King Cohn: The Life and Times of Harry Cohn, written by the late Bob Thomas, is the definitive portrait of the Columbia Pictures co-founder.
First published in 1967, the book was reprinted by New Millennium Press in 2000. Thomas spoke to 250 plus people in gathering comments and anecdotes about the late Cohn. Interestingly enough, both Columbia and Warner Brothers had a pair of brothers named Harry and Jack. Maybe it’s just a mere coincidence but both pairs of brothers had a sibling rivalry. No, this isn’t the most interesting tidbit you’ll learn but I found this fact about the Golden Age to be very fascinating.
King Cohn served as my third quarantine book following a pair of books on Warner Bros. It’s fascinating to learn about this part of film history. I admit to not being as well-learned on the time period as I would have liked. Where Jack L. Warner had his problems, Harry Cohn ran Columbia Pictures like a dictator. When Joe Brandt decided to retire as studio president, Jack Cohn wanted the job. Harry, who was serving as the studio’s head of production, decided he wanted the power for himself! The power he got–right out of his brother’s hands.
After getting a start in vaudeville, Cohn would eventually start working for Carl Laemmle’s studio in Universal City. This was in 1918. The two Cohn Brothers and Brandt would leave to form the C.B.C Film Sales Company. Come a few short years later, Columbia Pictures would be incorporated on January 10, 1924. The studio would move from Sunset and Gower to the old MGM lot over the years.
It was Cohn’s attitude that led so many people to leave Columbia Pictures–whether or not it was of their own accord. Frank Capra left. He later came back but the relationship wasn’t the same. Cohn argued that On the Waterfront be shot on the Hollywood lot. Sam Spiegel, the film’s producer, insisted that the film be shot on location on the East Coast.
Because Bob Thomas spoke to so many people, we have an idea of how much power Cohn owned at the studio. He could be so controlling that actors refused to perform under contract. Some actors didn’t so much in as much as they got barred from working at the studio. Some actors would get loaned out to another studio where they were paid better while suffering from a lower pay at Columbia.
Harry Cohn may not have been the nicest guy but King Cohn: The Life and Times of Harry Cohn is a worthy bio of a studio mogul that rarely spoke with the press.