Set up by four of Hollywood’s big names as a reaction to the power of the major studios, United Artists proved to be a very successful venture, writes Tom McParland.
“The lunatics are taking over the asylum!” an expression – now part of the lingua franca – was originally made by Richard Rowland, an executive of Metro Pictures in 1919. His reaction came when he heard that Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, Charlie Chaplin, silent cowboy star W. S Hart and big-name director W. D Griffiths (Birth Of A Nation 1915) were to jointly set up in business as United Artists.
Perhaps Rowland had a point. Maybe four big stars that among them required twelve spouses didn’t quite understand the meaning of united.
The idea for the venture originated when in 1918 First National Pictures wouldn’t increase Chaplin’s personal production company’s budget, despite Chaplin being one of First National Pictures’ top attractions.
Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks had their own respective contractual bones to pick with First National and Famous Players-Lasky (later Paramount). But their contracts were due to run out eventually without forthcoming offers. Sydney Chaplin, Charlie’s brother and business manager, suspected something was going wrong and contacted Pickford, Fairbanks and Griffiths. The quartet hired a private detective to investigate.
The detective discovered that executives of the major studios and industry associates were forming a forty-million-dollar merger of production companies and would bind every United States exhibitor to a five-year contract. They intended putting the industry on a ‘proper business basis’ (meaning a self-interest basis) instead of having it run by a ‘bunch of crazy actors on astronomical salaries’.
This was inducement enough for Chaplin, Fairbanks, Pickford and Griffiths to set up a distribution company and disseminate their films independently to exhibitors, thus cutting out the middleman. In addition, they planned to make movies to artistically consistent standards – rather than for vapid popularity or excessive profit.
Far from anyone taking over an asylum, a more accurate assessment came from producer Arthur Mayer who said: “The founders of United Artists displayed the same brand of lunacy as Rockefeller, J. P. Morgan, and du Pont.” (rubbishing the ‘astronomical salaries’ idea). A review of their careers up to 1919 and afterwards would eventually suggest that Mayer’s assumption hit closer to truth.