American filmmaker Arthur Freed began his lifelong love affair with popular music while working as a song plugger and vaudeville performer. His first big hit as a songwriter was the plaintive ballad "I Cried For You." After playing the nightclub circuit, Freed was hired by MGM in 1928 to write songs for the studio's new musical department. Usually teamed with Nacio Herb Brown, Freed was responsible for most of the top tunes heard in MGM's early-talkie manifest, including "Broadway Melody," "My Lucky Star," "Wedding of the Painted Doll," and the Oscar-winning "Singin' in the Rain." Even after the first cycle of musical films had passed, Freed was still churning out such classics as "Temptation."
Appointed associate producer of MGM's 1939 The Wizard of Oz, Freed became fascinated with the concept of the "integrated" musical, wherein the songs are important to the storyline (and vice versa) rather than being mere disposable "highlights." After Wizard, Freed was given his own production unit at MGM, where he immediately went to work changing the face of filmed musicals. When one uses the phrase "MGM musicals," one is generally speaking of such Freed-produced films as Meet Me in St. Louis (1944) and The Harvey Girls (1948) rather than the conventional operetta-style endeavors filmed by the rival Joe Pasternak unit. Freed developed and nurtured such talents as Judy Garland, Gene Kelly, Debbie Reynolds, Stanley Donen, Vincente Minnelli, Andre Previn and Michael Kidd. He also gave Fred Astaire's flagging career a shot in the arm with such productions as Easter Parade (1948) and The Band Wagon (1953). While it was An American in Paris (1951) and Gigi (1958) that attracted all the Oscars, Freed's masterpiece was Singin' in the Rain (1952), a brilliant musical spoof of the early-talkie era. (Millard Mitchell's portrayal in Rain of studio head R. K. Simpson is said to be based on Freed himself). Freed left MGM in 1961, at a time when his brand of pure-cinema musical was on the outs and big-budget adaptations of Broadway hits (West Side Story, The Music Man) were the current rage. From 1963 through 1966, Freed served as president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, applying his showmanship savvy to the annual Oscar telecast.