My dear friend Hendrikje McClymont popped her head in the door to freshen up your film history by writing a few words on an extremely significant chapter of the film industry – she assures me she is not done and will be turning further pages of the history books soon. Enjoy her piece and watch this space…
1919, the first World War had ended less than a year earlier. The USSR was established, the treaty of Versailles was signed, the Weimar Republic established the German constitution, the Senate passed the woman’s Suffrage bill and the Bambino placed a curse on the Boston Red Sox, which would last for 86 years. Hollywood wasn’t immune to change in that year either. The motion picture industry was one of the fastest growing at the time and had begun to produce stars who had grown in public popularity to be larger than the individual movies they performed in.
Mary Pickford, Charlie Chaplin and Douglas Fairbanks were three of the most significant. Fairbanks taught Errol Flynn how to buckle his swash therewith inventing the blockbuster, Pickford, the silent film ingénue was perhaps America’s first sweetheart, while Chaplin created the comedy of pathos, still copied today.
The four biggest studios created the studio system, intended to lock actors into long term contracts such that their popularity could be exploited. Such was the overbearing nature of the system that actors could effectively be locked out of work if they didn’t take the contracts on offer. Pickford, Chaplin and Fairbanks teamed with innovative but controversial director D.W. Griffith to force a change. They sought more than just being celebrated by the movie loving masses, their goal was to establish an environment that gave themselves and other actors and directors more financial gain and artistic control over the production and distribution of their movies.
In 1919, they created United Artists.
The success of UA was not just due to the popularity of the founders, Pickford was an outspoken feminist and skilled businesswoman. UA was fundamentally disadvantaged in that they were not publicly traded and as such could not raise funding for new projects in advance. Pickford found a creative work around. She leveraged the distributors into pre-funding the productions, cash flow was tight, but it worked. Stars including Buster Keaton, Gloria Swanson and Rudolph Valentino flocked to join UA. They gained further financial support from producers like Howard Hughes, Samuel Goldwyn and Joseph Schenk.
Although UA underwent many corporate transitions throughout the years (the original founders sold their shares in in the early fifties), their vision of producing great films continued with movies like The African Queen, High Noon, Witness for the Prosecution, West Side Story, Some Like It Hot and the first franchises including James Bond and The Pink Panther.
United Artist films made waves at the Academy Awards as well with Midnight Cowboy in ‘69, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest in ‘75, Rocky in ’76, and Annie hall in ’77. A series of flops coupled with crippling internal politics brought the company to its knees, culminating in the acquisition by MGM in 1981. The coupe de grace came in 1992 when the French bank, Credit Lyonnais acquired the company and changed its name back to Metro Goldwyn Mayer Inc., thus erasing the dream of the founders. Or did they?
Over a decade later UA was re-positioned as an “art house” film producer. Critically acclaimed movies such as Bowling for Columbine in ’02, Hotel Rwanda in ’05 and Capote in ’06 came out of UA. In spite of the fact that UA no longer exists in its original form, the legacy concepts that it created are alive and well and existing in today’s Hollywood. No one can conceive of today’s stars George Clooney or Julia Roberts being leveraged by the studio, if anything it’s the other way around. Indie movie houses continue to provide the creative platform for movies with something important to say while finding a way to stay profitable.
Last but not least, if you want to get a feel for what the founders of UA once envisioned, go and check out the newly renovated American Artist cinema at the original UA HQ in Downtown LA. Now incorporated into the trendy ACE hotel, When you stand in the main theater, you realize that it was created as a house of worship, worship of moving pictures, worship for the new art form.
Hendrikje McClymont can be found in her less busy spells on Twitter: @GingerHenny