The Early History of United Artists

“So, the lunatics have taken control of the asylum.”

This famous quote from Richard A. Rowland (head of Metro Pictures Corporation), about the formation of United Artists (UA), may seem more than a little dismissive, but it held a certain amount of truth. Getting four people to agree on something is difficult, but when those four people are actors, producers, and directors, with the egos that often go with those professions, the odds are even less in their favor. But, that’s exactly what Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, and D. W. Griffith had to do when they formed the UA.

As with many great things, United Artists was born out of necessity, a necessity for artistic and financial freedom for the more visionary members of the film industry. In 1919 the silent era was in its heyday and the studio system had given way to the star system. Naturally, the studios didn’t like paying high prices for the now famous actors, however, and thus a merger was planned to put an end to the star system, thereby making it impossible for actors to benefit from bidding wars between studios with which they were earning ever-larger salaries.

Rumors of the merger reached the ears of Chaplin, Pickford, Fairbanks, and Griffith who decided they needed to act, and act fast. The formation of UA in 1919 was to change the film industry forever as it was a distribution company for independent producers that wasn’t designed to turn a profit—a completely alien idea to an industry that seems to be almost exclusively concerned with wanton profiteering. For its founders, however, UA was a labour of love as well as a necessity.

There were three major things that set UA apart from the big studios. First, UA wouldn’t take part in block booking (an underhanded practice whereby studios rented their films in bulk to theaters, which meant theater owners had to rent the bad films to get the good ones). The founders felt that each film should stand on its own merits, which meant better quality films had to be produced. Secondly, UA set a low distribution fee for producers; this was intended to aid independent producers who had to drum up funding for their films (this later backfired and nearly caused the company to go under). The third major difference was that all four founding members had to agree on each decision before it was acted upon. This too caused problems as the founders’ vision for UA changed with the growing industry.

At its formation, since the founders were still tied to contracts with the big studios, UA lacked the output of popular films that it needed to break even. This, combined with UA’s low distribution fees, saw the new studio starting off in the red. In order to keep UA privately owned and under the control of the four founders, D. W. Griffith started a public film company with the hope of bringing in much-needed revenue. This attempt failed and led to Griffith’s departure from UA in 1924. Griffith ultimately signed a deal with Paramount. 

Despite this major loss, things began to look up for UA with the addition of Joseph M. Schenck, a successful independent producer who brought a few stars in with him, most notably, his brother-in-law, Buster Keaton.

The massive changes in the film industry in the late 1920s (such as the introduction of sound) put financial pressure on UA and many theater chains. In order to keep pace with the changing industry Schenck suggested either joining forces with another distributor or creating a UA-operated theater chain. Chaplin vetoed both of these ideas, so Pickford and Fairbanks joined Schenck in creating the United Artists Theater Circuit, without Chaplin’s involvement. This company is now part of Regal Theaters.

The 1930s were good to UA and saw the release of several successful films, as well as a handful of Disney’s successful Mickey Mouse cartoons. By this point Fairbanks and Pickford had stopped making movies as they felt they couldn’t make the transition from silent films to the talkies. Chaplin was now the only founding member actively making product for the company.

As well as adding to the quality films distributed by UA in the 1930s, producer Sam Goldwyn also helped the industry to evolve by getting various departments to work together in the filmmaking process, instead of working independently of each other, as they had previously. Goldwyn’s system of film-making has now become the standard in Hollywood.

During the Great Depression Schenck came to the rescue again, joining forces with Daryl Zanuck, formerly of Warner Bros., and forming Twentieth Century Pictures in an effort to produce the much needed films for UA to distribute (Twentieth Century later merged with Fox Film Corp. to form Twentieth Century Fox).

After over 30 years of continued ups and down, spanning two World Wars and The Great Depression, the impending threat of bankruptcy convinced the remaining founders to hand over control of UA to Arthur B. Krim and Robert S. Benjamin. This new team was able to turn UA around and bring it back to profitability with the help of two little films you may have heard of: The African Queen (1951) and High Noon (1952).

The early years of UA may appear, in retrospect, to have been a failure, financially at least, but its influence on Hollywood is undeniable. The independent market continues to produce exciting films and to nurture talented new actors and directors, and we have UA to thank for playing a big part in its existence. Although film distribution is typically handled by the big guys, UA gave the small guys a voice when films were silent; a voice that is still heard today.

This article originally appeared in the December 2011 / January 2012 issue of New Empress Magazine.