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A young Charlie Chaplin, 1921. (Credit: Strauss-Peyton Studio)


The defining first film Charlie Chaplin produced with United Artists


In 1919 a remarkable new studio was set up that changed the world of cinema forever. United Artists was a studio by actual artists rather than businessmen. The filmmakers and actors Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, D.W. Griffith and Douglas Fairbanks banded together in order to ensure that artists had control over their own interests and the financial security to do what they envisioned.

In an era when film was in its infancy, this allowed artists to pursue progress rather than producers pursuing profits. The paradigm of the studio is embodied by both its first ‘talkie’ as well as the first film it ever produced. Charlie Chaplin’s first movie with sound represented an end to silence in more ways than one. The star emerged from muteness by writing, directing, producing, scoring, distributing and starring in The Great Dictator, a film that culminates in a voice-giving sermon that sits comfortably at the top of any given search for ‘the greatest speech ever made’. This double-edged meaning to breaking silence is an example of the movie’s eerie prescience in every which way. 

The year was 1940, and the Axis forces had already descended the world into war under a banner of fascism, antisemitism and Nazi ideologies. The American political discourse at the time was tentative and ambivalent. Charlie Chaplin sought to make a movie that would elucidate the dangers of fascism, stir up empathy for the persecuted European Jews and call for direct action. He achieved this daringly and unequivocally. 

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It was this bold daring that United Artists was all about and they set that movement in motion from the get-go. If Hollywood’s initial aim was for artists to capture the tales of America, then UA was akin to the film industry’s Gettysburg Address, it was a company by the artists for the people. The very first of its kind, UA was established in 1919 by performers D.W. Griffith, Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks and Charlie Chaplin. The company’s very inception represented a severance from commercial control to the pursuit of artistic interest. The studios first outing was a far cry from the slapstick of the day, with a sensitive silent masterclass in storytelling.

Broken Blossoms was a touching tattered satire: a young girl from the Limehouse region of London is beaten by her alcoholic prizefighting father, she finds solace in the friendship of a Chinese immigrant only for it all to end in tragic circumstances. The film was a statement and shrine to what pictures could be, and UA continued therein up until they arrived at the pearly gates brought forth by a flopping epic by Michael Cimino in the form of the 1980 release, Heaven’s Gate.

Unlike other studios, UA remained forever far meddling, but sadly they would pay the price for being a little bit too artist-friendly. There was so much goodwill for the film that its failure almost brings forth the maxim ‘you can have too much of a good thing’. Over at UA, most of the top executives had walked out over a disagreement with parent company Transamerica, the fresh faces in the hot seats were determined to usher in the new era with a crowning centrepiece. Cimino, likewise, was resolute not to suffer from post-Oscar-syndrome and better his Vietnam epic

As the movie’s joint lead, Kris Kristofferson, the country star so good they named him twice and a bit, states in the making-of documentary concerning Cimino’s monomaniacal dedication, “I bet Michelangelo cared. I bet Picasso cared. I probably didn’t care that much, but I was glad to be working with someone who did!” The only issue being that the aforementioned ‘carers’ were artists in the original sense of the word, individuals without industry, and when it comes to moviemaking Cimino proved conclusively that it’s possible to care too much. However, from Broken Blossoms onwards, their impact on the legacy of cinema was profound in every sense.