(09-09-1894 – 04-12-1973)

Vincente Minnellie & Arthur Freed
Arthur Freed & Vincente Minnelli on the set of "The Clock" 1945

Arthur Freed was the preeminent producer of musical films during the "Golden Age" of the MGM Musical.

An ambitious man, Freed was born in Charleston, South Carolina into a musical family. He grew up in Seattle, Washington and attended the Phillips Academy in Exeter, New Hampshire. It was here that he began to write poetry. Arthur was a lyricist with his family long before he ever went to Hollywood. His father was a tenor, brother Walter was an organist, brothers Sydney and Clarence went into the recording business in Hollywood and brother Ralph was a songwriter as well. His only sister Ruth also wrote songs. The only brother to NOT go into some sort of music profession was Hugo who became an accountant.

Freed began at MGM as a songwriter when the movies first learned to talk. At that time, songwriters were just that, "songwriters" and they weren't treated as anything much higher than what they were: The people who used to sit on the sets of the silent films playing the piano for "mood music."

Freed, along with Nacio Herb Brown, penned such classics as "Singin In The Rain," "The Wedding Of The Painted Doll," "Would You," and many others. But what he really wanted to do was produce. Freed was known around the MGM lot as not only ambitious, but also for "kissing butt' to studio head Louis B. Mayer. The years of begging and pleading finally paid off around 1938 when Mayer decided to give Freed the job of "Associate Producer" (uncredited) on The Wizard Of Oz. The film was officially being produced by Mervyn LeRoy, Mayer's new protegee brought in from Warner Bros to hopefully replace the "boy wonder" Irving Thalberg, who had died a few years earlier.

Controversy has surrounded just whose idea it was to purchase The Wizard Of Oz from Samuel Goldwyn. Freed would later claim that he suggested to Mayer that it would make a great musical, and Mayer responded by stating that it was too big of a project for a novice producer. Mervyn LeRoy claimed that when he came to MGM he told Mayer the first film he wanted to make was a fantasy film of The Wizard Of Oz . In my opinion, I personally believe that it was probably Freed who first suggested it. Freed had the musical background, he had hired the brilliant Roger Edens as vocal arranger, and he was firmly behind the budding career of the young Judy Garland, whom the studio had signed in 1935 but hadn't done much with. Freed and Edens recognized her potential from the start. Whichever is true really doesn't matter. The important issue is that Freed DID get to work as Associate Producer, and LeRoy wisely left all of the musical matters to him and Edens.

Once it was clear that The Wizard Of Oz would be a smash, Mayer gave the green light to Freed to produce Babes In Arms - beginning the cycle of the now famous "Let's Put On A Show" musicals with Garland & Mickey Rooney. Babes In Arms, and it's follow-up Strike Up The Band were enormously popular, relatively inexpensive to make, and turned quite a profit for the studio. Freed also intensely promoted the career of Garland - some would say to her detriment - by having her work almost non-stop during this time on the musicals with Rooney, as well as the Andy Hardy films (not produced by Freed) and separate musicals such as Little Nelly Kelly and Ziegfeld Girl (produced by Pandro S. Berhnham). The rise of Judy's star also helped Freed's career rise. But Freed had other things in mind aside from just Garland's career.

Not content to just adapt films from the Broadway stage, as he had done with Little Nelly Kelly, Panama Hattie, and Babes In Arms, Freed wanted to move the movie musical in a new direction. Away from the backstage storylines and into more natural settings. But he knew he would need the help of the savvy talent working in New York.

He went to New York to seek out talent from the Broadway Theatre scene. He signed to the studio scores of talent, ranging from future directors like Vincente Minnelli and Chuck Walters to musical talents such as Kay Thompson and Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane. He envisioned "My own little Camelot" and that's exactly what he got. With his films currently so popular, both critically and financially, and each one advancing the film musical in various ways, Freed was practically left alone to do pretty much what he wanted.

In 1942, at the request of Garland, Freed brought in Gene Kelly to play opposite her in For Me And My Gal. The film was a huge success and it jump-started the faltering career of Kelly. Freed bought out Kelly's contract with David O. Selznick and so began the career of Gene Kelly.

The following year, with Girl Crazy, the finality of his shift to more modern fare came to a head. Berkeley had done a great job of directing "Gal" - staying away from all the kaleidoscopic routines and endless musical extravaganza that were his hallmark. But on Girl Crazy all hell broke loose. Berkeley was set to direct, and spent days on what would eventually be the finale "I Got Rhythm." He worked everyone to a frazzle - even to the extent, in hindsight, of pushing Garland into the abyss of addiction that she would never quite recover. The endless lines of chorus girls and military style routines were in direct opposition to what Freed and Edens were trying to accomplish. Berkeley was fired and Norman Taurog was brought in as his replacement. The film became the best of the Garland/Rooney musicals and the best film adaptation of a Gershwin show thanks largely to Edens and the new talent Freed had brought in from New York.

Now everything was in place. Freed had had enough of the "kids" musicals and Broadway adaptations. He wanted to do original musicals. With "Oklahoma!" a huge success on Broadway, and having lost out on the film rights to "Life With Father" and "My Sister Eileen" Freed turned to the quaint stories by Sally Benson he had the studio purchase from the "New Yorker" magazine. Meet Me In St. Louis took some doing to get produced. Even with Freed's track record. But he convinced the studio to give it the green light, and after initial resistance from Garland, the film was ready - with newcomer Vincente Minnelli as director.

Meet Me In St. Louis was the first masterpiece to emerge out of the newly formed Freed Unit. And rightly so. The film was eons away from any other musical at that time. Seamlessly blending the music and songs into the plot, the film took the strides originally made by Rouben Mammoulion with his Love Me Tonight and furthered the concept of songs advancing the plot and being used for character development. This was first done by Freed with The Wizard Of Oz and was furthered with some of the Garland/Rooney films as well as the very underrated Cabin In The Sky. But Meet Me In St. Louis wasn't a children's fantasy, nor was it a kids "Let's Put On A Show" opus, and it wasn't like Cabin In The Sky where most of the action takes place in a dream sequence (also like "Oz"). Meet Me In St. Louis was about real people in a real town in a real time experiencing real situations. Sure it was idealized, but only in a positive way. Minnelli's use of color and movement and composition to further enhance the characters and plot development were rare of a film of that time and even more rare for a musical. The film was a resounding success and would become MGM's biggest grosser aside from Gone With The Wind at that time.

From this point on, even though the Freed Unit would do adaptations of Broadway shows, the emphasis was on originality, innovation, and with each successive film, and heavy emphasis on dance.

Throughout the late 1940's and 1950's, MGM became the king of the movie musical. And this was largely due to the "Freed Unit." Freed's productions became so popular that the studio could afford to have a SECOND unit for musicals under the direction of Joe Pasternak. Those musicals were different than the Freed films, with less dancing and more emphasis on simple stories and characters. A friendly rivalry emerged which helped to generate even more productive energy.

After Meet Me In St. Louis – Freed would be the producer of such great films as The Harvey Girls, The Pirate, Easter Parade, On The Town, An American In Paris, Show Boat, Singin' In The Rain, The Bandwagon and so many more.

Sadly, once television took hold in America's homes, the public stopped going to the movies in droves as they used to. Plus, the federal edict forcing the studios to divulge themselves of ownership of the theaters across the nation forced many theaters to close. This left the studios with limited outlets for their product. The old "studio system" was crumbling, and the big budget musicals were the first to get the ax.

Freed's last big musical hit was 1958's Gigi. The film would win 8 Oscars, including Best Picture, and would symbolize the end of the Golden Age of MGM Musicals.

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