Tag Archives: Actor – Lillian Gish (1893-1993)

Set up in 1919 by Hollywood’s elite stars, UNITED ARTISTS movie studio originated many of the industry’s great individual films for decades. Its visionary corporate identity contracted self-financed, self-distributed independent production companies and gave them influence and freedom of artistic expression away from the major studios’ house styles and so invigorated the genre.

FEATURE image: United Artists founders in 1919, (Left to right) Douglas Fairbanks (1883-1939), Mary Pickford (1892-1979). Charlie Chaplin (1889-1977) and D.W. Griffith (1875-1948). 

By John P. Walsh

It is debated whose brainchild the United Artists Corporation (UA), founded in 1919, ultimately was. Was it Mary Pickford’s and Douglas Fairbanks’ theatrical lawyer and a later UA executive who advised them to found an artist-controlled movie company or UA’s first president, a former U.S Treasury Department official, who suggested Douglas Fairbanks start a distribution company for his films or was it a publicity man for one of the majors who suggested to UA’s first general manager to create a movie studio run by artists for artists – or, finally, was it, as Charlie Chaplin claimed, by way of his elder half-brother Sydney who had hired a pretty girl to spy on another studio’s imminent potential merger and whose culled information led directly to founding their own?1 Whatever or whoever was the conduit or original source, in 1919, four of Hollywood’s legendary film artists — actors Douglas Fairbanks (1883-1939), Fairbanks’ future wife, Mary Pickford (1892-1979), Charlie Chaplin (1889-1977), and “the Father of Film Technique” director D.W. Griffith (1887-1948)- formed United Artists, one of Hollywood’s name-brand film studios.

In April 1918 Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, and Charlie Chaplin, traveled the country selling Liberty Loans (war bonds). The adulation these stars received everywhere during the tour worked to convince them and others that it was time for them to establish an artist-controlled movie studio which occurred months later in February 1919. Public Domain.

Distinct from other movie studios, UA was especially founded by artists for artists. From His Majesty, The American in 1919 starring Douglas Fairbanks that premiered in New York City at the newly-built Capitol through to The Underdoggs scheduled for 2024, a comedy starring Snoop Dog – and many hundreds of major motion pictures in between – United Artists’ impact on the entertainment industry and culture has been highly significant in that its range of film product envisioned and presaged the artist/ producer-driven film industry that is normal today. Yet United Artists was also more as it allowed independents to make their films free of heavy-handed interference from the higher ups which was often the case at the majors. Such freedom in the marketplace could be risky and United Artists’ survival through the decades is nothing other than extraordinary.

Alexandria Hotel in downtown Los Angeles where Pickford, Chaplin, Fairbanks and Griffith met in the dining room in January 1919 to finalize plans for the founding of their artist-controlled movie studio called United Artists. Built in 1906, the Alexandria Hotel was a relatively new hotel in 1919 sitting on the southwest corner at 501 South Spring Street.Alexandria Hotel (Los Angeles)” by Los Angeles is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

The following artist corporate manifesto was released to the press on February 5, 1919. Over 100 years later it remains prescient for many reasons including a warning about the use of technology in filmmaking (“machine-made entertainment”) and freedom of choice for the consumer in terms of viewership (“not force[ing] upon him program films he does not desire”) – A new combination of motion picture stars and producers was formed yesterday, and we, the undersigned, in furtherance of the artistic welfare of the moving picture industry, believing we can better serve the great and growing industry of picture productions, have decided to unite our work into one association, and at the finish of existing contracts, which are now rapidly drawing to a close, to release our combined productions through our own organization. This new organization, to embrace the very best actors and producers in the motion picture business, is headed by the following well-known stars: Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, William S. Hart, Charlie Chaplin and D.W. Griffith productions, all of whom have proved their ability to make productions of value both artistically and financially. We believe this is necessary to protect the exhibitor and the industry itself, thus enabling the exhibitor to book only pictures that he wishes to play and not force upon him (when he is booking films to please his audience) other program films which he does not desire, believing that as servants of the people we can thus serve the people. We also think that this step is positively and absolutely necessary to protect the great motion picture public fromthreatening combinations and trusts that would force upon them mediocreproductions and machine-made entertainment.2

In a short 30 years, by the early 1950’s, with the demise of the studio system and the rise of broadcast television, UA would bring this visionary independent investor and producer driven film product to the world as the business template for how all films in and outside of Hollywood would be made. In 1919, United Artists was originally conceived as a prestige studio that distributed some of the industry’s best larger budget pictures. By the 1940’s it had evolved to add less expensive film products that met audience demands and kept the studio’s distribution networks humming. As capital and power tends towards concentration in a capitalist economy, the notion for a nimble, relatively low overhead movie-making patron facilitating production planning and distribution of films by independent producers proved a vital idea whose relevancy renewed itself through the years.3

In contrast to the major studios, such as MGM, Paramount, Fox, RKO, and Warner Bros., which had production, distribution and exhibition arms, United Artists focused solely on distribution. Unlike the majors, United Artists had no star stable, no studio facilities to speak of, no directors, no technicians, no chain of theaters, no house style, but, functioned as a distribution outlet for independently-made productions. In that way, UA was responsible for all phases of an independent production company’s film releases. This included the layers of market testing desired, the planning (including some financing) and booking of production releases, sundry marketing, and settlement matters following release. Distribution duties ranged from pre-production to marketing assistance as well as a bird’s-eye evaluation during production. Post-production distribution of motion pictures to the country 23,000 theatres in the 1930’s was an umbrella term for what was really a chain of complex business actions starting at the beginning of a film project to its being shown flickering on a local screen.

In the beginning: the 1920’s.

Throughout the silent era’s heyday and ultimate demise—the 1920’s—UA was clearly distributing films of its four founders which was a large reason for the company’s genesis. This soon included bankable silent film stars, such as Gloria Swanson (1889-1983). Lillian Gish (1893-1993), Buster Keaton (1895-1966) and Norma Talmadge (1894-1957). UA had no shortage of money-making hits in the roaring ‘20’s. There were melodramas such as Griffith’s Broken Blossoms (1919) to his Way Down East (1921) and comedies starring Mary Pickford, including Pollyanna (1920) and Little Annie Rooney (1925). Douglas Fairbanks starred in UA crowd-pleasers in roles that in the 1930’s sound era was played by Errol Flynn, such as The Mark of Zorro (1920), The Three Musketeers (1921), Robin Hood (1923) and The Thief of Bagdad (1924).

Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. was a swashbuckling film hero of the 1920’s. Made for $2 million, The Thief of Bagdad in 1924 was the most expensive movie ever made up to that time. Douglas Fairbanks Pictures had simply outdone itself since his 1922 silent film, Robin Hood, made for $1.5 million had been the most expensive motion picture ever made (see – Tino Balio, Grand Design: Hollywood As A Modern Business Enterprise, 1930-1939, New York: Scribner’s Sons, 1993, p. 205). For The Thief of Bagdad, based on the Arabian Nights stories, there were monumental sets constructed – and a fantastic magic carpet ride- which set a new standard for Hollywood production values. In a United Artists’ picture directed by Raoul Walsh (1887-1980), Fairbanks played the lead role of Ahmed the Thief, an exotic athletic romantic role. In this leading man type, Fairbanks was joined by Rudolph Valentino (1895-1926), Ramon Novarro (1899-1968), John Barrymore (1882-1942), John Gilbert (1897-1936), Ronald Colman (1891-1951) and Gilbert Roland (1905-1994). Usually playing opposite sexy, mysterious heroines such as Greta Garbo (1905-1990) and Vilma Banky (1901-1991), Douglas Fairbanks played opposite Julanne Johnston (1900-1988) in this silent action film. Douglas Fairbanks Sr.” by twm1340 is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.
United Artists’ 1924 silent classic, The Thief of Bagdad, was written, produced and starring Douglas Fairbanks.
Mary Pickford in 1920 in Los Angeles. Pickford was “America’s Sweetheart” and one of the highest paid film stars of the silent era. Pickford made about 50 feature films over which she exercised complete control. As a cofounder of United Artists Pickford exercised direct influence over scores of Hollywood releases for more than 30 years. Portrait by Nelson Evans. Public Domain.
Master of film technique, D.W. Griffith, with Dorothy and Lillian Gish. In 1908 Griffith was paid $5 a day as a scene writer and actor. Seven year later, in 1915, with Griffith’s Birth of a Nation the film director was a millionaire. Made for $100,000, that film generated $18 million at the box office (see – Tino Balio, “Stars in Business: The Founding of United Artists” in The American Film Industry, ed. Tino Balio, University of Wisconsin Press, 1976, p.144).D.W.Griffith, Dorothy & Lilian Gish” by oneredsf1 is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.
Lillian Gish in 1922 by an unknown photographer. In D.W. Griffith’s Broken Blossoms released by United Artists in 1919, Gish plays young girl, Lucy Burrows, who is abused by her alcoholic prizefighting father, and who meets Cheng Huan, a kind-hearted Chinese man who falls in love with her. In a film career that spanned from 1912 to 1987 – including a directorial debut in 1920 – Gish was called the “First Lady of American Cinema.”Lillian Gish by unknown photographer, ca. 1922” by trialsanderrors is licensed under CC BY 2.0.Public Domain.
Buster Keaton in The General, released by United Artists in 1927. The film was an example of a speculative bare bones film studio gone awry. UA president Joseph Schenck had lent Buster Keaton productions (his brother-in law) $750,000 for the silent action film that essentially broke even and prompting UA’s facilitating Buster Keaton’s move to a more watchful MGM for future projects. Screenshot of a film in the Public Domain.

Gloria Swanson, born in Chicago, was, at 26 years old, considered the most bankable silent film star of the time. In a successful career in film since 1918, she signed with United Artists in 1925 with UA chairman of the board Joseph Schenck who was brought in the year before. It was a six-picture distribution deal, and her production company was advanced financial loans through United Artists’ own Art Cinema Corporation subsidiary. Swanson also agreed to invest in UA by buying $100,000 of preferred stock. These financial terms proved difficult for Swanson to repay later and required the services of financier Joseph P. Kennedy (1888-1969) who reconfigured her business portfolio to meet her obligations and produced one of her films.4 Meanwhile, her UA debut, The Love of Sunya, basically broke even. Swanson made two other UA films that were critical and financial successes –Sadie Thompson in 1927 with director Raoul Walsh (1887-1980) and The Trespasser, one of Swanson’s few sound films. The latter was directed by Edmund Goulding (1891-1959) and produced by Kennedy in 1929. For both of these films, Gloria Swanson received Academy Award nominations for Best Actress.

Gloria Swanson, c. 1923. Swanson signed with UA for a six-picture deal. Though the actress adapted well to talkies, Swanson remained the consummate silent screen film star.smokin turban gloria swanson, c.1923” by carbonated is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0. Public Domain.
Kennedy family, c. 1923. Joseph P. Kennedy, an imaginative and successful businessman, was the  financial advisor to Gloria Swanson in 1927 and film producer for Queen Kelly, a United Artists release, in 1928. The future president of the United States, John F. Kennedy, is seated to the left. Public Domain
English film director Edmund Goulding (1891-1959) helping William Twiddy and “Bill” Easton kiss while making a film in 1927. Public Domain.

As its founders first looked to protect their public image and screen product, United Artists opened its doors to an array of outside suppliers expanding their business operations. In 1929 UA produced 18 pictures – a company record – and, in the next few years, was expanding to distribute films of Samuel Goldwyn, Howard Hughes, Joseph Schenck, Walt Disney, Alexander Korda, David O. Selznick, and Walter Wanger, among others. With the onset of talkies in 1927 and the Great Depression in 1929 the new pressures on the movie studios were enormous. While having built their reputation on silent film stars and watching their film output dwindle 25% in the early 1930’s, UA benefited from the management of Joseph Schenck (1876-1961) who facilitated the release of several popular money-making features by Samuel Goldwyn (Palmy Days), Howard Hughes (The Front Page – nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture), Charlie Chaplin (City Lights) and Alexander Korda (The Private Life of Henry VIII).5

Actor Toby Wing (1915-2001) was an actress and showgirl, once called “the most beautiful chorus girl in Hollwood.” In 1931 she became one of the first Goldwyn Girls and started her film career in Palmy Days (1931), a United Artists release starring Eddie Cantor. In 1933, she was the blonde in 42nd Street in the ‘Young and Healthy’ number with Dick Powell – a film that singlehandedly saved Warner Bros. in the throes of the Great Depression. Sam Goldwyn, imitating the Ziegfeld Follies, looked to create a chorus line for his films where the producer insisted each actress in the Goldwyn line-up “must look as though she had just stepped out of a bathtub. There must be a kind of a radiant scrubbed cleanliness about them which rules out all artificiality.” In a memorable if short film career – Toby Wing retired at 23 years old – her roles were small, often uncredited, and, before the introduction of the Production Code in 1934, frequently risqué. In 1934 she played Consuelo of Claghorne to Cary Grant’s Dr. Maurice Lamar in Paramount Pictures’ rom-com, Kiss and Make-Up and, in 1937, in True Confession, starring Carole Lombard. When, in 1938, at 22 years old, she married “Dick” Merrill, a dashing airmail pilot 20 years her senior, observers didn’t expect the union to last. Wing promptly retired from show business and the newlyweds moved to Florida where Merrill had a reliable Florida-to-New York City route. Wing had two children with Merrill, became a successful real estate agent and the couple stayed together for 44 years until Merrill’s death in 1982. While Toby Wing may have been one more zany platinum blonde that Hollywood and its audiences adored, she possessed an on-screen radiance that found her honored in 1960 with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Toby Wing died in 2001 at 85 years old.Toby Wing; (1915 – 2001)” by Movie-Fan is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.
Adolphe Menjou (1890-1963) starred as newspaper editor Walter Burns in The Front Page produced by Howard Hughes and distributed by United Artists in 1931. When the remake of the film by Howard Hawkes was released in 1940 by Columbia Pictures, it was renamed “His Girl Friday” with Cary Grant in the Walter Burns role. For his performance in 1931, Adolphe Menjou as Walter Burns received an Academy Award nomination as Best Actor.Adolphe Menjou” by twm1340 is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.
Charlie Chaplin’s City Lights (1931) released by his United Artists –here with Virginia Cherrill (1908-1996) as the visioned-impaired flower girl – was a silent film though made in an era when talkies were most wildly popular. While a tender relationship blossomed between Chaplin’s tramp and the flower girl in the film, on the set, in real life, Chaplin almost fired Cherrill for not meeting his threshold for professionalism. Ultimately, Chaplin didn’t follow through on his threat because it would be prohibitively expensive to find and film a replacement. Independent film production companies, even when it is a famous star and movie studio owner, often had to follow a tighter budget than the majors. “City Lights,” one of Chaplin’s classic films, became one of that year’s blockbusters and helped UA make money during the Great Depression. City Lights” by Mgmax is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0.

In 1926, Joseph Schenck in a visionary move, set up the United Artists Theatre Circuit which selectively acquired certain first-run theatres in major markets to show their pictures. This also had the effect of the majors working more accomodatingly with an astute competitor and showed UA pictures in their venues. Yet, since United Artists, as part of its nimble, skeletal organization, did not have a portfolio of theatres like MGM, Paramount, Warner Bros., Fox, and RKO – collectively, these majors owned about 15% of the country’s total number – meant that when times were bad, such as in the Great Depression, UA was not impacted as negatively by the sudden decline in movie attendance or dipping real estate values. Moreover, UA’s low operating overhead included a smaller staff that resulted in less lay-offs in hard times. Under Joseph Schenck, UA started in the 1930’s to invest money in future productions with profit-sharing in addition to simply loaning money to producers to be paid back with interest in post-production (Gloria Swanson’s deal). After Joseph Schenck partnered with Darryl F. Zanuck (1902-1979), formerly of Warner Bros., to form Twentieth Century Pictures in 1933, they produced most of UA’s films in 1933 and 1934. When Schenck left United Artists in 1935 after being rejected for partnership6 he merged with Fox Films to form Twentieth Century-Fox and became its chairman. The situation placed United Artists in a difficult position of having to replace their leading producer. The leadership issue was, arguably, not be addressed by UA until Krim and Benjamin in the 1950’s. After-Schenck’s departure, notable filmmakers slowly fled UA, though this was also the natural condition of the movie business, especially among the independent-minded, to find greener pastures. Disney exited in 1936 and Goldwyn in 1940, both moving to RKO, and William Wanger moved in 1941 to Universal Pictures. Not until in the post-war period did Mary Pickford and Charlie Chaplin look to recruit vibrant new leadership for UA following the demise of the studio system in the late 1940’s and the rise of television at the same time – and would swiftly result in their own departures from the company.

Joseph Schenck. Joseph M. Schenck Productions became Art Cinema Corporation in 1926. In addition to Buster Keaton, Norma Talmadge (Schenck’s wife) and Gloria Swanson, Schenck through United Artists Studio (Art Cinema using Pickford and Fairbanks’ studio) produced scores of pictures in the 1920’s by Rudolph Valentino (The Son of the Sheik in 1926), John Barrymore (The Beloved Rogue in 1927) and Dolores Del Rio (Evangeline in 1929). In 1927 Schenck had brought in Samuel Goldwyn to United Artists. In 1933 Schenck and Darryl F. Zanuck (1902-1979), formerly of Warner Bros., formed Twentieth Century Pictures. In 1935 Schenck and Zanuck left United Artists to form Twentieth Century-Fox studio in 1935. It had been mainly Charlie Chaplin who resisted Schenck’s vision for a more comprehensive movie studio like the majors that hastened Schenck’s ultimate departure as owner-co-founder Chaplin looked to continue the vision of United Artists for pictures that reflected the specialized talents of its independent creators (see – Tino Balio, “Stars in Business: The Founding of United Artists.” in The American Film Industry, ed. Tino Balio, University of Wisconsin Press, 1976, p.151). Public Domain.

Meantime, in 1935 David O. Selznick (1902-1965) joined UA and released his pictures – in 1936, Little Lord Fauntleroy and The Garden of Allah; in 1937, A Star is Born, The Prisoner of Zenda, and Nothing Sacred; in 1938, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Young at Heart; and, in 1939, Made For Each Other and Intermezzo, starring Ingrid Bergman who Selznick introduced to American film audiences. These films were jewels for UA and made a fortune for the studio. Selznick International Pictures’ Gone With The Wind should have been released through UA but part of the condition of MGM lending Clark Gable to the project was that the film would be distributed by Gable’s home movie studio. In the 1940’s Selznick released Rebecca (1940), Since You Went Away (1944), I’ll Be Seeing You (1945) and Spellbound (1945) through UA.

Ingrid Bergman (1915 – 1982) was a 23-year-old Swedish actress when she was introduced to U.S. film audiences after she appeared in David O. Selznick’s 1939 film production, Intermezzo. co-starring Leslie Howard and released by United Artists. “Ingrid Bergman 1915 – 1982” by oneredsf1 is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Other notable films from the 1930s released by UA included Walter Wanger’s Trade Winds (1938), John Ford’s Stagecoach (1939), and Samuel Goldwyn’s Wuthering Heights (1939). Before Goldwyn’s departure in 1940 under circumstances not unlike Joseph Schneck in 1935 – a star producer wanting to buy in or buy out UA- he left to form his own movie enterprise after 50 critically acclaimed and money-making films in 14 years for United Artists.

Carole Lombard (1908-1942), well known screen actress shown on the courthouse steps in Carson City, Nevada, on August 18,1933 following her divorce from her husband, William Powell. A rising comedian originally from Indiana, Lombard appeared in the 1937 Technicolor screwball comedy feature film, Nothing Sacred. From Selznick International Pictures, the film was released by United Artists as part of an agreement Selznick made with the movie studio to release a dozen films in a 10-year period.Carole Lombard 1908 – 1942” by oneredsf1 is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

The War Years.

Seeking diversion, news information, and community camaraderie, America continued to go to the movies in record numbers before and during World War II (1939-1945). In 1938 there were 80 million tickets sold every week.7 The U.S. population in 1940 was about 130 million people and in pre-Pearl Harbor 1941 about 55 million of them (about 40% ) attended the movies each week. 8 In three years, by 1944, weekly attendance numbers nearly doubled to 100 million people – or about 75% of the U.S. population.9 By comparison, starting in the early 1970’s and through to today, the trend is very different. About 10% of the population may attend the movies each week at movie theatres. The early 1940’s was booming times for the movie industry whose contemporaneous films often extolled democracy’s virtues as well as a sentimental Homefront along with providing the outright escapist fare such as Westerns, comedies and musicals. Despite this prosperity UA’s film product was mostly undistinguished in this period and their income fell slightly from the end of the pre-war period.10 After the war, movie attendance levels dropped as people returned to start families, and go back to school and work. In response, the movie industry released less product – and the decline spiraled so that by the end of the decade of the 1940’s UA was in debt and ripe for a takeover.

In 1949 Orson Welles starred in Black Magic, an 18th century costume drama, released by United Artists. Welles played Count Cagliostro, a legendary hypnotist, conjurer, showman and charlatan. The film co-starred Nancy Guild (1925-1999) as Marie Antoinette and her supposed double, Lorenza, whom the Count plots to replace at the Dauphin’s side and control France. The film received mixed reviews. The photograph of Welles in 1949 is from The Third Man.The Third Man (1949)” by twm1340 is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.
Lucille Ball (1911-1989) in the mid 1940’s. Lucy appeared in the stylish atmospheric “Lured,” a United Artists release, in 1947. Directed by Douglas Sirk and co-starring George Sanders, the film noir is a murder mystery set in Victorian England where 8 young women have mysteriously disappeared after answering an advertisement. Lucy is recruited by Scotland Yard to act as bait for the killer who could be one of several suspects. In the 1940’s United Artists included many lower budget and B pictures to meet demand and keep its distribution business humming.Lucille Ball” by manito℡ is licensed under CC BY 2.0.
Jane Russell (1921-2011) appeared in Howard Hughes’ The Outlaw, released by UA in 1946. From the start, the Western, with its sexual overtones, was mired in controversy so that it only gained a wide showing in 1950. Russell, playing Rio and wearing a Howard Hughes’ specially designed bra using his aeronautical engineering skill – all of which became part of the film’s controversy – ended up as an iconic Hollywood sex symbol in the process.Jane Russell (1)” by oneredsf1 is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

Notably, at the end of the decade, beyond film noir with, as Michael F. Keaney points out, “its thematic criminal content” and “Emphasis on obsession, desperation, alienation, and paranoia” that is noted for its “dark visual style,“11 United Artists’ releases contributed to the new willingness after the war and ushering in of the Atomic Age to present serious social issues in films such as Home of The Brave (1949) exploring issues of race bigotry. Produced by Stanley Kramer, directed by Mark Robson, and written by Carl Foreman Kramer and others would continue to explore these social issues in the future.

Lloyd Bridges (1913-1998) played the buddy who was killed in Home of The Brave, a 1949 UA release, that results in a Black GI (James Edwards) returning in a state of shock from their mission in the South Pacific during World War II. Using psychoanalysis conducted by a sympathetic doctor (James Corey), the Black soldier’s reaction is revealed to be the result of racial abuse by one of the platoon leaders. This serious social issue of racial bigotry in American institutions and controversial subjects was part of a Hollywood’s new willingness to confront them in popular film in the late 1940’s.Lloyd Bridges” by YorkieBoy is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0.

The Post War Era: 1950’s to 1970’s. Krim and Benjamin.

In 1951, Arthur B. Krim (1910-1994) and Robert Benjamin (1909-1979), lawyers and producers, were given leadership at UA and, based on their immediate success, soon acquired the movie studio. The duo unabashedly practiced the capital-producer-driven model for making movies which has since defined the film industry business model. United Artists’ visionary low overhead approach from its inception proved prescient for film production outside the once all-encompassing major studio system. Continuance of a skeletal staff which caused independent producers, notably Samuel Goldwyn, to flee from its sometime sloppy operations and no studio space – such could be leased from Pickford and Chaplin – became the de facto method to critical and box office success. 12 When Krim and Benjamin took over United Artists, stockholders gave them three years to make a profit. They did it in six months.13 United Artists devised a strategy based on financing and distribution of independent production that quickly and sustainably transformed the company into an industry leader. The revamped 1950’s United Artists worked with producer Sam Spiegel (1901-1985) and director John Huston (1906-1987) to have two upfront hits – The African Queen in 1951 and Moulin Rouge in 1952. This was followed up by High Noon in 1952 which was nominated for 7 Academy Awards and won four. United Artists was soon working closely with Stanley Kramer, Otto Preminger, Hecht-Hill-Lancaster Productions (actor Burt Lancaster’s production company) and other free-agent actors and others wanting to produce and direct. UA’s innovative and successful business model made the movie studio run by artists for artists the envy of the film industry so that, by the 1960’s, the majors were imitating them.

Humphrey Bogart won his only Oscar for the role of the scruffy captain who falls in love with a spinster missionary (Katharine Hepburn) as they take an old steamer down the Congo River during World War I in The African Queen (1951) released by United Artists under the new management of Krim and Benjamin. John Huston’s script wisely focused on the character development and performances of the two talented leads.
The African Queen (1951)” by Wasfi Akab is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Surviving Founders Mary Pickford and Charlie Chaplin Sell.

By 1956 both Chaplin and Pickford had divested their shares to Krim and Benjamin who came from Eagle-Lion Films. United Artists then made a motion picture, Marty in 1955, that won four Oscars, including Best Picture. In 1957, a social drama, 12 Angry Men, was Oscar-nominated multiple times. There was also The Bachelor Party, an Oscar-nominated follow-up to Marty, in 1957 and Stanley Kramer’s The Defiant Ones in 1958. UA also released some of the era’s great comedies, including Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot in 1959 and The Apartment in 1960 which won the Best Picture Oscar. In the 1960’s Wilder did some of his best work with United Artists including, all of them box office hits, One, Two, Three in 1961, Irma La Douce in 1963, Kiss Me, Stupid in 1964 and The Fortune Cookie in 1966.

Jack Lemmon (right) as Jerry/”Daphne” with admirer Osgood Fielding III (Joe E. Brown) in Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot, released in 1959 by United Artists. Lemmon and Tony Curtis as Joe/”Josephine” gave the two best drag performances of their generation as Some Like It Hot marked the best in post-war comedy.Some Like it Hot, 1959” by thefoxling is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.
Theatre marquee with Billy Wilder (and United Artists) comedy double feature.
Some Like it Hot” by Thomas Hawk is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0.
Marilyn Monroe as Sugar Kowalczyk, a ukulele player and singer, talks to film director Billy Wilder during the filming of a scene in Some Like It Hot. There is no funnier and sexier performance by Monroe in her filmography.Marilyn Monroe Talking with Billy Wilder” by Movie-Fan is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.
Arthur Krim with his wife  Mathilde Krim and President John F. Kennedy at the White House in 1962. Public Domain.

In 1957 Krim and Benjamin did something the founding owners didn’t do and if they had the studio’s history, likely starting in the mid-1930’s, would be very different: they took UA public. Before the 1950’s was finished, United Artists was the envy of the Hollywood motion picture industry, very profitably producing films, television shows, and records.14 Arthur Krim and Robert Banjamin remained with UA until 1978 when, with others, they created Orion Pictures. From 1978 to 1992, Krim attempted to mirror UA’s success with a company that, since 1997, is a subsidiary of MGM.

12 Angry Man” by benjami is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

In 1961, United Artists released West Side Story which won a record 10 Academy Awards including Best Picture. Producer-Director Stanley Kramer with whom United Artists first started working in 1958, released Judgement At Nuremburg in 1961 and It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World which, in its homage to slapstick, featured a Who’s Who ensemble cast of stage and screen comedians and became a box office smash.

One of the best animated opening credits in film history is Saul Bass’s effort for It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad World in 1963 from United Artists.
Director John Sturges’ The Magnificent Seven released by United Artists in 1960 – it was an adaptation of the 1954 Japanese film classic, The Seven Samurai – and a major blockbuster. It featured (pictured above) Yul Brynner and Steve McQueen. “The Magnificent Seven” by MacQ is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.
Brochure for ‘West Side Story’ (brochure)” is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 4.0.
In 1962 United Artists released The Miracle Worker, starring Anne Bancroft as Annie Sullivan, the partially blind teacher of deaf, mute and blind Helen Keller played by Patty Duke, both in Oscar-winning performances. William Gibson’s inspiring theatrical play was altered slightly by the author for the screen that was directed by Arthur Penn.Miracle Worker” by Mike Monteiro is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.
Sidney Poitier (1927-2022) in 1963. Two years later, in 1965, Sidney Poitier became the first Black performer since Hattie McDaniel in Gone With The Wind (MGM. 1939) to win an Oscar for his role as Schmidt, a workman who helps a small group of German nuns build a chapel in Arizona in the United Artists release of Lilies of The Field.1-a-patch-of-blue-sidney-poitier-1965-everett” by jamesjoel is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0.

It was also in 1963 that United Artists backed the first film in the James Bond 007 franchise – Dr. No. Starting in 1964, they also backed The Pink Panther films directed by Blake Edwards and Bud Yorkin. Starting in 1964, Clint Eastwood was well on his way to becoming a star by way of his UA-backed spaghetti westerns. These and other films looked to satisfy the younger movie-going demographic that increasingly desired depictions of sex and violence at the cinema.

The first James Bond ride was this 1961 Sunbeam Alpine Mk1 in Dr. No. In 1961, producers Albert R. Broccoli and Harry Saltzman purchased the filming rights to Ian Fleming’s spy novels. The pair founded Eon Productions and, with financial backing by United Artists, produced Dr. No that was directed by Terence Young and featured Sean Connery as 007.The First James Bond Ride: 1961 Sunbeam Alpine Mk1” by Automotive Rhythms is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.
UA-backed spaghetti westerns in the mid-1960’s made Clint Eastwood a star. They included A Fistful of Dollars (1964), For a Few Dollars More (1965), and The Good, The Bad and The Ugly (1966).Clint Eastwood” by yagisu is marked with Public Domain Mark 1.0.

In 1964 and 1965 United Artists got on board to introduce the Beatles to U.S. film audiences with A Hard Day’s Night and Help. Both films were phenomenal money makers. In 1965 UA had the means to finance, at $20 million, the most expensive film ever made up to that time: George Stevens’ production of The Greatest Story Ever Told. Starring Max von Sydow as Jesus Christ with an ensemble cast of actor favorites, the film was critically acclaimed and received five Academy Award nominations in 1965. However, the film recouped most though not all of its historic initial investment.

The Beatles with Richard Lester, film director of A Hard Day’s Night (1964). The film was released by United Artists in the U.S. on August 11, 1964. It accompanied the Beatles’ hit song of the same name and became a phenomenal hit with U.S film audiences, particularly teenagers around the country who lined up to see it with their friends, often multiple times. The film starred the Fab Four – John, Paul, George, and Ringo – in a rather mundane story whose better purpose was to feature the band mates and about a dozen of their most popular songs.Sept hard-days-night-a-1964-011-beatles-richard-lester-clapperboard-00o-cjr” by bridgevillepennsylvania is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

LATER DEVELOPMENTS and the end of an era.

United Artists was ascendant in the 1960’s. It won 5 best Picture Oscars in the decade – more than any other single movie studio, a remarkable accomplishment. In addition to The Apartment in 1960 and West Side Story in 1961, there was Tom Jones directed by Tony Richardson in 1963, In the Heat of the Night in 1967, and Midnight Cowboy in 1969. United Artists was working with an array of directors such as Norman Jewison (In The Heat of the Night in 1967 and The Thomas Crown Affair in 1968), John Sturges (The Magnificent Seven in 1960), Robert Wise and Blake Edwards.15 In the 1960’s this diverse array of directors and actors and their films from United Artists found their audience although, as production exploded with independent projects, not every movie made its mark.16 Purchased in 1967 by Transamerica Corp. based on its film and television success, Krim and Benjamin were pushed aside for new management as UA continued to manufacture film hits such as The Graduate (Best Picture nominee) and In The Heat of the Night (Best Actor and Best Picture winner). In 1968 UA’s income reached $250 million with a $20 million in profit. Yet, in 1970, the studio lost $35 million. Krim and Benjamin were restored while staff and overhead expenses drastically cut.17

On the set of Midnight Cowboy, a United Artists production, in 1969. Directed by Britisher John Schlesinger, and starring Jon Voight as small-town stud Joe Buck and Dustin Hoffman as down-and-out local hustler Ratso Rizzo, Midnight Cowboy, follows the pair’s unlikely relationship through the seedy, sordid streets of New York City and beyond. Midnight Cowboy won that year’s Best Picture, Best Director and Best Screenplay at the Academy Awards and both Voight’s and Hoffman’s performances were Oscar-nominated for Best Actor, though it was John Wayne who took home Oscar for his role in True Grit that year. Midnight Cowboy was made on a shoestring budget of $3 million and though criticized for being luminous but not accurately observed, with a haunting theme by John Barry and hit rock songs on the soundtrack (“Everybody’s Talkin’” by Nilsson), the film scored over $44 million at the box office. Still, the movie studio’s new owner, insurance giant Transamerica, was not particularly pleased with this UA release and, later, its Last Tango In Paris, because of the X-rated content. It led to the insurance corporation taking action to distance itself from certain of its own films. This fissure ultimately led to an irreparable fracture with the movie studio’s longtime successful management team who were also its former owners and who left United Artists in 1978 to form a competing movie studio. Transamerica put United Artists up for sale two years later.18On the set – Midnight Cowboy – United Artists production, 1969” by dou_ble_you is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

The decade of the 1960’s saw a precipitous decline in movie attendance. What began in 1960 with 44 million Americans, or 25% of the population, going to cinema each week was 15 million in 1970 – or less than 10%. Most of these numbers were concentrated in a few films while the rest languished. The movie studios’ search for the surefire blockbuster intensified. One or two misses could – and did – sink a studio’s fortunes. Though UA was no longer the Oscar leader, the 1970’s was a mostly remarkable decade for United Artists. It made hits such as Fiddler on the Roof (1971) and the James Bond series with Roger Moore and had three Best Picture films in a row – One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975), Rocky (1976) and Annie Hall (1977).19 Significantly, in 1977 and 1979, respectively, Charlie Chaplin and Mary Pickford both passed away – and, with them, some of the last vestiges of old Hollywood.

In 1978, following Chaplin’s death, Krim and Benjamin left UA to form Orion Pictures, looking to make it a worthy heir to what United Artists had been. Their exit evolved with clashes with Transamerica since the insurance giant took over the movie studio in 1967. In 1973, as United Artists took over U.S. sales and distribution of MGM films and its music publishing business, in 1981 Transamerica sold United Artists and its film library to Tracinda Corp. Since Tracinda Corp. owned MGM, these two iconic film studio brands merged to become MGM/UA Entertainment Company with a host of subsidiaries.20

Mid-1970’s – Three Best Picture Oscars in a Row.

Jack Nicholson in 1976. Nicholson won the Oscar for Best Actor for his portrayal of grinning anti-hero McMurphy fighting the system personified by Nurse Ratched played by Louis Fletcher in the United Artists’ 1975 release, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Based on a 1960’s novel and stage play, the film swept the Oscars winning Best Picture, Best Director (Miloš Forman), Best Actor (Nicholson), and Best Actress (Fletcher). File:Jack Nicholson in 1976 crop retouch.jpg” by AP Wire press photo – from eBay auction ebay (auction archive) is marked with CC0 1.0.
Sylvester Stallone in Rocky (1976). Stallone was offered $300,000 for his original script but declined and counter-offered for $75,000, a percentage of the box office and the lead role. It was a shrewd move. The film made $54 million at release and won Best Picture, Best Director (John G. Avildsen) and Best Film Editing Oscars. Stallone was nominated for Best Actor. Made for $1 million, “Rocky” has grossed nearly $1 billion worldwide and spawned 8 sequels so far.Rocky (1976)” by 7th Street Theatre is licensed under CC BY 2.0.
Diane Keaton in Annie Hall, 1977. “A Nervous Romance” co-written and directed by Woody Allen won 4 Oscars including Best Picture, Best Director (Allen), Best Actress (Keaton) and Best Original Screenplay. It was the first comedy film in Oscar history to win for Best Picture. Diane Keaton’s quality costumes of baggy pants, knotted black tie, felt hat, stylish eyewear and liberated hairstyles set a fashion going forward into the 1980’s.Diane Keaton in Annie Hall, 1977” by Beauties in Glasses (Movies) is marked with Public Domain Mark 1.0.

The end of the 1970s was profitable for UA. Though Krim and Benjamin were gone, UA was headed by Andy Albeck, Krim’s longtime assistant and the studio’s investments were reaping themselves handsomely at the box office – Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979), Woody Allen’s Manhattan (1979), Bond installment Moonraker (1979) and Rocky II were all hits, Although Westerns had fallen out of favor, in 1978 UA fronted almost $8 million for Heaven’s Gate. Starting in the 1960’s the film market was gearing to younger audiences. This trend intensified so that in the late 1970s and early 1980s most films were targeted to teenagers.21 Heaven’s Gate became way over budget and then opened to devastatingly reviews. Albeck saw the train wreck that was coming. The film was released then pulled and re-released after severe editing but was a box office bomb, Albeck resigned and UA, despite its money-making releases, including For Your Eyes Only (1981), Rocky III (1982) and Yentl (1983) was sold to MGM and became MGM/UA Entertainment Corp.

Roger Moore in Moonraker. The film was made precisely to cash in on audience demand for space adventure films that 20th Century-Fox’s Star Wars started in 1977. The most expensive Bond film ever made and its biggest money maker, the film nonetheless received mixed to negative reviews. The era of the adolescent, formulaic blockbuster had clearly taken hold at the movies.
moonraker” by cdrummbks is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Late 20th century to today.

By 1983, MGM started selling UA assets such as its New York City headquarters as part of the consolidation process while in terms of film and television production the two jointly-owned studios under Kirk Kerlorian’s Tracinda Corp. were put in direct competition with one another. In March 1985 both studios went under one studio head, Alan Ladd, Jr.22 In March 1986,Ted Turner bought MGM/UA and renamed it MGM Entertainment Co. selling back the United Artists’ assets (about one third of the deal) to Tracinda Corp. Though it shared the same or similar assets, it was, from a transactional viewpoint, the end of the original United Artists and start of a new company.23

Later in 1986 Turner sold back MGM’s production and distribution assets to United Artists, retaining ownership of film libraries. United Artists was renamed MGM/UA Communications Company.24 In the 1990s United Artists (MGM/UA) traded hands from and back to Tracinda Corp and in the 2000s MGM folded UA into Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures though certain distributorship, branding, and copyrights could bear the United Artists name. In 2005, Comcast, Sony and partner banks bought United Artists and, its parent, MGM, and folded those operations into Sony. The era of mega-consolidation was well underway.25 In 2006, in a return to its roots as an artists’ film studio, actor Tom Cruise, producer Paula Wagner and MGM Studios created United Artists Entertainment LLC. In 2011 it was revealed that MGM bought United Artists whose brand name remains though the last films made under the United Artists banner was in 2009. 26

Since the 1980’s until today, certain UA films have been geared to mature audiences -such as, François Truffaut’s The Last Metro (1981), Karel Reisz’s The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1981), Walter Hill’s Wild Bill (1995) and other less successful ventures. But, starting with War Games (1983), the majority of feature films released in the last 40 years are geared to the youth market demographic.

War Games started as a film for mature audiences on the risks of nuclear war. Market research, however, revealed that such a serious-minded film would not be a blockbuster in the box office sense. Director John Badham (“Saturday Night Fever,” Paramount Pictures, 1977) was brought in and working with newcomer Matthew Broderick and witty script by Lawrence Lasker and Walter F. Parkes appealed to a youth market with a film about games. A teenage computer wiz uses his home computer to connect to the Pentagon and with teenage girlfriend Ally Sheedy go about saving the world from the next Armageddon. Made for $12 million, WarGames earned $124 million at the box office and, like United Artists itself, provided a formula for successful movie making that has endured through the decades.WarGames (1983)” by Wasfi Akab is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0


1. Bergan, Ronald, The United Artists Story, Crown, 1986, p. 8.

2. Ibid., p.8.

3. Ibid., p.6; see – https://www.movieinsider.com/m20828/the-underdoggs – retrieved August 8, 2023.).

4.  see- Balio, Tino, United Artists, Volume 1, 1919–1950: The Company Built by the Stars, 2009 and Welsch, Tricia, Gloria Swanson: Ready for Her Close-Up, University Press of Mississippi, 2013.

5. The UA Story, p.41; https://web.archive.org/web/20220213144356/http://www.fundinguniverse.com/company-histories/metro-goldwyn-mayer-inc-history/ – retrieved 8.17.23.

6. The UA Story, p.41.

7. A Short History of The Movies, Gerald Mast, The Bobbs-Merrill Company, Inc. Indianapolis, 1977, p.263.

8. https://news.gallup.com/poll/388538/movie-theater-attendance-far-below-historical-norms.aspx – retrieved August 11, 2023.

9. The UA Story, p. 87.

10. Mast, p. 263 and https://news.gallup.com/poll/388538/movie-theater-attendance-far-below-historical-norms.aspx – retrieved August 11, 2023.

11. Film Noir Guide, Michael F. Keaney,  McFarland & Company, Inc. Publishers, Jefferson, North Carolina, 2003. p. 3.

12. https://web.archive.org/web/20220213144356/http://www.fundinguniverse.com/company-histories/metro-goldwyn-mayer-inc-history/ – retrieved 8.17.23.

13. https://www.jewoftheweek.net/2019/04/10/jews-of-the-week-mathilde-and-arthur-krim/ – retrieved 8.17.23.

14. Mayer, Arthur L., “UA at 40,” Variety, June 24, 1959, p. 42; Balio, Tino (March 2, 2009). United Artists: The Company that Changed the Film Industry (1st ed.). Madison, Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Press. pp. 226–227.

15. The UA Story, p. 195.

16. Ibid., p. 231.

17. Ibid., p. 251.

18. You’re Only as Good as Your Next One: 100 Great Films, 100 Good Films, and 100 for Which I Should Be Shot, Mike Medavoy and Josh Young, New York: Pocket Books, 2002.  pp. 85–86.

19. The UA Story, p. 251.

20. https://web.archive.org/web/20220213144356/http://www.fundinguniverse.com/company-histories/metro-goldwyn-mayer-inc-history/ – retrieved 8.17.23. “Big 3 Sold to UA; Plus 1/2 Can. Co”. Billboard Magazine. October 27, 1973. p. 3.  – retrieved August 8, 2023; Cole, Robert J. (May 16, 1981). “M-G-M is Reported Purchasing United Artists for $350 Million”. The New York Times, p.1 – retrieved August 8, 2023.

21. The UA Story, p. 293.

22. https://web.archive.org/web/20220213144356/http://www.fundinguniverse.com/company-histories/metro-goldwyn-mayer-inc-history/ – retrieved 8.17.23.

23. Balio, Tino (March 2, 2009). United Artists, Volume 2, 1951–1978: The Company That Changed the Film Industry. Madison, Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Press. p. 343.

24. Gendel, Morgan (June 7, 1986). “Turner Sells The Studio, Holds on to the Dream”. Los Angeles Times – retrieved August 8, 2023; “Turner, United Artists Close Deal”. Orlando Sentinel. United Press International. August 27, 1986 – retrieved August 8, 2023.

25. Leming, Mike Jr; Busch, Anita (September 22, 2014). “MGM Buys 55% Of Roma Downey And Mark Burnett’s Empire; Relaunches United Artists”. Deadline Hollywood; “United Artists restructuring by MGM”. CNNMoney. June 7, 1999.

26. Fritz, Ben, “MGM regains full control of United Artists”. Los Angeles Times, March 23, 2012.


A Short History of The Movies, Gerald Mast, The Bobbs-Merrill Company, Inc. Indianapolis, 1977.

Film Noir Guide, Michael F. Keaney, McFarland & Co., Inc. Jefferson North Carolina, 2003.

History of the American Cinema, Volume 5, 1930-1939, Charles Harpole, General Editor, New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1993.

Hollywood The Glamour Years (1919-1941), Robin Langley Sommer, Gallery Books: New York, 1987.

License To Thrill: A Cultural History of the James Bond Films, James Chapman, 2009.

My Autobiography, Charlie Chaplin, Melville House Publishing, Brooklyn and London, 2012 (originally published in 1964).

The American Film Industry, ed. Tino Balio, University of Wisconsin Press, 1976.

The United Artists Story, Ronald Bergan, Crown Publishers, Inc., New York, 1986.

United Artists, Volume 1, 1919–1950: The Company Built by the Stars, Tino Balio,  University of Wisconsin Press, 2009

United Artists, Volume 2, 1951–1978: The Company That Changed the Film Industry, Tino Balio, University of Wisconsin Press, 2009.

You’re Only as Good as Your Next One: 100 Great Films, 100 Good Films, and 100 for Which I Should Be Shot, Mike Medavoy and Josh Young, New York: Pocket Books, 2002.