Studios come and go in Hollywood, and these days, United Artists is pretty much gone from the scene. But once upon a time, they were as big as anyone, and unbelievably enough, they were actually founded by artists instead of money men. It was a great run for a while, and it produced come incredible films. West Side Story, by anyone's reckoning, is near the top of that list.
Three Dudes, One Gal and a Dream
United Artists started out as the creation of four of the biggest movers and shakers in early Hollywood: Charlie Chaplin (who we're guessing you've heard of ), Douglas Fairbanks (famous for his pirate and adventurer roles back in the day when Hollywood would buckle its swash whenever it could), D.W. Griffith(an innovative director now best known for the overtly racist "masterpiece" Birth of a Nation), and "America's Sweetheart" Mary Pickford, the biggest female star in the world and one of the only women in Hollywood who actually held some power.
They got together in 1919, following a long tour together pushing war bonds at the end of the First World War. They basically said, "Hey, wouldn't it be neat if we got to decided which movies were made instead of some money man?" It was a nice idea, and they were serious enough to get it off the ground.
But the road was pretty rough in those early years. They didn't actually turn a profit until the 1930s, and there was a lot of drama behind the scenes. Griffith left the company in 1924. The guy they hired to run the thing, Joseph Shrenk, quit in 1935 when he wasn't allowed to own any part of the company, and one of the studios they had partnered with to make movies for distribution—Goldwyn Pictures—split to join MGM in the late 1930s. That last bit stung the most: one of the first films MGM made after Goldywn joined them was Gone with the Wind. It was the most financially successful movie up to that time.
The Tide Turns
Things stayed shaky for many years, with UA kind of shambling along and somehow managing to crank out a bunch of movies. Some of them actually did okay, and a few are even considered classics: Fairbanks' The Thief of Baghdad, for instance, and a huge chunk of both Chaplin's films and the films of his silent comedian rival Buster Keaton. Alfred Hitchcock's Best Picture-winning Rebecca was their baby, and they distributed Laurence Olivier's Henry V, which was considered the definitive version until some upstart young punk named Kenneth Branagh showed up.
The game finally started to change in 1951. Two producers named Robert Benjamin and Arthur Krim made a deal with Chaplin and Pickford (Douglas Fairbanks had died in 1939). They had ten years to turn the studio's fortunes around, or they would resign.
They didn't resign.
They got to work and suddenly, UA start making movies that actually turned a profit. It started almost immediately with two movies—The African Queen and High Noon— that weren't only big hits but bona fide classics. In fact, they both won back-to-back Oscars for Best Actor: Humphrey Bogart for The African Queen and Gary Cooper in High Noon. (Check 'em out if you can: they're brilliant.)
That set the pace, and Krim and Benjamin kept the beat going for the next thirty years. West Side Story was just one of their smashes. UA went public in 1957, and started producing television shows as well as movies when TV started invading America. In 1962, they scored the James Bond franchise, and even though UA is gone, 007 is still going strong.
One Train Wreck Ruins It All
Like every other company, UA eventually went corporate; the Transamerica Corporation bought it up in 1967. They kept cranking out hits, and some flops as well, but they had to play by different rules, and that didn't always sit well with the producers at UA. Even massive successes like the Rocky and Pink Panther franchises didn't seem to make things better. The relationship between the two companies was never ideal, and as with any relationship, it all came to a head with one big mistake.
The mistake was Heaven's Gate, an ambitious, overreaching and very, very long western that arrived at the worst possible time. In the early 1970s, the director was king in Hollywood, but as famous men behind the camera gained more and more control, they started making increasingly expensive movies that didn't actually make any money.
Heaven's Gate was the cherry on that money-sucking sundae. It lost over $44 million ($128 million in 2016 dollars). Ironically, the movie itself is considered quite good these days, but it's still known as the movie that killed United Artists. Transamerica decided that the time had come to unload the company and put it up for sale in 1981.
In 1982, UA merged with another entertainment giant that had fallen on hard times: MGM. They became MGA/UA Home Entertainment Group. Movie production continued; James Bond wasn't going anywhere and the company scored some hits with films like Red Dawn. But the fizz had gone out of the drink. It was subjected to constant shuffling, rebranding and general corporate interference that didn't do it any favors.
Ironically, the studio's reputation as artist-run attracted some heavy hitters, like director Francis Ford Coppola, who wanted very much to make it work again. Tom Cruise even succeeded in resurrecting it in 2006, and put his Gal Friday, Paula Wagner in charge of production. But that didn't work, either. Wagner left the company in 2008, and Cruise was pounding his tiny lovesick fists on Oprah's couch at about the same time, which made the American public decide that they didn't want to see nearly so much of Tom Cruise anymore.
In any case, UA eventually became something of a specialty brand, used for Bond films and a couple of other projects that previously had United Artists attached to it. Between 2010 and 2015, they released only five movies: two Bonds, the Red Dawn remake, and Creed, which was technically a Rocky sequel and therefore had UA associations. Only 2010's Hot Tub Time Machine was an original film, leaving most people to assume that UA just isn't going to turn it around anytime soon. (Source)
That said, it still left its mark on Hollywood, and with West Side Story they definitely had a classic for the ages.