Sunday, July 23, 2017

Born Today July 23: Harry Cohn


Producer and a studio mogul of the most abrasive sort Harry Cohn was born on this day in New York City.  Early in his life, he first worked as a streetcar conductor, and later as shipping clerk and  promoter for a sheet music business.  His older brother Jack had managed to find work at Universal, so he convinced the studio to hire his younger brother as well.  In 1919 the two, along with friend Joe Brandt, founded CBC (standing for Cohn Brandt Cohn) Film Sales Corporation.  In 1919, he also entered into active film production.  His first producer credit came on the Vitagraph film Passing The Buck.  Harry headed off to Hollywood to manage production there, while his brother Jack stayed in New York to handle the finances.  He quickly gained a reputation as crude, misogynistic, and aggressive.  Brandt was the first to fall victim to the stresses that Harry caused and eventually sold his share to Harry--leaving him 2/3rds owner over his brother, which pleased him, since he resented growing up in Jack's shadow (the is ample evidence that Harry raised the funds for the buyout with the mob).  When Harry took over as president of the studio, the company name was changed, and thus Columbia Pictures was born.  There is so much that one could write on the life of Harry Cohn which I will avoid as much as possible here (leaving that for the links).  Sticking to the silent era, I will point out that the vast majority of his direct producer credits date from that time period; with the later part of his life being spent as a straight out studio boss with way too much power.  After his first foray into the producer role with Vitagraph, he produced a slew of shorts, mostly with Hall Room Boys Photoplays in 1919.  Starting in 1920, C.B.C. started distributing these shorts.  The first of these was Oh, Baby! (1920).  The first film to tangentially carry the name "Columbia" was when CBC was in transition mode, during Harry's buy-out process in 1922; the film was More To Be Pitied Than Scorned.  The first full fledged, all out Columbia picture also came in 1922 with Only A Shop Girl, a feature length drama--it was an Estelle Taylor film.  By the later 1920's Columbia was increasingly sporting a list of impressive talent that even included the likes of director Frank Capra.  It would take Columbia until the second half of 1928 to began experimenting with sound.  For Cohn, his first production credit on a film that featured any sort of sound came with The Scarlet Lady, which featured a mono musical score by Western Electric.  His next production credit was an all silent film that features sequences with the 2-Strip Technicolor:  Court-Martial (1928).  For the most part though, Columbia, under Cohn's direction, tended to stay with the old black and white silent films longer than most other studios of the day.  Cohn's first full sound production credit came in 1929 with The Donovan's Affair, a Frank Capra film with sound by MovieTone.  But the studio would make several more partial sounds films, before abandoning them altogether in late 1929.  Cohn has a large number of production credits in 1930 and 1931; but they start to slow by 1932, crawling to a trickle by the mid 1930's.  By 1935 through 1938, he only had 1 credit for each of those years.  In 1939, he abandoned direct production work and set to being the tyrant mogul that he would become famous for.  Cohn was responsible for the Three Stooges filmed shorts that would make the studio a great deal of extra money.  In fact, he insisted that the studio continue to make Two-Reelers and serials long after other studios had given them up for out-dated.  He called these, fondly mind you, "those lousy little "B" pictures."  He had one more production credit to his name in 1947 on Orson Welles' The Lady From Shanghai; he served as executive producer on the film directly.  This probably had more to do with actress Rita Hayworth's appearance in the film than it did with Welles' known insistence on pure directorial freedom (though, to be sure, that must have been a factor as well).  He and Hayworth had a long, very acrid working relationship, and he never missed a chance to attempt to antagonize her.  Cohn died while visiting Phoenix, Arizona on 27 February.  He suffered a massive heart attack at the Arizona Biltmore Hotel after finishing a dinner there; he died in the ambulance en route to the hospital, he was 66 years old.  He was taken back to to Los Angeles for a funeral and burial.  There were many people at the funeral who apparently made it clear that they were there just to confirm that Harry Cohn was, indeed, dead.  He is interred at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery.

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