Musicals 101 (Part Seven): The Freed Unit

 

The Freed Unit: MGM Musicals, the Evolution of Integration.

There’s a saying you might know – it’s pretty popular among classic film buffs, and it goes a little something like this  “MGM has more stars than there are in heaven.” Well, I’m not here to argue whether that statement is true or not. I’m just here to tell you about a man who recruited many of those stars, and in the process created his own musical heaven. I am to tell you about Arthur Freed and what is now know as the Freed Unit. The unit was comprised of some of the most notable musical stars of the era, and produced some of the genre’s most memorable and innovative films such as On The Town, An American in Paris, Meet Me in St. Louis and The Band Wagon.

Members of the Freed Unit with their Oscar for the Gigi. Pictured: Maurice Chevalier,  Arthur Freed , Frederick Loewe , Alan Jay Lerner and Vincente Minnelli .

Arthur Freed was a songwriter based in Chicago who managed to capture the attention of MGM studios. After working on The Wizard of Oz as an associate Producer, he was promoted to head of his own division, where he concentrated on revitalizing the now stale genre of the movie musical. His job as division head was to assemble a team of the best that New York Theatre had to offer. He would end up buying a one-way, cross-country plane ticket for Broadway talents such as directors Vincent Minnelli and Charles Walters, vocal couch Kaye Thompson, song writing duo Betty Comden and Adolph Green, and a slew of on-stage talents such as Zero Mostel, June Allyson and Nancy Walker. He then carefully nurtured the careers of stars such as Judy Garland, Gene Kelly, Stanley Donen, Lena Horne — and convinced an old favorite, Fred Astaire, to come out of retirement for the film Easter Parade.

Judy Garland and Fred Astaire in Easter Parade. (1948, director  Charles Walters)

What allowed the Freed Unit to blossom was the unprecedented freedom MGM studio head Louis B. Mayer gave the division. Given the freedom to act independently from the studio, Freed allowed his unit full creative control of their respective departments. With virtual free rein over the studio, directors and choreographers pushed the limits of the film form with numbers such as the 15-minute ballet that ends An American in Paris and Astaire’s famed Dancing on the Ceiling in Royal Wedding.

We have Arthur Freed to thank for this piece of beauty. An American in Paris. (1951, director Vincent Minnelli)

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Minoo Allen for Classic Movie Hub

For more articles in this series:

Musicals 101 (Part One): An Introduction

Musicals 101 (Part Two): Integrated vs. Backstage Musicals

Musicals 101 (Part Three): Analyze the Dance, Part 1: Progression Integrated

Musicals 101 (Part Four): Analyze the Dance. Part 2: The Spectacle

Musicals 101 (Part Five): Busby Berkeley

Musicals 101 (Part Six): Fred and Ginger

 

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