Celebrating 100 Years of Columbia Pictures with an Iconic Film from Each Decade

BY Rachel HoPublished Feb 22, 2024

From the earliest days of studio founders Joe Brandt and brothers Harry and Jack Cohn working the sidelines to becoming one of the major film studios in the industry, Columbia Pictures has ridden the ever-changing wave of Hollywood. Along the way, they've spanned the silent era to the talkies, black-and-white to Technicolor, film to digital, westerns to superheroes; the history of the studios that make up the film industry tells the story of cinema itself. 

As Columbia Pictures celebrates 100 years of bringing audiences countless hours of laughter and tears, Exclaim! looks back on the 10 films that helped define each decade of Columbia's history to date.

1930s: It Happened One Night (1934)
Directed by Frank Capra

No other director defines the early years of Columbia Pictures better than Frank Capra. The legendary filmmaker's relationship with the studio began early on, as he worked a variety of jobs for Harry Cohn when the studio was still known as Cohn-Brandt-Cohn Film Sales Corporation. Following a lucrative partnership with silent star comedian Harry Langdon, Capra returned to the now-named Columbia Pictures directing his first film for the studio in 1928 with That Certain Thing. Capra would go on to direct some of his most successful films with Columbia, but perhaps the most significant picture for both director and studio was 1934's It Happened One Night.

Starring Claudette Colbert as a bratty socialite who falls in love with a freshly fired newspaper reporter played by Clark Gable, It Happened One Night endures as one of the greatest films ever made. A romantic comedy that narrowly evaded the Code Era restrictions (the film was released only four months prior to the then-named Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America's strict enforcement of the Code), It Happened One Night delightfully mixes screwball antics with lively dialogue, creating a timeless classic. The film also marks the first big Academy Award winner for Columbia, sweeping the “Big Five” categories (Best Picture, Director, Actor, Actress and Adapted Screenplay) — the first time a film accomplished such a feat, and still one of only three to do so.

1940s: Gilda (1946)
Directed by Charles Vidor

After proving to the industry that Columbia Pictures was a force to be reckoned with, Harry Cohn set about wanting to create his (and the studio's) very own homegrown star, which he found in Margarita Cansino, a young dancer who had begun appearing in small roles for other studios. In 1937, the young actress would sign a seven-year contract with Columbia, undergo a makeover which included pushing back her hairline, dying her tresses red, and anglicizing her name to Rita Hayworth.

Considered one of the biggest stars of the Golden Age, Hayworth enjoyed success spanning nearly four decades across 61 films, with Gilda being her most famous. In her first leading role, Hayworth's portrayal of the femme fatale elevated the actress's pin-up reputation and also displayed her talents as an actress, incorporating a nuance to the character trope not typically seen.

Although Hayworth experienced great difficulties and hardship in her life and career, her strength and resilience should be remembered above all else — on camera and off.

1950s: On the Waterfront (1954)
Directed by Elia Kazan

By the 1950s, Columbia's place within the industry was all but cemented. Having proven itself critically and commercially, the studio found itself financially sound in comparison to its competitors after an anti-trust decision in 1948 forced most of Hollywood's heavy hitters to divest themselves of their theatre chains. Since Columbia didn't own any cinemas, it avoided the economic loss suffered by most, and developed groundbreaking films such as From Here to Eternity and The Bridge on the River Kwai. During this time, a crime drama directed by Elia Kazan hit theatres and would become an inspiration for generations of actors to come.

Marlon Brando's portrayal of former prize fighter Terry Malloy in On the Waterfront not only won him his first Academy Award, but also redefined what could be achieved in a screen performance. A revolutionary narrative and performance that showed grit and poetry in the same breath, Brando's turn in the film rewrote the art of acting itself, with his use of method acting changing the landscape of the form.

1960s: Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964)
Directed by Stanley Kubrick

The death of Harry Cohn in 1958 marked the end of an era for the studio. For the first time since its inception, no one within the Cohn family was involved in the company's management, and faced with a new industry without the studio system, Columbia was forced (along with its competitors) to adapt its strategies.

The ‘60s saw Columbia relying on independent producers for new films rather than creating them in-house. As distributors, though, the studio found great success acquiring classics like Lawrence of Arabia and the ever enduring Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.

Directed by Stanley Kubrick, Dr. Strangelove's satirical take on the Cold War has remained unfortunately relevant today. Led by a knockout performance by Peter Sellers, the film is still considered one of the greatest ever made, with tremendous quotes finding popularity with each new generation (“Gentlemen, you can't fight in here. This is the war room!”). A comedy unique in its time, the clever dialogue and sharp performances have often been imitated but never duplicated.

1970s: Taxi Driver (1976)
Directed by Martin Scorsese

Despite the success of Dr. Strangelove, Lawrence of Arabia and Funny Girl, Columbia found itself on the brink of bankruptcy by the 1970s. Following some operational changes, Columbia saw critical and commercial success in the latter half of the decade with releases from New Hollywood directors like Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese, including the latter's 1976 neo-noir Taxi Driver.

Controversial upon its release for graphic violence and the casting of an actual child actor (a 12-year-old Jodie Foster) as a child prostitute, Taxi Driver follows a Vietnam War vet working as a taxi driver and takes an unflinching look at the ugliest and most horrific parts of humanity. The film garnered Academy Award nominations for Foster and Robert De Niro, and has gone on to find an audience among cinephiles and general audiences alike, as well as solidifying the partnership of Scorsese and Robert De Niro.

1980s: Labyrinth (1986)
Directed by Jim Henson

Expansion, acquisitions and ownership changes (including a stint as a Coca-Cola property) continued to define the studio heading into the tubular '80s as box office-friendly fare like The Karate Kid and Ghostbusters kept Columbia's balance sheets in a healthy state. A decade filled with big hair and even bigger teen drama, Columbia would dabble in the Brat Pack era with St. Elmo's Fire, but it's the uber-'80s Labyrinth that stands as the studio's defining film of the decade.

The last feature film directed by Muppets creator Jim Henson, Labyrinth stars a 16-year-old Jennifer Connelly as a teenager who must solve the Goblin King Jareth's labyrinth in order to save her baby brother. Led by David Bowie's extraordinary performance as King Jareth, Labyrinth is unapologetic in its over-the-top, fantastical aesthetic and storyline. While it underperformed at the box office upon its release, it stands today as a cult classic and is celebrated for its coming-of-age themes and special effects.

1990s: Boyz n the Hood (1991)
Directed by John Singleton

With the new millennium approaching, Columbia's position on Poverty Row was all but a footnote in the studio's history. After a multi-billion-dollar sale to Sony in 1989, Columbia found a string of box office success with hits like Sleepless in Seattle and Bad Boys leading the way. In addition to the blockbusters, Columbia's offerings also reflected the challenges facing America during this time, including the groundbreaking Philadelphia and John Singleton's seminal classic Boyz n the Hood.

A coming-of-age drama set in the often-neglected South Central Los Angeles, Boyz n the Hood brought forth a holistic view of gang culture that lent a degree of compassion never before seen in Hollywood. The film launched the careers of Cuba Gooding Jr., Ice Cube (by then already a famous rapper), Laurence Fishburne, Regina King and Angela Bassett, while introducing the irreverent talent of Singleton, who received a Best Director Academy Award nomination for the film. Singleton sadly passed away at the age of 51 in 2019, leaving behind a legacy of honest storytelling by bringing the Black experience to everyone's doorstep and celebrating the culture for its joy and beauty.

2000s: Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000)
Directed by Ang Lee

As Sam Raimi's Spider-Man helped usher in an era of superhero dominance in Hollywood, it was Ang Lee's wuxia adventure film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon that has proven to be one of the studio's biggest hits of the 21st century thus far. Led by established stars in the Hong Kong film industry like Chow Yun-fat and Michelle Yeoh, the film was the international breakthrough hit for the young actress Zhang Ziyi.

The Mandarin-language film captured the imagination of audiences around the world with its stunning visuals and extraordinary fight sequences that highlighted the artistry behind martial arts. Lee's prowess for dynamic and heartfelt storytelling was commended by critics, and the film was nominated for a whopping 10 Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director, ultimately winning Best Foreign Language Film, Best Art Direction and Best Cinematography.

2010s: The Social Network (2010)
Directed by David Fincher

History books will look back on the creation of Facebook as a turning point in our society, for better and for worse. (Okay, probably mostly worse.) David Fincher's cinematic retelling of Mark Zuckerberg, Eduardo Saverin and the Winklevoss twins considers the events leading up to the website's monumental takeover of the world, and the greed and ego that overtook friendship and integrity.

Starring Jesse Eisenberg and Andrew Garfield, The Social Network was lauded for its performances, writing and editing, viscerally bringing to life the naïveté and chaos behind the scenes of the Harvard export, and launching Trent Reznor's career as a film composer. Ranked as one of the best films of the 2010s, the film was heavily awarded, including Academy Award nominations for Eisenberg and Fincher, as well as a win by Aaron Sorkin for Best Adapted Screenplay.

2020s: Living (2022)
Directed by Oliver Hermanus

Today's Hollywood is that of remakes and reboots, as older fare finds new life and international hits come to the West. In the British drama Living, Akira Kurosawa's 1952 classic Ikiru is transported from a post-war Japan to a post-war Britain as a government employee faces a terminal illness. Unlike many adaptations, Living stands as the prototypical example of how to retain the heart and soul of a film while changing its surroundings.

Bill Nighy stars as Mr. Rodney Williams, a near-retirement bureaucrat whose surly outward demeanour is betrayed only by his quiet moments of reflection. Nighy received his first Academy Award nomination for this portrayal, while Kazuo Ishiguro was also nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay. A film that triumphs in the face of high expectations, Living takes the legacy studio into a new century of operation with great compassion and possibilities.

For updates on Columbia Pictures’ 100th Anniversary, visit: www.columbiapictures100.ca

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