Thursday, 21 April 2011

City of Angels: The Studios, Part 1: Columbia

Last year, I ran a series on Los Angeles and how it became the film capital of the world. The series included postings on Santa Monica, Hollywood, Beverly Hills and Downtown LA and a detailed look into Hollywood Boulevard, which is Hollywood's main artery and lnked, in more than just one way, to the birth and the history of American Film.

You can find all articles of that series if you go to archives > 2010 > and search for City of Angels.

What follows is the continuation that series, discussing the hubs of the movie capital: The studios, starting with Columbia.


What today is called the Sunset & Gower studios - located, as the name suggests, on the corner of Sunset Blvd. and Gower Street - used to be the headquarters of Columbia Pictures.

Founded in 1924, Columbia Pictures emerged from the CBC (Cohn-Brandt-Cohn) Film Sales Company, headed by Jack and Harry Cohn and their business partner Joe Brandt, all three having previously worked for Carl Laemmle’s Universal. Setting up shop on Sunset and Gower, Harry became head of the studio, while his brother, Jack, joined by Joe Brandt, operated from New York, pulling the business strings of the infant company. Known as a so-called poverty row studio, Columbia churned out cheap fare, and the films were forgotten as quickly as they were made.

Unlike its rivals at Paramount, United Artists or MGM, Columbia had very few actors and directors under contract, as Cohn preferred to hire them for one-picture deals.
However, in 1927 Harry signed up a young, ambitious director of Italian descent, Frank Capra, whose biggest dream it was to make films, which is why he didn’t mind being paid a mere $1.000 per picture by the miserly Cohn. Cohn soon realised that by hiring the enthusiastic Capra he was tapping into a gold mine, as it turned out that all of Capra's pictures made money, enabling the studio to expand.

In the meantime, ensuing business conflicts between the head-office in New York and the Los Angeles operated studio prompted Joe Brandt to resign which subsequently made Harry Cohn the Olympian figure at Columbia, being the president as well as the studio boss, making brother Jack the studio’s vice-president.

With Capra producing one hit after another, Columbia gained momentum in 1934 when his film It Happened One Night won all five major awards at that year’s Oscar Ceremony, including Best Picture, turning Columbia into a major studio in a snap. But It Happened One Night also won Oscars for its leads, Claudette Colbert and Clark Gable, who were both on loan-out to Columbia, Colbert being under contract to Paramount and Gable coming from MGM, the latter having been lent to Cohn by Louis B. Mayer with the intention to put him in his place, as Gable had grown far too arrogant for Mayer’s liking. And thus, as a means to punish him, Mayer sent Gable “to Siberia”, as Columbia was referred to, hoping that this would teach him a lesson. Little did Mayer suspect, however, that Gable would win the coveted Oscar, returning from Siberia not only with an ego-boost but also with substantial box-office clout, which the shrewd Mayer quickly turned into hard cash.

Even though a lot has been written about Harry Cohn and his shenanigans - his stinginess, and his office which was reportedly modelled after the Duce’s, whom Cohn greatly admired - fact remains that Cohn was a very committed studio boss, known to give those directors whom he trusted a lot of leeway, and it can be said that both actors as well as directors enjoyed a kind of freedom that a larger studio seldom permitted. As Capra himself put it, “A handshake from Cohn is worth more than a signature from most other Hollywood studio bosses”.

The fact that during the second of the 1930s, Cohn was instrumental in helping newly arrived refugees from Europe find a job in the thriving film community, is also worth mentioning. Having already persuaded Jack Warner and L.B. Mayer to take on some of the writers such as Friedrich Torberg, Lenhard Frank, Alfred Polgar, and Jan Lustig, to name but a few, given Cohn’s poor reputation in Hollywood, Paul Kohner didn’t expect the temperamental Columbia boss to take very well to the idea. However, not to be outdone, Cohn topped Jack Warner and L.B. Mayer, who had agreed to take on four and six writers respectively, by hiring ten writers and offering them a one-year contract ... or so the story goes ...!

Weathering the storms of the Depression, thanks to Frank Capra, who continued his unrivalled reign at Columbia - his ‘Capra-corn’ raking in millions at the box office - until his resignation in 1939. The studio had its first major female contract player when Cohn signed Rita Hayworth in 1938, turning her into Columbia’s major asset and eventually one of Hollywood’s biggest stars. Before Hayworth entered the scene, the comely Jean Arthur had been the studio’s leading lady during the 1930s, but she never took to the autocratic studio-chief, and the two of them often clashed, eventually leading to their separation.

Outside Capra’s films, which garnered Oscar Nominations during the 1930s year after year, Cohn continued hiring directors as well as actors on a one-picture deal basis, landing hits with Leo McCarey’s The Awful Truth (1938), or George Cukor’s Holiday (1939). With Capra gone, and with Rita Hayworth, who was treated with kid-gloves by Cohn, as the studio’s only draw, the 1940s were a rather sorry time for Columbia. Her films, Cover Girl(1941), You Were Never Lovelier (1942), and the sultry film-noir Gilda (1946) became Columbia’s bread and butter, doing well critically as well as commercially.
But even though the year 1950 spelled the end of the studio era and the dawn of the Television Age, things were looking up again when in 1949 Robert Rossen’s All The King’s Men scored an Oscar for Best Picture, and a year later Judy Holiday walked away with the Best Actress Oscar for Columbia’s Born Yesterday, much to the distress of fellow-nominees Bette Davis and Gloria Swanson.

With no theatre chain to speak of, Columbia wasn’t affected by the US Government’s Consent Decree, which forced all the big studios to divest themselves of their film theatres, and, unlike most other studios, ergo was protected from a further slump in business. Also, the astute Cohn, having seen the writing on the TV screen, was one of the first studio bosses to venture into the new medium, creating a subsidiary, Screen Gems, that was operated by Jack’s son, Ralph, and would soon turn out huge profits.

In 1952 Columbia landed another huge hit with From Here to Eternity, which was showered with Oscars, repeated a few years later by Elia Kazan’s masterpiece On The Waterfront, Elia Kazan having already done the studio proud by earning laudatory reviews - and a handful of Academy Awards - for his screen adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire in 1951. Much less praiseworthy than his films was Kazan’s stance during Hollywood’s red baiting. Pressured by the House of Un-American Activities Committee, he famously agreed to name names in order to keep working, which left a great many of his disciples disappointed with the great director’s poor character.

Harry Cohn, the man who had said "I don’t have ulcers – I give them!", was operated for cancer in 1954, his recovery being aggravated by Jack’s death in 1956. But the show went on, and astute business man that he was, Cohn started investing in British films, which would prove highly successful in the years to come, for The Bridge On The River Kwai (1957), as well as a few years later Lawrence Of Arabia (1960) were both lavished with praise and awards alike. An era came to an end when Harry died in 1958, leaving the studio in the hands of Sam Briskin, a former collaborator of Cohn. With Harry Cohn hated as much as he was during his lifetime, there was some well-founded concern that hardly anybody would show up for his funeral, which is why Columbia staff was reportedly requested to attend. However, when the crowd at the then-named Hollywood Memorial Cemetery turned out to be much bigger than expected, a Columbia staff-member famously quipped, “As Cohn always said, Give people what they want, and they come!”

But as with most other studios, whose bosses perished along with the era they created, things would never be the same again at Columbia. And although Cohn sure wasn’t an easy man, he was nevertheless somebody who knew - and loved - the picture business inside out, which is something that cannot be said about the majority of his successors. The year Harry died Columbia was in the reds for the first time in history, but soon got back on its feet again when A Man For All Seasons (1960), and Oliver! (1968) won multiple Oscars which also translated into respectable box-office receipts.

Columbia abandoned its Sunset & Gower headquarters in 1972 to settle permanently in Burbank, adjacent to Warner Brothers. Their former lot was sold to a private bidder who named it somewhat unimaginatively The Sunset And Gower Studios.

In 1973, the year the studio had its worst annual loss, Columbia was saved from bankruptcy by Herbert Allen Jr., who obtained ownership and subsequently named Alan Hirschfield and David Begelman heads of the studio.

After having led Columbia to a couple of hits like Warren Beatty’s Shampoo(1973) and Spielberg’s Close Encounters Of The Third Kind (1978), Begelman was accused of having embezzled large sums of money and subsequently resigned, followed soon after by Hirschfield, details of which can be read in Julia Philips’ no-holds-barred tale, You’ll never Eat Lunch In This Town Again.

Replaced by Frank Price, who came from Universal’s Television Division, he went on to produce a string of profitable and critically acclaimed pictures, like Kramer vs. Kramer (1979), and Tootsie (1982).

The Coca-Cola Company purchased the studio in 1984, picking British producer David Putnam as chairman in 1986, only to be ousted a year later when Columbia merged with Tri-Star, which opted for Dawn Steel instead. It took the Coca-Cola Company three years to realise that selling films is not quite the same as selling soft drinks, and in 1987, disenchanted with toiling in films, they sold Columbia Pictures - an American Institution- to the Sony Corporation of Japan. Sony relocated to Culver City after acquiring the former MGM headquarters and combined both operations - Columbia/ Tristar and Sony Pictures - renaming their alliance, Sony Pictures Corporation.