United Artists Marks 100 Years of Independent Filmmaking

United Artists Founding Mary Pickford DW

They called themselves United Artists, but the trades called it a “rebellion against established producing and distributing arrangements.” Paramount Pictures founder Adolph Zukor reportedly said, “The inmates have taken over the asylum.” But when Mary Pickford, Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks and D.W. Griffith went before the cameras on Feb. 5, 1919, to announce the creation of a corporation to distribute their own films, they claimed it was necessary to protect their own interests as well as to “protect the exhibitor and the industry from itself.”

It wasn’t any great prescient vision that had brought Hollywood’s biggest moneymakers to this point. Rather, they were reacting — and quickly — to what they saw as a threat to limit their salaries and the quality of their films.

A little backstory: During the 1910s, as the demand for films skyrocketed, production companies, theaters and distribution mechanisms multiplied and, in retrospect, reaction was often the catalyst for change. Production, exhibition and distribution were the three legs of the film business and the participants were often in flux. As with so many companies, First National had come into being as a reaction; in this case to Zukor’s practice of block-booking. If theaters wanted Pickford and Fairbanks films, they had to agree to purchase all of his 100-plus films each year, no matter the quality. In response, 26 small-theater owners banded together in 1917 to buy and distribute films at competitive rates, vowing not to compete against each other. The idea was so successful that a year later, 600 theaters were in the First National cooperative. Then, no longer content just to buy films from others, they created First National Pictures to make their own films. The first big name to sign with them was Pickford, for $1.5 million a year with “complete artistic control.” Chaplin soon joined her there.

Yet a few months later, while First National executives were gathering in Los Angeles in January 1919, Chaplin went before them to request a larger budget and was refused. He was indignant. How could you have “complete artistic control” without control of the budget?

Still, their complaints and dreams might have remained just that if not for rumblings of a merger between the two major distributors, Paramount and First National. Pickford had thrived on playing one company against another to continually increase her income and, if such a merger went through, they all knew it would put a cap on salaries.

The stars hired a Pinkerton agent to go undercover at the Alexandria and soon she was being wined and dined by First National executives bragging about how they were about to take over the industry and bring even the biggest stars to heel. With the rumors confirmed, Pickford, Fairbanks, Chaplin and Griffith were ready to launch their own company.

Fairbanks had befriended William McAdoo, President Wilson’s son-in-law and the former secretary of the Treasury, and he was named their general counsel, adding an air of prestige from outside the industry. McAdoo knew little about making pictures, but in these heady times, Fairbanks, Pickford, Chaplin and Griffith represented the most successful and experienced combine imaginable. They were not naïve; they knew they were risking their careers by committing to put up their own money to produce their own films without hindrance from anyone, including each other, and distribute them through their own company. Other, albeit lesser-known stars, had tried to break loose and ended up bankrupt and quickly forgotten.

“The Big Four,” as they were dubbed, would face many challenges. Their initial plans called to release four films a year each, but that was never attainable. After Pickford and Fairbanks married in 1920, they produced one a year each through the 1920s, but that looked prodigious in comparison with Chaplin and Griffith. Much of their off-time was spent wooing funders, advertisers and theater owners. But although UA’s success was not pre-ordained despite the talent attached, it did release such hits as Chaplin’s “The Gold Rush,” Fairbanks’ “Robin Hood” and Pickford in several titles including “Tess of the Storm Country.”

In the mid-1920s, the experienced producer Joe Schenck came in to run the company. He in turn brought in his extended family of film stars — his wife, Norma Talmadge, his sister-in-law, Constance, and their brother-in-law Buster Keaton. Schenck also had Rudolph Valentino under personal contract and with Keaton’s “The General” and Valentino’s “The Son of the Sheik” doing boffo B.O., the pressure was lifted from the original partners to keep UA flourishing.

While Pickford and Fairbanks built their own studio on Santa Monica Boulevard and Chaplin had his on La Brea, United Artists didn’t own a studio. When new partners such as Gloria Swanson and Sam Goldwyn joined as independent producers of their own films, they made their own arrangements.

Schenck expanded United Artists to include a financing arm to help with the partners’ cash flow and then created another corporation to own and lease theaters to showcase their films competitively. (This is where the one-for-all pledge fell apart: Chaplin refused to contribute to financing the theaters as he claimed he didn’t see a need for himself.)

While United Artists flourished into the late 1920s, the Depression, which began in October 1929, hit Hollywood with a wallop. Yet as the number of production companies contracted to under a dozen, more producers and directors wanted to be independent and came knocking at the United Artists’ door. In the 1930s, Walt Disney distributed his Mickey Mouse cartoons through UA, and Howard Hughes released his films such as “Hell’s Angels” and “Scarface” though the shingle. David O. Selznick committed to releasing his independent productions such as “A Star Is Born,” “Intermezzo,” “Prisoner of Zenda” and “Rebecca” through UA.

Griffith, at his own request, was bought out in 1933 and, two years later, Schenck resigned as chairman after forming Twentieth Century Fox with Darryl Zanuck. While they distributed their films through UA and, along with Goldwyn, provided a substantial amount of the company’s releases over the next few years, Schenck had grown frustrated by the partners’ refusal to consider mergers or expansion. No doubt he would have agreed with Tino Balio, author of two books on the history of UA, that “those traits of independence, flamboyance and melodramatics that characterized the owner’s work as artists could not be checked in the boardroom.”

Fairbanks died in 1939 and Pickford, whose final film as an actress, “Secrets,” had been released in 1933, formed her own production company and continued to serve on the UA board. It wasn’t always easy for her to be the only woman in the room, but men condescended to her at their peril, and she proved herself to be an inspired and informed businessperson. The minutes of board meetings are often punctuated with her appeals to remember the lowest-paid crew members, whom she called “our people” and credited with the company’s success. She had actively helped steer UA from its inception through the mid-1950s when the two remaining original partners finally agreed to sell the company.

All that was far in the future on that day in 1919 when “the Big Four” irrevocably altered the balancing act between production, distribution and exhibition.