By 1919, Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks and D.W. Griffith were all heavyweights in the rapidly growing motion-picture industry. Chaplin was a British actor and former vaudeville performer whose “Little Tramp” persona had made him one of the biggest stars of silent film. Pickford, silent film’s favorite ingenue, and Fairbanks, her leading man on-screen and off, were equally familiar to American audiences, and Griffith’s controversial feature Birth of a Nation (1915) had become Hollywood’s first blockbuster, establishing the director as a pioneer in filmmaking techniques. All four, however, were seeking to gain more financial and artistic control over producing and distributing their films. On February 5, 1919, they joined forces to create their own film studio, which they called the United Artists Corporation.
United Artists quickly gained prestige in Hollywood, thanks to the success of the films of its stars, notably Chaplin’s The Gold Rush (1925), as well as the work of actors such as Buster Keaton, Rudolph Valentino and Gloria Swanson. Chaplin directed UA films as well as acted in them, and Pickford concentrated on producing after she retired from acting in the 1930s. With the rise of sound during that decade, UA was helped by the talents (and bankrolls) of veteran producers like Joseph Schenck, Samuel Goldwyn, Howard Hughes and Alexander Korda. The corporation began to struggle financially in the 1940s, however, and in 1951 the production studio was sold and UA became only a financing and distributing facility.
By the mid-1950s, all of the original partners had sold their shares of the company, but UA had begun to thrive again, releasing such films as The African Queen (1951), High Noon (1952), Witness for the Prosecution (1957), Some Like It Hot (1959), The Apartment and The Magnificent Seven (both 1960) and West Side Story (1961). In addition, the company was responsible for the James Bond and Pink Panther film franchises. UA went public in 1957 and became a subsidiary of the TransAmerica Corporation a decade later.
UA films garnered a slew of Best Picture Academy Awards over the course of the 1970s, for Midnight Cowboy (1969), One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975), Rocky (1976) and Annie Hall (1977). Soon after that, however, five top executives left the company in a disagreement and formed the Warner Brothers-backed Orion Pictures. UA sustained an even more devastating blow in 1980, when it released the big-budget flop Heaven’s Gate, directed by Michael Cimino. Two years in the making and way over budget, the film earned less than $4 million at the U.S. box office. After that debacle, UA struggled throughout the 1980s. In 1981, MGM bought the company, merging with it in 1983 to become MGM/UA Entertainment. In a highlight of those relatively dark years, UA did release another Best Picture winner, Rain Man, in 1988.
In 1992, the French bank Credit Lyonnais acquired the corporation and changed its name back to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Inc., abandoning the United Artists name altogether. The James Bond and Pink Panther franchises were revived, with varying degrees of success. MGM changed hands and was reorganized repeatedly over the next decade and a half, during which UA was repositioned as a boutique producer of smaller, so-called “art house” films such as Bowling for Columbine (2002), Hotel Rwanda (2005) and Capote (2006). In November of 2006, MGM gave the actor/producer Tom Cruise (star of Rain Man) and his production partner, Paula Wagner, control over the United Artists production slate, announcing the decision as a “reintroduction” of the UA brand in the spirit of its founders. Cruise and Wagner, whose former deal with Paramount Pictures ended amid reported acrimony earlier in 2006, released their first co-production with UA, Lions for Lambs, in 2007.