Mary Pickford: United Artist's Founder, Research Paper
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The films Pickford brought to life as a producer later in her career were often nothing like those she starred in as an actress: For example, "in 1945, during the independent production boom at the end of World War II, she organized Comet Pictures to make medium-budget films with Ralph Cohn, the son of Columbia Pictures cofounder Jack Cohn. At Comet she produced probably her finest later film, the noir hit Sleep, My Love (1948)" as well as the broad, comedic-style films My Little Chickadee (1940) with W.C. Films; Love Happy (1950), with the Marx Brothers comedy and (briefly) Marilyn Monroe and the war movie the Story of G.I. Joe (1945) (Aberdeen 2005).
Pickford defended the role of independent producers in 1934, in a speech that noted that for film to continue to remain relevant in the 20th centuries, it must be innovative and challenging, particularly given that radio and (then in its infancy) television were competing for viewer attention: "Perhaps the greatest thing about motion pictures is that no one can ever have a monopoly on ideas. Masterpieces cannot be made to order. Artistic supremacy hovers for a season over one studio, then producers bang away with their inspirational guns and chase it to another, where it perches precariously, a harried quarry soon to wing its way elsewhere, ceaselessly pursued by these diligent huntsmen" (Pickford 1934). The key to cinematic variety, Pickford believed, was independent production methods. If a studio became dominant enough as to stifle creative control, film would become dull and uninteresting to spectators. The greatest money-making approach to filming was not formulas, but innovation. Film producers and studios had to think in the long-term rather than in the short-term.
Pickford also defended the right of other independent producers to make films. When Samuel Goldwyn, Jr.'s film Up in Arms was nearly 'shut out' of theaters, due to the studio's monopolization of venues across the nation, Pickford made an influential speech: "Mr. Goldwyn spent a whole year of intensive work and two and a half million dollars of his own; that is a lot of time and very great deal of money but to what avail? Only to be told upon the completion of a year's work and expenditure of two and one-half million dollars that he shall not be permitted to show his picture but dictated by a theater monopoly" (Pickford 1944). Although he was never an actor, Samuel Goldwyn Jr. shared Pickford's independent spirit and her willingness to support what was then considered 'edgier' films: Up in Arms displayed the hyperkinetic talents of comedian Danny Kaye. Goldwyn also released, under United Artists, such films as Wuthering Heights (1939), and the Little Foxes (1941), all Oscar-nominated films, although he gradually transitioned to RKO. Still, Goldwyn's development as a producer, after he broke away from his father's studio, was one of UA's most notable successes.
UA also released some of Disney's early films during the 1930s, but like Goldwyn, Disney too moved away from UA to form its own studios. Disney wished to have more creative control
over his product. In contrast, United Artists was eclectic in its choice of productions to release. Unlike what became Disney studios, there was no particular UA style in terms of its performances, which may have been one of the weaknesses of the company and its failure to fully challenge the major studios on their own terms.
Another problem may have been that United Artists had been founded to satisfy the creative visions and goals of very different artists: Griffin focused upon his rather sentimental vision of cinema, combined with a desire to create sprawling epics; Chaplin was a true comedic auteur, while Fairbanks and Pickford wanted to improve their own careers and take more challenging roles (a desire which often conflicted with their need to make money to support UA). Eventually, in 1951, two lawyers bought United Artists and turned it into a successful filmmaking company. Pickford sold her shares in United Artists for $3 million, $19.7 million in today's dollars ("Timeline," 2003, PBS). However, even after her initial desire to run UA proved unfruitful, Pickford continued to support the work of others.
Compared to other producers working at that time, Pickford's style was far more eclectic. Unlike the Jack, Harry, Albert, and Sam Warner Studio's highly efficient system and signature style of 'machine gun' crime epics, United Artists and Mary Pickford had no specific trademark that would 'give away' the fact that a film had been created under her watch. Rather, the films Pickford was influential in producing are better known by the trademark style of the actors and directors that gave birth to them. United Artists was always more of a means of releasing new creative visions to the public, rather than crafting a signature Pickford approach. As Pickford herself said, her belief was that diversity was the core of cinema's survival. She was fundamentally an actress, not a director like Griffith and Chaplin, and just like an actress, she wished to try out many different creative partners.
Pickford was also not like Disney or even Universal Pictures, other small independent studios that relied upon niche styles, like Disney's cartoons, and Universal's W.C. Fields, Abbott and Costello, Flash Gordon and Woody Woodpecker series (Dirks 2010, p.1). Although some of the films she starred in where highly formulaic, Pickford was never reliant upon cinematic conventions in her approach as a producer, a pioneering woman in the film industry, and a creative and supportive visionary.
Aberdeen, J.A. "Mary Pickford: The SIMPP Years." Hollywood Renegades. Reprinted by Cobblestone, 2005 on the web in excerpted form. May 4, 2010.
Dirks, Tim. "Film history of the 1920s." Film Site. AMC Movie Classics. May 4, 2010.
"Mary Pickford." The American Experience. May 4, 2010.
"Mary Pickford." The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia. Columbia University Press, 2010.
Answers.com. May 4, 2010. http://www.answers.com/topic/mary-pickford
Pickford, Mary. "The Big Bad Wolf Has Been Muzzled." 1934. May 4, 2010.
Pickford, Mary. "Up in Arms Address." 1944. May 4, 2010.
"Timeline." Mary Pickford. PBS. May 4, 2010.
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