Indie producer Harry Cohn, brother Jack and their associate Joe Brandt created the CBC Film Sales Company in 1918. And on Jan. 10, 1924, the trio formed the Poverty Row studio, Columbia Pictures. According to Enclyclopedia.com, by the mid-20s “Cohn had gained reputation as one of the industry’s toughest businessmen.” That’s putting it mildly.
Though “B” movies and series such as The Three Stooges, “Blondie” and “The Lone Wolf” were the bread and butter of the studio, Cohn slowly attracted top talent and directors and turned such newcomers as Rita Hayworth, Glenn Ford, William Holden and Kim Novak into stars.
Frank Capra changed the fortunes of the studio. Signing with Columbia in 1928, he made 25 films for Columbia. His optimistic, common man movies attracted critics and audiences alike during the Depression. His 1934 screwball comedy “It Happened One Night,” penned by Robert Riskin and starring Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert, swept the Oscars winning five. Capra would win two more best director Oscars for 1936’s “Mr. Deeds Goes to Town” and 1938’s “You Can’t Take It with You.” And Columbia was no longer residing in Poverty Row. (Since 1989, Columbia has been owned by Sony.)
In celebration of its 100th anniversary, here’s a look at three 1930s features from the studio.
Three years before “It Happened One Night,” Capra made the Pre-Code romantic comedy “Platinum Blonde,” starring 18-year-old Loretta Young and 20-year-old Jean Harlow. Broadway veteran Robert Williams was the leading man — a maverick newspaper reporter named Stew who lives by his own rules, a charm boat who refuses to wear garters to hold up his socks. His best friend at the paper is girl Friday Gallagher (Young) who adores Stew though he sees her just as a good friend. “You’re my gal, aren’t you?” he asks. “Don’t turn female on me.”
The bright, carefree and funny Stew finds himself besotted with the platinum blonde Anne (Harlow), a high society Nepo baby who lives in the family manse and probably spends most of her free time getting her hair dyed. She sets her sights on Stew and grooms him to give up his life behind, marry her, enter of high society and wear garters. Of course, it doesn’t work.
The film bolstered the career of Harlow who shines as Anne. Eve Golden’s bio “Platinum Girl” noted the role gave her a chance to “expand her range a big beyond the usual bad-girl roles she had been playing – ‘Jean acts with Williams, not just at him, as she’d done in ‘The Public Enemy.” She tugs playfully at his lapels, peering up into his face with a kittenish assurance that she’s too adorable to resist. And she is. Jean is obviously having fun with the role. For the first-time on screen, she is thoroughly likeable.”
Williams is more than thoroughly likeable. He’s downright lovable and a unique leading man for the era. A guy who is totally at ease in his own skin. Williams isn’t playing Stew, he is Stew. Variety wrote: “It looks like Williams, who done exceedingly well in minor roles with RKO-Pathe, has an indisputable chance of stepping ahead. If his succeeding parts are made to fit his personality and his demeanor, it will be eggs in his coffee for this newcomer.” Unfortunately, he never got a chance at stardom. Just a few days after the film’s premiere, he suffered from appendicitis and died of peritonitis. Williams was just 37.
Young gives one of her most nuanced, luminous performances in Frank Borzage’s Pre-Code 1933 romantic drama “A Man’s Castle.” Spencer Tracy, who has a brief nude scene as he jumps into a river, plays Bill, a man who wouldn’t pass muster with women today. According to TCM.com “Bill is an intriguingly complex character. He treats Trina quite harshly, but Spencer Tracy’s performance allows us to see that underneath the gruff exterior, he is sensitive and even fearful. Trina is innocent almost to the point of naivete, but the fact that she sticks with Bill shows that she is able to see his true, loving nature. In a sense, she’s actually the stronger of the two.” Young and Tracy had a yearlong relationship, and their off-screen chemistry carries over on the big screen.
“A Man’s Castle” wouldn’t have been made when the Production Code was in full force. Not only would Tracy’s long-shot nude tush not pass censors. And Bill and Trina would never have been allowed to live together and become expectant parents without being married as they are in the film.
“All Quiet on the Western Front’ filmmaker Lewis Milestone directed 1934’s “The Captain Hates the Sea,” a sort of a “Grand Hotel” on the high seas. The film had a healthy budget because the production had to rent a ship to use for the film. And there were a lot of delays because quite a few cast members were three sheets to the wind. Several of the cast were known heavy drinkers: John Gilbert, Leon Errol and Victor McLaglen. Cohn wasn’t happy. Milestone would later recall that Cohn sent him a wire pleading: “Hurry up, the costs are staggering.” Milestone replied, “So is the cast.”
Though the film wasn’t a hit upon release, it’s journey worth taking. “Captain” Gilbert’s final film who had been a superstar in the silent films but struggled in talkies. He had hoped that his 1933 re-teaming with Greta Garbo in “Queen Christina” would change his fortunes. But they film wasn’t not a hit.
The frustrated Gilbert ended up taking out an ad in the Hollywood Reporter saying “Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer will neither offer me work nor release me from my contract.”-Jack Gilbert. He finally was released from the contract; according to TCM.com Milestone convinced Cohn to let Gilbert test for the film. Gilbert got the film, but it must have been difficult.
An alcoholic in real life, he plays an alcoholic in reel-life. Still, it’s a poignant swan song for the actor who died in 1936 at the age of 38. The Three Stooges, who had just signed with Columbia and became one of the studio’s comedy short film superstars, appear in the film as the ship’s musicians. All we can say is “Nyuk! Nyuk!! Nyuk!
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