Last Friday at the Palace Theatre Leslie Howard’s latest picture, “The Lady Is Willing,” was shown for the first time. The occasion was not in itself of special moment, but as Columbia Pictures produced the film, it gives me a long-delayed chance to tell you something about the Two Cohn’s who own and control that organization.
The Cohn brothers, Jack and Harry, two short, thick-set, plain-spoken, plain-looking, blunt Jewish gentlemen who have passed the first flush of exuberant youth, have enjoyed an amazing success in the motion picture industry. While other companies were expanding, building theatres, signing actors and directors to long-term expensive contracts, floating huge bond issues which had an annoying way of maturing at crucial times, the Cohn boys went their way quietly effectively and profitably.
How they were able to weather the depression and how they have managed to make money is too long a story to be told in one sitting. It is sufficient to point out one idea that saved their company untold sums of money and yet permitted them to produce films starring the leading players and directors in the industry.
Their method was obvious but clever. A scenario would come to the Columbia offices. One of the roles would call for the acting of a star working for another company. The Cohn boys would make inquiries and find out that the star in question was under contract. If the player were idle one of the boys would approach the head of the rival company and ask to borrow the star for one picture. Usually they got what they wanted. In this way they were able to keep their payroll down and yet produce “name” pictures. The same thing was done with directors. The Cohns had another virtue, they were patient. If the star or director wanted was busy, the boys were willing to wait. Another method they followed was to hire actors whose options had not as yet been taken up. The actor waiting between contracts would often be willing to work cheaply in order that his or her name would be kept before the public.
Harry and Jack Cohn are New York boys who were brought up within walking distance of Broadway. Their first successful venture into the film business was the production of a series of shorts known as “The Hall Room Boys,” based on the famous script of a decade ago. Their progress, although not meteoric, has been steady, and today they control one of the major studios in California. There should be some moral to this story, but I have been unable to find it. No one has ever accused the Cohns of intellectual brilliancy or of possessing a highly-developed esthetic sense. Perhaps they believe that business is business and art doesn’t pay Anyway, their formula seems to work.
Radio does not come within the scope of this column and I am undoubtedly poaching a little in introducing this note, but I should like to raise a voice in violent protest against the length of advertising matter permitted in a radio program. I believe that the radio is, in most of its moments, entertaining and enjoyable. Program directors have a sound idea of what people like and they employ actors who can deliver. But the sponsors (the fellows who pay for the time), insist upon overburdening listeners with praise of their product. A comparatively new program advertising a Milwaukee beer is a perfect example. The master of ceremonies, the comedians, the tenor, orchestra and chorus, all blend perfectly, but just as soon as you begin to enjoy the program, along comes a “hick” voice and in sickening and dulcet tones interjects a plea for this beer. Not satisfied, the announcer then follows with more blah about the product. I don’t know what your reaction is to this, but in my home this particular beer is now tabooed.