Thursday, April 16, 2009

Film Artists United?

By David Luhrssen
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Unlike those academic film scholars who try to confine movies within the narrow coffins of dubious theory or ideology, Tino Balio just wants to know how things work. He is concerned with the nuts and bolts of cinema as an industry. Balio’s two volume set on one of the most remarkable companies to emerge from Golden Age Hollywood has been republished (with new introductions from the author) by the University of Wisconsin Press, United Artists Vol. 1-1919-1950: The Company the Stars Built and Vol. 2-1951-1978: The CompanyThat Changed the Film Industry.

UA began as a grand and unusual experiment in artists taking charge of their own work. Founded by some of the biggest names of the silent era (Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford and D.W. Griffith), UA financed and distributed a relatively small annual roster of ostensibly quality films in an industry that normally supplied cinemas the way Detroit fed car dealers.

The artists succeeded, but only in part. In the early years UA was responsible for memorable movies such as Hell’s Angels,The Front Page, Scarface, Modern Times and Foreign Correspondent, along with a great many forgotten titles. Yet despite winning accolades and awards, UA barely survived. “The United Artists name became a misnomer, because the partners were seldom united,” Balio writes. Although modestly profitable for some years, UA’s history was written as much in board room intrigue and law suits as box office receipts and movies produced.

By the early 1950s, control of UA was wrested from its surviving founders. The new executives saw the end of the studio system and the future in looser, international networks of finance and production. For many years UA finally fulfilled its promise as an industry leader, producing classics such as High Noon, Kiss Me Deadly and Night of the Hunter along with profitable C-minus flicks.

In the ‘70s UA won three Best Picture Oscars in a row for One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest, Rocky and Annie Hall. But the company soon fell prey to what Balio calls the “blockbuster trap.” UA banked on Heaven’s Gate, literally, investing millions in a film that overran its budget and bombed at box offices. Critics hated it, the public stayed away and although UA was convinced that director Michael Cimino (The DeerHunter) was a genius and refused to rein him in, they lost confidence upon its release and failed to promote it vigorously.

Although focused on one company, Balio’s books provide much insight into the development of the music industry as a whole.

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