United Artists retrospective at Astoria’s AMMI

In the past year, United Artists has reemerged as an adventurous distribution company that supports the work of fiercely independent filmmakers. The…

“The lunatics have taken charge of the asylum.” — Richard A. Rowland, Metro Pictures President, 1919.

In the past year, United Artists has reemerged as an adventurous distribution company that supports the work of fiercely independent filmmakers. The studio’s fall slate includes Michael Moore’s “Bowling for Columbine” and Mike Leigh’s working-class drama “All or Nothing.” These films continue a tradition of artistic ambition that was behind the founding of United Artists in 1919 by Charles Chaplin, D.W. Griffith, Douglas Fairbanks, and Mary Pickford.

Astoria’s American Museum of the Moving Image will present a month-long film series, “Hollywood Independents: A History of United Artists,” Oct. 5-27.

The series includes 18 films, and a panel discussion Oct. 26 about the studio’s past, present, and future, with UA president Bingham Ray, author and former UA executive Steven Bach (Final Cut), and film historian Tino Balio (author, United Artists: The Studio that Changed Hollywood).

Among the series highlights are: a rare screening of Charlie Chaplin’s masterpiece “City Lights; the New York premiere of a restored print of “The Barefoot Contessa,” starring Humphrey Bogart and Ava Gardner; and the 1939 version of “The Four Feathers.”

This intensive overview, organized by Curator of Film Peter Dowd, chronicles the evolution of United Artists from its 1919 founding to its critical and commercial zenith in the 1970s with films by Woody Allen and Bernardo Bertolucci. United Artists has always placed a premium on the creative independence of its directors and producers. Combining business acumen and artistic integrity, throughout its history United Artists has produced a body of work unparalleled in diversity (American and international films, art films and commercial projects) and quality (three consecutive Best Picture Oscars from 1975 to 1977, more than a hundred total Oscar wins).

“We…think that this step is positively and absolutely necessary to protect the great motion picture public from threatening combinations and trusts that would force upon them mediocre productions and machine-made entertainment.” United Artists’ first press release, 1919.

On February 5, 1919, Charles Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, D.W. Griffith, and Mary Pickford founded a motion picture company that was the first of its kind. Its uniqueness epitomized by its name- — United Artists. This independent company would not be a subsidiary of a larger trust or conglomerate, but an outfit founded by filmmakers on the principle that artists deserved creative control and financial power. The four founders, having risen to extraordinary prominence, grown weary of a career “under contract,” now had the will and the means to make a studio of their own, and in the process redefined what exactly a studio could be. Films were not to be financed by the studio, but rather by their respective producers — the founders — who would in turn reap the majority of the box-office returns.

With their newfound autonomy, Chaplin, Fairbanks, Griffith, and Pickford produced some of the finest work of their careers: Chaplin’s “The Gold Rush,” “City Lights” and “Modern Times;” Fairbanks’ “Robin Hood” and “The Thief of Bagdad;” Griffith’s “Broken Blossoms” and “Way Down East;” Pickford’s “Pollyanna” and “Tess of the Storm Country.”

Still, due to previous contract commitments and the financial complications of self-financing, they were far from realizing their goal of releasing one film per month.

Independent producer Joseph M. Schenck joined UA as partner and chairman of the board in 1924, bringing with him business acumen and star power. Schenck formed a separate company, Art Cinema Corporation, to finance and produce films for UA release, while creating the United Artists Theatre Circuit to ensure exhibition. Under his reign, UA released films with the biggest stars of the time, including Gloria Swanson and Rudolph Valentino, and initiated relationships with “creative producers” Howard Hughes and Samuel Goldwyn. Schenck sought to vertically integrate the production, distribution, and exhibition entities, but Chaplin and the remaining partners refused, realizing this would effectively place control of their company with the financiers. Schenck left UA in 1934, creating a leadership void that would not be filled until the 1950s.

Nevertheless, the company continued releasing the films of such prominent producers as Hughes, Goldwyn, David O. Selznick, Walter Wanger, and Alexander Korda. Arthur Krim and Robert Benjamin assumed control of UA in 1951, with the company in dire financial straits. Remarkably, within a year they had taken the company from imminent bankruptcy to profitability, while dramatically restructuring its operations. Significantly, Krim and Benjamin secured funding so that UA could finance film production. As opposed to the majors, UA was not a production center, and would charge no overhead to producers. And most enticingly, UA would offer generous profit sharing and creative freedom — even final cut — to its collaborating producers.

Emblematic of UA’s innovations were “High Noon” and “The African Queen.” Each production utilized talent freed from (and trained by) the studios, drawn to the potential for financial and creative rewards. Following these critical and commercial triumphs (both won Oscars for their leading men), UA established lasting relationships with a range of ambitious producers and artists including Hecht-Hill-Lancaster, the Mirisch Corporation, Otto Preminger, George Stevens, Joseph L. Mankiewicz, John Huston, John Wayne, and Frank Sinatra. UA would also initiate two extraordinarily popular film series, featuring James Bond and The Pink Panther.

In the 1970s, UA reached its zenith, winning three consecutive Best Picture Oscars — for “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” “Rocky” and “Annie Hall” — and achieving a triumph of distribution tactics with the remarkable success of “Last Tango in Paris.”

At the pinnacle of their success, in 1978 Benjamin and Krim left UA. Tension between the two and UA’s corporate parent Transamerica reached a boiling point, spilling onto the pages of Fortune and Variety magazines, resulting in the departure of Benjamin, Krim, and three top UA executives to form Orion. Benjamin and Krim had lead UA for 30 years (longer than even Louis B. Mayer’s reign at MGM), and their high-profile exit placed their successors in the spotlight and under pressure.

What followed has become legend. In 1980, Michael Cimino’s “Heaven’s Gate,” after much-publicized production turmoil and re-cutting, was a $44 million box-office failure.

Nevertheless, UA still turned a profit for the year, while also releasing Martin Scorsese’s “Raging Bull,” arguably the greatest American feature film of the 1980s. Sold in 1981 to MGM, to Ted Turner in 1986, then again to MGM, United Artists was for the remainder of the decade, and, in fact, until now, without an identity. In the last year, United Artists has reemerged under the leadership of Bingham Ray, co-founder of October Films and one of the pioneering figures of the independent feature film scene. Ray’s fall 2002 slate, including Michael Moore’s “Bowling for Columbine” and Mike Leigh’s “All or Nothing,” is in keeping with UA’s adventurous tradition.

Saturday, Oct. 5

1:30 p.m. “The Founders: D.W. Griffith”

“Orphans of the Storm”

United Artists, 1922, 125 mins. Directed by D.W. Griffith. With Lillian Gish and Dorothy Gish. Griffith made some of his best films for United Artists, including this spectacular epic about two sisters separated by the French Revolution. Lavishly produced and exquisitely costumed, Orphans is prime Griffith down to the cross-cutting climax. Tragically, within 10 years, his career would be over, already having sold his share in UA to pay off mounting debts. Live Music by Donald Sosin.

4 p.m. “The Founders: Charles Chaplin”

“City Lights”

United Artists, 1931, 86 mins. Directed by and starring Charles Chaplin. Investing two years and $2 million, Chaplin dared to make a silent picture four years after the industry embraced sound — and created his masterpiece. The Tramp is befriended by a drunkard millionaire, and falls in love with a flower girl, leading to one of the most romantic finales in movie history.

6:30 p.m. (In Repertory Nights)

“The Wild Child”

United Artists, 1970, 85 mins. Directed by Francois Truffaut. With Jean-Pierre Cargol. This 19th-century tale of a wild boy and the doctor (Truffaut) determined to “civilize” him was beautifully shot by Nestor Almendros.

Sunday, Oct. 6

2 p.m. “The Founders: Douglas Fairbanks”

“The Thief of Bagdad”

United Artists, 1924, 155 mins. Directed by Raoul Walsh. With Douglas Fairbanks, and Anna May Wong. In this highly anticipated adaptation of The Arabian Nights, William Cameron Menzies’ inspired sets provide breathtaking backdrops for Fairbanks’s unfolding adventures, through a valley of flames and a vale of dragons. Their popularity so great, husband and wife Fairbanks and Pickford sparked a near-riot when they arrived for the premiere. Live Music by Donald Sosin.

5 p.m. “The Founders: Mary Pickford”


United Artists, 1920, 60 mins. Directed by Paul Powell. With Mary Pickford, Herbert Ralston. In her first film for UA, Pickford stars as the eponymous “Glad Girl,” who manages to smile though the most turbulent of tragedies. After a 12-year-old Pollyanna (Pickford was 27 at the time) loses her father, a fairy tale of American perseverance follows, with plenty of wit from Frances Marion’s screenplay, and artful lensing by Charles Rosher (Murnau’s Sunrise).

6:30 p.m. (In Repertory Nights)

“The Wild Child”

See Saturday, October 5.

Saturday Oct. 12

2 p.m. “The Creative Producers: Howard Hughes”


United Artists, 1932, 90 mins. Directed by Howard Hawks. With Paul Muni. Held up by censors as an alternate ending detailing the protagonist’s hanging was filmed, Scarface was by far the most violent — and most complex — of the 1930s gangster cycle. Producer Howard Hughes encouraged the film’s operatic tone, created by Lee Garmes’ chiaroscuro cinematography and Muni’s ritualistic whistling of “I Pagliacci.” As Caponelike Tony Camonte, Muni ruthlessly climbs the criminal ladder — to a tragic end.

4 p.m. “The Creative Producers: Walter Wanger”


United Artists, 1939, 96 mins. Directed by John Ford. With Claire Trevor, John Wayne. Ford brought this pet project to Walter Wanger after another major producer, David O. Selznick, insisted on Gary Cooper and Dietrich playing the leads. Wanger gave Ford nearly complete creative control. Beautifully photographed in Monument Valley, this saga of disparate travelers on a dangerous stagecoach passage, mixing rich character development with breathless action, revitalized the Western and made Wayne a star.

Sunday, Oct. 13

2 p.m. “The Creative Producers: David O. Selznick”


United Artists, 1940, 130 mins. Directed by Alfred Hitchcock. With Laurence Olivier, Joan Fontaine. Hitchcock’s first American production teamed him with David O. Selznick. As the second Mrs. de Winter, Joan Fontaine moves into her husband’s (Olivier’s) mansion, Manderlay, and finds her predecessor still very much present. Oscars went to George Barnes for Best Cinematography, and Selznick for Best Picture.

4:30 p.m. “The Creative Producers: Alexander Korda”

“The Four Feathers”

United Artists, 1939, 115 mins. Directed by Zoltan Korda. With Ralph Richardson. Placing his brother Zoltan at the helm, British producer Korda assembled a brilliant cast and crew, including composer Miklós Rózsa. A young British officer resigns his post the night before the Egyptian campaign is to begin, and is presented with feathers symbolic of cowardice. His attempts to win back the confidence of his friends and fiancée lead to an epic journey.

Saturday, Oct. 19

2 p.m. “The Star as Producer/Director: Burt Lancaster”

“Sweet Smell of Success”

United Artists, 1957, 96 mins. Directed by Alexander Mackendrick. With Burt Lancaster, Tony Curtis. One of 11 Hecht-Hill-Lancaster productions for UA, “Sweet Smell” was originally to be directed by writer Ernest Lehman. The failure of Lancaster’s directorial debut, The Kentuckian, compelled the hiring of the more experienced Mackendrick (The Ladykillers). Powerful columnist J.J. Hunsecker makes ambitious press agent Sidney Falco an offer he can’t refuse in this brilliantly scripted tale of power and greed in the Big Apple.

4 p.m.

“Birdman of Alcatraz”

United Artists, 1962, 143 mins. Directed by John Frankenheimer. With Burt Lancaster, Karl Malden. One of five Frankenheimer/Lancaster collaborations, Birdman adapts the true story of convicted prisoner Robert Stroud, who became a self-taught, world-leading expert on avian medicine while in prison. Lancaster received an Oscar nomination for his performance, while Frankenheimer, who made this tale of solitude cinematically compelling, emerged as a major filmmaker.

Sunday, Oct. 20

2 p.m. “The Star as Producer/Director: Charles Laugton”

“The Night of the Hunter”

United Artists, 1955, 93 mins. Directed by Charles Laughton. With Robert Mitchum, Shelley Winters, Lillian Gish. Laughton’s sole film as director, adapted by James Agee and shot by Stanley Cortez (“The Magnificent Ambersons”), tells the dark tale of an imprisoned phony Reverend who learns of a condemned man’s hidden fortune, and upon release seeks out his widow and children. This one-of-a-kind gothic masterpiece was recently restored to its full visual grandeur.

4 p.m. “The Star as Producer/Director: Kirk Douglas”

“Paths of Glory”

United Artists, 1957, 86 mins. Directed by Stanley Kubrick. With Kirk Douglas. Douglas produced seven UA films, including Kubrick’s fact-based WW I saga of French troops slaughtered because of a general’s suicidal, self-serving command. Douglas is riveting as a colonel who confronts the megalomaniacal general, in the film that established Kubrick as a major A-level filmmaker.

Saturday, Oct. 26

1 p.m. “The Auteurs: Ingmar Bergman”


United Artists, 1966, 81 mins. Directed by Ingmar Bergman. With Bibi Andersson, Liv Ullmann. The first of UA’s four Bergman films, the recently restored “Persona” is the director’s most formally adventurous film, an innovative drama about the mental breakdown of an actress and the intense, psychologically complex relationship that develops with her nurse.

3 p.m.

Panel Discussion: “United Artists: Past, Present, and Future”

The history and future of United Artists will be explored in this panel discussion featuring current UA president Bingham Ray, who has been one of the leading figures on the independent film scene for the past two decades; Steven Bach, former UA production executive and author of Final Cut, a compelling account of the “Heaven’s Gate” fiasco; and Tino Balio, University of Wisconsin (Madison) film professor and author of two histories of UA, including “United Artists: The Company That Changed the Film Industry.”

4:30 p.m. “The Auteurs: Woody Allen”


United Artists, 1978, 93 mins. Directed by Woody Allen. With Diane Keaton, Geraldine Page. Following the commercial and critical success of Annie Hall, Allen dared to make a serious drama in the unblinking European fashion of Bergman. Three sisters learn that their father is leaving their mentally unstable mother for another woman in this dark family chronicle. Masterfully lensed by Gordon Willis and featuring fine ensemble acting, Allen’s exquisitely crafted film is an underappreciated gem.

6:30 p.m. (In Repertory Nights)

“The Barefoot Contessa”

United Artists, 1954, 128 mins. Directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz. With Humphrey Bogart, Ava Gardner. Mankiewicz’s dark tale of the turbulent rise of a Hollywood star has been magnificently restored to its Technicolor grandeur. New York Premiere of the restoration.

Sunday, Oct. 27

1:30 p.m. “The Auteurs: Billy Wilder”

“The Apartment”

United Artists, 1960, 125 mins. Directed by Billy Wilder. With Jack Lemmon, Shirley MacLaine. Wilder enjoyed a long, fruitful relationship with UA. This multiple-Oscar winner was a turning point for Lemmon, revealing his talent for drama as well as comedy, in his role as a company man who lends his apartment to executives for their extramarital liaisons — until he falls for his boss’ latest girlfriend.

4 p.m. “The Auteurs: Bernardo Bertolucci”

“Last Tango In Paris”

United Artists, 1972, 129 mins. Directed by Bernardo Bertolucci. With Marlon Brando, Maria Schneider. By the time the film opened in New York, following Pauline Kael’s legendary review, “Last Tango” had become “an event,” selling out all but 18 seats during its eight-week exclusive run at the Trans-Lux East. Brando plays a disillusioned American exile drawn into a charged sexual affair with a young Parisian woman.

6:30 p.m. (In Repertory Nights)

“The Barefoot Contessa”

See Saturday, Oct. 26.

Museum Information

Gallery Hours: Tuesday through Friday, noon-5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Group tours by appointment, Tuesday through Friday, 9:30 a.m.-5 p.m.

Film screenings are free with Museum admission unless otherwise noted. Reservation privileges are available to Museum members only.

Call 784-0077 or go to www.ammi.org for more information. Museum is located at 35 Avenue at 36 Street, Astoria.