The right man at the right place at the right time
This film does not have much about Arthur Freed the man, instead it is about the production unit that he headed at MGM for twenty years - from the late 30's to the late 50's - with almost complete autonomy. If Freed had left us only his own songwriting legacy it would have been substantial, but instead as head of his own production division he had access to some of the greatest directors and musical talent in the world at a time when the studio system had the power and money to deliver an A1 product, if the studio happened to be on your side.
And for some reason never adequately explained, MGM gave Arthur Freed pretty much whatever he wanted throughout his tenure, with the result being some of the greatest movie musicals ever made. Mr. Freed died in 1973, so this documentary relies on interviews with those that worked with him - Vincent Minnelli, Adolph Green, Betty Comden, Gene Kelly, Cyd Charisse, and Mickey Rooney among others. Not that we probably lost much by Mr. Freed not being available to tell his story - according to those who knew him, Arthur Freed was practically a monosyllabic man, which is quite unusual considering his artistic talent. What came through clearly from all of the interviews is that Freed was a man of great talent who could quickly spot great talent in others, that he would fight for a good idea if he believed in it, and that he encouraged creativity in the artists of his production unit.
There are plenty of clips from the musicals with which Mr. Freed was associated that accompany the interviews - everything from "The Hollywood Revue" and "Broadway Melody" in the early talkie years up through the Freed Unit's final triumph "Gigi".
The end of the Freed Unit is somewhat sad, mainly happening because of a combination of the managerial chaos at MGM and changing audience tastes. Betty Comden said that the staff was accustomed to seeing their musicals open at the best movie theaters, and were surprised when 1955's "It's Always Fair Weather" opened at numerous drive-ins! That's when they knew they were nearing the end of an era.
One particularly tragic victim in the ending of this era was a musical that Arthur Freed was preparing to make in the early 60's featuring the music of Irving Berlin entitled "Say It With Music". Every time they would be ready to start shooting, MGM management would change hands and shooting would be delayed. Ultimately the film was dropped altogether. It makes you wonder what could have been, but at least we have the 47 great musicals that actually were made from twenty magical years at MGM thanks to Arthur Freed and his talented band.
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