For Decades, United Artists Provided a Haven for Directors

Billy Wilder's 'The Apartment'

Our salute to the 100th anniversary of United Artists continues.

“More stars than there are in heaven” was the marketing catch phrase of MGM during its golden heyday of Gable, Garbo, Tracy, Hepburn, Garland, Crawford, and so many other legendary actors. At United Artists, the stars were the directors, beginning with two of its founders, Charlie Chaplin and D.W. Griffith. UA’s inaugural year brought Griffith’s Broken Blossoms, followed by such classics as Way Down East and Orphans of the Storm. And nearly all of Chaplin’s features were released through United Artists, including The Gold Rush, City LightsModern TimesThe Great Dictator, and Limelight.

In the 1930s and ’40s, long before the auteur theory took hold, United Artists was a home for many of the greatest auteurs in film history, among them Alfred Hitchcock (the UA releases The Lady VanishesRebecca, Foreign CorrespondentSpellbound, and Rope), William Wyler (Dead EndDodsworthWuthering HeightsThe Westerner), John Ford (Stagecoach, The Long Voyage HomeThe Hurricane), Howard Hawks (Scarface, Come and Get ItRed River), David Lean (In Which We ServeBlithe SpiritOliver Twist), Fritz Lang (Hangmen Also Die!The Woman in the Window), William Wellman (Nothing SacredA Star Is BornThe Story of G.I. Joe), Alexander and Zoltan Korda (The Private Life of Henry VIIIThe Four FeathersThe Jungle BookThat Hamilton Woman), and Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger (The Thief of BagdadOne of Our Aircraft Is MissingThe Life and Death of Colonel Blimp).

The tradition continued even stronger in the 1950s, when producers Arthur B. Krim and Robert Benjamin took over the company and signed a number of high-profile independent producer/directors. Their first success was director John Huston’s The African Queen, produced by Huston and Sam Spiegel’s company Horizon Films. Subsequently, Huston’s Moulin RougeBeat the DevilMoby DickThe Unforgiven, and The Misfits were released by UA.

United Artists also firmed up relationships with directors Otto Preminger (The Moon Is BlueThe Man with the Golden ArmSaint JoanExodus), Robert Wise (Odds Against TomorrowRun Silent Run Deep, UA Oscar winner West Side Story), and John Frankenheimer (Birdman of Alcatraz, The Manchurian CandidateThe Train), and released the early films of Stanley Kubrick (Killer’s KissThe KillingPaths of Glory).

In 1957, United Artists launched one of its most successful producer-director alliances with the legendary Billy Wilder, who had severed his long-running relationship with Paramount in 1954. Their first collaboration was the Agatha Christie whodunit Witness for the Prosecution, followed by comedy classic Some Like It Hot; Oscar winner The ApartmentOne, Two, Three; Irma la Douce; Legion of Decency–condemned Kiss Me, StupidThe Fortune CookieThe Private Life of Sherlock Holmes; and Avanti!

Another durable producer-director at United Artists was Stanley Kramer, known for his social conscience in films like The Defiant OnesInherit the WindOn the Beach, and Judgment at Nuremberg, plus the all-star comedy extravaganza It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.

United Artists introduced an entirely new genre in 1964—the “spaghetti western”—thanks to its handling of the films of Sergio Leone: A Fistful of DollarsFor a Few Dollars MoreThe Good, The Bad and the Ugly, and Duck, You Sucker. Also in the mid-’60s, the company began a long-running relationship with director Norman Jewison, which brought us The Russians Are Coming! The Russians Are Coming!The Thomas Crown AffairFiddler on the Roof, Rollerball, and Oscar winner In the Heat of the Night. Jewison’s editor on In the Heat of the Night, Hal Ashby, became a director in 1970, and four films from his 10-year hot streak were released by United Artists: The LandlordBound for GloryComing Home, and Being There. And one year later, UA began a nine-year relationship with Woody Allen, starting with Bananas and including SleeperManhattanLove and DeathStardust Memories, and Oscar winner Annie Hall. Allen remained loyal to UA chiefs Krim and Benjamin when they left to form Orion Pictures in 1978: Orion was Allen’s home throughout the 1980s.

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