The Columbia Story, In Brief

Today we use the occasion of Harry Cohn’s birthday (1891-1958) to fill in a gap in our storytelling. Alone among the Big 8 Classic Hollywood Studios, we haven’t yet got ’round to telling about the origins of Columbia Pictures, though we have talked a bit about its shorts division, which was a leader in the comedy field, here and here.

Most of the other studios’ stories gained priority through a connection of some sort to vaudeville and/or the amusement business. William Fox was first; followed by Jesse Lasky, Adolph Zukor, and Cecil B. DeMille of Paramount. MGM is told piecemeal through the various players whose enterprises evolved and merged to complete the eventual organization: Marcus Loew, Sam Goldwyn, Louis B. Mayer, the Schenck Brothers, and Irving Thalberg. We wrote about the founding of United Artists on its centennial. RKO gobbled up vaudeville’s Keith circuit in a takeover engineered by Joe Kennedy. And we have also written about the Warner Brothers, as well as Universal Founder Carl Laemmle.

The latter studio provides a natural segue to a discussion of Columbia, for it is essentially its parent company. And I was delighted to learn that Harry Cohn also has a more relevant background than I previously supposed. He had performed in vaudeville in an act with Harry Ruby, and had also been a song plugger in vaudeville and a chorus boy in musicals. His older brother Jack Cohn (1889-1956), started out as an errand boy at an advertising firm prior to getting a job at Laemmle’s IMP in 1908, staying with the firm when Universal was formed in 1912. He worked his way up to editor and eventually producer, with Harry joining the firm as well. In 1919 the brothers formed the Cohn-Brandt-Cohn Film Sales Corporation along with Universal employee Joe Brandt, a lawyer with a background in advertising, who had previously worked for publications like Billboard and The Dramatic Mirror. It evolved into Columbia in 1924.

Columbia was the smallest of the Big Eight, but, to my mind, it has the strongest brand. That Goddess image is indelible (I’ve even borrowed it myself). It makes sense that these guys came from Universal, for the spinning globe of the mother studio comes close to it in effectiveness. Contrary to what you might expect, Columbia Pictures was unaffiliated with Columbia Records or the later Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS), or the Columbia Burlesque Wheel, for that matter.

The corporate culture at Columbia was very different from Universal’s. While Carl Laemmle was widely loved as the biggest pussycat among the moguls, the Cohns were widely hated as the biggest SOBs. They were penny pinchers who kept only a few big stars on contract, preferring to borrow actors from the other major studios. Their top director, as most readers undoubtedly know, was Frank Capra, whose hit movies helped keep the studio afloat. In addition to Capra’s films and the shorts division under Jules White, the studio was known for B movie serials like Superman, Batman, Mandrake the Magician et al, and film series like Blondie, Boston Blackie, etc. Their subsidiary brand Screen Gems, which originally produced cartoons, became the television arm in later years. It’s a name many of us associate with The Monkees, Bewitched, I Dream of Jeannie, and other hit tv shows of the 1960s.

Like all of the big movie studios, Columbia’s corporate history gets complicated and convoluted in the late 20th century as it got swallowed by various conglomerates, culminating with Sony in 1989. That’s for others to tell. My eyes glaze over just thinking about it.

For more on vaudeville, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, and for more on early screen history Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.