By Judy Stangler

The third Backlot Film Festival will officially open on Wednesday, April 2, 2008, with a tribute to producer, lyricist and former President of the Motion Picture Academy, Arthur Freed. Freed twice won the Academy Award for Best Picture for “An American In Paris" (1951) and "Gigi"(1958.)

Freed's rarely seen 1943 classic, "Cabin In The Sky" starring Lena Horne, Ethel Waters, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, and Eddie "Rochester" Anderson. This was director Vincent Minnelli's first full Hollywood feature and was based on the Broadway play of the same name.

To celebrate the 50th anniversary of Freed's Oscar-winning production of Lerner and Lowe's "Gigi," a special matinee screening will be held at the Veterans Memorial Building Complex on Saturday, April 5th.

"It is altogether fitting that a tribute honoring Arthur Freed should be held across the street from the studio (which was Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, and is now "Sony Pictures Entertainment) where he worked for 40 years, producing some of the greatest musicals of all time," commented film archivist and film preservationist, Richard May.

This year, the Backlot Film Festival has established the "Arthur Freed Award" for Best Student Film to honor the legendary songwriter and producer. Freed's grandson, Stephan A. Saltzman, President of Arthur Freed Productions will present the award which emphasizes "family" "Entertainment" to the winning student production.

Arthur Freed was born Arthur Grossman on September 9, 1894 in Charleston, North Carolina. He began his career in vaudeville and appeared on the stage with the Marx Brothers. After serving in the Army during World War I, Freed turned to song writing.

In 1929, when MGM decided to take the plunge into sound production, Freed was hired by Irving Thalberg to write lyrics for "The Broadway Melody" starring Anita Paige - the screen's first all-talking musical. Freed's lyrics were set to music by Nacio-Herb Brown and the two would go on to write such hit songs as "You Were Meant For Me," "You are My Lucky Star" and "Singin' In The Rain" among many others.

According to Mr. Saltzman, it was Freed who actually produced "The Wizard of Oz," though Mervyn Le Roy received the credit. Le Roy wanted to cut Judy Garland's song "Over the Rainbow" because he felt it slowed the pace of the picture. Freed went to studio head Louis B. Mayer and argued to keep the song in. Mayer gave in, and when the song won an Academy Award, Freed was elevated to producer and given a production suite in the Thalberg Building, down the hall from Mayer.

Freed's first credit as a producer was the film version of Rogers and Hart's smash Broadway musical, "Babes In Arms," starring Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland. "Babes In Arms" ushered in a whole series of "backyard/let's" musicals starring Rooney and Garland.

Freed helped elevate MGM to be known as the "Musical Studio" and surrounded himself with film directors such as Vincent Minnelli, and Busbey Berkley. He also helped shape the careers of many stars including Gene Kelly, Frank Sinatra, Red Skelton, Lena Horne, Kahteryn Grayson, Howard Keel, Cyd Charisse and Ann Miller. He coaxed Fred Astaire out of retirement to star with Judy Garland in "Easter Parade in 1948.

In 1951, two of his films, "An American In Paris" and "Showboat" were both nominated for Best Picture, with "An American In Paris" winning the prized Oscar. His most highly regarded film, "Singin In The Rain," though nominated for Best Picture the following year, won no Oscars at all. It is now considered one of the best musicals ever made, topping the AFI's 100 years of Musicals list and ranking fifth in the list of the greatest American films.

Freed allowed his directors and choreographers free rein, something unheard of in those days of committee-produced films and is credited for furthering the boundaries of film musicals by allowing such moments as the fifteen minute ballet sequence at the end of "An American In Paris." His lyrics were heard in countless films, not all of them for MGM. "You Were Meant For me" was featured in George Stevens' "Penny Serenade" at Columbia and Paramount's "Lost Weekend" included "It Was So Beautiful."

Famous for such musicals as "The Band Wagon," "Meet Me In St. Louis," and "On The Town," Freed also produced several non-musicals at MGM including "The Clock" with Judy Garland and Robert Walker, "Crisis" with Cary Grant and "Light In The Piazza" with Olivia de Haviland.

Freed produced the annual Academy Awards in 1960-63 and in 1968. He was inducted into the Songwriters' Hall of Fame in 1972.

After 40 years, Freed left MGM in 1970, failing for almost a decade to bring his dream project, a biopic of Irving Berlin to the screen. Arthur Freed died in 1973, surrounded by his family.


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