Thursday, February 13, 2014

Harry Cohn-You had to stand in a long line to hate him


It's Red Skelton’s quip on the death of Harry Cohn that is best remembered. Hearing that most of Hollywood turned out for the service, Skelton noted, “Well, it only goes to show you that if you give the people what they want, they’ll come out for it."

Ed here: I  understand why people hated Harry Cohn. The Cohen Brothers had a great time massacring him in "Barton Finke." He was a true blue bastard. But he sure made great copy.


I 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.
I knew that Columbia began as a Poverty Row studio, but I did not realize that it never moved out of Poverty Row. Instead, it gradually swallowed up the small studios on Beachwood between Sunset Blvd. and Fountain. The name was changed to Columbia in 1924. Prior to this it was called C.B.C. Film Sales, which stood for (Jack) Cohn, (Joseph) Brandt, and (Harry) Cohn. Brandt was a long-time friend from New York City. Harry bought out Brandt’s shares in 1932. The original studio space still exists at this address, though it is now called Sunset-Gower Studios.
A few months ago, I wrote about a romantic comedy called If You Could Only Cook. One of my knowledgeable readers commented that the film was erroneously attributed to Columbia’s powerhouse director, Frank Capra, by the studio’s marketing department in England. They used Capra’s name to promote the film, and Capra ended his relationship with Columbia over the matter. I discovered there was more to the story, at least according to Thomas. Capra’s films had pulled Columbia out of Poverty Row and made the studio a major player in the industry. But, when Capra latched onto his dream project, Lost Horizon, in the mid-1930s, the experience did not go as smoothly as his previous films. The first previews for Lost Horizon were a disaster, because the audience laughed inappropriately at what Capra had intended to be serious scenes. His solution was to cut the first two reels, which he personally threw in the Columbia incinerator. Lost Horizon became a critical and popular success, but the studio did not make as much money the year the film was released as it had in the past. Columbia’s bankers back east pressured Cohn about the loss of revenue, and his response was not to pay Capra his very high salary until he started another film. The director was understandably angered over this arbitrary condition regarding his salary. When the mistake with If You Could Only Cook occurred, he told his lawyer to use it to get him out of his contract with Columbia.

In the late 1940s, Fred Karger brought Marilyn Monroe to Cohn’s office to sing for him, because she was about to appear in the musical Ladies of the Chorus. She was so nervous she called her Christian Science practitioner for moral support. The normally gruff and coarse Harry Cohn softened when he heard that because someone close to him had been involved with Christian Science. He put Monroe under contract for six months but then dismissed her after her option was up, because, “She can’t act.”

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