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The Merchant Prince of Poverty Row

The Merchant Prince of Poverty Row: Harry Cohn of Columbia Pictures

Copyright Date: 1993
Edition: 1
Pages: 248
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  • Book Info
    The Merchant Prince of Poverty Row
    Book Description:

    Ben Hecht called him "White Fang," and director Charles Vidor took him to court for verbal abuse. The image of Harry Cohn as vulgarian is such a part of Hollywood lore that it is hard to believe there were other Harry Cohns: the only studio president who was also head of production; the ex-song plugger who scrutinized scripts and grilled writers at story conferences; a man who could look at actresses as either "broads" or goddesses. Drawing on personal interviews as well as previously unstudied source material (conference notes, memos, and especially the teletypes between Harry and his brother Jack), Bernard Dick offers a radically different portrait of the man who ran Columbia Pictures -- and who "had to be boss" -- from 1932 to 1958.

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-4753-6
    Subjects: History, Performing Arts

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-v)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. vi-vi)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-5)

    Of all the studio heads of Hollywood’s Golden Age, Harry Cohn (1891-1958) was the least typical. Compared to MGM’s Louis Mayer, Harry was a late convert to film. He was almost thirty when he began to take the medium seriously; by the time he became president of Columbia in 1932, he was forty and had been in the business for thirteen years. By contrast, Louis Mayer bought his first movie house in 1907, when he was twenty-two, opened a second four years later, became secretary of Metro Pictures at thirty, and at thirty-nine gave his surname to Metro-Goldwyn, becoming vice-president...

  5. 1 Two Persons in One God
    (pp. 6-15)

    An eminent screenwriter and longtime associate of Harry Cohn admits to never having heard him speak obscenely around women. Another writer and an equally reliable source remembers how Harry, in the presence of some male executives, asked a young actress if, to put it euphemistically (which Harry did not), her reputation as Hollywood’s foremost exponent of fellatio was based on fact. What disturbed the writer about an incident that happened in the 1940s was the intentional combination of gaucheness and perversity. The remark was supposed to be both cruel and shocking; it was directed at a woman, or, as Harry...

  6. 2 From Yorkville to Broadway
    (pp. 16-28)

    On the northwest corner of East 88th Street and First Avenue in New York stands a five-story apartment house built in the 1880s. Today the roof is crowned with a television antenna, but the building is still a walkup; and its Queen Anne exterior—red brick with sandstone windowsills—has been preserved, along with such other characteristic features as shaped gables and a combination of straight and round-arched windows. In 1891 it was probably not an address the upwardly mobile coveted, but eight years later the street received an impressive addition: the Church of the Holy Trinity, built in the...

  7. Illustrations
    (pp. None)
  8. 3 From Broadway to Hollywood
    (pp. 29-57)

    There was nothing altruistic about Harry’s decision to make movies. It was certainly not to give the world “pieces of time,” as Cobb (Brian Keith), the raffish moviemaker of Peter Bogdanovich’sNickelodeon(1975), described film’s unique gift to humankind. Yet Harry achieved a place in film history through a combination of circumstances that adds one more category to Shakespeare’s trio of those born great, those who achieve greatness, and those who have it thrust upon them—namely, those who thrust it upon themselves. Harry understood that while fortune may be incalculable, the incalculable can become the inevitable when a chance...

  9. 4 The Patriarch
    (pp. 58-70)

    Columbia conformed to the studio model of a pyramid with a strong base of actors, directors, and writers; executives as the triangular faces; and, at the vertex, the studio head. There is no other way to describe Mayer, Zanuck, and Harry: they were heads of studios but, except for Harry, never presidents. They were like the great newspaper publishers or directors of symphony orchestras who set the tone for the group and were therefore responsible for its success or failure. Just as the members of an organization think of themselves as a family, so too do studio workers. The moguls...

  10. 5 The Boss
    (pp. 71-88)

    “He had to be boss.”¹ That is how Evelyn Keyes characterized Harry in 1990, forty years after his accusations of promiscuity became so frequent that she could no longer bear to be at the studio to which she came in 1940.² She left Columbia in 1951 even though she had to pay the studio 20 percent of her earnings for the duration of her contract. As she recalled the 1949-51 period, when Harry accused her of having sex with every man she dated, she realized those tantrums were his pathetic way of expressing love: “What he was really doing was...

  11. 6 CapraCohn
    (pp. 89-118)

    If the 1930s were the American film’s golden age, much of the splendor could be credited to writers, who, while they may have scoffed at “Hollywood,” nevertheless succeeded in making movies literate. Because he lacked an education, Sam Goldwyn held writers in high esteem—higher certainly than Louis Mayer did. Goldwyn, in fact, committed the Goldwyn Corporation to a “scripts first” policy in 1919 with the formation of Eminent Authors, a group of writers (including Rupert Hughes, Mary Roberts Rinehart, and Rex Beach) who gave Goldwyn the movie rights to anything they wrote under contract. While the “eminent authors” were...

  12. 7 Harry’s Three P’s
    (pp. 119-143)

    Traditionally, a production chief’s primary interest was product—the studio’s films; the president’s, profit. As Columbia’s production head and president, Harry had to be concerned with both. A dual commitment to quality and cost effectiveness led to personalized contracts and tailor-made deals. In Hollywood, it has always been a matter of who one is and where one is on the ladder of success; the location of the rung determines the nature of the arrangement. With independent producers, there was a third consideration: what percentage of the profits would accrue to the studio and how soon they would be realized.


  13. Illustrations
    (pp. None)
  14. 8 Harry and the Production Code
    (pp. 144-156)

    Anyone who sawJune Bride(1948) at the time of its release might have asked, “How did they get away with it?” “They” were the studio—in this case, Warners; “it” was a scene between Bette Davis and Mary Wickes involving a woman’s bust that they would like to remove or at least hide. (They would prefer to paint it black, except that the woman is “attached” to it). The woman’s husband listens in shock; what he doesn’t realize is that they are talking about a bust that his wife keeps on the mantle.

    Most moviegoers in 1948—and for...

  15. 9 Harry’s Hierarchy
    (pp. 157-180)

    By the time the 1930s ended, Harry had established Columbia’s priorities in terms of kinds of films and their order of importance. Thus in 1939 he was able to issue a policy statement, indicating that he had a clear image of the studio and its future.¹ Although Capra would be leaving Columbia in the fall of 1939, he had made Harry so conscious of the director’s role that it was included in the policy statement: “The company’s policy will lay stress, as never before, on the importance of ‘director names.”’ Readers of fan magazines soon discovered that directors’ names in...

  16. 10 Death and Transfiguration
    (pp. 181-192)

    By the end of the 1940s, Harry saw Columbia’s status as a major studio ensured, even though some of its films had not acquired the cachet of aMeet Me in St. Louis(MGM),Citizen Kane(RKO), orCasablanca(Warners). Still,Here Comes Mr. JordanandThe Talk of the Townrepresented a high level of filmmaking;The Jolson Storyendeared itself to postwar audiences;Gildadefined the Rita Hayworth persona for future generations.

    If Columbia’s films of the 1940s seem minor in comparison to those of, say, Fox or MGM, it is because they are less familiar. That situation,...

  17. Appendix A. Eulogy for Harry Cohn, by Clifford Odets
    (pp. 193-194)
  18. Appendix B. The Columbia Empire on the Eve of Harry Cohn’s Death
    (pp. 195-198)
  19. Notes
    (pp. 199-207)
  20. Bibliographical Essay
    (pp. 208-211)
  21. Index
    (pp. 212-218)