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Article 2

It Happened With One Movie: 
A Studio Transformed

by Leah Rozen

The New York Times, November 14, 1999, section 2A, page 40

"IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT" almost didn't. Only days before shooting was to begin, this 1934 screwball comedy, now a classic, lacked a leading lady. Established draws like Myrna Loy, Margaret Sullavan, Miriam Hopkins and Constance Bennett had all passed on playing the role of the runaway heiress who falls for a newspaperman during a cross-country bus trip. Hopkins reportedly sniffed, "Not if I never play another part."  

Fortunately for both moviegoers and Columbia Pictures, "It Happened One Night" did happen. The movie, directed by Frank Capra and written by Robert Riskin, played a pivotal role in elevating Columbia from Hollywood's minor leagues to the majors. How fitting, then, that it is one of 75 movies unspooling at the Film Forum in Manhattan during the theater's wide-ranging eight-week celebration of Columbia's 75th anniversary, Friday to Jan. 13.

"Columbia was the scrappy little studio that could," said Michael Schlesinger, the studio's vice president for repertory sales, who sifted through 3,000 titles in its film library with Bruce Goldstein, Film Forum's director for repertory programming.

Part of the problem in lining up a top female star for "It Happened One Night" was Columbia itself. Because it specialized in cranking out low-budget films, the studio barely registered on Hollywood's prestige meters in the early 1930's. Big-name stars toiled at Columbia before they became big or when their careers were headed down. For stars still in their prime, doing a picture there often meant they were being lent to scruffy Columbia as punishment by their home studios.

That was the case with Clark Gable, who was lent to Columbia for the male lead in "It Happened One Night" by Louis B. Mayer, his boss at MGM, after a minor infraction. Gable considered going to Columbia akin to being banished to Siberia. According to Capra's 1971 autobiography, "The Name Above the Title," Gable showed up drunk for their first meeting, slurringly shared his Columbia-as-Siberia theory with Capra, then bellowed at workers in Columbia's courtyard, "Why ain't you wearing parkas?"

It was Harry Cohn, the penny-pinching, plain-speaking head of production at Columbia, who solved the leading lady problem. "I gotta brainstorm -- Claudette Colbert," he told Capra. The director, who had clashed with the feisty Colbert while steering her movie debut back in 1927, a flop called "For the Love of Mike," protested that she was already under contract to Paramount Pictures.

"Yeah, yeah, but she's taking a four-week vacation," Cohn said." And I heard the French broad likes money." (Colbert was born in Paris but immigrated to the United States as a child.) "Why don't you and Riskin go see her personal?"

Capra dropped by Colbert's house on Nov. 21, 1933, and found her packing for a holiday trip to Sun Valley, Idaho. Colbert told Capra that she would make his movie only if Columbia doubled her usual pay -- $50,000 instead of $25,000 -- and if Capra promised that she would finish shooting by Dec. 23 so she could celebrate Christmas with pals in Sun Valley. Deal, Capra said.

Working with a budget of $325,000 (high by Columbia standards, but puny when one considers that glitzy MGM was routinely lavishing $1 million on its A pictures) and a four-week shooting schedule, Capra and his cast had to scramble. "We slammed through the film clowning, laughing, ad-libbing," Capra wrote. Colbert made it to Sun Valley for the holidays, where, Capra said, she told friends, "I just finished the worst picture in the world."

QUITE the opposite. Viewing "It Happened One Night" today, one reacts the same way audiences did in 1934, guffawing loudly throughout and sighing with contentment at the happy ending. The Depression-era movie is funny and full of hope. And the justly famous hitchhiking scene, in which Colbert proves to Gable that a shapely gam is mightier than a north-pointing thumb, is still a model of comic economy and character development. Colbert's uptight heiress learns to loosen up, and Gable's know-it-all newspaper man realizes that he can still learn a few tricks.

The movie made tubs of money for Columbia, and at the Academy Awards ceremony in 1935, "It Happened One Night" become the first film to nab the top five Oscars, for best picture, director, actor, actress and screenplay. (Its quintuple sweep went unmatched for more than 40 years, duplicated only in 1976 by "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" and in 1992 by "The Silence of the Lambs.") For Columbia, winning that clutch of Oscars was as if the lady with a torch in the studio's familiar logo had gone from holding aloft a single wooden match to a klieg light. The studio was now in the big time.

Which is just where Harry Cohn had always thought he and his studio belonged. The son of an immigrant tailor, Cohn grew up in the Yorkville section of Manhattan, quit school at 14 and worked as a singer, a streetcar conductor and a song peddler before going into the movie business. With his older brother Jack and a buddy named Joel Brandt, Harry founded Cohn-Brandt-Cohn Film Sales, the forerunner to Columbia Pictures, in 1919.

While his brother and Brandt minded business in New York, Cohn moved to Los Angeles, where he set up shop alongside other fly-by-night film companies on Gower Street, a shabby stretch dismissed as Poverty Row by the movie industry's power elite. The same elite soon dubbed ragged C.B.C. Corned Beef and Cabbage, which may explain why C.B.C. incorporated itself as the classier-sounding Columbia Pictures in 1924. Hence this year's celebration of its 75th anniversary.

As Columbia grew, cheap remained its byword. "Cohn was willing to pay money where it counted: for scripts and directors, sometimes even stars, but not elsewhere," Mr. Schlesinger said. Cohn especially scrimped on sets and costumes, which explains why the studio turned out comparatively few epics, costume dramas (except westerns) and elaborate musicals, and why it excelled at contemporary comedies and hard-edged film noir, genres that rarely required large casts or massive, specially constructed sets.

Cohn's parsimony meant Columbia had few superstars to call its own. Whereas MGM, whose official slogan boasted that it had "more stars than there are in heaven," could claim Gable, Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford, Spencer Tracy, Judy Garland and dozens more, Cohn's biggest stars were Jean Arthur, Rita Hayworth and Kim Novak. Each was queen of the Columbia lot during her era: Arthur in the 1930's, Hayworth in the 40's and Ms. Novak in the 50's. Those three actresses account for 13 of the movies on the Film Forum's Columbia salute, offering fans ample opportunity to compare and contrast their varying styles and talent.

If you have never seen (or heard) Arthur, don't miss this chance. A piquant blond, she possessed a voice like gurgling water spiked with a splash of whiskey. Although she had appeared in films since the 20's, Arthur did not become popular until Cohn cast her opposite Edward G. Robinson in John Ford's delightful comedy "The Whole Town's Talking" (1935). At Columbia, Arthur excelled at playing smart, wisecracking big-city career women, often newspaper reporters, who started out cynical but turned meltingly gooey once they fell for the hero. Off screen, the reticent Arthur chafed at Cohn's blowhard style and dictatorial ways; boss and star were constantly involved in fractious disputes. When Arthur finally won release from her contract in 1944, she ran through the streets of Columbia's lot howling: "I'm free! I'm free!"

THE Brooklyn-born Hayworth (originally Margarita Carmen Cansino) began dancing professionally when she was 12. In 1937, after Hayworth had spent two years doing bit parts at other studios, Cohn signed her to a long-term contract and dyed her naturally black hair auburn. But not until Life magazine ran its famous pinup photo of Hayworth kneeling on a bed in 1941 did Cohn fully realize her worth to Columbia. He stopped lending Hayworth out to other studios and instead put the radiant actress into a series of mindless but successful musicals, including "Cover Girl" (1944), with Gene Kelly. Hayworth became a full-fledged Love Goddess when she peeled off her gloves while purring "Put the Blame on Mame" in "Gilda" (1946). Her steamy turn is double-billed at the Film Forum with her other most significant performance, as a femme fatale in "The Lady From Shanghai" (1948), a quirky thriller directed by and co-starring Orson Welles, who was married to her at the time.

Ms. Novak supplanted Hayworth at Columbia. With show-business training that consisted of traveling the country as Miss Deepfreeze and demonstrating refrigerators, she got her first break in Hollywood in 1954 as an extra in "French Line," a musical most notable for showcasing in 3-D Jane Russell's hefty chest. Cohn decided he could transform Ms. Novak into Columbia's own version of Marilyn Monroe after inexplicably letting the real Marilyn slip through his grasp. (In 1949, he had opted against picking up Columbia's option on Monroe's six-month contract after casting her in a single cheapie musical, "Ladies of the Chorus." He told associates, "The girl can't act.") Cohn gave the inexperienced Ms. Novak, whose pale blonde beauty and shapely figure always outshone her acting, a big publicity buildup and succeeded in turning her into a major star for a few years in such heavy-breathing pictures as "Picnic" (1955) and "Bell, Book and Candle" (1958).  

If Arthur, Hayworth and Novak were Columbia's three leading ladies, their male counterparts were Moe, Curly and Larry. The Three Stooges wreaked their special brand of violent comic havoc at Columbia from 1934 to 1958, turning out a steady stream of shorts. "They should be the studio logo, if you ask me," joked Mr. Goldstein of Film Forum, who selected two of the Stooges' best two-reelers for the series. "Men in Black" (1934) is the Stooges' antic, Oscar-nominated short -- yes, you read that right -- spoof of "Men in White," a somber doctor drama MGM had released earlier that year, and "In the Sweet Pie and Pie" (1941) is a comic confection that Stooges aficionados consider the trio's "Citizen Kane."

Other gems from Columbia to be seen during the series include "His Girl Friday" (1940), "Born Yesterday" (1950), "Dr. Strangelove" (1964), "Cat Ballou" (1965) and "Taxi Driver" (1977), as well as such overlooked but worthy titles as "3:10 to Yuma" (1957), a western based on a story by Elmore Leonard, and "Fail-Safe" (1965), Sidney Lumet's cold-war thriller. "We came up with a lot of oddball choices, movies that aren't seen too often but are good," Mr. Goldstein said. "I really can't wait to see a lot of this stuff."  

1999 The New York Times Company

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