Wednesday, March 15, 2006

WITH A SONG IN HIS HEART: ARTHUR FREED - the early years (1923-1944)

It seems fitting that around the backlot at MGM, producer Arthur Freed and his entourage of creative performers were affectionately known as ‘the royal family,’ since the Freed Unit (as it eventually came to be known) managed to produce a princely sum of song and dance films that have since become the ruling class of all popular musical motion picture entertainment.

It was Arthur Freed, for example, who set the standard in early pop tunes, though his talents today are rarely considered beyond serviceable; Freed, who provided that fertile creative venue in which Judy Garland’s genius could flourish – at least for a time; Freed who conceived that musicals were much more than a passing fancy; Freed who developed the concept of, and thereafter cultivated the ‘integrated musical’ in which songs advanced the plot of the narrative rather than interrupt it.

Blessed with an innate ability to recognize great talent in an instant, it is largely due to Freed’s foresight and conviction that the MGM musical endures within the fond recesses of our collective consciousness. For who among us can dismiss Dorothy’s longing to return to Kansas, or the sense of familial tenderness so poignantly realized in Meet Me In St. Louis (1944); the magical materialization of a Scottish village in Brigadoon (1954), or marvelous Maurice Chevalier thanking heaven for little girls? The world inhabited by Freed musicals is a myriad of idyllic snapshots – some more financially successful than others, all bearing his hallmark as a master craftsman whose greatest gift to the world was blind faith in a genre that – at least for a time – all other studios tried in vane to emulate.

A poet/lyricist/producer par excellence; Arthur Freed was born to a privileged and musically inclined family in Charleston, South Carolina on September 9, 1894. His early childhood and youth were spent almost without incident in Seattle, the one blemish being the loss of his brother Victor during World War I. The eldest of eight children, Arthur and his family eventually settled in a large home overlooking the cherry orchards near Lake Washington.

Those who knew Freed later in life would agree that he was a man of few words, considerable patience and congenial temperament unobstructed by the fame, power or wealth that had been afforded him throughout his career. At the time of his father’s death, Freed – a highly sentimental man, who vehemently believed in the sanctity of the American home, assumed responsibilities as the head of his family. He married Renee Klein in 1923 – a woman of distinguished culture, intelligence and beauty who complimented his mostly carefree outlook.

Whether it was an unconscious or deliberate move, from the onset of his collaborative endeavors with Nacio Herb Brown Arthur Freed sought to expand his understanding of movie musicals. After co-writing the complete scores for MGM’s The Broadway Melody, Hollywood Revue (both in 1929) and Going Hollywood (1932), Arthur made his first fortuitous decision by hiring musical arranger and pianist, Roger Edens; thus beginning Freed’s long and lucrative association between Hollywood and Broadway.

Generally speaking, the mid-1930s in Hollywood were a fascinating venue for burgeoning new talent; but perhaps no other singular performer so instantly captivated the heart and soul of American music as 13 year old Judy Garland. Though it was MGM’s head of music publishing, Jack Robbins who brought the child star to Freed’s attention it was undoubtedly Arthur Freed who nurtured her talent from thereon. The promotion of Garland was made problematic by L.B. Mayer’s reluctance to see much potential in her beyond a novelty act. But Freed and Edens persisted, if not on celluloid, then on radio, in press promotions, loan outs to other studios – anything and everything to convince Mayer that Garland was the next big thing to hit the movies.

The breakthrough for Judy Garland came when she auspiciously debuted a new introduction that Roger Edens had written to the song, ‘You Made Me Love You’ for Clark Gable’s 36th birthday party; ‘Dear Mr. Gable.’ The performance so impressed Mayer that both Judy and the song quickly found their way into Broadway Melody of 1938 – the studio’s latest and most lavish musical with words and music by Freed and Brown. Following the film’s great success and warm reception to Garland, Mayer reportedly told Freed, “Well, Arthur, now is the time” – a nod that effectively opened the door for Garland to star in, arguably, the best musical of the 30s, The Wizard of Oz (1939).

L.B. Mayer had initially resisted the idea of bringing Lyman Frank Baum’s children’s classic to the screen. As a rule, fantasy films had been ill received at the box office – the most financially disastrous to date; Warner’s costly attempt at Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1935). More to the point, Mayer was as yet unconvinced of Garland’s capabilities to carry an entire film.

Freed however could not be dissuaded from his choices. He also was not convinced that the song ‘Over the Rainbow’ slowed down the pace of the film – “the song stays or I go! It’s as simple as that.”

Hence, Mayer reluctantly acquiesced on both counts, moving forward with the understanding that Mervin LeRoy would produce Oz with Arthur as his associate. Although he considered himself a gambling man, Mayer was not about to entrust his costliest production to date to a first time producer. However, the rumor that has long persisted - that Mayer sought to replace Garland with Shirley Temple by loaning rival studio 20th Century-Fox Clark Gable and Jean Harlow – seems to be just that – a rumor; for Harlow had already died by the time the deal on Oz was signed.

During this infancy in his career, Arthur Freed turned an important corner by acquiring the rights to Broadway’s, Babes in Arms (1939). Moving from the music department to his own suite of offices in the Thalberg Building, Freed signed a producer’s contract at $300 per week. What mattered most about the position was not the money (for Freed had taken a considerable pay cut) but the creative freedom allotted his position to pursue any and every project that his heart desired. By the end of 1939, Freed could breathe a sigh of relief. The Wizard of Oz’s exorbitant production cost of $2,777,000 had been offset by a modest $3,017,000 gross. But Babes in Arms was the real clincher; at a modest budget of $748,000 it earned a whopping $3,335,000.

The early forties were a profitable time for the studios. Everything made money. Amidst the heady excess that was corporate Hollywood then, Arthur Freed continued to gain artistic ground. He purchased George M. Cohan’s sentimental Little Nellie Kelly (1940), the patriotic flag waver, Strike Up The Band (1940), and managed to script and produce a follow up to Babes in Arms; Babes on Broadway (1941) – all starring Judy Garland, the latter two films costarring Mickey Rooney.

Freed was also busy negotiating the terms that brought relative unknown Aquacade starlet Esther Williams international fame and popularity as ‘America’s mermaid.’ He produced faithful and lavish screen spectacles of Broadway’s Du Barry Was A Lady and Best Foot Forward (both in 1943), as well as two Broadway smash hits; Lady Be Good (1941) and Panama Hattie (1942). Oddly enough, neither of these latter two film incarnations equaled the critical or financial stature of their live shows. But Freed’s biggest coup of the period came not with the acquisition of a property, but a person; Vincente Minnelli.

Minnelli had been a veteran window dresser, self-taught sketch artist and stage designer, soured by a brief tenure at Paramount Studios, by the time Freed offered him a chance to come out to MGM. “Don’t blame Hollywood because of one studio,” Freed reportedly told the reluctant Minnelli, “Come out for five or six months, take enough money for your expenses – no contract, nothing. If you don’t like it at any time you can leave.” Intrigued by the offer, Minnelli took his first assignment on Strike Up The Band, devising an inspired and imaginative sequence in which a bowl of fruit is transformed into a troupe of animated musicians.

Minnelli’s next assignment was far more personally satisfying; Cabin in the Sky (1943). Freed had begun the project enthusiastically but was almost immediately thereafter inundated with negativity on all sides. Understandably, MGM’s executives had placed their misgivings in the lackluster public response to the Broadway show. It had been an artistic but not a financial success. More concern and critical backlash however derived from the Black press of the period – who viewed such depictions of their race and culture as ludicrous and insulting. Several years earlier, Warner Brothers had released another all black musical, Green Pastures (1936) and it had infuriated the Black Coalition.

For his part in the venture, Arthur Freed gave extensive interviews to the Black Press; “The motion picture industry in its basic forms will never discriminate…more than ever … (it) will result in a dignified presentation…I will spare nothing and will put everything behind it. It will be a picture on a par with any major film under the MGM banner.” Despite Freed’s claims, at $662,141.82, Cabin In The Sky was one of the more modestly budgeted projects at MGM. As expected, the film did only moderate business at the box office – primarily due to the fact that in the Deep South its distribution was limited.

Undeniably, Arthur Freed’s most successful film of the forties was Meet Me in St. Louis (1944); the heartwarming traditionalist vignette of Americana at the turn of the century. However, in adapting Sally Benson’s 5135 Kensington Avenue stories (first published in the New Yorker), Freed and Vincent Minnelli ran into considerable opposition from the front offices, L.B. Mayer and Judy Garland.

The executive branch misperceived Benson’s stories as maudlin and lacking in any great conflict to sustain a film narrative. Mayer opposed Minnelli’s insistence on constructing a new and fully functional ‘street’ of Victorian houses on the backlot at a cost of $208,275. Instead, Mayer had wanted the Carver Street set (where all the Andy Hardy films had been shot) redressed at the more modestly budgeted $58,275. For her part, Judy Garland balked at the prospect of playing a precocious teenager once again. She had fought hard to break the ‘awkward child’ roles that MGM had relegated her to for nearly a decade.

On this latter score it was Vincente Minnelli rather than Arthur Freed who possessed the gift of persuasion. A gentle, guiding and understanding director (something Judy had not been exposed to in her associations with director, Busby Berkeley) Minnelli eventually won Garland over to his side – a professional coup that crossed over to full fledged romance and eventually marriage.

L.B. Mayer relented to the construction of the St. Louis Street, saying “Go ahead Arthur. Either you’ll learn or we’ll learn.” But during production Mayer expressed another concern; that Meet Me in St. Louis would feature only three new songs from Hugh Martin and Ralph Blaine; a disappointment echoed by the song writers. Freed, however, was determined to anchor his film in a catalogue of vintage songs and one of his own; ‘You and I’ (co-written with Nacio Brown and actually sung in the film by Freed with actor Leon Ames lip-syncing to the playback).

The final slight of indignation on the project occurred when MGM’s music publishing house, Leo Feist Inc. claimed that, at 13 pages, it would be virtually impossible to recoup expenses on printing costs for sheet music of The Trolley Song. Ordered to cut the song to a more manageable length, Martin Blane instead disseminated a few copies to friends Bing Crosby and Kate Smith for their radio broadcasts. When the song proved a smash hit even before the film’s premiere, Feist was reluctantly forced to publish the song in its entirety - easily recouping his costs with over half a million in sales. As for the film, Meet Me in St. Louis premiered at a cost of $1,707,561.14 – a gargantuan sum for a musical then, easily eclipsed by its meteoric gross of $7,566,000. Both Mayer and Freed breathed a sign of relief. But it was Freed who had proven that he was indeed at the top of his game.

@Nick Zegarac 2006 (all rights reserved).