In the early 20th century, two wily sons of Polish emigrants founded a film sales company which would eventually grow to become one of Hollywood’s biggest studios, due in no small part to its founders’ keen judge of talent and near-fanatical adherence to business policies that later became industry practice, writes Tom McParland.
My earliest movies were seen at thrupenny afternoon matinees in St. Ida the Simple’s Parochial Hall. They were inevitably budget, forgettable, black-and-white 16mm re-prints and deemed ‘suitable for good Catholic audiences’. In short, unsuitable for children. Even as a ten-year old, I considered the parish committed daylight robbery on us.
But Belfast in those pre-TV days – especially on Sundays when everything except bigotry was restricted – Catholics would’ve watched an X-ray series about granny’s arthritic hip rather than nothing.
But despite the boredom and disruption of those monochrome matinees, one studio name – Columbia – stood out. Its silently proclaimed 1919 logo CBC FILM SALES CORPORATION comprised the initials of its co-founders Harry Cohn, Joe Brandt and Jack Cohn.
From 1927 CBC became a Statue of Liberty-like girl holding aloft a glistening light shedding perpetual stars over the word Columbia. As Caitlín Ní Uallacháin represented the female personification of Ireland, so Columbia represented the American equivalent, remaining largely unchanged from 1936 despite takeovers by Coca-Cola and Sony in 1991 with the logo becoming a blue, semi-circular sun-glow yet always reverting to a Columbian Miss.
In the beginning God created Harry Cohn in New York in 1891, although his creation was so boorish, truculent and loathsome, that Harry would dispute the very order of this creation. Sons of Polish émigré, Harry and his brother Jack and Columbia Pictures became entwined. Perhaps the fact that each Cohn sibling harboured resentment over the other’s success was the necessary propellant in the tricky business that was Hollywood.
Jack Cohn was involved in Carl Laemmle’s first movie Traffic in Souls (1913). Cost: $57,000. Return: $450,000. Result: Universal Pictures. Harry was his brother’s shadow as first a lowly clerk then song plugger (Cowboy Jimmy Joe). Harry Cohn’s relatively modest song plugging success greased the skids for Jack to recommend him for a Universal job at age 27. Jack also recommended Universal to employ Joe Brandt, an advertising attorney. Jack, Joe Brandt and Harry Cohn later in 1914 formed their own movie company CBC.
As its original name suggested CBC Film Sales was a distributor of short subjects: one reel Snapshots (Hollywood stars at home), small two-reel comedies (Bowery Boys) and Star Ranch westerns. CBC’s first silent feature-length movie, the 58-minute More to Be Pitied Than Scorned was released on August 20th 1922.
By 1923 CBC – short subject distributor – had earned the longer and even unlovlier epithet ‘corned beef and cabbage’. Harry would explode into a rage whenever he heard this.
Jack went back to New York to oversee distribution and financing of CBC productions there. In Hollywood, by design or opportunity, Harry worked out of the old Balshofer Studio on Hollywood Boulevard, gradually creating his own studio by renting the Independent Studios lot on Sunset and Gower. This was the heart of ‘poverty row’, so-called because it was an area of low-budget production companies and fly-by-night hucksters who ground out ultra-cheap westerns hoping to make a few bucks.