He was born Hyman Arluck, the son of a cantor; he dropped out of high school to work as a pianist. He also sang professionally. His songwriting career began when he was 24 years old: lyricist Ted Koehler put words to an Arlen tune to create "Get Happy." Arlen first worked with Harburg on the 1934 Broadway review Life Begins at 8:40; the cast of that show included both Bert Lahr and Ray Bolger.
In the publicity build-up to the Oz production at MGM, several other composers and lyricists were mentioned as possible candidates for the film, including Jerome Kern, Dorothy Fields, Ira Gershwin, Nacio Herb Brown (assistant producer Arthur Freed's longtime songwriting partner), and Al Dubin. Arlen and Harburg knew they had won the job by early May 1938, and showed up for work at the MGM studio on 9 May. The first song they wrote for the film was the "Jitterbug" number that was filmed but eventually left on the cutting room floor.
The songwriters were paid $25,000 for their work on the picture, one third of which was an advance on royalties. Through the summer of 1938, they wrote their Oz songs mostly at night, so that they could devote the sunny California days to sports — Arlen's was golf, Harburg's was tennis.
Fairly quickly after the premiere of the film, Arlen and Harburg's songs took on a life of their own. In 1942, the St. Louis Municipal Opera gained MGM's permission to use the songs in a new production, which depended upon a fresh adaptation of Baum's story rather than the movie version. The Muny's show was a major hit, was revived repeatedly over the ensuing years, and inspired other stage versions elsewhere.
Arlen continued his songwriting career after 1939. He worked with Harburg on songs for the films Cabin in the Sky (1943) and Kismet (1944); and he worked with lyricist Johnny Mercer through the 1940s. Arlen's last song with Harburg was, coincidentally, a piece for Judy Garland, the title song for her 1963 film I Could Go On Singing.
Arlen's personal life was marred by the mental illness of his wife of thirty years. A widower in his final years, Arlen suffered from depression and became a recluse, rarely leaving his New York City apartment.
- John Fricke, Jay Scarfone, William Stillman. The Wizard of Oz: The Official 50th Anniversary Pictorial History. Warner Books, 1989.
- Aljean Harmetz. The Making of the Wizard of Oz. New York, Knopf, 1977.