10 great films from Columbia Pictures

As one of Hollywood’s biggest studios celebrates its 100th anniversary, we recommend some of Columbia Pictures' finest films – one from each decade of its history.

A historic version of the famous Columbia Pictures logo

If you’d told any Oscar pundit in the early days of the Academy Awards’ history that, by the time of Columbia Pictures’ centenary in 2024, it would have more best picture wins to its name than any other Hollywood studio, they’d have probably laughed you out of the room. In its infancy, Columbia was a Poverty Row studio, churning out low-budget productions that posed little threat to the fortunes of the so-called Big Five (MGM, Fox, Paramount, Warner Brothers and RKO).

But under the steerage of autocratic production chief Harry Cohn, it didn’t take long for the studio to start snapping at its competitors’ heels. First came a name change. Its inaugural moniker, CBC – titled after Cohn and his partners, Joe Brandt and brother Jack Cohn – had to go, given industry players had taken to calling the upstart joint “Corned Beef and Cabbage”, in reference to the low-grade programme fillers it was putting out. So in January 1924, Columbia Pictures was born, and a swift period of expansion followed.

During those early years, economy was the name of the game. With little money for expensive sets or top-tier talent, Columbia specialised in contemporary melodramas and comedies, filled with actors on the up or down. Cohn’s ascendency to studio president in 1932 mirrored that of its biggest star, director Frank Capra, whose 1934 comedy It Happened One Night swept the board at the Oscars, putting Columbia firmly on the map.

Lawrence of Arabia (1962), Kramer vs. Kramer (1979) and Gandhi (1982) are among the 11 best picture wins that would follow, which included a two-year hot streak in 1953 and 1954 that saw From Here to Eternity and On the Waterfront respectively take the top prize. It was quite the turnaround for a studio that was still struggling to shake off its early reputation.

Following Cohn’s death in 1958, Columbia endured an ongoing identity crisis that saw it splutter into the 1970s. Sold to The Coca-Cola Company in the early-1980s, and to the Japanese electronics firm Sony at the end of that decade, Columbia’s complex business arrangements eventually peaked under the stranger-than-fiction tenure of studio heads Peter Guber and Jon Peters, the latter a former hairdresser to Barbra Streisand. An essential read, Kim Masters and Nancy Griffin’s jaw-dropping dual biography Hit and Run: How Jon Peters and Peter Guber Took Sony for a Ride in Hollywood (1996) documents their anarchic reign, and remains one of the most outrageously funny slices of Hollywood history.

As Columbia Pictures and the various iterations of its iconic, toga-wearing torch lady celebrate a hundred years in the business, we picked out one gem from each of its 10 decades.

That Certain Thing (1928)

Director: Frank Capra

That Certain Thing (1928)

Come the 1930s, Columbia’s fortunes would be tied to those of its most valuable signing, director Frank Capra, who would deliver a pair of best picture winners for the studio in It Happened One Night (1934) and 1938’s You Can’t Take It with You. Capra had been a gag man for Mack Sennett before Harry Cohn poached the ambitious filmmaker on the cheap, following a pair of flops he had made for First National Pictures.

In his first year alone, Capra directed nine films for Columbia, beginning with this silent melodrama about a disinherited millionaire’s son on the make. With its romantic subplot and keen eye for class dynamics, That Certain Thing prefigures Capra’s later crowdpleasers more than any of his early films for the studio. It also marked the beginning of an enduring working relationship with cinematographer Joseph Walker, with whom Capra would make some 20 films, up to and including his RKO classic, It’s a Wonderful Life (1946).

Twentieth Century (1934)

Director: Howard Hawks

Twentieth Century (1934)

Keen to repeat the success of It Happened One Night, Columbia went all in on screwball comedy throughout the 1930s. The great Howard Hawks made two of them for the studio, including one of the finest examples in His Girl Friday (1940), which starred one of Columbia’s most high-profile signings (and genre poster boy), Cary Grant.

First, however, came Twentieth Century, which is named after the locomotive that ran between New York and Chicago, and pairs Carole Lombard and John Barrymore in a raucous battle of super-sized egos. Barrymore is the Broadway impresario, Lombard the ascendant ingénue. When a falling out sees the actress achieve dazzling Hollywood fame, the embittered mentor pursues her aboard the titular train in a manic bid to win back her affections. One of the funniest films ever made; 90 years after its release, it still feels thrillingly modern.

The Reckless Moment (1949)

Director: Max Ophüls

The Reckless Moment (1949)

The 1940s meant one thing: film noir. Columbia was already a dab hand at making every dollar count, and its extensive run of good-looking noirs throughout the 1940s and 1950s belied Harry Cohn’s notorious penny-pinching. With the likes of Glenn Ford and Rita Hayworth among the studio’s most notable 40s signings, Columbia was home to such noir classics as Gilda (1946) and The Lady from Shanghai (1947).

If there’s any truth to the notion that it takes an outsider to truly see America for what it is, you’ll find it in the last of director Max Ophüls’ four Hollywood films, The Reckless Moment. With his distinctive, deep-focus tracking shots, the German filmmaker anatomises the vulnerability of suburban bliss, as Joan Bennett’s housewife rolls up her sleeves to protect her daughter and dispose of a body. James Mason plays the blackmailer clued-in to Bennett’s secret in this sordid fusion of domestic melodrama and caustic noir. In its magnificent final shot, the very foundations of the American dream seem to tremble.

The Long Gray Line (1955) 

Director: John Ford

The Long Gray Line (1955)

From mistaken-identity comedy (The Whole Town’s Talking, 1935) and political melodrama (The Last Hurrah, 1958) to British police procedural (Gideon’s Day, 1958), John Ford covered some varied terrain across his five films for Columbia. Only one of them, the brutal odd-couple drama Two Rode Together (1961) was a western, but the best of the bunch – and one of Ford’s finest pictures – elucidated the filmmaker’s abiding thematic preoccupations: order, ritual, community and myth.

The Long Gray Line is a cinematic bildungsroman set at New York’s West Point Military Academy, and Ford’s first film to be shot in CinemaScope. Based (very loosely) on the real-life story of Martin Maher (Tyrone Power), an Irish immigrant who rose through the ranks from sports instructor to master sergeant, the film is a sentimental epic, rich in pageantry and romanticism. Ford’s Maher is the very personification of the institution he inhabits and the great director critiques: a passive spectator to half a century of life’s – and death’s – endless parade.

Comanche Station (1960)

Director: Budd Boetticher

Comanche Station (1960)

Columbia had plenty of skin in the western game, with Charles Starrett’s Durango Kid series alone constituting some 65 theatrical features between 1940 and 1952. Budd Boetticher was a Columbia kinda guy: able to shoot his B-western programmers in just 18 days amid the distinctive rock formations of Lone Pine, California. He’d been signed to the studio in the prewar years, turning out what he called “terrible pictures” in just over a week, before leaving to make even-lower budget films for Eagle Lion and Monogram.

But it’s the six films collectively known as the Ranown cycle – five of which were made at Columbia – upon which Boetticher’s reputation largely rests. Starring Randolph Scott and written by regular collaborator Burt Kennedy, Comanche Station is the last film in the series, and one of the best. While Scott’s loner travels deep into enemy territory, looking for his long-lost wife, Boetticher reduces archetype into myth, across just 73 minutes of genre essentialism.

California Split (1974)

Director: Robert Altman

California Split (1974)

Having distributed the independent production Easy Rider in the summer of 1969, it might be tempting to think of Columbia as a forward-thinking force in the establishment of the New Hollywood movement. Despite hitting big in the 1960s with the likes of Lawrence of Arabia (1962), A Man for All Seasons (1966) and Funny Girl (1968), by the early 1970s the studio was on the verge of bankruptcy, and no better prepared for what was coming than most of its peers. “As long as I am president of this company, I cannot have a film that says ‘fuck’ in it,” said studio head Leo Jaffe as he turned down a deal to make a film of stage hit Hair. Columbia didn’t know what to make of Easy Rider, just as it didn’t know what to make of The Last Detail (1973) or Shampoo (1975).

Goodness knows what execs must have thought of the two films Robert Altman directed at the studio. Following the hallucinatory thriller Images (1972), Altman returned for this buddy comedy set in the world of gambling. It’s one of his supreme hangout movies, one that favours improvised vibes over narrative momentum. Hysterically funny until, in its final moments, it very much isn’t, this is top-tier Altman, with one of cinema’s greatest double acts in Elliott Gould and George Segal’s perpetual losers.

Ishtar (1987)

Director: Elaine May

Ishtar (1987)

Speaking of great double acts, Warren Beatty and Dustin Hoffman shared the screen in this notorious adventure comedy from director Elaine May. Columbia stumped up the cash – all $50 million of it – but quickly came to regret a production dubbed “Warren’s Gate” (after the Michael Cimino mega-flop, Heaven’s Gate) by industry press. The duo play a pair of wannabe songwriters who can’t catch a break. Taking a lounge-singing gig in the only place that will have them – the fictional Middle Eastern country, Ishtar – the two become embroiled in a CIA plot to overthrow the government.

Ishtar’s production history is the stuff of legend, fuelled by the over-sized egos of Hoffman, Beatty and May – all of them infamous perfectionists. On-set squabbles turned into post-production battles, as each of the principals attempted to wrangle May’s 100-plus hours of raw footage. Fuelled by his animosity for Columbia’s new head of production, the British filmmaker David Puttnam, Beatty eventually let May finish her cut, but Ishtar was dead on arrival. Truth be told, the film is a spirited (and often very funny) buddy movie, undeserving of its reputation as a byword for box-office bombs.

Boyz n the Hood (1991)

Director: John Singleton

Boyz n the Hood (1991)

In the mid-1970s, Sylvester Stallone kept a tight grip on his script for Rocky (1976) until he had assurances that he could play the leading role. Taking a leaf out of the same playbook, John Singleton sold his screenplay for Boyz n the Hood on the proviso that he would direct. The approach paid dividends when Singleton made history as both the first Black filmmaker to be nominated for a best director Oscar, and – at just 24 years old – the youngest person to have been nominated for the award.

Eager to replicate Universal’s success with Do the Right Thing (1989), the signing proved quite the coup for Columbia, with Singleton immediately touted as the next Spike Lee. A coming-of-age drama set in a South Central Los Angeles beset by gang violence, the film makes a virtue out of its didacticism, forging a satisfying tension between the looseness of its storytelling and its direct messaging. Singleton’s two follow-ups for Columbia – Poetic Justice (1993) and Higher Learning (1995) – may have lacked the cultural impact of Boyz n the Hood, but are every bit as worthy of attention.

Marie Antoinette (2006)

Director: Sofia Coppola

Marie Antoinette (2006)

By the late 1990s and well into the 2000s, Columbia was regularly topping annual lists of the highest-grossing Hollywood studios. Partnering on increasingly expensive co-productions seemed to be paying off, even if a scan through the list of the films they released in the first decade of the millennium doesn’t prove particularly inspiring.

Still, there are some gems to be found amid the pop-cultural detritus, like this third feature from writer-director Sofia Coppola. Kirsten Dunst stars as the eponymous dauphine of France, joining the long line of Coppola heroines who have rattled the bars of their gilded cage. In an anachronistic rhapsody of pastel shades and killer soundtrack cuts, the filmmaker scrutinises the trappings of privilege, while saving her sharpest knife for her critique of the scrutiny trained on every gesture of her ill-fated queen. A baroque triumph of production and costume design, Marie Antoinette might just be Coppola’s most cutting portrait of adolescent ennui and rebellion.

The Shallows (2016)

Director: Jaume Collet-Serra

The Shallows (2016)

Most of Columbia’s biggest hits arrived in the first two decades of the new millennium, invariably tied to one franchise or another (nine films in their all-time top 20 feature the words “Spider-Man”). But the studio remained committed to the kind of quality, mid-level programmer that used to be its bread and butter.

This muscular survival thriller is a case in point, and goes to show what the best studio craftsmen can do with a limited budget. The Shallows is a model of conceptual simplicity. An injured surfer (Blake Lively) is stranded on a rock some 200 metres from the deserted shore. The tide is rising, and the only thing standing between her and safety is a 20-foot great white shark with lunch on its mind. Lucidly setting out the parameters of the action space, director Jaume Collet-Serra quickly gets down to the business of delivering 86 minutes of streamlined, no-nonsense pulp.

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