On February 5th 1919, four of the most powerful players in the movie business officially joined together to form the United Artists Corporation. D.W. Griffith, Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks were unparalleled in terms of their creative and financial successes, and they’d decided that the time had finally come for them to seize control of their own creative destinies.
This post is part of the Classic Movie Blog Association 10th Anniversary Blogathon
It was in the 1910s that the film industry, still in its infancy, began to take the shape of the studio/star system which would reign for the next fifty years. None were bigger than America’s Sweetheart Mary Pickford, the first true Hollywood megastar, more recognisable and with a larger salary than even the President of the United States. She was immensely popular in her roles as mischievous children, but had also proved her serious acting ability in films like Stella Maris (1918), making a fortune not just for herself but also for her studio Famous Players-Lasky, under the umbrella of Paramount Pictures.
Another star who made his home at Paramount was Douglas Fairbanks, the swashbuckling hero who’d got his start working under director D.W. Griffith in 1915. Pickford and Fairbanks caused a sensation when they began their legendary romance in 1916 after meeting at a party, but the scandal barely disrupted their place at the top of the industry. They channelled the publicity into a war bonds tour alongside their friend Charlie Chaplin, and by the end of the 1910s all three were at a high point in their careers.
When Charlie Chaplin signed a contract with Mutual Pictures for $670,000 a year – making him one of the highest paid people in the world – the public was shocked. How could it be that a player was worth so much? Mutual studio head John R. Freuler certainly thought it was a fair price, saying that “we can afford to pay Mr. Chaplin this large sum annually because the public wants Chaplin and will pay for him”. The films he made for Mutual are considered some of the finest of his career, but Chaplin became dissatisfied with what he considered to be a formulaic approach to filmmaking.
Paramount Pictures head Adolph Zukor understood the power of movie stars. He knew that the public would flock to see the new Mary Pickford film, but he couldn’t be so sure about the pictures his studio made which featured lesser known stars, or the lower quality releases churned out in the course of studio filmmaking. To counteract this uncertainty he pioneered the process of ‘block-booking’; in order to get the new Mary Pickford release, theatres would have to purchase and exhibit it alongside a block of other films from the studio which would otherwise have been a hard sell.
Paramount soon came to dominate the market through block-booking, much to the ire of theatre owners, who were sick of the expensive practice which forced them to show films the public didn’t want to see. In 1917 First National Pictures was formed by a collection of independent theatre owners, seeking to overthrow Paramount’s immense influence by producing and distributing their own films. The promise of total creative freedom and an increase on their already massive salaries successfully tempted both Mary Pickford and Charlie Chaplin into signing with First National in 1918.
However, the partnership between the stars and their new studio soon went awry. Chaplin began to sour on his new professional home when he approached First National executives to request a budget increase on his new film, and was promptly refused. Chaplin believed that total creative control should extend to the budget, and was made deeply unhappy by this decision. Pickford’s concerns were raised when she began to hear rumours of a merger between First National and her old studio Paramount Pictures, which would put the stars at a huge disadvantage both financially and artistically.
Pickford and co. knew that their star power was the reason audiences came out in such numbers to see their films. The public were not concerned with the executives who ran the studios; it was the stars they wanted to see, who in turn believed they could use this power to bolster their strength within the industry. Their ability to do so would be greatly limited if Paramount and First National, the two major distributors of films in the United States, were to form one entity. Their negotiating position would be moot, as there’d be no one to bargain with.
Pickford, Griffith, Fairbanks and Chaplin had their fears about the merger confirmed after they hired the Pinkerton Detective Agency to go undercover and investigate. Griffith had his own gripes with the industry, having struggled with studios over everything from censorship to his total disregard for budgetary constraints. They knew they had to act if they were going to protect their careers, even if doing so meant risking it all. They had initially been joined by legendary western star William S Hart, but he was lured away by the promise from Adolph Zukor of $200,000 per picture, alongside greater control over his productions.
The aims of United Artists were simple: each star, in exchange for a 25 percent stake, would produce five pictures a year, over which they would have total creative control. Each would finance their own films, without hindrance or interference from the other three, but all would be distributed by the United Artists Corporation. However, the first United Artists release had already been produced; Griffith and Lillian Gish’s classic Broken Blossoms (1919), which was originally made for Famous Players. Their first productions were the Douglas Fairbanks vehicles His Majesty The American (1919) and When The Clouds Roll By (1919), followed the next year by Mary Pickford’s Pollyanna (1920) and Suds (1920).
By the time production really got going in 1921 it was common for films to be feature length, scuppering the plans for five films a year. But 100 years on, United Artists continues to produce and distribute films. Mary Pickford and Charlie Chaplin both remained with the company until the mid-1950s, when they sold their original 25 percent shares for a considerable amount of money. The decision of the original ‘big four’ – to risk so much to try and take control of their careers – had an incredible impact on the Hollywood of their time, one which has reverberated through the decades.