On a February day in 1919, four pissed-off heavyweights of the silent era signed a pact. Although the movie industry was still young, businessmen had already figured out how to assert themselves over the talent. The studio heads controlled budgets and distribution, and increasingly wielded creative power. So Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, and D.W. Griffith, determined to reclaim their autonomy, formed United Artists. But the company stumbled out of the gate, went through a couple of mutations, and scored little success until the early 1950s. United Artists thrived for the next three decades, attracting established directors and stars who craved control and chafed under the studio system. The quintessential U.A. figure, Woody Allen, kicks off a 33-title retrospective tonight with mid-1970s touchstones Annie Hall and Love and Death. The series offers a cornucopia of classics worth savoring, especially when one considers the company's subsequent history. The 1980 epic Heaven's Gate ran so far over budget and bombed so extravagantly that U.A.'s corporate parent (Transamerica, the power of the pyramid) pulled the plug. In 2006, the studio was brought back to life Frankenstein-style, with that paragon of cinematic art Tom Cruise and his partner Paula Wagner at the helm. Is U.A. on the verge of another golden age? Sure, and Mary Pickford is planning a comeback.
April 3-May 4, 2008