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What, then, are we really celebrating with a program like the two-week retrospective of films beginning at the Tivoli this Friday to commemorate the 75th anniversary of Columbia Pictures? The end of an era? The endurance of a corporate name, even though the company itself is now just one tiny component of the vast Sony empire? A chance to see a few popular classics on a big screen again? A new chapter in the revision of film history? The answer is: all of the above.

Columbia has always held an odd position among the film studios. Founded in 1922 as CBC Film Sales Corp. (this is actually the 75th anniversary of its 1924 name change) by Joe Brandt, Jack Cohn and Harry Cohn (the last renowned as the crassest and most unpleasant figure ever to head a major film studio), it began as part of Poverty Row, the handful of small studios whose films were made cheaply, quickly, but seldom well. In its early years, Columbia specialized in cheap back-lot Westerns and comedies. Though it would occasionally borrow a few bigger performers from the other studios for a slightly more expensive production, its low-budget reputation was hard to shake.

The man who did more than anyone to turn Columbia into a major studio was Frank Capra, the studio's golden boy in the 1930s. Capra had been hired by Harry Cohn in the late 1920s (reportedly because his was the first name on an alphabetical list of unemployed directors) and quickly became the studio's most important asset. After a string of minor successes, Capra's 1933 film Lady for a Day brought the studio its first major Academy Award nomination; a year later, he made an even bigger score when It Happened One Night won awards for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor and Best Actress, a record sweep that would remain unmatched for 42 years. Capra's films of the '30s -- Lost Horizon, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town -- balanced by a successful string of screwball comedies such as Howard Hawks' Twentieth Century, Leo McCarey's The Awful Truth and John Ford's The Whole Town's Talking, took the studio off Poverty Row for good.

Despite its string of successes, Columbia's image remained modest (a new reference book defines the studio as "humble yet spirited"), never quite developing as distinct a character as high-class MGM or idealistic Warner Bros. The talent pool was never especially deep; Columbia instead allowed directors and performers from other studios a chance to make some of their best films rather than develop a "studio style" of its own. Harry Cohn's energy kept Columbia in competition, but his notorious tastelessness diminished much of what it produced. Even its major stars -- Rita Hayworth, Glenn Ford, Kim Novak, William Holden -- appear in retrospect to be either sorely limited in personality or tragically misused when compared to a Bogart, a Cooper or a Grant.

As the '50s saw the studios dismantling their production facilities while simultaneously scrambling to preserve a shrinking audience more inclined to stay home and watch television, Columbia's response was typically unprovocative. As other studios developed widescreen processes and invested in costly epics such as Ben-Hur and Land of the Pharaohs, Columbia solidified its relationships with independent producers like Stanley Kramer and Sam Spiegel, resulting in a string of successes like From Here to Eternity and The Bridge on the River Kwai. As the others sought to differentiate themselves from the new small-screen medium, Columbia invested heavily in a television arm, Screen Gems.

In recent years, Columbia has continued to follow a path of tortoiselike persistence, despite several changes in ownership and management. Ironically, the modern Columbia is probably the most well-documented of any major film corporation, thanks to a series of scandals, internal squabbles and bestselling books. The David Begelman embezzlement scandal, the sales (first to Coca-Cola, then to Sony), the brief reigns of British producer David Puttnam and the Peter Guber-Jon Peters teams, the colossal hits (Ghostbusters, Men in Black, Air Force One) and equally splashy failures (Ishtar, Annie, Leonard Part 6) -- these have turned financial writers and business analysts into the Hedda Hoppers and Louella Parsonses of the post-studio era.

The studio has chosen a dozen films to represent its history in this series: David Lean's Lawrence of Arabia (March 26-27), Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove and Dennis Hopper's Easy Rider (March 28-29), Frank Capra's It Happened One Night and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (March 30), Lean's The Bridge on the River Kwai (March 31), Stanley Kramer's Guess Who's Coming to Dinner? and Sydney Pollack's Tootsie (April 1), Steven Spielberg's Close Encounters of the Third Kind (director's cut) (April 2-4), Fred Zinnemann's From Here to Eternity and Elia Kazan's On the Waterfront (April 5-6) and Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver (April 7-8).

Do the 12 films in the Columbia Pictures retrospective tell the story of the studio's strange journey from Poverty Row to Wall Street? Do they show what made the Lady with the Torch different from her competitors at Universal or Fox? Not really. This is a history of Columbia Pictures that leaves out The Lady from Shanghai and Gilda, ignores Only Angels Have Wings, The Big Heat, In a Lonely Place, His Girl Friday, Born Yesterday and All the Kings Men, and is as silent on the James Stewart-Anthony Mann collaborations of the '50s as it is on the Barbra Streisand-Ray Stark partnerships of the '70s. In place of the best or the most significant films from the studio, this retrospective merely skims off the most popular, using last year's highly questionable American Film Institute "100 Best Films" list as its only source. Although it's good to have an opportunity to see Dr. Strangelove, Tootsie or Taxi Driver again, or to watch the epic dimensions of Lawrence of Arabia and Close Encounters of a Third Kind (now in something called "the director's cut," the third or fourth version to appear in the last two decades) unroll on a large screen, they're only part of the studio's history (and anomalies within its history at that). As much as we should be grateful for any interest in the cinematic past in this age of disposable DVDs, we should never allow film history to be rewritten by a video-sponsored popularity poll.

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