Slow starters, UA came good
The history of United Artists is long and complex, with many different ownership structures over the years, many deals with independent producers, and all sorts of Hollywood personalities involved, Joseph Schenck, Samuel Goldwyn, Howard Hughes, Darryl Zanuck, David O Selznick and so on, coming and going, often accompanied by lawsuits.
At the beginning it was simple enough. In 1919, four of the great pioneers of American cinema, director/producer DW Griffith and actors Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford and Charlie Chaplin, wanted their own company to gain better control of their own work. When he heard about their scheme, Richard A Rowland, head of Metro Pictures, apparently said, “The inmates are taking over the asylum.” These united artists were initially supported by the great cowboy star of the time William S Hart, who had recently signed with Jesse Lasky at Famous Players, but he bowed out.
At the start, funding was very limited and there were few pictures made, and no Westerns, despite the genre being very big at the time. Pickford and Griffith had been doing Westerns together, or semi-Westerns anyway, since 1909, The Heart of an Outlaw, A Romance of the Western Hills and so on, including in 1910 a version of Ramona. Fairbanks had done the odd one or two, notably The Half-Breed in 1916, directed by Allan Dwan. Charlie, no. The nearest UA got to a Western of its own in the early days was Fairbanks as Zorro in 1920.
In 1925, though, Hart came into the picture again. It was by the mid-20s clear to many (though not to Hart) that his brand of gritty, downbeat Western was falling out of style. The movie-going public was much more attracted to the flashier, faster, more spectacular kind of cowboy hero. Trick-riding and stunts became the rage and costumes became glitzy and theatrical. Tom Mix movies were huge hits. In 1923 Hart took the title role in the seven-reeler Wild Bill Hickok. It was this picture that made Jesse Lasky write to Hart, suggesting as tactfully as possible that it was very old-fashioned. Hart was mortified and replied that the West was old-fashioned. But it was over. Paramount dropped Hart in 1924, when he was sixty.
Hart was down but not out. He made one last bid to establish ‘his’ West as the ‘real’ one – or perhaps to bid a nostalgic and elegiac farewell to that West. In 1925 he produced Tumbleweeds, about the 1889 land rush at the opening of Oklahoma Territory to settlement. One might expect such a film to be about the dynamic West, a manifest destiny picture about the growth and settlement of the young country, but Hart’s take on this was that the old cowpokes had to give way to the settlers, and it was the end of the West. The subtext was, of course, that it was also the end of the Western. Hart himself put up the astronomical sum for those days of $100,000, of the total $312,000. The resultant film was released through United Artists and it turned out quite well – certainly spectacular – though it was noticeably melodramatic for our day – and even for those days, really. It only did moderate box-office business. Hart blamed UA for not promoting it properly and he sued. The legal proceedings dragged on for years and the courts did in fact finally rule in Hart’s favor, in 1940, but by then legal fees had cost him more than he won and he was 76, frail and broken.
In 1926, United Artists produced the almost-Western The Winning of Barbara Worth, directed by Henry King, and starring Ronald Colman, Vilma Bánky and Gary Cooper (who replaced Monte Blue). The film is remembered for the climactic flood sequence, depicting the 1905 formation of the Salton Sea. And in 1928 UA put out another version of Ramona, this one starring Dolores Del Rio and Warner Baxter and directed by the interesting Edwin Carewe. This was the first United Artists film with a synchronized score and sound effects, but no dialogue, and so was not a talking picture.
But that was that. All in all, UA’s contribution into the Western genre in the silent era was hardly glorious.
In the 1930s producer Edward Small did a deal with UA and the first Western result of that was the 1936 remake of The Last of the Mohicans. This actually remains my favorite version of that tedious novel. Directed by George B Seitz, it starred Randolph Scott as Hawkeye and had Bruce Cabot as Magua. There had even been plans to make the movie in color but Small decided that was too expensive.
In 1938, Samuel Goldwyn Productions made The Cowboy and the Lady, with Gary Cooper and Merle Oberon, which UA released, though while amusing this film can hardly be accounted a Western.
And of course it was United Artists that released Walter Wanger’s production of Stagecoach in 1939, directed by John Ford. UA distributed it but did not make it.
So before the 1940s United Artists had hardly covered itself in Western glory. Far from it. Still, things were picking up a bit.
Seitz and Small were back in 1940 with the fun Kit Carson, starring Jon Hall as Kit and Dana Andrews as Frémont, one of the early films to feature Monument Valley. Victor McLaglen was originally announced for the title role, and then Randolph Scott. Joel McCrea and Henry Fonda were also named. Poor old Jon wasn’t quite in that class.
And the same year Samuel Goldwyn made The Westerner, starring a superb Walter Brennan as Judge Roy Bean, with Gary Cooper, a splendid picture, which again UA did not make but did distribute.
In 1942 Harry Sherman produced and William McGann directed American Empire, a rather plodding (to be blunt) picture with Richard Dix which nevertheless had a big budget. At least some Westerns were coming out from United Artists. And talking of Sherman, his Hopalong Cassidy pictures with William Boyd had been Paramount releases but from Lost Canyon in December 1942 onwards it was UA that released them. Hoppy Serves a Writ, Border Patrol and so on followed; there were many in subsequent years.
In 1943 it was United Artists that finally released the sensational and lurid (and very bad) The Outlaw, Howard Hughes’s Billy the Kid film. That year too Dix was back, directed by Lesley Selander this time, in Buckskin Frontier and also in The Kansan, his last Western, directed by George Archainbaud.
At this time UA was also releasing a series of comedic 50-minute Hal Roach ‘Westerns’ starring Jimmy Rogers and Noah Beery Jr, Dudes Are Pretty People, Calaboose and Prairie Chickens.
Early in 1946 UA distributed the enjoyable Guild Productions picture Abilene Town, from an Ernest Haycox novel, headlining Randolph Scott, and the following year a similar arrangement was made with The Enterprise Studios to release the excellent Ramrod, a Luke Short story directed by André De Toth and starring Joel McCrea and Veronica Lake. In 1948 Enterprise made the charming Four Faces West, with McCrea again, this time paired with his wife Frances Dee.
1948 was more significant, though, for the great Red River, the Howard Hawks masterpiece with John Wayne, made by Monterey Productions and released by UA.
In the late 1940s UA itself did make a few Cisco Kid pictures, with Duncan Renaldo but for most of the 40s, even when fine films were appearing under the United Artists label, they weren’t really UA pictures.
And so we come to the 1950s. United Artists would buck the trend, as the decade wore on, making and/or releasing more and more Westerns in a time when other studios were having second thoughts about the genre.
In 1950 Small put George Montgomery in Davy Crockett, Indian Scout and The Iroquois Trail, sub-Mohicans protoWesterns. Irving Reis directed Lew Ayres in New Mexico in 1951 and that year too George O’Brien, in his last starring role, was in the Three Stooges comedy-Western Gold Raiders, and John Rawlins directed Fort Defiance. So already UA was upping its Western quotient.
In ’52 Clayton Moore was Buffalo Bill in Buffalo Bill in Tomahawk Territory but of course this was the year of High Noon, the great Stanley Kramer Productions Western with Gary Cooper, indeed, one of the finest Westerns ever made, which UA had the honor of distributing.
In 1953, there were three Westerns out of 47 pictures, 6%, one UA itself made, Son of the Renegade, a low-budget affair with Johnny Carpenter, then another Edward Small/George Montgomery oater, Gun Belt, and, produced by Aubrey Schenck, son of George, War Paint, directed by Lesley Selander and starring Robert Stack. By the way, you can find reviews of many of these Westerns in the index.
Now Westerns really took off at UA. 1954 saw Small’s Southwest Passage with Rod Cameron, directed by Ray Nazarro, and Nazarro also directed Montgomery in The Lone Gun. Selander was back, this time with Rory Calhoun, in The Yellow Tomahawk and Carpenter was back, directed by Yakima Canutt, no less, in The Lawless Rider. Also that year, following a deal with Hecht-Lancaster Productions, Burt was Apache, directed by Robert Aldrich. Jesse James’ Women with Don ‘Red’ Barry was, er, regrettable while a much bigger affair was the Sidney Salkow-directed Sitting Bull in CinemaScope, with J Carrol Naish as Bull and Dale Robertson the hero. The year ended with another Hecht-Lancaster picture helmed by Aldrich, Vera Cruz, beloved by many though not your Jeff. So ’54 was quite a vintage, the best Western year so far for our studio. Eight Westerns!
There were eight in ’55 too, 23% of UA’s pictures. Gosh! Stranger on Horseback was a nice film directed by Jacques Tourneur and starring Joel McCrea; Canyon Crossroads was lesser fare, with Alfred Werker directing Richard Basehart; Salkow/Montgomery did Robbers’ Roost; Hecht-Lancaster came back with The Kentuckian, directed by Burt himself; Aubrey Schenck did Fort Yuma with Peter Graves; and Richard Wilson directed Mitchum in the small but interesting Man With a Gun. There was also Kirk Douglas’s Bryna Productions picture, with Kirk starring, The Indian Fighter, and Edward Small yet again producing and Nazarro directing Top Gun with Sterling Hayden.
The mid-50s progressed, just as other studios, the majors anyway, were winding down their Western production in the face of competition from TV, with Comanche, Ghost Town, The Broken Star, Quincannon Frontier Scout, Johnny Concho, Rebel in Town, Gun Brothers, Bandido, Man from Del Rio, Gun the Man Down, The Peacemaker and The King and Four Queens, all in 1956.
And there were sixteen in 1957: Drango, The Halliday Brand, Tomahawk Trail, Revolt at Fort Laramie, War Drums, The Iron Sheriff, Fury at Showdown, The Ride Back, Gun Duel in Durango, Trooper Hook, The Buckskin Lady, Outlaw’s Son, Valerie, Gunsight Ridge, Ride Out for Revenge and The Dalton Girls. Impressive, huh?
There were eight in 1958, and in 1959 too. Some of these were quite big because Walter Mirisch was using United Artists to distribute his pictures such as Man of the West, The Gunfight at Dodge City and The Horse Soldiers.
As we know, the big-screen Western declined quite dramatically in the 1960s but UA was still releasing Edward Small oaters, such as Gunfighters of Abilene, Oklahoma Territory, Noose for a Gunman and Five Guns to Tombstone. Hecht-Lancaster also had UA distribute the very fine John Huston-directed The Unforgiven, and, lest we not forget, Mirisch’s truly great The Magnificent Seven was a United Artists release. Wayne’s The Alamo too, the same year.
Some of the quality dropped off in the later 60s as well as the quantity. We got the likes of Sinatra’s Sergeants 3, Chuck Connors as Geronimo and the dire The Hallelujah Trail. They can’t all be good. The Magnificent Seven sequels were pretty crummy. In the late 60s UA handled the American release of Leone’s Dollars movies.
The 70s were even worse, with Sabata and that kind of thing, though I didn’t mind Barquero, and Valdez is Coming was actually pretty good. Doc and Lawman, forget it. The Missouri Breaks, oh please. The 80s would give us the monumental flop of Heaven’s Gate. That sank UA. MGM acquired the studio in 1981 for a reported $350 million.
But we can’t blame United Artists for bad late Westerns. The whole genre was debased. Instead, we might thank our lucky stars (Hollywood ones as well) that after a pretty non-Western early period, UA really got into the oater. And we Western-lovers sure benefited.
So gracias, United Artists, gracias.
A fine round-up. A pair of points relative to yur comments.
When UA was formed Douglas Fairbanks was in charge of production, and while he was they never lost money. After that, Many ups and downs.
Edward Small was a great producer essentially releasing products at UA and Columbia. All of the United Artists releases are superior in conception and production to the Columbia product. Louis Hayward was in seven of these,the first four went out at UA, Duke of West Point and Man in The Iron Mask opened at Radio City Music Hall, Son of Monte Cristo and My Son, My Son also at significant venues. After the ar, Hayward di Return of Monte Cristo, The Black Arrow and Walk a Crooked Mile for Small at Columbia. Perfectly entertaining, but less significant product.
I might do one of my series The Producers on Small.
Looking forwrd to that.