Star makers: United Artists' 90th anniversary

When Charlie Chaplin set up his own studio, they said it would never work. Ninety years on, owned by Tom Cruise, United Artists is still going strong, says Geoffrey Macnab

The Hollywood majors have always had a certain disdain for their upstart rival, United Artists, whose 90th anniversary is being marked with a year-long celebration. The history of UA is one of the great artistic triumphs on screen.

UA's credits are extraordinary: James Bond, the best work of Billy Wilder, many gilt-edged Charlie Chaplin classics, Annie Hall, Tom Jones, The African Queen, The Great Escape, Stanley Kubrick's Paths of Glory, The Magnificent Seven, West Side Story, One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest... the list goes on and on. Meanwhile, off screen, there have been continual changes in ownership and management – and as much corporate bloodletting as you get in a Kurosawa samurai film.

"The lunatics have taken charge of the asylum," the Hollywood producer Richard Rowland famously quipped in 1919 when Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks and D W Griffith set up United Artists in the first place. Hard-nosed executives were immensely sceptical right from the outset at the idea that artists and film-makers could run a studio.

At the time of its launch, United Artists issued a mission statement. The new company spoke of its desire to protect the industry and public "from threatening combinations and trusts that would force upon them mediocre productions and machine-made entertainment". There was a hiccup right at the beginning when the actor-director William S Hart decided to defect before the ink was even dry on the contracts.

UA was essentially a distribution company. The idea behind it was that the producer-partners could finance their own productions and then release them through the new outfit. This would give them a far greater percentage of the profits. Within a few years, UA began to totter, primarily because it suffered from a severe shortage of product. Founder member D W Griffith quit in 1924. Joe Schenck, a hard-headed businessman, was brought in as president. Chaplin and Pickford were quickly at each other's throats. "Nothing in the world would induce me to live over the agonising years I experienced with Charlie as a business partner," Pickford later recalled. Chaplin, as befits the underdog he played on screen, wanted to keep UA small and for the company to retain its reputation as a home for independent artists. Not that he was willing to forgo any profits. As the screenwriter Budd Schulberg (whose father, the legendary Hollywood producer BP Schulberg, had helped dream up the idea of UA) said: "Charlie was another of those idealists who talked socialism and practised capitalism."

UA's fortunes fluctuated over the following years. In the late 1920s, the fledgling studio was very profitable indeed. Chaplin was still in his pomp and Pickford and Fairbanks remained immense box-office draws. As the historian Joel Finler notes in his classic book The Hollywood Story, UA was also managing to work profitably with other leading independent film-makers. In 1928 alone, it posted profits of $1.6m – a figure it wouldn't surpass until the 1950s.

Inevitably, given that its founders were titans of the silent era, UA struggled to make the transition to talkies. While the rest of Hollywood adjusted to sound, Chaplin famously carried on as if nothing had happened, continuing to make silent movies. Age did for Fairbanks. Stage trained, he had a perfectly serviceable voice, but matinée idols weren't supposed to be wrinkled. Famous for doing his own stunts, Fairbanks (well into his forties by the time of the talkie revolution) could no longer scurry up trees or leap off ramparts with the same élan as in his prime. It didn't help, either, that his relations with Pickford were beginning to fray. She was trying to move away from her image as "America's sweetheart". In what was considered a daring move, she cut off her curls and sported a bob in her 1929 film Coquette. She may have won an Oscar, but box-office takings were slim. The Taming of the Shrew (1929), in which she co-starred with Fairbanks, fared even worse. The couple were eventually divorced in 1936.

By 1951, the beginning of the television era, Pickford was describing UA as a company "sick unto death". None the less, it continued to notch up plenty of hits. Then came Cimino's spectacular flop Heaven's Gate. Cimino had the misfortune to have made a crusading Western with a socialist undertow at the beginning of the Reagan era. Critics sharpened their knives, and even United Artists' then boss, Steven Bach, lost patience with Cimino. When the director presented him with a five-hour cut of the movie that had been in preparation for two-and-a-half years, Bach likened the experience of watching Cimino's would-be masterpiece to "sinking into the abyss".

Not long afterwards, the company, lurching towards bankruptcy, was sold to MGM. Just occasionally in subsequent years, United Artists has managed to show some of its original defiance and originality. Under Bingham Ray, the studio supported maverick talents such as Michael Winterbottom and Mike Leigh, and released such Oscar winners as Bowling for Columbine and No Man's Land. None the less, Ray's time at the helm of the company was short-lived. He joined in 2001 and stepped down in 2004, seemingly unable to deal with the demands placed on him by UA's owners, MGM.

In 2006, United Artists was revived again, this time as United Artists Entertainment LLC, a joint venture between MGM, the star Tom Cruise and his long-time production partner, Paula Wagner, who is the studio's chief executive officer.

The media bruising Cruise continues to suffer may prepare him for the hostility he is likely to encounter from disappointed film-makers whose projects he passes on now that he is the boss of United Artists. What are the omens for the Cruise-Wagner regime? The first feature to be made under the new regime at UA, Robert Redford's Lions for Lambs, was given a lukewarm reception by critics last year and did only modest business. Since then, the studio has embarked on an ambitious marketing campaign to remind audiences about UA's illustrious past.

Whether UA will ever manage to turn itself into a profitable, stand-alone studio remains to be seen. Look back on the company over the past 90 years and two very different stories emerge. On the one hand, this is a company that has been riven by boardroom battles and constant changes in ownership and identity. On the other, whatever disputes have been going on behind the screen, UA has brought us (among others) such gems as Some Like It Hot, A Star Is Born, The Apartment, High Noon and Annie Hall. If the new management green-light any films on a level with these, they will be doing us all a favour.

To honour United Artists' 90th anniversary, 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment will be releasing a first wave of United Artists DVDs in February

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United Artists/Independent Short Film Competition

Have you got what it takes to be a United Artists director? Help celebrate the studio’s 90th anniversary and you could win a three-day intensive film-making course, a five-day trip to Hollywood, or exclusive use of a private screening room for you and your friends.

To enter you need to make a two-minute film – live action, animated, made on your mobile phone, how you do it is up to you – inspired by one of the “UA at 90” celebratory catalogue (see the full list at independent.co.uk/filmcomp ).

Each month we will show a selection of entries online, and the public and a panel of expert judges, including Barry Norman and the Bafta award-winning director Asif Kapadia, will choose the winners. For full details on the competition and more on UA’s 90th anniversary, including exclusive behind-the-scenes photographs, go to independent.co.uk/filmcomp

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