Harry Cohn liked an oater
Columbia, like Universal, rather specialized in the Western.
In 1953, one of our sample years, the studio released 50 pictures, and 15 of these, 30%, were Westerns, a very substantial proportion.
Six of these were Gene Autry programmers but there were plenty of other longer and mid-budget oaters too, namely Last of the Comanches (André De Toth/Broderick Crawford), Jack McCall, Desperado (Sidney Salkow/George Montgomery), Fort Ti (William Castle/Montgomery again, in 3D), Ambush at Tomahawk Gap (Fred F Sears/John Hodiak), The Last Posse (Alfred L Werker/Crawford again), The Stranger Wore a Gun (De Toth/Randolph Scott, a Scott-Brown production in 3D), Conquest of Cochise (Castle/Hodiak), Gun Fury (Raoul Walsh/Rock Hudson) and The Nebraskan (Sears/Phil Carey), the last two also in 3D. Some of these were actually pretty good Westerns.
In 1955, our other sample year, of the studio’s total 39 films, 11 were Westerns, 28%, again more than most other studios. Two of them, Ten Wanted Men and A Lawless Street, were Scott-Brown productions with Randolph Scott and two of them, The Man from Laramie and The Last Frontier, were directed by Anthony Mann, in CinemaScope. The studio also put out The Violent Men, with Glenn Ford, Barbara Stanwyck and Edward G Robinson, again in CinemaScope, two more Fred Sears pictures, Wyoming Renegades and Apache Ambush, the Earl Bellamy-directed Montgomery oater Seminole Uprising, Dennis Morgan in The Gun That Won the West and Lex Barker in Duel on the Mississippi, both helmed by William Castle, and the CinemaScope picture Count Three and Pray, directed by George Sherman and starring Van Heflin. This was an impressive list, really.
New York-born Harry Cohn ran Columbia for a very long time, from its foundation in 1918 right through into the late 1950s, moving the studio from low-budget fare to the big league – the great Frank Capra pushing him on in the 30s (but what a tragedy Capra didn’t do oaters). Nevertheless, the studio favored the Western, which Cohn saw as marketable product for many years.
Many theaters nationwide relied on oaters to attract audiences. Columbia’s first really big cowboy star was Buck Jones, who signed with the studio in 1930 (for a small fraction of his former big-studio salary) and produced too.
Over the next two decades the studio released dozens of sagebrush sagas with Jones, Tim McCoy, Ken Maynard, Robert (Tex) Allen, Russell Hayden, Tex Ritter, Ken Curtis, and of course Gene Autry. Columbia’s most popular cowboy was Charles Starrett, who signed in 1935 and starred in 131 western features over 17 years.
During Cohn’s tenure, the studio always turned a profit. Though he could hardly be called a big spender, he did allot decent budgets to oaters as a general rule, and although he resisted the expensive color process longer than most, from his first color picture in 1943 onwards (it was a Western, The Desperadoes) he budgeted for color oaters whenever possible.
He and his brother Jack resisted contract stars for a long time, on cost grounds, using actors from other studios on loan-out (at MGM, Columbia was known as Siberia) but finally he did put some players under contract, notably, for the Western, Glenn Ford and William Holden.
In the 1950s producer Sam Katzman contributed largely to Columbia’s commercial success by churning out pictures, including Westerns, on modest budgets.
In the 1950s Columbia actually thrived. It always kept a tight rein on costs and it did not suffer from the loss of a distribution chain as other big studios did. It made bread-and-butter movies always but also some major films, such as the Oscar-winning From Here to Eternity, On the Waterfront and The Bridge on the River Kwai.
However, with notable exceptions, such as The Man from Laramie, for example, Columbia Westerns of this period were not usually major art works with famed directors but they were solid pictures with decent production values – recycling sets, props and costumes gave cheap pictures an expensive look. For example, the studio deserved high praise for those Budd Boetticher/Randolph Scott Westerns in the 1950s.
Also excellent were Delmer Daves’s Jubal with Glenn Ford in 1956, I liked Utah Blaine in 1957 with Rory Calhoun (like many Columbia Westerns, this was a Clover Productions picture), and the same year Columbia released the wonderful 3:10 to Yuma, another Daves/Ford Western. In 1958 Daves and Ford were back yet again in Phoenix Pictures’ Cowboy, and Phil Karlson directed Gunman’s Walk in CinemaScope with Van Heflin. The last year of the decade saw Nathan Juran’s Good Day for a Hanging, a co-production with Morningside Productions with Fred MacMurray, and also with Fred, Face of a Fugitive, this time helmed by Paul Wendkos, as well as Gary Cooper’s farewell to the Western, his Baroda Productions picture They Came to Cordura, in CinemaScope.
These pictures I mention are only samples; there were many more humbler oaters.
Things changed at Columbia, though. Jack Cohn had died in late 1956, Harry in early 1958 and his nephew Ralph in 1959. The new management was headed by Abe Schneider, who had joined the company as an office boy out of high school and become a director in 1929, rising through the financial side of the business. Into the 70s and 80s there would be vicissitudes, mergers, personnel changes, problems.
The post-Cohn era was not such a glorious epoch, not for our beloved genre anyway. For example, in 1963 Columbia only released 17 movies all told, and not one of them was a Western. Woe! In 1965 Charlton Heston and Richard Harris starred in Sam Peckinpah’s Major Dundee but Peckinpah and the studio execs fell out big time and the relationship was exceedingly fraught (shall we say). Many think that Columbia-imposed cuts butchered a fine film (though I am not sure of that myself). Cat Ballou the same year was a big critical and commercial hit, and a lot of fun. Also in ’65 we got The Great Sioux Massacre, directed by Sidney Salkow in CinemaScope and re-using footage from his 1954 Sitting Bull, a Custer story with Phil Carey as Custer, not a great film in my view but certainly a big picture.
Holden and Widmark starred in Alvarez Kelly in 1966, helmed by Edward Dmytryk, another big production (a Sol Siegel picture) and Richard Brooks directed the gritty The Professionals, a good Western with Burt Lancaster, Lee Marvin, Robert Ryan, Woody Strode, Jack Palance and Claudia Cardinale.
That year there were box-office flops and rumors of a takeover circulated.
Mackenna’s Gold was a huge clunker in 1969, the less said the better. Still, the 60s weren’t a total write-off.
The 70s were pretty grim. It was perhaps fitting that Columbia should have been the one to release Peter Bogdanovich’s treatment of Larry McMurtry’s The Last Picture Show. Cliff Robertson’s JW Coop had some merit in 1972, though barely a Western. Buck and the Preacher, the same year, with Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte, was definitely a Western, and it had many qualities. Dirty Little Billy, Bite the Bullet, The Electric Horseman, 1970s Columbia Westerns were as rare as hen’s teeth and good ones rarer still.
In the 1980s, Michael Cimino’s Titanic-like Heaven’s Gate over at United Artists having pretty well scuppered the big feature Western, it was a desert, but mid-decade Columbia’s Silverado (and Clint’s Pale Rider at Warners) helped save the day. Silverado was a hugely enjoyable Western and a hit too and the Kasdans and Columbia deserve great credit for it.
But for most of the rest of the 80s it was Ghost Busters II and Karate Kid III, that kind of thing. O tempora, o mores.
The 90s? Well, there was Walter Hill’s excellent Geronimo: an American Legend in ’93, but basically Westerns just didn’t happen. And in our own century, forget it.
Still, we can’t hold that against a studio too much. That’s the way it is. We should just remember the glory days and think of all those fine Columbia Westerns, and humble oaters too, which we have enjoyed over the years.