A Starry Centennial: From Chaplin to 007, United Artists Has Had a Storied History

United Artists Corporation is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year—and entering yet another chapter in a fascinating, often triumphant, sometimes calamitous saga.

The name has been with us so long, it’s easy to forget that true artists launched the company. In an unprecedented alliance, the corporation was formed in January 1919 by three of the biggest stars of the silent era—Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford and her husband, Douglas Fairbanks—and the pioneering director D.W. Griffith. The move was spurred by the need to protect their pictures and maintain their independence in a chaotic environment rife with chicanery and corruption. They would produce and release their own films, and those of other creators.

Pickford, Fairbanks, and Griffith all delivered hits for UA; Chaplin, however, maintained his ties with First National and didn’t produce his first hit for UA until The Gold Rush in 1925. Griffith left in 1924, but the studio attracted new talent (including Buster Keaton and Gloria Swanson) with the appointment of producer Joseph Schenck as president. Another important addition to the company was producer Samuel Goldwyn, who had sold his Goldwyn Pictures to Marcus Loew’s Metro Pictures Corp. in 1924. In the 1930s, Goldwyn generated many prestigious hits for United Artists, including Dodsworth, Stella DallasDead End, and Wuthering Heights.

One of United Artists’ biggest stars of the 1930s was none other than Mickey Mouse—yes, the early Mickey shorts from Walt Disney were released through UA, along with Academy Award–winning animated shorts from the studio like “Flowers and Trees,” “Three Little Pigs,” and “The Tortoise and the Hare.”

Another formidable producer releasing through United Artists was David O. Selznick; his successes at the time included A Star Is BornNothing SacredThe Prisoner of Zenda, and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. UA had its first Oscar Best Picture winner with Selznick’s 1940 drama Rebecca (directed by Alfred Hitchcock), competing against four other UA releases that year: Hitchcock’s Foreign Correspondent, Chaplin’s The Great Dictator, John Ford’s The Long Voyage Home, and the movie of Thornton Wilder’s classic play Our Town. But the relationship soon deteriorated, with UA suing Selznick over his deals with RKO Pictures. As the ’40s progressed, United Artists struggled at the box office, with the occasional bright performer like Howard Hawks’s Red River and William Wellman’s The Story of G.I. Joe.

A robust new era commenced with the hiring of Arthur Krim (then head of Eagle-Lion Films, best known for The Red Shoes) and Robert Benjamin as UA’s new co-chairmen in 1951. Their business plan was to fund independent producers; unlike other top distributors, United Artists never actually owned a studio facility. In their first year, United Artists released two enduring (and profitable) classics: John Huston’s The African Queen and Fred Zinnemann’s High Noon.

Krim and Benjamin consolidated their power when Chaplin sold his 25 percent stake in the company to them for $1.1 million in 1955; the next year, Mary Pickford sold her shares for $3 million. The company went public in 1957—and it continued to attract top producers and directors: Stanley Kramer, Billy Wilder, Otto Preminger, Burt Lancaster, Stanley Kubrick, and super-producers Harold and Walter Mirisch, among others. In 1959, the company also launched a television division that produced such hits as “The Fugitive,” “Gilligan’s Island,” and “The Patty Duke Show.”

United Artists earned consecutive Best Picture Oscars in 1955 and 1956 with Marty and Around the World in 80 Days, followed by Billy Wilder’s The Apartment in 1960, Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins’s West Side Story in 1961, Tony Richardson’s Tom Jones in 1963, Norman Jewison’s In the Heat of the Night in 1967, and John Schlesinger’s X-rated Midnight Cowboy in 1969. In 1962, the company launched one of the most successful and enduring franchises in movie history, the James Bond series, with Dr. No, followed by such spy hits as From Russia with LoveGoldfinger, and Thunderball. The early ’60s also introduced another popular franchise, the Pink Panther comedies starring Peter Sellers.

In 1967, Transamerica Corporation bought 98 percent of UA’s stock and installed David and Arnold Picker as heads of the company. Their reign was short-lived: Krim and Benjamin returned to the top in 1970.

A landmark alliance was established in 1973 when United Artists began overseeing sales and distribution of MGM’s films in North America. The decade also marked a singular achievement for UA, as it earned the Oscar for Best Picture in three consecutive years: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest in 1975, Rocky in 1976, and Annie Hall in 1977.

Turbulence followed those triumphs. Battles with Transamerica chief John R. Beckett prompted Krim, Benjamin, and president Eric Pleskow to leave United Artists and form Orion Pictures. The new regime at United Artists enjoyed major critical successes with Woody Allen’s Manhattan and Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull. But they also backed the latest project from Oscar-winning Deer Hunter director Michael Cimino, Heaven’s Gate, which became one of the costliest flops in motion picture history. Its failure led Transamerica to sell UA to Kirk Kerkorian’s Tracinda Corporation, which also owned MGM. The two brands were merged as MGM/UA Entertainment Company in 1981.

From the 1980s onward, United Artists went through a dizzying succession of ownership changes. In 1985, Ted Turner’s Turner Broadcasting System bought MGM/UA primarily for its film library; as part of the deal, UA was promptly sold back to Kerkorian, who named his new production company (minus the MGM library) MGM/UA Communications Company.

Despite hits like Moonstruck, Best Picture Oscar winner Rain Man, and the Bond film The Living Daylights, the new MGM/UA was hemorrhaging money. In 1990, Italian financier Giancarlo Parretti bought the company and combined it with another of his holdings, rechristening the merged entity as MGM-Pathé Communications. But in less than two years he defaulted to his main lender, Crédit Lyonnais. The company was renamed Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Inc., and Crédit Lyonnais hired executive John Calley to try to revive United Artists. The Calley years brought us the hit comedy The Birdcage, the Bond film GoldenEye, Oscar-nominated Leaving Las Vegas, and the notorious Showgirls.

Calley left after Crédit Lyonnais sold MGM back to Kirk Kerkorian once again in 1996. Then, in 1999, MGM acquired art house distributor The Samuel Goldwyn Company and merged its operations with the United Artists arm. UA was now a specialty studio run by October Films co-founder Bingham Ray. During his tenure (2001–2004), United Artists released Michael Moore’s Oscar-winning documentary Bowling for Columbine, foreign-language Oscar winner No Man’s Land, and Oscar nominee Hotel Rwanda, among others.

Yet another shakeup came in 2005, when Sony, Comcast and a group of banks bought MGM (and its United Artists subsidiary) for $4.8 billion, Sony took over MGM’s distribution activities, with Sony Pictures Classics acquiring UA’s awards contender Capote. Within a year, however, MGM returned to distribution, firming up deals with The Weinstein Company, Lakeshore Entertainment, and other indie producers.

United Artists made headlines in 2006 with the announcement that Tom Cruise and his producing partner Paula Wagner would be reviving the United Artists brand. Cruise and Wagner were given 30 percent ownership of the studio and were put in charge of production and development. The arrangement resulted in two Cruise starring vehicles that failed to ignite the box office, Lions for Lambs and Valkyrie. The Cruise-Wagner era lasted a mere two years.

In the ensuing decade, United Artists has had spare feature producing credits: the James Bond film Skyfall, the 2009 remake of Fame, and Hot Tub Time Machine and its sequel. Most of the company’s activity in the past five years has been in television, through a deal with “Survivor” and “The Apprentice” producer Mark Burnett, who was named CEO of the newly named United Artists Media Group. But this year, yet another era for that famous name began when MGM and Annapurna Pictures, already co-distributing their films, rebranded as United Artists Releasing. To date, the new UAR has released Laika’s animated Missing Link, the teen comedy Booksmart, Anne Hathaway farce The Hustle, and the horror remake Child’s Play. Still to come are Richard Linklater’s Where’d You Go, Bernadette; the animated The Addams FamilyLegally Blonde 3Bill & Ted Face the Music and … the 25th James Bond adventure. After 100 years, a legendary brand endures.

Click here to watch the UA Centennial trailer.

Click here to read more about United Artists’ formidable array of filmmakers.

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