In a time when America and the world was recovering from a second world war, Hollywood was struggling to reconnect to a different audience. While other motion picture studios were struggling, MGM found its niche in musicals and all of it due to one man, Arthur Freed.
Arthur Freed started his career as a pianist in Chicago, Illinois. His first brush with stardom was when he met Minnie Marx, mother to the Marx Brothers and briefly collaborated with them in vaudeville. Once he arrived Hollywood, Freed was hired as a song lyricist for MGM Studios.
Word around the back lot was that Freed was an ambitious individual and he wanted to pursue producing more so than being a lyricist. His chance came when he was hired as an uncredited associate producer of a "little" film known as "The Wizard of Oz (1939). He was able to utilize his skills as well as his patience when it came to Mayer's decision of possibly cutting the title song, "Over The Rainbow" from the film. The song's composer Harold Arlen, lyricist E.Y. Harburg and Freed pressed Mayer to change his mind. Freed reportedly told Mayer, 'The song stays or I go! It's as simple as that.'
In the same year, Freed acquired the rights to the Broadway show, "Babes in Arms." He also signed a producer's contract, receiving $300 a week. Freed would prove his weight at the box office when both "The Wizard of Oz" as well as his film adaptation of "Babes in Arms" received moderate success when they were released. Although the films were not blockbusters, Mayer felt Freed could produce entertaining films. Whether or not Mayer gave him a physical location for his special unit, otherwise known as "The Freed Unit", it was known on the lot as a group of talented individuals which generated some of the most memorable musicals ever created.
As Freed continued to follow his instincts as a producer, it often lead him into the right direction to choose the right writers, directors, composers and actors. Part of Freed's unique process was to allow his directors and choreographers to make the creative decisions they saw fit on each project. While this started an ongoing partnership between Freed and Judy Garland, having produced most of her musical films, Freed is responsible for introducing audiences around the world to Gene Kelly, Cyd Charisse, Ann Miller, Lena Horne, Vera-Ellen and Frank Sinatra. He also brought the visionary director Vincente Minelli to Hollywood and gave him his first directing job, "Cabin in the Sky" (1943). As a member of the "Freed Unit", Minelli would direct such classics as, "Meet Me in St. Louis" (1944), "An American In Paris" (1951), "Brigadoon" (1954) and "Gigi" (1958).
By the 1950s, despite MGM's huge success, the studio system was steadily crumbling under the changing face of entertainment. Freed had fallen into some bad investments. As the Unit was disbanded, Freed continued to work at MGM until 1970 when he accepted the defeat of never being able to get the green light for "Say It With Music", a bipic of Irving Berlin. His last produced film was eight years prior to his retirement, "The Light in the Piazza" (1962).