Obituary: J. J. Cohn
Wednesday 31 January 1996
Joe Cohn knew more about Hollywood's secrets than anyone. He was production manager at the Goldwyn studio before Goldwyn left it, even before the merger into Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in 1924. He was then appointed studio manager, working under Louis B. Mayer, Irving Thalberg and Harry Rapf. When Thalberg died, he was promoted to studio executive and he was involved in the fabulously successful Andy Hardy and Dr Kildare series. He was also one of the founding members of the Academy of Motion Pictures, Arts & Sciences.
He was nothing like his namesake Harry Cohn. Joe Cohn was extremely tough, but he was an intelligent, well-read man with a kindly streak and a warm sense of humour. Above all, he was trustworthy. The scenarist Frances Marion called him "Closed-Door Cohn - you could never get anything out of him". The Charles Higham/ Kitty Kelley school of biography would have been stillborn had there been more Hollywood veterans as discreet as he. Legions of authors, documentary film-makers, lawyers trooped to his door in the hope of finding where the bodies were buried. They were all sent away charmed but frustrated. And the secrets have died with him unless, among his collection of books on exploration, he left memoirs of his own.
Cohn had no experience in the film business in 1915 when he put an ad in the paper in New York saying he was willing to do anything. He was taken on as stenographer at the Fox Film Co and found himself working from 8.30am until 11pm. He followed the scenarist (and later director) Harry O. Hoyt when he left Fox and joined the B.A. Rolfe Co, part of the Metro Co. "I wasn't too much of a stenographer," he told me, "but I worked very hard because it was so exciting. When Hoyt joined Sam Goldwyn I went along and stayed there the rest of my life." At first a purchasing agent, Cohn was made production manager as soon as Goldwyn took over the big studio in Culver City which had belonged to Thomas Ince.
Cohn appreciated Goldwyn's concern for higher standards. "He always strove for a measure of distinction." But he did admit that producers were a very odd lot; most were producers in name only. Goldwyn worked a good deal on instinct, and he gave Cohn more authority than most production managers.
Hollywood was a frontier town, even in the early Twenties, and many cowboys, thrown out of work by the dissolution of the great ranches, headed for it hoping for work in westerns. Whenever they needed horsemen, companies hired cowboys. Cohn was shooting night stuff on location for a picture called In the Palace of the King (1922). "We had 150 horses and the leaders got drunk," he said. "They wanted more money for the horses. I said, 'We're not going to pay. Send the leaders to me.' Instead of the three leaders, all 150 came charging right at me. I couldn't run. What was I going to do? We had a discussion. We gave them more money. I wasn't going to fight with no 150 drunks. But I picked out the ones that caused all the trouble and made sure they didn't get back."
Cohn's greatest challenge was the production of the 1925 Ben-Hur, which began at the Goldwyn Company.
"It's the easiest thing in the world to make a cheap picture," said Cohn. "You just say you don't do this and you don't do that. It's when you try to make a good picture inexpensively - that's when you need brains instead of money."
There was no possibility that Ben-Hur would be inexpensive. For a start, the cost of the rights had been crippling. Then Cohn was sent to Europe with Major Bowes, an executive. Cohn concluded the film could not be made in Europe for any reasonable figure unless it was turned over to a foreign country and no American personnel were sent over. "That way we can't be hurt. Otherwise it won't be under a million." Cohn was summoned to meet Frank Godsol, the armaments millionaire who had taken over the studio from Sam Goldwyn. "He told me, 'Bowes thinks we can make it for $670,000 in Europe, bringing people over.' I said, 'It will never be done.' I never forgot his words. 'That's Bowes' worry.' I wanted to say, 'Yes, but it's your money.' I was too young. I didn't have the audacity."
Cohn was right. Ben-Hur was made in Italy. When the Goldwyn company merged with Metro and Mayer, Irving Thalberg and Louis B. Mayer inherited the mare's nest that had been made of it. The company was pulled out of Italy, and the picture largely reshot at Culver City, where a new Circus Maximus was constructed for the chariot race. Cohn was involved in all this, as well.
"On the day of the big scene, with 4,000 people, we had a morning haze. Fred Niblo, the director, ordered wind machines to blow out the haze, which would have been a minor idiocy. I cancelled this. Thalberg thought we did not have enough people. I thought we had but we got about 300 more. Unfortunately, we were short of lunches and with over 4,000 people every minute of sunshine counts. I got a little nervous about the time waiting for the extra lunches to come . . . [and] ordered the horses into the arena. Niblo was aghast and said, 'Joe, you'll have a riot!' All I said was, if we have a riot it'll look as if they're cheering the horses, and if they're eating sandwiches in the stands no one will recognise that at 500ft from the camera."
Premiered to tremendous acclaim, Ben-Hur made no profit because it was the most expensive film in Hollywood history, costing $4m - more than $80m in today's money. No wonder MGM became so concerned about cutting costs thereafter. Joe Cohn was the man who switched off the lights on Erich von Stroheim, while he was soaring over budget on The Merry Widow, the same year as Ben-Hur: "He was a great director who lost track of time when he became involved in a film. The odd thing was, we had many differences, but when he was taken off the picture I was ill with pneumonia. He said, 'Wouldn't you know, when I'm in the greatest trouble, my friend Joe Cohn isn't here.' "
I liked Joe Cohn very much, but I couldn't understand why so creative and authoritative a man didn't become a director himself. "They asked me to be a producer, and I said no, I don't think I'm creative enough. (This was in the post-Thalberg era). In retrospect, I think I'm as creative as those who are getting by. But that wasn't my idea of what a producer should be. I became an executive and, you see, handled producers."
"It seems to me," I said, "that directors at MGM were cooks, who were given a set of ingredients and did the best they could. But the people in control were producers."
"There is no doubt as to that. There were directors you paid a great deal of attention to and there were directors who might have been plumbers."
"But you kept them on."
"Yes, because they had a value. This business has never been blessed with a superfluity of creative talent. Today there's an enormous dearth of it. All you have to do is look at the films."
"In the mid 1920s, MGM had a stunning array of directorial talent - including Josef von Sternberg and William Wellman. Yet you fired both of them."
"Von Sternberg made quite a poor film. I didn't have anything to do with firing him. Wellman was a new director, who found himself later. Of course, we could have been wrong."
Cohn thought further about my original question. "I had no desire at all to direct," he said. "Maybe it was an inferiority complex, I don't know. I didn't think I'd be as good as, say, King Vidor. Might have been, I don't know." And then came what to me was a revelation: "I had enormous respect for these people."
Thereupon Cohn embarked on a fascinating discourse in which he lauded the talents of some of the unsung heroes of the day - and some of the great names as well. It was music to my ears - to hear that a man from the production side had such a profound understanding of the craft of directing. No wonder MGM, for all its creative conflict, turned out so many of the finest films ever made. Joseph Judson Cohn, film producer: born 23 December 1895; died Beverly Hills, California 12 January 1996.
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