Harry Cohn, Columbia and Walt Disney

by Wade Sampson, staff writer

As difficult as it is to believe today, no movie studio wanted to distribute the early black and white Mickey Mouse cartoons, especially under Walt Disney’s terms that he retained ownership to the character. Walt had just “lost” Oswald the Lucky Rabbit to Charles Mintz and Universal and had learned his lesson the hard way that he couldn’t trust in the kindness of strangers.

So, Walt’s only option was to allow Pat Powers to distribute the cartoons. Powers had developed a bootleg sound system called Cinephone from RCA’s blueprints for their sound system and Cinephone allowed Mickey Mouse to have sound in “Steamboat Willie”.

Powers claimed that distributing the Mickey Mouse cartoons to theaters helped promote his sound system and that the success of Mickey Mouse was just a happy side-effect for his company. However, Roy and Walt suspected that despite his Irish charm, Powers had another agenda.

In order to force Walt to sign a new extended contract with him, Powers started withholding money hoping to put the Disneys in financial jeopardy. Powers even went so far as to steal away Disney’s top artist Ub Iwerks and set him up in his own cartoon studio. Powers hoped these ploys would result in a desperate Walt signing a new contract to continue distributing Mickey Mouse cartoons.

At the time, Powers was taking not only his thirty-five percent as distributor of Disney cartoons but also charging costs for prints, processing, advertising, censorship fees, licensing, insurance, music rights, recording fees, print royalties and foreign dubbing often making more than $17,000 per cartoon when the actual cartoon only cost $5,500 on average to make.

The Disney Brothers hired attorney Gunther Lessing to help with the situation. Reportedly, Walt remarked, “If he could help Pancho Villa, he’s just the man we need.” When the Disneys demanded to see Powers’ books, Powers replied they could if they signed a new deal with him or else he would take them to court if they decided to sign with someone else.

The Disneys decided to cut their losses and walk away from any money owed by Powers and find a new distributor, especially since Mickey Mouse and the new Silly Symphony cartoons had proven themselves a huge success. In fact, Powers had made arrangements for Columbia to distribute the Silly Symphonies since larger distributors had frozen Powers out of the market in certain territories.

In an oft-repeated but inaccurate story, Walt took the cartoons to MGM where the head of the studio, Louis B. Mayer, apparently decided against the deal because he was afraid a huge mouse might scare pregnant women in the theater audience. In actuality, it was probably the amount of money that Walt wanted for the cartoons as well as retaining ownership that prevented the deal since MGM did end up doing a series of cartoons with Jerry the Mouse as part of the popular “Tom and Jerry” cartoon series.

Also, definitely adding to MGM’s decision was the fact that Pat Powers had issued threats to sue any company that signed a contract to release Disney cartoons. Litigation can be time consuming, annoying and costly even if it has no basis.

Legendary film director Frank Capra advised Harry Cohn, head of Columbia Pictures, to make a deal with the Disneys. Cohn not only offered a $7,000 advance for each cartoon but established a fund of $25,000 to combat Powers if he tried to sue although recent documentation has revealed that Columbia did try to make its own deal to buy out the Disney contract and rights from Powers.

Powers feared going up against Cohn, who was known to be a fighter and to have mob connections (a loan from the mob in 1924 helped Cohn buy out his partner Joe Brandt), and suggested a monetary settlement in which he would relinquish all rights to 21 Disney cartoons.

Columbia loaned Walt $50,000 (payable in 10 monthly installments) to make this settlement happen immediately and end the matter. The settlement was signed on April 22, 1930 after two eight-hour sessions where Powers kept referring to “Mickey Louse.” Powers not only got that payment but was able to keep the money the Disneys felt he had shortchanged them.

However, Roy Disney expressed some concerns to Walt about Columbia which he described as being not “overburdened with good intentions.”

Columbia produced mostly moderately budgeted features and short subjects. But Cohn, who ran the West Coast studio, had higher aspirations and with director Capra joining the Studio in the late 1920s, Cohn hoped for Columbia to become a major player, which it did with Capra hits like Lady for a Day, It Happened One Night (that won so many Oscars that the studio could no longer be considered a “Poverty Row” operation), Lost Horizon, and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.

Capra had helped establish Columbia as an important Hollywood film studio so when he pushed for Cohn to take over the distribution of all Disney cartoons, Cohn immediately took the suggestion because he knew it would help the prestige of the studio, as well as being highly profitable since Mickey Mouse had already become a phenomenon.

In his autobiography, Frank Capra, the Name Above the Title, Capra wrote: “Disney and Cohn the vulgarian spoke different languages. Cohn mistook Disney’s sensitivity for weakness. Crudely, and stupidly, he badgered and bulldozed until he lost Hollywood’s richest gold mine. Disney took his enchanting films to RKO for distribution. And later, as all true geniuses must, Walt established his own production and distribution set up.”

Columbia only released the Disney cartoons from 1930 through some of 1932. Both Walt and Roy felt that Columbia was not aggressively promoting the Disney cartoons since it had so many other shorts it was distributing as well and in addition, that it was shortchanging the Disneys financially in a creative bookkeeping system still common in Hollywood studios today.

I have often recommended, and will continue to do so with enthusiasm, the Bob Thomas biography Walt Disney: An American Original, that has remained in print since its publication decades ago. However, the first entertainment biography that Thomas wrote was King Cohn: The Life and Times of Harry Cohn, published by Putnam in 1967 and delving into the life of Harry Cohn.

As part of the research for that book, Thomas briefly interviewed Walt about Cohn on May 25,1965, and writer Todd James Pierce (whose eagerly anticipated book on theme parks should be coming out soon at this link) who was helping Didier Ghez (who heroically publishes the “Walt’s People” book series that should be on the book shelves of any true Disney fan at this link) on another project ran across the interview in the files of Thomas’ papers. The full interview will appear in a forthcoming volume of “Walt’s People” but there are a few insights from that interview that I think help illuminate the relationship between Walt Disney and Harry Cohn/Columbia.

In that interview, Walt told Thomas that “Columbia wasn’t doing right by our pictures. I knew they were making deals with theater owners, selling their lousy pictures with our shorts. They were getting more for the shorts but we didn’t see the extra profit. After two years, we opened negotiations with United Artists without letting Columbia know. When we pulled away from Columbia, the executives complained, ‘Why didn’t you give us a chance?’ I said, ‘We gave you a chance for two years.’ The Columbia boys were really sore, because just one year later we came up with Three Little Pigs.”

It took a year and a half for the Disneys to work off their financial obligations to Columbia but they could see that Columbia was not a “good fit” for them and began secretly negotiating with United Artists.

UA, founded by Charlie Chaplin, D.W. Griffith, Mary Pickford, and Douglas Fairbanks, seemed more open to Walt’s artistic sensibilities, as well as offering significantly more money and they began releasing Disney cartoons in mid 1932. Under UA, the first color Silly Symphony and Mickey Mouse cartoons were released as well as the box office blockbuster, Three Little Pigs. UA released Disney cartoons from 1932-1937 before the Disney Studio signed with RKO for the release of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

Columbia was more than “sore” about the Disneys secret negotiations. Cohn's brother, Jack, who ran the New York office of Columbia threatened Roy Disney that “You are going to lose plenty as a result of this deal.”

That warning meant that Columbia would not actively promote the remaining Disney cartoons due to be released by Columbia and that perhaps the accounting would be even less accurate. The money owed Disney from Columbia declined so significantly that the Disney Studio was put in financial jeopardy of meeting its budget and paying its salaries.

Apparently, Walt had few professional interactions with Harry Cohn himself, primarily just seeing him personally at the Hollywood parties and gatherings they both attended as heads of major film studios. However, in the unpublished interview, Walt remembered one interesting personal encounter.

“I never had any business dealings with Harry Cohn, just saw him socially. I understand he was a bastard to work for, but they say that about every head of a studio. They say it about me sometimes, too. Once, I was on the Riviera with my daughters, and I ran into Harry Cohn. He said I should give one of them a screen trest. I said that was the last thing in the world I wanted.”

Diane Disney Miller, Walt’s oldest daughter, was kind enough to share with me the memory of that occasion:

“We were staying at La Reserve de Beaulieu .. such a lovely place! I was about 15 and kind of chubby. The bikini had just become a fashion thing, and I had purchased one in the village that was VERY modest, really just a two-piece swim suit. Harry Cohn and his wife were always sitting by the pool in the sun, and he was very friendly. Dad told me that he had said ‘You've got a beautiful daughter. You should give her a screen test.’ Even then I didn't believe it. I sure didn't feel beautiful, and I think, and thought then, that he did it for dad. That his idea of a compliment was to suggest a screen test. Actually, we have film of that pool, 12 year old Sharon exuberantly diving off the diving board again and again, more sophisticated Diane in her new ‘bikini’ lying in the sun, until I spotted dad with his camera, and jumped up and dove into the ocean .. just the other side of the pool area. It's not part of our family film archive. I found it later. The ‘bikini’ was orange, brown and white cotton shirred with elastic .. very modest, rising just below my navel. I really liked it.”

Diane is probably right that Cohn, in his own awkward and unsophisticated way, was trying to compliment Walt and show there were no personal hard feelings about Walt leaving Columbia. He was attempting to “bond” with a peer.

Cohn actually enjoyed his reputation as being perhaps the most feared and hated man in Hollywood.

"I don't get ulcers, I give 'em!" he would yell. It was said that the crude and abusive Cohn would yell and swear at actors and directors in his office all afternoon, and then in a Jekyll and Hyde transformation, greet them cordially at a dinner party that same evening. It was even rumored that Cohn demanded sex from his female stars in exchange for employment.

The turnover of talent at Columbia was the greatest of any Hollywood Studio at the time but Cohn ran the studio profitably and effectively right up until his death and many memorable films, serials and shorts were made under his leadership.

Cohn died of a sudden heart attack in February 1958, and his funeral was standing-room only, which prompted comedian Red Skelton’s famous quote, "It proves what Harry always said: Give the public what they want and they'll come out for it."

Yet, thanks to Harry Cohn and his fearsome reputation, Walt Disney was saved from the machinations of Pat Powers and given the opportunity to flourish as a filmmaker. Although it is doubtful that even today Cohn would have wanted to be remembered for that act. However, the Disney connections continued for years after Columbia no longer distributed Mickey Mouse and his friends.

After Columbia lost the Disney cartoons, it eventually took over Disney’s nemesis Charles Mintz’s animation studio under the Screen Gems banner. Among the animated cartoon series Columbia produced or released were “Krazy Kat”, “Scrappy” (and do yourself a huge favor and visit my good friend Harry McCracken’s Scrappyland site at this link), “The Fox and the Crow” and “Li’l Abner.”

In the late 1940s, Columbia released the animated shorts of United Productions of America (UPA) composed of many prominent Disney animators who had left Disney after the infamous 1941 strike at the studio. The UPA cartoons won many awards and critical praise. To learn more about Columbia’s cartoons, go to this link.

Disney history is such a rich tapestry of events that Walt’s brief connection with Harry Cohn and Columbia is usually just a short anecdotal paragraph in most histories of the company or biographies of Walt. However, it is just the type of little documented moment that I love sharing with MousePlanet readers.