From left, D.W. Griffith, Mary Pickford, Charlie Chaplin and Douglas Fairbanks, image via the Library of Congress.
The entertainment industry as we know it irrevocably changed on February 5, 1919, when superstars Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, Charlie Chaplin, and D.W. Griffith signed the final documents outlining the organization of United Artists. For the first time, motion picture artists would control all aspects of their films’ production and distribution, putting themselves on an equal footing with studios and moguls. While each of these individuals had earned huge salaries producing films for major corporations like Famous Players-Lasky, First National, and Triangle, they would sink or fail on the success of films they financed on their own.
Business skirmishes and skullduggery influenced the founding of the corporation. In January 1919, the First National Exhibitors’ Circuit held their national convention in Los Angeles, headquartered at the luxurious Alexandria Hotel. While most convention attendees came to celebrate the circuit and hear plans for the next year, its leading executives were plotting takeover strategies for their fledgling circuit only one and half years old.
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As Tracey Goessel reveals in her book, “The First King of Hollywood,” Mary Pickford’s 1916 contract with Famous Players required Adolph Zukor to merge his company with Jesse Lasky’s Lasky Feature Play Company, creating Famous Players-Lasky. They in turn produced the most films for distribution company Paramount, which they soon acquired. Top stars Pickford and Fairbanks earned huge salaries and produced their own films distributed by Paramount, which saw costs skyrocket. To cover these expenses, Zukor jacked up rates to exhibitors presenting the films, as well as block-booked other products.
Los Angeles’ theatre owner Thomas Tally and other top first-run exhibitors combined to form First National Exhibitors Circuit in 1917 as a way to compete against Zukor by organizing their own distribution firm. They chafed at having to pay Zukor top dollar for Pickford and Fairbanks productions and have to take a block of other, lesser films as well, as well as the possibility he would corner the rights to films of Hollywood’s major stars. Tally negotiated personally with Syd and Charlie Chaplin, signing Chaplin to an exclusive contract of eight pictures for $1 million plus a $75,000 bonus in 1917. In 1918, Tally was able to sign Pickford to an exclusive contract.
Los Angeles Times columnist Grace Kingsley in reporting on the First National 1919 Los Angeles convention stated, “It looks, in fact, as some sort of combination among all the big producers might be under way,” as all the big producers were engaging in secretive meetings before the start of the event. Rumors were circulating in the press that First National and Paramount might merge. Chaplin saw something dark in the situation as well. He had appeared before the board asking for additional compensation per reel for multiple-reel films, and was turned down. In his autobiography, Chaplin wrote, “Exhibitors were rugged merchants in those days, and to them films were merchandise costing so much a yard…I might as well have been a lone factory worker asking General Motors for a raise.”
Motion Picture News reported in their February 1, 1919, issue that superstar Chaplin got the ball rolling on Monday, January 13, when he visited D.W. Griffith’s studio and expressed his dissatisfaction with the First National situation to Harry Garson, who suggested Chaplin form his own distribution company. When Chaplin propositioned Griffith, he added hearty assent. Chaplin then visited with Fairbanks, William S. Hart, and Pickford to see about them joining the combine. That night the group met at Syd Chaplin’s home, with Charlotte Pickford representing Mary as she recuperated from influenza. They developed and signed preliminary articles of agreement.
Fairbanks, Pickford, Griffith and Chaplin, Photoplay, Jan. 1919.
On Tuesday evening, January 14, all took dinner in the Alexandria Hotel surrounded by the First National leaders and other motion picture industry bigwigs, setting off all types of rumors. The five signed a formal agreement Wednesday afternoon, January 15, agreeing to put up $100,000 each as capitalization, with each making three films a year for the organization for the next three years. The press statement quickly followed. The name of their organization would be called the United Artists Distributing Association, which would solely distribute the pictures created by the superstars. Fairbanks himself released a statement on January 16 reporting that the group had received more than 200 telegrams supporting their decision, due to the high cost of licensing pictures.
The superstars organized wisely, with Fairbanks bringing in his good friend William McAdoo, former United States secretary of the Treasury on February 4, to act as the attorney for the organization. McAdoo, former director-general of the railroad industry and who had earned $12,000 a year as Treasury secretary, would earn a six-figure salary working for United Artists, and gave the fledgling organization prestige and clout. Wall Street pricked up its ears when the news of McAdoo’s appointment was announced, opening the possibility of investment by major concerns. Some stories promoted the possibility of such tycoons as Henry Ford, J.P. Morgan, and E.I. du Pont serving as potential backers.
McAdoo himself told the press about the company’s organization that day, “They have determined not to permit any trust to destroy competition, or to blight or to interfere with the high quality of their work. The feel that it is of the utmost importance to secure the artistic development of the motion picture industry, and they believe that will be impossible if any trust should get possession of the field and menace the business.”
On February 5, Pickford, Fairbanks, Griffith, and Chaplin signed the final official documents making United Artists official. By this time, William S. Hart had backed away from the organization, not wanting to tie himself down to any contract for three years. The agreement set up the formal United Artists Distributing Corporation office in New York capitalized to the tune of $500,000, which would establish contracts with exhibitors around the country, on a percentage basis in large cities and flat rates in rural areas. Each star would produce and finance their own films personally, agreeing to make four films per year for three years for the organization. The owners would equally own all the shares of the corporation.
The next day, February 6, the stars restaged the contract signing at Chaplin’s Studio on a set resembling that of an office. That afternoon, Fairbanks, Chapin, Pickford, and Griffith jauntily posed for still photographers at Griffith’s Studio, with Fairbanks lifting Chaplin up in the air while Pickford and Griffith tried to look more dignified.
Mary Pickford told the New York Tribune on February 23, “The announced purpose of this organization is to preclude any possibility of the establishment by the producers of a trust which would tend to commercialize the screen offerings of the respective stars, and thus result in machine-made pictures.” D.W. Griffith himself told Camera Magazine for their 1919 yearbook issue that the time had come for stars and directors to take control of their work and produce the films they wanted, not those dictated to them by studio concerns.
The March 16, 1919 editorial in the Albuquerque Morning Journal recognized the importance of United Artists’ formation and William McAdoo’s connection with it as vital for the rest of the industry. “…he is the fairy godfather who waves the magic wand and converts the young movie business from a scrambling Bohemian sort of thing into a supremely sound and conservative corporation.” From this point forward, the motion picture industry was now a major financial enterprise financed by the likes of Wall Street concerns, a huge moneymaking machine.