Tyrannical mogul Harry Cohn, who died in 1958, ruled the roost at Columbia for 38 years. He made few friends but was one of the most creative figures in the picture business. A nonpareil talent spotter, he knew what made a movie work. Within a decade of its foundation, Columbia became the most efficiently run of all the studios. The sophistication of its diverse productions, especially the 1930s comedies, contrasted sharply with the low-rent surroundings in which they were shot.
Film Forum’s generous current series celebrating the studio’s 75th anniversary is clinker-free and adventuresome; it includes 75 films produced from 1932 to 1977 (roughly the studio’s golden age), wisely omits a number of overexposed blockbusters, and features a batch of enticing rarities that haven’t been on screen for decades in 35mm. Sidebars of screwball comedy and film noir include a few genre classics: Howard Hawks’s Twentieth Century (1934) and Leo McCarey’s The Awful Truth (1937), as well as Don Siegel’s The Line-Up (1958) and Sam Fuller’s gritty Underworld U.S.A. (1961). Jacques Tourneur’s brooding Curse of the Demon (1958), the only horror movie in the retro, may well be the scariest chiller of its time.
Among the rarities: Eddie Buzzell’s The Big Timer (1932), a boxing yarn written by Robert Riskin, best known for his Capra scripts; Josef von Sternberg’s The King Steps Out (1936), a fluffy operetta hated by its director, who asked to have it excluded from retrospectives of his work (it’s a charmer nonetheless). Panned when released and never revived, John Frankenheimer’s epic The Horsemen (1971) is set in Afghanistan and mostly concerns the national sport of buzkashi, less a game than a stance of masculinity; in this version of polo, horsemen whip each other while they struggle for possession of a goat carcass. Anthony Mann’s Reign of Terror (1949) is a genre unto itself—a French Revolution film noir. Visually stunning, it benefits from the collaboration of two major talents: ace cinematographer John Alton, master of chiaroscuro, and Hollywood’s greatest production designer, William Cameron Menzies. The drama hinges on an attempt to overthrow Robespierre’s dictatorship by gaining possession of the black book in which his future guillotine victims are listed. Mann’s film was made at the height of the McCarthyist/HUAC inquisition; it’s difficult not to interpret it as a commentary on the Red Scare, with the black book as the blacklist. Although it’s a highlight of the series, I’m not clear what it’s doing here—Reign of Terrorisn’t a Columbia picture. Not to complain; any opportunity to see this fascinating work should be seized.