Saturday, February 5, 2011

February 5, 1919 – Studios Unite to Take Down Artists

In a bold move, the greatest actors and directors of their day joined to form a studio where they would be in control of their creations. Mary Pickford, “America’s Sweethart;” Charles Chaplin, “The Tramp;” D.W. Griffith, whose epic film Birth of a Nation had rocked the country with controversy; and Douglas Fairbanks, the leading actor as well as a powerful producer of Hollywood, sought more control over their films and decided to pool their impressive resources for a new studio dubbed “United Artists.” Metro Pictures head Richard Rowland noted, "The inmates are taking over the asylum." While the action may have produced a new wealth of art for the growing medium of film, it struck a nerve in Hollywood’s business arena. If the greatest artists were to gain complete control of their productions, which might be the best sellers, then the millions of dollars to be made would be lost to those who had built up the movie business.

Worst yet was the ramifications for America. One producer noted, “We can’t have the eyes of the country glued to the works of a lady Canuck, a Limey, a Clansman, and an adulterer.” Only hours after the public release of photos showing Pickford, Chaplin, Griffith, and Fairbanks signing the contracts, a more secret meeting brought together the powerhouses of Hollywood such as Rowland, Loew, Fox, and Laemmle (though none would admit to being part of the conspiracy). While some suspected that the artist-run company would die from overspending as artists tended to do, the conspirators sought to bring United Artists down before it took root. The stars shone over the public with considerable popularity, which became the target for the studios.

Feeding press releases to newspapers, especially those owned by the powerful Hearst, the first major break was the announcement of the “discovery” of the affair between Fairbanks and Pickford. The two had met at a party in 1916 and begun the affair, but the civility of the times kept such things quiet. Fairbanks was currently in proceedings to finalize his divorce with wife Anna Beth in preparation to marry Pickford (herself married to Owen Moore), and the legal papers became fodder for an enormous scandal. With news slow since the end of the Great War and the fights between President Wilson and Congress only marginally interesting, the public was hungry for shocking gossip. The following months tore into Pickford and Fairbanks, ending their careers in America and eventually forcing them to sell out their shares of UA to Chaplin. They left California and moved to Canada, where they would begin new careers filming outside of Toronto. Studio-owned theaters practically refused to show their films in America, so they turned to exporting films, establishing new popularity almost worldwide.

Griffith dropped out soon after, seeing that the resources of United Artists were even less than those offered by penny-pinching studio executives. He returned to creating epics under Louis B. Mayer, whose theaters proved to return Griffith to his blockbuster standing, but his career would fall off as sound transformed filmmaking. Ultimately he would be a consulting director, giving his expertise on epics, such as the film San Francisco in 1936.

Chaplin stood alone with his studio and sought help from wherever he could find it. After barely producing The Gold Rush, he discovered that almost no theater would show it. Quitting America, he returned to London and joined the growing film industry there, which would make him into a titan as audiences across Europe and the British Empire swarmed over his work.

Having successfully defended the business, the studios returned to work creating what many referred to as “hash” or “schlock”, depending upon one’s standing with Semitism. Still, audiences demanded entertainment through the Depression, and they were given cheaply produced, yet memorable, films. Actors, writers, and directors attempted to unionize numerous times, but the studios crushed each attempt. After World War II, studios fell under suspicion of monopoly, which they clearly were with vertically and horizontally integrated firms controlling nearly every theater, production company, and the distributors connecting them. The studio system collapsed under government pressure and rebellious casts and crews, and the desperate epics of the 1950s only hastened their demise. While international films began to swarm the newly freed American theaters, Hollywood would reinvent itself in the late ‘50s and ‘60s into smaller production houses forced to create powerful, though inexpensive, films that mirrored the more triumphant American medium: television. Hollywood today is well known for its productions as well as its Andy Warhol Factory-style, but it is a lesser powerhouse to the Canadian Academy, British Film Corporation, and growing golden age of Bollywood.

In reality, United Artists was allowed to run its course. Although facing initial financial issues, Chaplin’s The Gold Rush would give it solvency that would allow it to fund lesser known producers such as Walt Disney and Orson Welles. It was reborn in the 1950s with John Huston and thrived as the rest of Hollywood seemed to go into decline. United Artists would eventually be bought as a subsidiary by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in 1981 and continues to produce films (such as the James Bond and Rocky series) in the spirit of artistic freedom upon which it was founded.

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