Harry Cohn co-founded Columbia Pictures Corporation with his brother Jack and ran the studio for more than thirty years. Harry had the reputation of being the most autocratic studio boss in film history and he ran Columbia like a one-man show.
Under Cohn’s leadership, Columbia, became known worldwide as the “little giant of the major studios”
Under Cohn’s leadership, Columbia, which became known worldwide as the “little giant of the major studios,” rose from a minor studio to one of Hollywood’s major production factories specializing in dramas, such as ON THE WATERFRONT, FROM HERE TO ETERNITY, MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON and ALL THE KING’S MEN, many of which won multiple Academy Awards©. Cohn was also known as a great star-maker, demonstrated by his early signing of such future cinema icons as Barbara Stanwyck, Rita Hayworth, Glenn Ford and James Stewart.
THE GREAT MOVIE STAR-MAKER
It proves what Harry always said, ‘Give the public what they want and they’ll come out for it.'
1891 HARRY COHN'S BIRTH
Harry Cohn was born in New York City on July 23, 1891 the son of Joe and Bella Cohn. He went to work before he finished grammar school, going into active show business at the age of fourteen as a choir singer in a New York show. Young Harry followed this with a wide array of jobs, including song-plugging, working as a shipping clerk for a music publishing house, selling furs and even trying his hand at pool hustling.
1908 JACK COHN JOINS THE MOTION PICTURE BUSINESS
Harry’s brother Jack joined film pioneer Carl Laemmle’s Independent Motion Picture Company in 1908, first working in the laboratory and later as a production manager learning the ins and outs of the motion picture business.
1910 HARRY COHN'S FIRST BUSINESS
In 1910, at the age of nineteen and having teamed up with songwriter Harry Ruby in a short-lived vaudeville act, Harry ran his own music publishing business until he joined the Army. Just before World War I, Harry, discharged from the service, did some minor work in the early motion picture industry as a singer.
1913 UNIVERSAL WEEKLY'S FIRST FILM
By 1913 Jack had become the editor of the Universal Weekly newsreel and later, its producer. Jack had a friend working at Universal named Joe Brandt and they independently produced a film in 1913, TRAFFIC IN SOULS, released by Universal as its first feature film. Despite its lengthy running time, TRAFFIC IN SOULS, a film about the white slave trade, became a sensation.
1918 HARRY COHN JOINS THE FILM BUSINESS
In 1918 Harry joined his successful brother at Universal and became the private secretary to Carl Laemmle.
1919 THE BIRTH OF CBC
A year later, Harry, Jack and Joe Brandt had formed their own production and distribution company CBC (Cohn-Brandt-Cohn) Films Sales Corportation. Leaving Joe and Jack in New York to oversee the business, Harry moved operations west to open a studio and soon began production. The new company rented space in several parts of Los Angeles before settling in at Poverty Row at Gower Street and Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood. After buying the rights to the famous and popular comic strip, The Hallroom Boys, CBC signed a production deal with the National Film Company which would produce the filmed series for them, with Harry as the production supervisor of the series.
1920 SCREEN SNAPSHOTS
At the same time, in 1920, CBC filmed a series called SCREEN SNAPSHOTS, a popular short which showed informal glimpses of the company’s stars at play and at home.
1922 CBC'S FIRST FILM
By 1922 Harry was supervising other independent productions for distribution by CBC and soon after, produced CBC’s first feature film, the lucrative MORE TO BE PITIED THAN SCORNED, which solidified the company’s vision for its future.
1924 CBC BECOMES COLUMBIA PICTURES CORPORATION
In January of 1924, CBC was incorporated as Columbia Pictures Corporation with Jack Cohn as head of sales and Harry Cohn as the head of production. In the following year, Harry began to purchase other small studios in the vicinity creating one large studio lot. For the next eight years, Harry’s smart business acumen and ability to spot talent greatly influenced the quality of Columbia’s productions and allowed Harry to fulfill his aspirations of building Columbia into a studio that could compete with the majors.
1930 FRANK CAPRA'S MAGIC TOUCH
Harry’s gift for finding the best writers, producers, directors and actors to work on his productions was well known in Hollywood. A prime example of this was the hiring of Frank Capra who made several profitable and crowd-pleasing films for Columbia which would go on to become some of the studio’s “classics.” He groomed numerous actors who ultimately became some of the biggest stars of the day, including Barbara Stanwyck, James Stewart, Gary Cooper, Irene Dunne, Robert Montgomery, Rosalind Russell, Broderick Crawford, Glenn Ford, Judy Holliday the Three Stooges, and Rita Hayworth.
1932 HARRY COHN BECOMES PRESIDENT OF COLUMBIA PICTURES
By 1932 Harry had purchased Joe Brandt’s interest in the company and Harry finally became president of Columbia Pictures, solidifying his stature as one of the great Hollywood moguls. Two years later, Harry won his first Oscar® for Best Picture with IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT, which earned five Academy Awards® that year.
1940's COLLECTING OSCARS®
Harry’s savvy leadership continued to be evident by the many Oscars® that were garnered for Columbia under his watchful eye and by the number of all-time great films that still endure today, such as FROM HERE TO ETERNITY, ON THE WATERFRONT, YOU CAN'T TAKE IT WITH YOU, MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON, BORN YESTERDAY, HERE COMES MR. JORDAN, COVER GIRL, THE JOLSON STORY, and THE BRIDGE OVER THE RIVER KWAI.
1950's THE MOST PROFITABLE STUDIO IN HOLLYWOOD
Providing a supportive environment for Harry’s talent to do their best work kept filmmakers like Capra coming back to the studio to work again and again, making Columbia the most profitable studio in Hollywood by the 1950’s. Because of Harry’s characteristic bluster and dominance over his studio and his staff, much of Columbia’s lore is about him. He was both disliked and loved, and ran the studio with an iron hand. His offices were equipped with listening devices that were hidden predominantly in the writers building so he could hear what his writers were discussing; since he hand-picked the writers himself, he wanted to make sure they were working on projects that he initiated.
1958 HARRY COHN'S LEGACY
Harry Cohn passed away just before the Academy Awards® ceremony in February 1958, three years after his brother Jack. Over 2,000 people attended his funeral held on Stages 12 and 14 of the Columbia lot at Sunset and Gower. The Columbia Lady logo was draped near the casket. Although one of the most controversial of the Hollywood studio moguls, even Harry’s detractors couldn’t help but acknowledge his success, prompting the now famous quote by comedian Red Skelton at Harry’s funeral, “It proves what Harry always said, ‘Give the public what they want and they’ll come out for it.’ - Marc Wanamaker