Producer How Did They Have Control Over Their Films Research Paper

Pages: 8 (2531 words)  ·  Bibliography Sources: 5  ·  File: .docx  ·  Level: Master's  ·  Topic: Film

Mary Pickford: United Artist's Founder, America's Sweetheart

Biography: The girl with the golden curls and the steely-hearted challenger of the studio system

Although there is much talk today of 'power couples' in Hollywood, no pair today can parallel the domination of Mary Pickford, widely known as America' sweetheart, and her husband, the swashbuckling action hero Douglas Fairbanks Jr. during the era of silent film. Pickford and Fairbanks established their stardom during the early days of cinema, and although they did attempt to make talking pictures (including an ill-advised production of the Taming of the Shrew together that incorporated interpolated dialogue with Shakespeare's timeless words), their films in the talkies never garnered the beloved status of their bodies of work in silent films.

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However, despite Mary Pickford's links to an old-fashioned style of movie making that is now a part of 20th century history, Pickford's work as a producer and one of the co-founders of United Artists, was incredibly modern and is still relevant today. The philosophy of United Artists became a harbinger of the way gritty, independent films were made during the 1960s and 1970s, one of the greatest periods independent filmmaking in America. Although it may be difficult to see the parallels between Taxi Driver and Pickford's films, they are present in the sense that Pickford was determined to support innovative visions in the medium she loved. As the studios gradually gained more and more control over star's lives, Pickford and her United Artists co-founders Fairbanks and Chaplin, wished to make a case for the importance and quality of independent movie-making before the American public. "The inmates are taking over the asylum" supposedly exclaimed one wag, when UA was formed. But this 'take-over' created an infusion of creativity into the movie business, when it was sorely needed. The creation of United Artists was a defense of film as a true 'art.' Pickford and her co-founders believed that films were product of a director and a collection of actors, not merely a money-making venture.

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It is somewhat ironic that Pickford never established a career in 'talkies' given that she began in the theater. Born Gladys Smith, her name was made more saleable through the pseudonym Mary Pickford, and her beautiful face and doll-like appearance caused her to be spotted and quickly launched to Hollywood stardom during the heyday of silent pictures. Pickford, in contrast to other box-office starlets of the 1920s, conveyed an otherworldly, innocent and childlike image. Central to her success was her head of cascading golden curls that, unlike the sultry flapper bobs of Louise Brooks and 'It Girl' Clara Bow, almost reached Pickford's waist. The diminutive Pickford frequently played children, such as Pollyanna and Little Lord Fauntleroy. During this more innocent time, the appeal of a beautiful woman playing a little child went unremarked upon, and when Pickford married the popular heroic actor Douglas Fairbanks Jr., it seemed as if a Hollywood dynasty had been created.

But both Pickford and Fairbanks chafed at the limits of their popular but rather confined screen images. Furthermore, they disliked the often-overbearing studio heads: the stars were the reason that Americans came to see films in such overwhelming numbers, they believed, not the producers. Pickford's "standing as "America's Sweetheart -- a winsome image perpetuated by films like 1914's Tess of the Storm Country, 1917's Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, and 1917's Poor Little Rich Girl -- began to straitjacket her creative ambitions, and after 1920's Pollyanna, which cast the 27-year-old as a girl 15 years her junior, she defiantly chopped off her long, angelic curls into a short bob and set about updating her image once and for all" ("Mary Pickford," Columbia, 2010). Only creative control over her films would give her the power to thrive as an artist, believe Pickford. To her credit, she tried to stretch her range and bring new directing talent to America at the same time: "Toward these aims, Pickford lured director Ernst Lubitsch from Germany to the U.S. To helm 1923's Rosita, and out went the Cinderella tales on which her stardom rested. By 1929's Coquette, for which she won an Academy Award, her transformation was complete" ("Mary Pickford," Columbia, 2010).

Despite their successes, both Pickford and Fairbanks, along with close friend Charlie Chaplin, and renowned silent film director D.W. Griffith wanted to challenge the limitations placed upon them by their screen images. The seed of an idea, the dream that later became United Artists was born. Griffith, director of Birth of a Nation (1915) wanted to continue to create equally ambitious epics, although studio heads preferred shorter and less risky works. Chaplin's strong personality similarly craved greater freedom and like Griffith, he also wanted to create longer, feature-length works like the Kid (1921). UA would give Chaplin greater ability to publicize and distribute the works he was already creating on his own.

Producing during the silent era: Pre-United Artists

"Originally, in the earliest years of the motion picture industry, production, distribution, and exhibition were separately controlled. When the industry rapidly grew, these functions became integrated under one directorship to maximize profits, something called vertical integration" (Dirks 2001, p.1). Obviously, this 'total control' over so many facets of the industry gave tremendous power to the large studios. "By 1929, the film-making firms that were to rule and monopolize Hollywood for the next half-century were the giants or the majors, sometimes dubbed the Big Five. They produced more than 90% of the fiction films in America and distributed their films both nationally and internationally" (Dirks 2001, p.1). Hollywood was, effectively, an oligopoly.

Each studio had a slightly different 'brand': Warner Brothers Pictures was known for its gritty gangster pictures, MGM for its splashy musicals. And part of the branding was promoting certain, specific stars, as the image of stars was linked to the image of the studios. "The studio system was essentially born with long-term contracts for stars, lavish production values, and increasingly rigid control of directors and stars by the studio's production chief and in-house publicity departments" (Dirks 2001, p.1). Rather than viewing film as an artistic medium, as D.W. Griffith aspired to do, the major studios viewed their films as products of a kind of factory system of production, much like Henry Ford manufactured cars on an assembly line.

However, United Artists was "formed in 1919 by movie industry icons Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., Charlie Chaplin, and director D.W. Griffith as an independent company to produce and distribute their films; United Artists utilized an 18-acre property owned by Pickford and Fairbanks, known as the Pickford-Fairbanks Studio, and later named United Artists Studio in the 1920s" (Dirks 2001, p.1). United Artists, despite near total opposition from the rest of the film industry, almost immediately managed to release some popular and lucrative films, such as D.W. Griffith's Orphans of the Storm (1921) and Fairbank's star turn in Three Musketeers (1921). These early films, although unique realizations of these artists' visions, were not as radical in their approach as were some later UA films. For example, the conservative Southerner Griffith's film was a condemnation of Bolshevism disguised as an anti-leftist French Revolution tale, and Fairbank's film featured him doing handsprings to grab swords, in demonstration of his athletic star power. However, merely splitting from the control of the studios was viewed as a radical act during the era. Only artists of Pickford and Chaplin's stature and money-generating ability could have taken such a bold move. It was, to some degree, even more risky for Pickford than Chaplin. Pickford was a woman in a male-dominated industry, and her image was that of sweetness and light, not the humorous, authority-challenging image of the Little Tramp.

Ironically, Pickford noted that in retrospect her producing duties often inhibited some of her film choices, rather than facilitated them. United Artists was a financially demanding commitment for Pickford. One of the reasons Pickford elected to play Pollyanna, which grossed $1.1 million ($10 million in today's figures) was because she felt assured it would be successful and that the money could be used to fund UA projects ("Mary Pickford," the American Experience, 2010).

America's Sweetheart becomes the sweetheart of the Society of Independent Movie Producers

Despite bobbing her hair in a famous publicity photo that made the cover of newspapers and magazines all over the nation, Pickford's sweet image did not translate well into the more hard-boiled Depression era world of 'talkies'. Additionally, another curly-haired moppet, a real child named Shirley Temple, was stealing the hearts of Americans desperate to escape the Great Depression and assuming many of Pickford's former types of roles. Undaunted, Pickford channeled her mighty energy behind the camera. "After her last starring role in the early 1930s, Mary Pickford remained a hands-on manager of United Artists" and a member of the Society of Independent Movie Producers (SIMPP) (Aberdeen 2005). The Society of Independent Motion Picture Producers was formed by many of the 'usual' contrarian suspects who had formed United Artists, including Mary Pickford and Charlie Chaplin as well as Walt… [END OF PREVIEW] . . . READ MORE

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