Krim, Arthur B.

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Krim, Arthur B.

(b. 4 April 1910 in New York City; d. 21 September 1994 in New York City), attorney, entertainment industry executive, and discreet but influential presidential adviser with enormous behind-the-scenes impact.

Krim was one of three children of Morris Krim, a Russian immigrant who became a successful operator of a chain of cafeterias, and Rose Ocko. He grew up comfortably in suburban Mount Vernon, New York, and in high school he was captain of the cross-country team and senior class president. Elected to Phi Beta Kappa at Columbia College, he graduated in 1930 with a B.A. degree. In 1932 he earned an LL.B. degree from Columbia University Law School. First in his class, he served in 1931–1932 as the law review editor in chief.

After graduation Krim joined Phillips and Nizer, entertainment law specialists. Admitted to the New York bar in 1933, he and his colleague Robert Benjamin became senior partners in the mid-1930s. The firm was renamed Phillips, Nizer, Benjamin, and Krim. Krim retained his law partnership until 1978. Thereafter until his death he was “of counsel.” During World War II Krim served from 1942 to 1945 in the army, where he carried out special assignments both in the United States and the Pacific for the War Department and for the Army Services Forces, ultimately attaining the rank of lieutenant colonel.

In 1946 Krim became head of Eagle-Lion Films, a low-budget production venture of the British film mogul J. Arthur Rank and the American financier Robert Young. Circumstances hobbled the company’s efforts. Eagle-Lion could not access the stars necessary to sell its product or enough first-run venues to show it. Moreover, the movie industry was suffering severe declines in attendance as competition for the leisure dollar intensified dramatically in postwar America. Krim, clashing repeatedly with Young, resigned in 1949.

In 1951 Krim and Benjamin assumed management of United Artists, a venerable film company founded in 1919 and headquartered in New York that at the time was on the verge of collapse. Krim, Benjamin, and their team would receive half the company’s stock if they turned a profit in three years. With Krim as president and Benjamin as chairman, positions the men held until 1968, they did so in six months. Within six years they bought out the surviving founders and in 1957 took the company public, earning substantial sums for themselves. On 7 December 1958 Krim married the Italian-born Mathilde Galland, who became a medical leader in the fight against AIDS. They had one daughter.

Although Krim worked closely with Benjamin until the latter’s death in 1979, Krim, known to many as “the Great White Father,” was the dominant figure. The key to the company’s profitability and artistic success lay in his ability to attract and retain independent producers. United Artists did not physically make movies. In return for a significant share of the profits and a hefty distribution fee, the company put up funding, handled distribution and publicity, and created what Krim called the proper “psychological climate.” Autonomy for the independent producer was certainly not total. The producer had to reach agreement with United Artists on the story, cast, director, and budget before a project was approved. One producer recalled, “It’s tough to get a commitment,… but once they’re committed, you get more freedom.” United Artists went from strength to strength, becoming by 1967 the largest movie producer-distributor in the world. That year the conglomerate Transamerica acquired it in a friendly takeover.

Krim, chairman of what now had become a subsidiary of the larger conglomerate, concentrated on other interests. In 1967 he became a trustee of Columbia University. Elected chairman in 1977, he served until he reached the mandatory retirement age in 1982. During the early 1960s he successfully raised funds for the Democratic Party, an activity he continued into the 1970s. Close to President Lyndon Johnson in the 1960s, Krim refused various posts but accepted an appointment in late 1968 as a “special consultant” in the Johnson administration’s last months. Jack Valenti, a key Johnson aide, maintained that during the last two years of Johnson’s presidency “there was no single individual in government…in whom Johnson reposed greater trust.”

Partly because Krim focused on his interests outside United Artists, the firm suffered serious financial reverses in 1970. The situation changed when Krim returned to a more active role. In 1976 and 1977 United Artists led the industry in theatrical rentals and won Best Picture Academy Awards. Krim, chafing at Transamerica’s restrictions on its subsidiaries, quietly tried for a spin-off. That failing, the usually discreet Krim undertook a carefully orchestrated public campaign. In early 1978 Krim, Benjamin, and three other top company executives resigned and organized Orion Pictures with Krim as chairman. Krim’s power gradually diminished over the years. In 1982 Orion merged with Filmways, which also had diverse nonfilm interests, and became a public company.

For much of the 1980s Orion did well at the box office. In 1987 the company had the major share of domestic theatrical rentals. It also did well artistically. Krim’s policy of “leave the talent alone” attracted creative filmmakers, one of whom said, “You can sleep nights if you have a deal with Arthur Krim.” Orion’s hits included Oscar winners; Woody Allen movies; critically acclaimed “niche” films, most of which were foreign; and the television series Cagney and Lacey. Overexpansion, excessive debt interest, and a series of expensive flops resulted in chapter eleven bankruptcy in December 1991, despite back-to-back Academy Award winners in 1990 and 1991. In April 1991 Krim assumed the honorary post of founding chairman; thirteen months later he resigned from Orion.

In failing health since undergoing heart surgery in 1993, Krim died in his Manhattan home. His honors included the Presidential Medal of Freedom (1969), the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (1975), Columbia College’s Alexander Hamilton Medal (1976), and an honorary doctorate from Columbia University (1982). He is buried in New York City.

A short, stocky man, Krim exuded what one contemporary called a “calculated flexibility.” Some considered him arrogant and autocratic, but overall his peers rated him favorably. At various times Krim was described as “the smartest man ever to work in the movie industry.” Better known within the industry than to the public, he was noted for his discretion. A contemporary said, “You would never know from seeing Arthur Krim the amount of wealth he had or power.” Once Krim and his associates approved a project, a producer worked in an atmosphere of creative autonomy. His management, especially at United Artists, resulted in a new freedom for filmmakers and a restructuring of the industry away from the traditional factory-style studio production.

The United Artists Collection at the Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research, State Historical Society of Wisconsin, Madison, houses considerable Krim material. Tino Balio, United Artists: The Company that Changed the Film Industry (1987), is based in part on extensive interviews with Krim. Capsule histories of Orion Pictures are in Jim Hillier, The New Hollywood (1992); Ephraim Katz, The Film Encyclopedia, 3d ed., revised by Fred Klein and Ronald Dean Nolen (1998); and Anthony Slide, The New Historical Dictionary of the American Film Industry (1998). Ronald Brownstein, The Power and the Glitter: The Hollywood-Washington Connection (1990), details Krim’s political career. See also “The Derring-Doers of the Movie Business,” Fortune (May 1958); “United Artists Script Call for Divorce,” Fortune (16 Jan. 1978); and “Personalities: Real-Life Movie Melodrama,” New York Times (22 July 1962). Obituaries are in the New York Times and Los Angeles Times (both 22 Sept. 1994) and Columbia University Record (30 Sept. 1994).

Daniel J. Leab