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The beginning of Columbia Pictures was CBS Films Sales Corporation, which was founded by Harry Cohn, his brother Jack Cohn and Joe Brandt in 1919. The company's reputation was so awful that some joked that "CBS" stood for "Corned Beef and Cabbage." Most of this studio's early films were very low-budget. The beginnings of the studio was a rented building in poverty row in Hollywood on Gower Street. Partner Brandt eventually bought out after an reorganization and for the next thirty years, the Cohn brothers would attempt to run the company, stepping over each other's and the world's feet in the process. Harry Cohn, who lived in California at the time oversaw production while his brother, Jack, was in charge of marketing and distribution in New York.
Columbia itself was unique in the sense that Harry, who was in charge of production was also the president of the company. This studio was the only movie company that did not have corporate overseers on the East Coast budging or for making policy decisions. In a frivolous attempt to change its image, in 1924, Columbia was renamed Columbia Pictures Corporation. Their movies included mostly westerns, serials and low-budget action pictures. But, the studio's reputation was slowly beginning to rise.
Helping Columbia's reputation was a young actor by the name of Frank Capra. During 1927 up until 1939, Capra became Columbia's biggest financial asset. This made Capra push Cohn for bigger budgets and more film material. Hit after hit in the 1930s, Capra directed It Happened One Night, which was the first film to win all five major Oscars. This cemented Columbia's status as a "major" studio. Capra's other films are still highly loved and watched today, which include Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, You Can't Take it With You and the Christmas cult-classic, Its a Wonderful Life.
Harry himself never lost his taste for comedy and at his insistence, The Three Stooges were signed in 1934, after being rejected by MGM Studios. The Howard brothers made over one hundred and forty eight shorts at Columbia between 1934 to 1958. Also in 1934, Columbia began distributing cartoons under the name: Screen Gems. The name itself would be used frequently and in the late 1940s, the name became a television-commercial production company. The little company became a full-fledged television production company. They created shows that are still shown today, such as Father Knows Best, Bewitched, I Dream of Jeannie and The Monkees. Screen Gems was revived once more in the 1990s, the name being the name for B-rated suspense and horror movies.
By the time World War II came around, Columbia had reached maturity. This was the time the studio had discovered its biggest star: auburn-haired beauty, Rita Hayworth. But, as the larger studios started to fade by the 1950s, Columbia took the reins. They continued to make over forty films a year, offering films that broke ground, which kept bringing audiences to the theaters. Even though Harry Cohn was disliked by many, it was a known fact that he had done a fantastic job in building up his empire. After his death in 1958, Columbia went through a time where although good films were being made, the audiences had abandoned them.
In the 1960s, Columbia began to offer old-fashioned films and regular films. By the 1970s, the studio was nearly bankrupt and was saved by the sale of the Gower Street studios. A new team was brought in to renew Columbia, and the studio was brought back to its normal self, using star-driven films. But, the studio's reputation was scarred by David Begelman in a check-forging scandal. Begelman, himself, resigned and ended up at MGM. The studio's forturnes soon came back two-fold.
In 1982, Coca-Cola bought Columbia. Under their rule, there would be no "R" or "X" rated films produced from Columbia, but Blue Thunder and Christine came out in 1983, exactly a year after their announcement. Although there were only a few big hits, most of the films during this time were expensive flops. But, under Coke, Columbia gained control of Embassy Pictures and its successful television series. Columbia also bought Merv griffin's game-show empire, which included the rights to Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy, both shows still shown today. Instead of having to pay for the high cost of film production, Coke introduced two investors who had tried on Hollywood, but with no success. The same year, Coca-Cola bought Columbia, Time Inc.'s HBO and CBS announced to the public a joint company, Nova Pictures, which would soon be renamed Tri-Star Pictures. Columbia, years later, would buy out its' partners. In the meantime, other small studios were created, which included a joint-company with British and Canadian partners.
Seeing the importance of possible overseas profits, Columbia recurited British producer David Puttnam to run the studio in 1986. He denounced Hollywood's taste for froth. With no friends and minimal hits, Puttnam's stay at Columbia was unbelievably short. With this director, Coke became nervous with its' shareholders and eventually went off and created another company entitled Columbia Pictures Entertainment, Inc.
Puttnam's replacement was his absolute opposite, Dawn Steel. She was the first woman to run a motion picture studio, knew the audience's tastes and brought Columbia back to where it had been in the 1930s. The empire was then sold in 1989 to electronic company, Sony, one of multiple Japanese-run companies buying American stock. Sony then hired, to many's surprise, two producers to serve as co-heads: Peter Guber and John Peters. Although many thought these two men were unlikely choices, Sony eventually paid off its interests in Columbia Records Club mail-order business and bought Warner Studios, once home to now-sister studio, MGM, which had a takeover of Lorimar. Guber and Peters, meanwhile, became determined to show they were worthy of the job they were hired to do. After only few successes, but once again, costly flops, both resigned.
Embarassed, Sony took an anormous loss on its Columbia investment. Tri-Star became the main studio and the entire production was reorganized under Howard Stringer, who renamed the company Sony Pictures Entertainment. With a new name, the studio wanted to focus on mainstream film-making. The studio broadened its' spectrum by creating Sony Pictures Classics for their old films and backed Revolution Studios.
(Color photo of the Columbia Pictures logo curtesy of Wikipedia.com.)