Thursday, 9 June 2011

City of Angels: The Studios, Part 7: Pickford & Fairbanks Studios (United Artists), Now: The Lot

In 1922 Hollywood’s royal couple, Mary Pickford and Dougals Fairbanks, purchased this modestly sized studio which had been built two years earlier by Jesse Hampton, a now sadly forgotten film pioneer.

Fairbanks’ Robin Hood (1922) and The Thief Of Baghdad (1924) were both filmed here.
In 1927 the studio was renamed United Artists, after the company Pickford and Fairbanks had founded in 1919 in partnership with David Wark Griffith and Charlie Chaplin, who continued producing his films in his own studio on La Brea, but releasing them through United Artists.

The Lot, today

While space on their studio could be rented, United Artists was first and foremost a distribution company, the vertical integration of production, distribution and exhibition was never a priority. The purpose of United Artists, as the choice of its name suggests, was gaining complete control over the marketing and distribution of their own pictures without having to report to an array of studio bosses and production chiefs yet at the same time enabling United Artists to keep a larger share of the grosses.

Mary Pickford

Although they relished the complete artistic control their own company afforded them, with only a handful of talent under its roof, United Artists was in dire need of product to meet the minimum amount of releases to keep their operation going.
To solve the problem, next to a few new arrivals on the lot such as Gloria Swanson, they were also attracting early independents like Walt Disney, Samuel Goldwyn, David O.Selznick, or British producer Alexander Korda, and, much later, Walter Mirisch.

D.W. Griffith

In 1924 Griffith left United Artists to sign up with Paramount. Left in the lurch, independent producer Joseph Schenk (brother of MGM’s Nicholas, who would replace Marcus Loew in 1927) joined the company, bringing with him his associate, Buster Keaton.

One should imagine that with this high voltage of talent united under one roof, the studio was on a sure-fire road to success. But if anything, the high voltage led to personality clashes and ensuing fights over the way United Artists should be run, as the wispy Pickford was in reality a shrewd business woman, whereas Charlie Chaplin simply cherished the creative freedom United Artists provided him with. That, to him, who loathed working for large conglomerations for their artistic shackles, would always have precedence over profits.

Joseph Schenk, having shunted the startled Keaton off to MGM in 1928, left United Artists in 1935, to fuse his independent Twentieth Century Pictures (formed with Darryl F. Zanuck) with the Fox Corporation. Schenk’s departure left a void, and an endless wrangling started over United Artists’ management that, in a way, is spilling over to the present day.

The incessant management changes, the constant bickering and fights, are also reflected in the equally frequent changes of the company logo. While most other Hollywood studios would hang on to their logo even in the most tempestuous of times, United Artists seems to have changed their with every change of management. All this casts a shadow over the studio’s history, belying the fact that as a distributor, United Artists probably released more quality pictures than any other studio in Hollywood. Among its impressive output are classics like The Gold Rush (Chaplin, 1925), Nothing Sacred (La Cava, 1937), Spellbound (Hitchcock, 1945), Red River (Hawks, 1948), and Some like it Hot (Wilder, 1959). It has more best picture Oscars to its name than any of its rivals, including Rebecca (Hitchcock, 1940), The Apartment (Wilder, 1960), West Side Story (Wise, 1961), Tom Jones (Richardson, 1963), and Midnight Cowboy (Schlesinger, 1969). The fact that they are all independent productions goes to show that the founders of United Artists seem to have realised at an early stage that a certain level of artistic freedom is required in order to produce art.

Samuel Goldwyn

Having first joined United Artists as an independent producer in 1925, Samuel Goldwyn bought the United Artists studio in 1955 for a reported $1.92 million, outbidding Pickford by $400.000.

Purchased in 1980 by Warner Brothers, it was commonly known as the Warner Hollywood studio(complementing their headquarters in Burbank).

In the meantime it finally became a registered historical landmark, but was sold once more in 1999, and is since named simply, The Lot, with Warner Brothers as a tenant, continuing to use its post-production facilities.