United Artists was founded in 1919 by Mary Pickford, Charles Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks (1883–1939), and D. W. Griffith (1875–1948) as a means of insuring control over the marketing of their pictures. Capitalizing on their fame in the movies, Pickford, Chaplin, and their partners had risen from the ranks of studio employees to become heads of their own independent production companies. They enjoyed considerable autonomy over their work—from the writing of the scenario to the final cut—and released their films through leading companies, which provided them with production financing and a share of the profits. But rumors of a consolidation in the industry by companies that intended to cap salaries placed the stars on the defensive. By forming United Artists they would now have to secure their own financing and oversee the selling of their pictures, but the risks were worth taking to guarantee their independence.
During the early years of UA's existence, the founders delivered some of the finest pictures of their careers. The premiere UA release was Douglas Fairbanks' His Majesty, the American , which was released on 1 September 1919. Fairbanks went on to produce such swashbucklers as Robin Hood (1922) and The Thief of Bagdad (1924). Pickford's best-remembered pictures were Pollyanna (1920), Little Lord Fauntleroy (1921), and a remake of Tess of the Storm Country (1922). Griffith delivered Broken Blossoms (1919), Way Down East (1920), and Orphans of the Storm (1921), among others. Chaplin came through with the influential A Woman of Paris (1923) and his acknowledged masterpiece, The Gold Rush (1925).
Despite this record of excellence, which earned a reputation for the company as the Tiffany's of the industry, United Artists confronted a product shortage from the outset. The company was geared to release one picture a month—three pictures a year from each of the owners—to operate efficiently. But production progressed slower than had been anticipated. Chaplin, for example, decided to produce full-length features exclusively, rather than continue with two- or three-reelers; and Fairbanks began producing costume spectaculars, which cost more and took longer to make.
To fill out the roster, UA attempted to bring in other big-name stars as partners without success, since they were either tied to the major studios or had no stomach for the risks of independent production. Not until Joseph M. Schenck (1878–1961), producer and entrepreneur, was brought in as a partner in 1924 to reorganize the company did circumstances improve. Schenck brought three stars with him under contract—his wife, Norma Talmadge (1897–1957); his sister-in-law, Constance Talmadge (1900–1973); and his brother-inlaw, Buster Keaton (1895–1966). To solve the product crisis, Schenck formed Art Cinema Corporation to finance and produce pictures for UA distribution. This company was owned by Schenck and his business associates and was not a UA subsidiary. Art Cinema went on to deliver over fifty pictures to UA. Among them were three Buster Keaton masterpieces, The General (1927), College (1927), and Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928).
To streamline operations and save on overhead expenses, Schenck proposed merging the company with the distribution arm of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, which was then a fledgling producer-distributor connected to the Loew's theater chain. But Chaplin vetoed the plan, fearing that MGM would use UA's films to force what he considered its inferior product on exhibitors, among other reasons. To survive the battle for the theaters, which was being waged by several companies to gain control of the exhibition market, Schenck proposed forming a United Artists theater chain to insure access to first-run houses at favorable rental rates for the company's films. Chaplin vetoed this proposal as well, with the result that in June 1926 Schenck and his UA partners on their own formed the United Artists Theatre Circuit, a publicly-held company, separate from United Artists, which went on to construct or acquire first-run theaters in the major metropolitan areas. Schenck had other plans to strengthen United Artists, such as a proposed merger with Warner Bros., but United Artists would remain what it was founded to be, what Chaplin doggedly insisted on its being, a distribution company for top-quality independent productions.
Nonetheless, Schenck's reorganization had stabilized the company and created a niche in which United Artists could function effectively throughout the studio era. The company had established distribution outlets in most overseas markets and was firmly ensconced as one of Hollywood's eight major motion picture companies, albeit the smallest. Of the original founders, only Charlie Chaplin remained active as a producer during the 1930s. The star system was now firmly controlled by the majors and the day of the actor-producer had passed. Chaplin therefore was an anomaly in the business. He not only produced his pictures using his own money, but he also wrote, directed, and starred in them as well—a one-man show—that included City Lights (1931), Modern Times (1936), The Great Dictator (1941), and Monsieur Verdoux (1947).
UA's most active producers during the 1930s were Samuel Goldwyn (1882–1974), Twentieth Century Pictures, Alexander Korda (1893–1956), David O. Selznick (1902–1965), Walter Wanger (1894–1968), and a few others. Three of these producers, Goldwyn, Korda and Selznick, also became partners in the company. As a group, they constituted a new breed of independent—the "creative" producer. The creative producer operated in much the same way as the head of a major studio, only on a much smaller scale. Sam Goldwyn, for example, owned a small studio in Hollywood, where he made forty pictures during the decade, all of which he personally financed. His production staff included some of the best talent around—art director Richard Day (1896–1972); cinematographer Gregg Toland (1904–1948); music director Alfred Newman (1901–1970); directors John Ford (1894–1973), Leo McCarey (1898–1969), King Vidor (1894–1982), and William Wyler (1902–1981); and writers Sidney Howard (1891–1939), Elmer Rice (1892–1967), Maxwell Anderson (1888–1959), Lillian Hellman (1906–1984), Ben Hecht (1894–1964), Robert E. Sherwood (1896–1955), and S. N. Behrman (1893–1973). What linked Goldwyn and the other producers to UA was the distribution contract, a document guaranteeing that UA would sell and promote their pictures in all the principal markets of the world. In return for this service, UA charged its producers a distribution fee to recoup its marketing expenses and to generate a profit.
United Artists released relatively few pictures each year, from fifteen to twenty. As a group, they could be labeled prestige pictures. As understood by the trade, the prestige picture was not a genre; rather, the term designated production values and promotion treatment. A prestige picture was typically a big-budget special of any genre based on a presold property and injected with plenty of star power, glamorous and elegant trappings, and elaborate special effects.
Sam Goldwyn produced a series of Eddie Cantor (1892–1964) musicals starting with Whoopee! (1930), which was shot in two-strip Technicolor and marked Busby Berkeley's entry into the movies, and two prestige films based on Pulitzer Prize–winning works, King Vidor's Street Scene (1931) and John Ford's Arrowsmith (1931). Goldwyn sustained his reputation as a producer of class pictures by making three pictures in collaboration with William Wyler, Dodsworth (1936), Dead End (1937), and Wuthering Heights (1939). Wuthering Heights , Goldwyn's last picture for UA, was one of the most highly admired pictures of the decade, winning the New York Film Critics award for best picture, among other honors. Based on Emily Brontë's strange tale of a tortured romance, it starred Laurence Olivier as the demon-possessed Heathcliff and Merle Oberon as his beloved Cathy.
Twentieth Century, which was owned by Joseph Schenck and Darryl Zanuck (1902–1979), a former Warner Bros. producer, supplied UA with quality fare from 1933 until it merged with Fox Films in 1935, including Alfred Werker's The House of Rothschild (1934) and Richard Boleslawski's Les Miserables (1935). The British producer-director Alexander Korda (1893–1956) became a partner in UA in 1935 after delivering The Private life of Henry VIII (1933), an historical biopic starring Charles Laughton, which earned Laughton an Academy Award ® for Best Actor and sparked a brief interest in the United States in British costume pictures and historical biopics. Korda went on to deliver such films as The Scarlet Pimpernel (1934), René Clair's The Ghost Goes West (1935), and The Four Feathers (1939).
In his attempt to compete with the very best in the business, David O. Selznick (1902–1965) produced a series of prestige picture for UA that included The Prisoner of Zenda (John Cromwell, 1937), A Star Is Born (William Wellman, 1937), and Rebecca (Alfred Hitchcock, 1940). Selznick's biggest hit, Gone With The Wind (1939), was given to MGM in return for Clark Gable's services and much-needed production financing. After being made a partner in UA in 1941, Selznick produced three hits, Since You Went Away (Cromwell,1944), I'll Be Seeing You (William Dieterle, 1944), and Spellbound (Hitchcock, 1945).
Always in search of films from any appropriate source to fill out its roster, UA set up a production company in 1936 for Walter Wanger, a former studio producer turned independent like Selznick. With financing guaranteed by UA, Wanger produced three hits, Cromwell's Algiers (1938), Ford's Stagecoach (1939), and Hitchcock's Foreign Correspondent (1940).
In a category of his own, Walt Disney (1901–1966) released his phenomenally successful Mickey Mouse and Silly Symphony cartoons through the company from 1932 to 1937. Flowers and Trees (1932), The Three Little Pigs (1933), The Tortoise and the Hare (1934), Three Orphan Kittens (1935), and The Country Cousin (1936) won an Academy Award ® for Disney each year he was at UA.
The ranks of independent producers swelled during World War II as a result of greater demand for entertainment by the public and a drop in production by the studios due to shortages of material and studio personnel. And since independent production became less speculative, commercial banks were willing to at least provide partial production financing under certain conditions. Most of the new entrants were speculators of various stripes, but they also included the occasional star or director who was fleeing the servitude of the studio system. UA opened its doors to many independent producers, some of them far below the company's previous standards. The few pictures that perpetuated UA's reputation in this period, in addition to Chaplin's Great Dictator , were In Which We Serve (Noel Coward,1942), Stage Door Canteen (Sol Lessor, 1943), and The Story of G.I. Joe (Lester Cowan, 1945).
UA's best known pictures after the war were produced by old hands, the eccentric millionaire Howard Hughes (1905–1976), who had been dabbling in production since the 1930s, and UA founder Charles Chaplin, who kept up his pace of producing, directing, and starring in a film once every five to six years. In 1946, UA agreed to distribute Hughes's The Outlaw starring Jane Russell, a picture which Hughes had briefly released on his own in 1943 without a Production Code seal. Hughes made the required cuts for UA, but after the film was released he bypassed the company and launched a vulgar advertising campaign that prominently focused on Jane Russell's breasts. After the Production Code Administration (PCA) revoked its approval of the movie, Hughes brought suit against the organization charging unlawful restraint of trade, but he lost his fight. Although the major circuits barred the film, independent houses were more than happy to play it, and The Outlaw went on to gross more than any other picture UA had in release.
Chaplin's Monsieur Verdoux (1947) was controversial for entirely separate reasons. Critical reaction by the press to this picture, in which Chaplin abandoned his famous tramp to play a cynical middle-class bank clerk who happened also to be a modern Bluebeard, was hostile. Chaplin's popularity had sunk to its all-time low as a result of a paternity suit he was involved in and rising resentment over Chaplin's alleged pro-communist stand during the war. He was asked if he was a communist, he was asked why he had not become an American citizen, and he was accused of being unpatriotic. John Rankin, a member of the House Committee on Un-American Activities, called for Chaplin's deportation. Following a hate campaign, led primarily by the Catholic War Veterans and the American Legion, and boycotts of the picture, Chaplin ordered it withdrawn from distribution. Even though it grossed more than $1.5 million abroad, Chaplin felt that the UA sales force was responsible for its poor domestic showing, with the result that he lost confidence in his company.