) worrying with publisher Stevenson (Thurston Hall) about her racy novel ruining her reputation, meets his wife (Nana Bryant) and artist Michael (Melvyn Douglas), in Richard Boleslawski's Theodora Goes Wild, 1936.
Theodora Goes Wild (1936) - Eve And The Serpent Innocent Theodora (Irene Dunne), aiming to prove she's as worldly as the author of her racy novel would be, in the apartment of handsome artist Michael (Melvyn Douglas), in Richard Boleslawski's Theodora Goes Wild, 1936.
Miracle Woman, The (1931) - This Isn't A House Of God! Joining director Frank Capra's opening scene, Florence Fallon (Barbara Stanwyck) tells the congregation of the death of her father, their pastor, upon being fired, and lets loose, Sam Hardy as the impressed visitor Hornsby, in The Miracle Woman, 1931.

Trailer

Family

Harry Cohn Jr
Son
Deceased.
John Perry Cohn
Son
Catherine Perry Cohn
Daughter

Companions

Joan Perry Cohn
Wife
Actor. Married 1941 until Cohn's death; died September 15, 1996 at age 85.

Bibliography

"King Cohn"
Bob Thomas (1967)

Notes

Many people had many memorable insults to sling Cohn's way. One such stab is "You had to stand in line to hate him" but perhaps the topper was comedian Red Skelton's remark when it was pointed out to him that Cohn's funeral drew a substantial crowd. Skelton replied, "It just proves the old adage: give the public what they want to see and they'll come out for it."

Rather surprisingly, Cohn did have his defenders, including, of all people, actress Ethel Barrymore: "He knew the score."