The transmogrification of the old Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer is, as it turns out, the end not of one era but of two. The purchase of the MGM/UA Communications Co. by Pathe Communications Corp., completed at the start of November, is the last cutting of the cord to the MGM that was. The new logo will be MGM-Pathe. And at the same time the UA logo will disappear into history after 71 memorable years.
By present plan, “Rocky V,” just being released, and the next (and probably final) James Bond film will be the last to carry the United Artists label.
The great MGM lot that Louis B. Mayer built is now the home of Columbia, a Japanese corporation. From somewhere up in the clouds, Louis B. Mayer and his arch-rival, Columbia’s Harry Cohn, must both be gazing down with extremely mixed emotions at what Mammon hath wrought.
From adjoining clouds Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks and D. W. Griffith could look down with equally mixed emotions. The four of them had founded United Artists in 1919 with the thought that they would enjoy a good deal more creative freedom--and very likely more money--if they made and distributed their own films.
In the silent era, the company did well, releasing films by the founders and by others as well, including Buster Keaton. For a while in the ‘30s UA also released the films of Sam Goldwyn and Alexander Korda.
But there were problems. Mary and Doug, America’s sweethearts, ceased to be such. D. W. Griffith, ill and out of favor in a changed Hollywood, could no longer work. In later years, Pickford and Chaplin did not speak at all. As the ‘50s began and television was making its heavy inroads in Hollywood, UA was virtually moribund. Pickford wanted to sell; Chaplin resisted; Mary won.
New owners, led by Robert Benjamin and Arthur Krim, took over from the founders in 1951 and led UA into a golden era that lasted just over a quarter-century. The company had no production facilities, which once seemed a handicap but which, in the post-television era of independent production, suddenly became a virtue. Under David Picker and subsequent production executives, UA’s operating philosophy of approving a project, providing the money and then leaving the filmmakers alone was almost unique in the industry. It paid off.
UA had a smashing hit in Tony Richardson’s sexy, witty period romp, “Tom Jones” (1963). It had the lucky foresight to finance the Harry Saltzman-Cubby Broccoli production of Ian Fleming’s “Dr. No,” which in 1962 introduced Sean Connery as James Bond 007 to a waiting world, thus begetting a hugely profitable series whose end is not yet.
The hands-off policy at UA attracted Woody Allen, whose unique contracts with the company allowed for two week at least of reshooting if Allen wanted it. The association began with “What’s New, Pussycat” in 1965, which Allen wrote but did not direct.
An impressive string of commercial and critical successes began to bear the UA label. There was an Oscar for best picture for “In the Heat of the Night” in 1967, another for “Midnight Cowboy” in 1969. There were best picture Oscars for “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” “Rocky” and “Annie Hall” in successive years, 1975-77, and a nomination the next year for “Coming Home.”
Then in the late ‘70s, Transamerica Corp. bought control of UA. The conglomerate was more accustomed to dealing with insurance policies than with creative artists, and at the start of 1978 the UA leadership departed en masse in rebellion against head office interference. They formed Orion Pictures. Woody Allen, significantly, also left to go with Orion.
The biggest news out of UA in its Transamerica period was the horrendous cost-overrun on Michael Cimino’s “Heaven’s Gate,” a $48-million loss from which UA as an independent entity never really recovered. Acquired by Kerkorian as an MGM hyphenate, MGM/UA has continued to release the James Bond films and the Robert Chartoff-Irwin Winkler “Rocky” productions.
In the ‘80s, the UA or MGM/UA output grew thinner and thinner, and yet the firm released Martin Scorsese’s “Raging Bull” (produced by Chartoff and Winkler) and the Oscar-winning “Rain Man.”
The decline and demise of a studio, or a production company like UA, is very much like the death of a magazine or a newspaper. It is the silencing of a voice, the loss of an option available to the writer or the filmmaker with an idea and a passion to see it made, a diminishing of choices and variety within the whole output of the industry.
It means a dozen or more films a year that won’t get made, any one of which might have turned out to be something special.
The voice of a studio, like the voice of a publication, may sometimes have been foolish, superficial, shrill, cynical or any one of a number of other things a voice can be. But it may also have had its moments of greatness, when it rose above the mundane and created something of lasting worth and importance.
Film history would be significantly poorer without the UA legacy, from its formative silent days, more particularly from its great period between the ‘50s and ‘70s.
It made films--I think immediately of Bob Fosse’s “Lenny,” with Dustin Hoffman--that might not have found a home elsewhere in the industry. In 1974, a film about the controversial comedian Lenny Bruce was a bold commercial venture.
With the notable exception of “Annie Hall,” Woody Allen’s films have been only narrowly profitable, a special urban taste almost unmarketable in some parts of the country. But the pre-Orion UA was a firmly supportive if occasionally nervous patron for him. And by now the Allen films constitute a body of work unique in its ever more aspiring creative intentions.
There were UA flops; there always are, it being impossible to repeal the law of averages or unvaryingly second-guess the audience. But it is always the successes one looks to. The lesson of UA’s hands-off regard for its filmmakers has not been lost, surviving at Orion and elsewhere.
Still, you watch with melancholy as the UA logo fades from the scene. In its various guises it has spanned three quarters of the life of American movies. Its best days had come and gone, but it leaves memories that will be a good deal slower to fade.