Harry Cohn

Harry Cohn (July 23, 1891 – February 27, 1958) was a co-founder, president, and production director of Columbia Pictures Corporation.[1]

Harry Cohn
Harry Cohn Oscar 1938 cropped (cropped).jpg
Harry Cohn, circa 1938
Born(1891-07-23)July 23, 1891
DiedFebruary 27, 1958(1958-02-27) (aged 66)
OccupationFilm producer and production director of Columbia Pictures Corporation
Years active1919–1958
Rose Barker
(m. 1923; div. 1941)

(m. 1941)
RelativesJack Cohn (brother)
Leonore Annenberg (niece)

Life and careerEdit

Cohn was born to a working-class Jewish family in New York City.[2] His father, Joseph Cohen, was a tailor from Germany, and his mother, Bella Joseph, was from Pale of Settlement, Russian Empire.[3][4] He left school early and had a variety of jobs, including chorus boy, fur salesman, pool hustler, shipping clerk, streetcar conductor and song plugger for a sheet music printer.[5][6] He also appeared in a vaudeville act with Harry Ruby.[6]

He entered the film industry when he got a job with Independent Moving Pictures (which had recently merged to become part of Universal Film Manufacturing Company), where his elder brother, Jack Cohn, was already employed. The brothers made their first film there, Traffic in Souls.[7] Cohn became personal secretary to Universal president, Carl Laemmle.[6]

In 1919, Cohn joined his brother and fellow IMP employee Joe Brandt, to found CBC Film Sales Corporation.[7] The initials officially stood for Cohn, Brandt, and Cohn, but Hollywood wags noted the company's low-budget, low-class efforts and nicknamed CBC "Corned Beef and Cabbage." Harry Cohn managed the company's film production in Hollywood, while his brother managed its finances from New York. The relationship between the two brothers was not always good, and Brandt, finding the partnership stressful, eventually sold his third of the company to Harry, who took over as president, by which time the firm had been renamed Columbia Pictures Corporation.

Most of Columbia's early work was action fare starring rock-jawed leading man Jack Holt. Columbia was unable to shake off its stigma as a Poverty Row studio until 1934, when director Frank Capra's Columbia comedy It Happened One Night swept the Academy Awards. Exhibitors who formerly wouldn't touch Columbia product became steady customers. As a horizontally integrated company that only controlled production and distribution, Columbia had been at the mercy of theater owners. Columbia expanded its scope to offer moviegoers a regular program of economically made features, short subjects, serials, travelogues, sports reels, and cartoons. Columbia released a few "class" productions each year (Lost Horizon, Holiday, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, The Jolson Story, Gilda, All the King's Men, etc.), but depended on its popular "budget" productions to keep the company solvent. During Cohn's tenure, the studio always turned a profit.

Cohn did not build a stable of movie stars like other studios. Instead, he generally signed actors who usually worked for more expensive studios (Wheeler & Woolsey, Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn, Mae West, Humphrey Bogart, Dorothy Lamour, Mickey Rooney, Chester Morris, Warren William, Warner Baxter, Sabu, Gloria Jean, Margaret O'Brien, etc.) to attract a pre-sold audience. Columbia's own stars generally rose from the ranks of small-part actors and featured players (Jean Arthur, Rita Hayworth, Larry Parks, Julie Bishop, Lloyd Bridges, Bruce Bennett, Jock Mahoney, etc.). Some of Columbia's producers and directors also graduated from lesser positions as actors, writers, musicians, and assistant directors.

Cohn was known for his autocratic and intimidating management style. When he took over as Columbia's president, he remained production chief as well, thus concentrating enormous power in his hands. He respected talent above any personal attribute, but he made sure his employees knew who was boss. Writer Ben Hecht referred to him as "White Fang." An employee of Columbia called him "as absolute a monarch as Hollywood ever knew." It was said "he had listening devices on all sound stages and could tune in any conversation on the set, then boom in over a loudspeaker if he heard anything that displeased him." Throughout his tenure, his most popular moniker was "King Cohn."

Moe Howard of the Three Stooges recalled that Cohn was "a real Jekyll-and-Hyde-type guy... socially, he could be very charming." Cohn was known to scream and curse at actors and directors in his office all afternoon, and greet them cordially at a dinner party that evening. There is some suggestion that Cohn deliberately cultivated his reputation as a tyrant, either to motivate his employees or simply because it increased his control of the studio. Cohn is said to have kept a signed photograph of Benito Mussolini, whom he met in Italy in 1933, on his desk until the beginning of World War II. (Columbia produced the documentary Mussolini Speaks in 1933, narrated by Lowell Thomas). Cohn also had a number of ties to organized crime. He had a long-standing friendship with Chicago mobster John Roselli, and New Jersey mob boss Abner Zwillman was the source of the loan that allowed Cohn to buy out his partner Brandt. Cohn's brash, loud, intimidating style has become Hollywood legend and was reportedly portrayed in various movies. The characters played by Broderick Crawford in All The King's Men (1949) and Born Yesterday (1950), both Columbia pictures, are allegedly based on Cohn, as is Jack Woltz, a movie mogul who appears in The Godfather (1972).

In his own way, Harry Cohn was sentimental about certain professional matters. He remembered the valuable contributions of Jack Holt during Columbia's struggling years, and kept him under contract until 1941. Cohn hired the Three Stooges in 1934 and, according to Stooge Larry Fine, "he thought we brought him luck." Cohn kept the Stooges on his payroll until the end of 1957. Cohn was fond of what he termed "those lousy little 'B' pictures," and kept making them, along with two-reel comedies and serials, after other studios had abandoned them.

According to biographer Michael Fleming, Cohn forced Curly Howard of the Stooges to keep working after suffering a series of minor strokes, which possibly contributed to a further deterioration of Howard's health and his eventual retirement and early death, though some people speculated that this was not true.[8]

Personal lifeEdit

Cohn expected, or at least asked for, sex from female stars in exchange for employment.[9][10] Harry Cohn's relationship with Rita Hayworth was fraught with aggravation. The biography If This Was Happiness, describes how she refused to sleep with Cohn and how this angered him.[11] However, because Hayworth was such a valuable property Cohn kept her under contract because she made money for him. During the years they worked together, each did their best to irritate the other despite their lengthy work relationship which produced good results. Cohn wanted to groom Mary Castle as Hayworth's successor. When Joan Crawford was subjected to Cohn's advances after signing a three-picture contract with Columbia, she quickly stopped him by saying "Keep it in your pants, Harry. I'm having lunch with Joan and the boys [Cohn's wife and children] tomorrow."[12]

According to writer Joseph McBride, Jean Arthur quit the business because Cohn used to attack actresses.[13]

In a BBC documentary, Sammy Davis Jr - The Kid in the Middle, along with the titular star's episode of TVOne's Unsung Hollywood, it was disclosed that Cohn, in order to end Kim Novak's relationship with a black man, had mobsters threaten Sammy Davis, Jr. with blinding or having his legs broken if he did not marry a black woman within 48 hours.

Cohn was married to Rose Barker from 1923 to 1941, and to actress Joan Perry (1911–1996) from July 1941 until his death in 1958.

His brothers all worked at Columbia. As well as co-founder Jack, the eldest brother Maxwell was a shorts subject producer and Nathan was the New York division manager.[14] Cohn's nephew, Ralph, one of Jack Cohn's three sons, founded Screen Gems.[15] Another of Jack's sons, Robert, was also a Columbia executive.[16] Maxwell's daughter was Leonore "Lee" Cohn Annenberg, the wife of billionaire publishing magnate Walter Annenberg of Philadelphia.


Cohn had been suffering from an enlarged heart and suffered a heart attack while flying back from New York in December 1957 and was told to slow down.[1] In February 1958 he suffered another heart attack at the Arizona Biltmore Hotel in Phoenix, Arizona, shortly after having finished dinner, and died in an ambulance en route to St. Joseph's Hospital.

Cohn's well-attended funeral on stage 12 of the Columbia lot[1] was the subject of the famous (perhaps apocryphal) quote attributed to Red Skelton: "It proves what Harry always said: Give the public what they want and they'll come out for it."[17] He is interred in the Hollywood Forever Cemetery in Hollywood.

Media portrayalEdit

Cohn was portrayed by Eric Roberts in the 2018 film Frank & Ava.[18][19]


  1. ^ a b c "Death Strikes 'Last of Studio Czars'". Variety. March 5, 1958. p. 4. Retrieved January 10, 2021 – via Archive.org.
  2. ^ Actors Directors from Germany, Austria, Switzerland – German-Hollywood Connection Archived July 20, 2007, at the Wayback Machine
  3. ^ Russo, Gus (December 12, 2008). Supermob: How Sidney Korshak and His Criminal Associates Became America's Hidden Power Brokers. Bloomsbury Publishing USA. ISBN 9781596918986. Retrieved August 13, 2017.
  4. ^ Dick, Bernard F. The Merchant Prince of Poverty Row: Harry Cohn of Columbia Pictures. University Press of Kentucky. ISBN 0813133548. Retrieved August 13, 2017.
  5. ^ Thomas, Bob (1967). King Cohn - The Life and Times of Harry Cohn. G. P. Putnam's Sons. p. 96. ISBN 978-1893224070.
  6. ^ a b c Katz, Ephraim; Fred Klein; Ronald Dean Nolan (1998). The International Film Encyclopedia (3rd ed.). New York: Harper Collins. p. 273. ISBN 0-333-74037-8.
  7. ^ a b "Jack Cohn Dead; Film Pioneer, 67". The New York Times. December 10, 1956. p. 31. Retrieved January 10, 2021.
  8. ^ Fleming, Michael (2002) [1999]. The Three Stooges: An Illustrated History, From Amalgamated Morons to American Icons. New York: Broadway Publishing. p. 49. ISBN 0-7679-0556-3.
  9. ^ Kashner, Sam. "The Forbidden Love of Kim Novak and Sammy Davis, Jr". Vanity Fair (March 1999). Novak even managed to evade Cohn’s casting couch—considered the most notorious in Hollywood.
  10. ^ Blakemore, Erin (October 1, 2017). "This Tinseltown Tyrant Used Sexual Exploitation to Build a Hollywood Empire". HISTORY. Retrieved December 5, 2019. As the head of Columbia Pictures from 1919 to 1958, Cohn expected sex in exchange for a chance at stardom. And as one of the most influential figures in Tinseltown, he usually got it.
  11. ^ Braudy, Susan (November 19, 1989). "What We Have Here is a Very Sad Story". The New York Times. Retrieved April 8, 2015. According to Ms. Leaming, Harry Cohn... 'developed an obsession' with the beautiful young woman. But in a rare, explicit show of strength, Hayworth refused her husband's order to sleep with 'the notoriously crude movie mogul.'
  12. ^ Blottner, Gene (December 28, 2011). Columbia Pictures Movie Series, 1926-1955: The Harry Cohn Years. McFarland. p. 7. ISBN 9780786486724.
  13. ^ http://www.danspapers.com/2017/12/danny-peary-two-cheers-for-hollywood-joseph-mcbride/
  14. ^ "Maxwell Cohn Rites Held In New York". Daily Variety. January 6, 1948. p. 1.
  15. ^ "Screen gems has new iron in fire" (PDF). Broadcasting. 56 (15): 76. April 13, 1959. Retrieved September 17, 2020.
  16. ^ "Robert Cohn as Key Figure In Col Pictures Aftermath Of Brother Ralph's Passing". Variety. August 5, 1959. p. 5. Retrieved January 10, 2021 – via Archive.org.
  17. ^ https://quoteinvestigator.com/2014/12/06/want/. Retrieved October 28, 2019.
  18. ^ Paine, Herbert (March 3, 2018). "BWW Review: FRANK & AVA ~ An Affair To Remember". BroadwayWorld. Retrieved December 19, 2020.
  19. ^ Farber, Stephen (December 6, 2018). "'Frank & Ava': Film Review". The Hollywood Reporter. Retrieved December 19, 2020.


  • Bob Thomas, King Cohn
  • Bernard F. Dick, The Merchant Prince of Poverty Row

External linksEdit