Arthur Freed, the Man who Re-invented the Musical

Arthur Freed
Arthur Freed

Arthur Freed and The Freed Unit

Arthur Freed was a film producer for MGM during the Golden Age of Hollywood. His name may not ring bells with many people. He did not constantly seek public attention in the way that some producers and directors in Hollywood did and still do today, but he was extremely important in changing the look and feel of the musical form. It is because of Arthur Freed and the team he gathered around him that the magnificent MGM musical spectaculars of the late 1940's and early 1950's were possible.

From 1944 when they made 'Meet Me In St Louis' to 1958 with 'Gigi', the Freed Unit were responsible for making over 40 musicals for MGM including 'The Harvey Girls' in 1946, 'Easter Parade' in 1948, both of which starred Judy Garland, 'On The Town' with Frank Sinatra and Gene Kelly in 1949, and 'An American In Paris' and 'Show Boat' in 1951. Freed was awarded the Best Picture Oscar in 1951 for 'An American In Paris' and again in 1958 he received the Award for his last great work, 'Gigi'. In addition he produced what many people regard as the greatest musical ever made-'Singin' In The Rain' in 1952 - and also wrote its title song!

Freed worked with geniuses like Judy Garland, Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly, but it needed his own special kind of genius - for artistic taste, for organisation, administration, and winning the trust of those around him - to create the Unit which bears his name - the group of artists, choreographers, technicians, directors, and writers, who were to create the musical masterpieces of the age. This is the story of Arthur Freed, a man who lived for poetry and music, the man who re-invented the Hollywood musical.

Early Days

Arthur Freed was born Arthur Grossman in Charleston, South Carolina, on September 9, 1894. Both his parents were amateur singers and his sister and five of his siblings went into the music business. His family were well off from his father's antiques business and Arthur was privately schooled at Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire.

At school he had a fascination with poetry and music and this developed naturally into writing song lyrics - and he was good at it. On leaving school he worked for a while for a Chicago music publisher and performed as a singer and pianist in vaudeville. Freed served as an army sergeant during World War I and was in charge of musical shows and entertainment at Camp Lewis in Washington. After the war he supported himself by writing special material for Manhattan cabaret shows.

He worked for a while with the Marx Brothers, then produced his own musical stage shows at the Orange Grove Theater, Los Angeles.

The Young Lyricist
The Young Lyricist
Nacio Herb Brown with Arthur Freed
Nacio Herb Brown with Arthur Freed

All the time he was gaining invaluable theatrical experience, expanding his knowledge and making important contacts.

He started to write successful songs, often in collaboration with composer Nacio Herb Brown. In 1921 they wrote "When Buddha Smiles", and two years later he had a hit with "I Cried For You" in collaboration with with Gus Arnheim and Abe Lyman.

Freed initially continued performing in nightclubs whilst writing lyrics part time but in 1928 he was offered a job as lyricist at MGM, again working with his former partner, Nacio Herb Brown.

Early MGM Days

Once established at MGM Freed, along with Brown and other collaborators, wrote many songs for popular movies such as 'The Pagan' in 1929, 'Montana Moon' in 1930, 'Dancing Lady' in 1933, 'A Night at the Opera' in 1935, and 'Broadway Melody of 1938' in 1937. Their songs included such standards as "Pagan Love Song," "Broadway Rhythm," "Singin' in the Rain" and "You Are My Lucky Star". It seemed as if he had found his ideal niche but Freed was ambitious and knew he was capable of more. He wanted to produce movies, to initiate a project, approve artistes, technicians, writers and directors; to have, in short, full control

The Wizard of Oz, 1939

The Wizard of Oz
The Wizard of Oz

Let's Put on a Show!

Babes in Arms, 1939
Babes in Arms, 1939
Girl Crazy 1943
Girl Crazy 1943

The New Producer

He put his views across to MGM boss, Louis B.Mayer, requesting the chance to go into movie production and in 1938 Mayer gave him his opportunity when he made him associate producer of The Wizard of Oz, L. Frank Baum's children's fantasy, which was being developed for the screen with Mervyn LeRoy as its producer. When the film was released in 1939 it became one of MGM's most successful features and enhanced Freed's position in the studio. From now on he would be given a much freer hand in producing his own vision of the movie musical.

He started his solo career as a producer with 'Babes In Arms' released in 1939, only a few months after 'The Wizard of Oz'. It was the first of a series of musicals starring Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland, which became known as "backyard musicals" as they were always about teens putting on a show in their "backyard". Freed followed this up with 'Strike Up The Band' in 1940, 'Babes on Broadway' the following year and 'Girl Crazy' in 1943.

All the "backyard musicals" were relatively cheap to make and made good profits for the studio, but Freed was still not satisfied. He was a man with a vision. He wanted to change the movie musical away from the traditional backstage storylines where the songs are part of a stage act, and move it in a new direction into more natural settings. His vision was to integrate song and dance naturally into the narrative flow, to use the music to develop the plot and express a character's feelings.


Meet Me in St Louis, 1944

Margaret O'Brien and Judy Garland
Margaret O'Brien and Judy Garland
Fred Astaire
Fred Astaire
Judy Garland
Judy Garland
Gene Kelly
Gene Kelly
Vincente Minnelli
Vincente Minnelli
Irving Berlin
Irving Berlin
Cyd Charisse
Cyd Charisse

Freed's production of 'Meet Me in St. Louis' in 1944 starred Judy Garland and Gene Kelly and marked a turning point both in his career and also in the history of the musical. It was the first musical made by the "Freed Unit", the first of a series of Technicolor musicals with a large budget, big name performers and a backstage team of the highest quality and the first to incorporate Freed's vision of the "natural" musical.

The Freed Unit
The loose confederation of hundreds of exceptionally gifted people who became known as the "Freed Unit" did not come about by accident. Arthur Freed had served his apprenticeship first as as a freelance lyricist, then as a performer and promoter in vaudeville and finally as an employee of one of the biggest studios in Hollywood. He lived and breathed music and he had an ability to both recognise and gain the confidence and trust of the talents around him. He took the musical forward and raised its status to unparallelled heights with a team of supreme high quality.

The Freed Unit was not comprised soley of MGM employees. Many were freelance and joined and left the unit freely or when asked.

Freed had at his disposal such gifted directors as Vincente Minnelli, Stanley Donen, and Busby Berkeley and the legendary screen writing team of Betty Comden and Adolph Green. Much of the musical work was undertaken by the brilliant composer and arranger, Roger Edens, and Freed's own background of songwriting gave him access to the sumptuous talents of Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, and Oscar Hammerstein to write songs for him. He was also able to call on choreographer Charles Walters, orchestrators Conrad Salinger, Johnny Green, and Lennie Hayton, and some of the finest cinematographers, musicians, art directors and costume designers in the world. But above all he had the performers, without whom the backroom staff were redundant. He had Judy Garland, one of the most gifted performers in Hollywood history, Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly, Frank Sinatra, Lena Horne, June Allyson, Ann Miller, Lesley Caron, Cyd Charisse and many more - a golden pool of supreme talent.

Freed's Masterworks

Freed had the skill and strength of character to organise this group of strong egos into a coherent manageable unit - the Freed Unit - and he went on to produce a series of elegant masterpieces which would make MGM into the pre-eminent postwar studio and which would raise the status of the musical to a genuine art form.

After 'Meet Me In St. Louis' in 1944, 'The Harvey Girls' followed in 1946, then 'The Pirate' and 'Easter Parade' in 1948, all starring the young, effervescent Judy Garland. 'On The Town' with Frank Sinatra and Gene Kelly followed in 1949, the first musical to be filmed on location, then 'An American In Paris' and 'Show Boat' in 1951 and the immortal 'Singin' In The Rain' in 1952, with the title song lyrics composed by Arthur Freed. 'Freed wasn't finished yet and 'The Bandwagon' followed in 1953 and finally 'Gigi', in 1958, was his last great musical.

This is a quite extraordinary list of high quality movies and is a tribute to the ability of Arthur Freed to recognise and guide the formidable talents in Hollywood at that time.

Gene Kelly and Lesley Caron in 'An American in Paris', 1951
Gene Kelly and Lesley Caron in 'An American in Paris', 1951

Personal

Arthur Freed kept his private life very private. He could not be accused of courting cheap publicity. He was married in 1923 to Renée Klein and the couple had one daughter.

After 'Gigi' in 1958 the public's thirst for the blockbuster musical ebbed, as television became more and more popular. Freed worked for several years in television and produced five Academy Award telecasts, and one pre-Oscar special, all of which were highly regarded. He served for three years from 1963 as president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences after leaving MGM in 1961. In 1967 he was presented with a special honorary Academy Award for his distinguished service to the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences. and he was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1972.

Arthur Freed died on April 12, 1973, in Los Angeles, of heart failure aged 78. He is buried at Hillside Memorial Park, Culver City.

MGM and the Freed Unit on Amazon

Arthur Freed 1894-1973
Arthur Freed 1894-1973

More by this Author


1 comment

FloraBreenRobison profile image

FloraBreenRobison 4 years ago

I am a big fan of Freed musicals. I've always thought that MGM made the best musicals. But I'd be hard pressed to try to order any preference.

    Sign in or sign up and post using a HubPages Network account.

    0 of 8192 characters used
    Post Comment

    No HTML is allowed in comments, but URLs will be hyperlinked. Comments are not for promoting your articles or other sites.


    Click to Rate This Article
    working