On May 21, 1918, singer and songwriter Arthur Freed (1894-1973) makes an appearance at the Jewish Welfare House at Camp Lewis, the major army base in Pierce County. Freed will return to Camp Lewis in the fall after being drafted into the army. While in the army, Freed will compose war songs for the soldiers, but World War I will end before they have the chance to be sung in battle. After the war, Freed will head to Hollywood and write songs for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer musicals. There he will become a renowned producer, making some of the classic musicals of the 1940s and 1950s; developing the musical as an integrated film, with the music and dance as part of the story rather than mere highlights; and earning two Oscars, for An American in Paris and Gigi.
Arthur Freed was born Arthur Grossman in Charleston, South Carolina. His family moved to Seattle in 1908. Arthur's father, Max Freed (1866-1917), was an art dealer who established a business in Seattle. The family lived in an art-decorated home overlooking Lake Washington.
Arthur attended Broadway High School. While in high school he appeared in various local plays including a comedy performed at Temple de Hirsch. In 1912, following his sophomore year, Freed transferred to Phillips Exeter Academy, a college preparatory school in Exeter, New Hampshire, and there learned to write poetry. Freed's poetry writing would lead to the song writing that characterized his career.
Performing, Then Serving, at Camp Lewis
After graduating from Exeter in 1914, Freed spent time in Chicago playing the piano professionally. There he met Minnie Marx (1865-1929), mother and manager of the Marx Brothers, and became part of their vaudeville act, singing and writing musical material. Just before returning to Seattle, Freed was a piano player in a vaudeville tour in the South. He came back to Seattle in 1916 and performed as a singer at the Hippodrome Theatre and in shows in Portland, Oregon, and California locations.
On May 21, 1918, Freed appeared at the Camp Lewis Jewish Welfare House in a group of entertainers from the B'Nai B'Rith Society of Seattle. He performed the tenor solo on a song he wrote, "Belgium Wipe Your Tears."
In the fall of 1918 Freed was drafted into the United States Army and sent to Camp Lewis. Private Freed was assigned to Field Hospital Number 251, 13th Sanitary Train, 13th Division. In addition to his regular duties, Freed wrote fighting songs that were taught to the soldiers. One such song was "Until We're Thirteen Miles Past Berlin." The song's lyrics, created in five minutes between gas and platoon drills, were:
"Thirteen they say, is an unlucky number,
That bad luck cannot miss.
But they're all wrong, just bet your life,
What do you think of this?
Woodrow Wilson has thirteen letters,
In his well known name.
Thirteen stripes in the flag of Old Glory,
For those thirteen states of fame.
With those thirteen stripes as our only mascot,
The 13th Division must win.
For we'll never stop on the long, long trail,
Till we're thirteen miles past Berlin.
Thirteen you'll find is the unlucky number,
Only for the Huns.
For it's the number of a division,
Of fighting sons of guns" ("Song Taught to Soldiers").
Freed wrote more war songs, but they would not be heard anywhere near a battlefield. The 13th Division did not go to war. It was in training when World War I ended. The division was demobilized at Camp Lewis. Arthur Freed was discharged in April 1919 and returned to Seattle.
Soon after his army discharge Freed joined with Oliver G. Wallace (1888-1963), a highly regarded organ player at Seattle's Liberty Theatre, to open the Musicland Store at 220 Pine Street in Seattle. Opened in November 1919, the store sold sheet music, piano player rolls, and phonograph records.
In addition to operating Musicland, Freed wrote the lyrics for a musical comedy while Wallace wrote the musical score. Their songs were performed in the musical revue Silks and Satins, which opened at the George M. Cohan Theatre in New York in the summer of 1920. The show had 60 performances at the theater and then went on the road. Before the New York show two of their songs, "Fuji" and "Reaching for the Moon," were regularly sung at the Musicland Store. Freed and Wallace also wrote songs for recording artists.
Oliver Wallace became the sole owner of Musicland in 1920, but he would leave Seattle for Hollywood and a career at Disney Studios. There Wallace wrote the score for the 1941 movie Dumbo. He received an Oscar for this movie in best music and scoring of a musical picture.
Freed Goes to Hollywood
In 1921 Arthur Freed teamed up with composer Nacio Herb Brown (1896-1964) to write songs. His first major success came in 1923 with the song "I Cried for You." In 1923 he married Renee Klein (1902-1978) and they settled in Los Angeles. Freed then spent several years in the nightclub circuit before joining Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) as a lyricist. At MGM Freed worked with Brown again. Together they composed most of the songs for the studio's musicals. Included among these were "Singin' in the Rain" and "Pagan Love Song." Brown and Freed collaborated on musical scores at the studio for about 15 years.
In 1939 Freed, after serving as an associate producer on the movie The Wizard of Oz, became a producer. He produced integrated musicals where the songs were part of the storyline and not just highlights. During his tenure between 1939 and 1960 some 50 musicals were filmed. These included memorable films such as On the Town (1949), Annie Get Your Gun (1950), An American in Paris (1951), Singin' in the Rain (1952), Kismet (1955), Gigi (1958), and Bells Are Ringing (1960).
Freed was skilled at recruiting outstanding screenwriters and staff. The musical section became hugely successful and was called the Freed Unit. The Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Freed Unit had under contract many of the big names in song and dance, including Judy Garland (1922-1969), Mickey Rooney (1920-2014), Gene Kelly (1915-1996), and Frank Sinatra (1915-1998). As a producer, Freed received the Best Picture Oscar in 1951 for An American in Paris, and again in 1958 for Gigi. The Freed musical era has been termed the Golden Age of MGM.
Although Freed was honored for his contributions to the musical, Shirley Temple Black (1928-2014) questioned his moral character. In her autobiography she described meeting Freed when she came to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer under contract. The 11-year-old Shirley Temple, a huge child star at the time, was ushered into Freed's office to meet him. During the meeting, according to her autobiography, Freed exposed himself, to which the youthful star giggled and was thrown out of the office.
Arthur Freed retired from MGM in 1961 and in 1963 became president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. He served in this position until 1966 and had a significant role in scripting the Oscar Awards telecasts.