What do Singin’ in the Rain, The Wizard of Oz, and The Band Wagon have in common? The answer is Arthur Freed.
Cyd Charisse said, “He changed the look of musicals. They suddenly were not old-fashioned looking anymore.”
Freed began his career as a lyricist, and his early work included vaudeville, even working with the Marx Brothers. After getting married, he moved to Los Angeles where he set his sights on bigger things.
His first project at MGM was writing songs for The Broadway Melody of 1936, an experiment that would test the musical waters. Thankfully, it performed well at the box office, and the door was now open for more.
MGM studio head Louis B. Mayer was interested in developing musicals, and Freed began producing thanks to him.
His first idea was adapting The Wizard of Oz. Since he had never made a movie before, Mervyn LeRoy was brought on as a producer, and Freed became an associate producer (though he didn’t receive any screen credit).
Barbara Saltzman, Freed’s daughter, said, “It was a project very dear to his heart, and he spent all his time on the set.”
In fact, it was Freed who wanted Judy Garland for the lead.
“She had it as a kid, and she developed very fast,” Freed said.
After the success of Oz, Freed was able to take on a production of his own. Babes in Arms, which also starred Garland, was his next project.
The film was another triumph and sparked a series of Garland and Mickey Rooney films.
“Because his movies were successful in the beginning, he was in the enviable position of being able to make requests and get them granted,” said Satlzman. “There was one year I was told that my father’s pictures paid all of the salaries at MGM.”
Arthur’s strength in producing was finding the right people to work with and allowing them to showcase their abilities. He would regularly visit New York to see shows and scout talent. Some of the talent that he brought back to MGM to work in the “Freed Unit” included director Vincente Minnelli, songwriter Roger Edens, director Charles Walters (Easter Parade, The Unsinkable Molly Brown), designer and producer Lemuel Ayers, choreographer Michael Kidd, and even Cyd Charisse, who got her first MGM contract after dancing through bubbles in Ziegfeld Follies.
Ann Miller said, “Arthur Freed was just a brilliant man to establish a cabinet around himself like a president.”
“He fought for us and when we wanted to do things, he would see that we got them done,” said Gene Kelly.
Leslie Caron said, “You didn’t expect this man to have so much taste and finesse and imagination.”
Freed also had a mind about musicals. His films were “interpreted musicals” where songs were part of the story’s development and plot. His musicals also embraced the artistic with beautifully choreographed dance numbers in Brigadoon and An American in Paris.
Alas, the success that the Freed Unit found couldn’t last forever, and eventually, the studio began to lose faith in musical movies.
Nevertheless, Freed’s achievement in producing and establishing a team of talented artists is practically unmatched to this day.
He said, “I’m happy I started musicals with MGM right from the earliest days and that I had the good fortune to work with so many talented artists on pictures that are still being enjoyed by millions.”
Read about some of the Arthur Freed musicals below: