This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (MUP), 2007
Sir Nathaniel Bernard Freeman (1896-1982), film distributor, was born on 1 September 1896 in Sydney, third child of Russian parents Adolph Freimann, jeweller, and his wife Malvina, née Marks, and named Nathan Bernard. Educated at Xavier College, Melbourne, Bernard left school at 16 to work for a firm of cider makers, and later became a sales representative for a manufacturer of ladies’ clothing. Enlisting in the Australian Imperial Force on 2 February 1916, he sailed for Britain, where he was commissioned in the Australian Flying Corps and promoted to lieutenant. He joined No.3 Squadron in Belgium in December 1918. His AIF appointment terminated in Melbourne in July 1919. In a statutory declaration in November 1919 he declared his name to be Nathaniel Bernard Freeman. He briefly resumed his former occupation as a salesman before travelling to the United States of America with a friend.
Adolph Zukor, head of Paramount Pictures Corporation, engaged Freeman and in 1920 sent him to represent the firm at Albany, New York, where he obtained a grounding in film publicity, distribution and sales. In 1924 Marcus and Arthur Loew of the newly formed Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer company persuaded Freeman to leave Paramount and become their firm’s first managing director for Australia and New Zealand. After his return to Australia in January 1925, he took an office in Sydney, the precursor of offices in all Australian capitals, and employed three staff. In October 1925 Metro-Goldwyn Films Co. mounted its first season, a successful one, with The White Sister, starring Lillian Gish and Ronald Colman, at Queanbeyan, New South Wales. Freeman married Marjorie Arabel Bloom on 16 February 1926 at the Great Synagogue, Sydney.
Embarking on an energetic building program, Freeman constructed cinemas to show exclusively Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (Pty) Ltd products throughout Australia. He ensured that M-G-M theatres maintained high standards of presentation, upkeep and cleanliness, and that house managers, particularly those in suburban and country centres, gave patrons personal attention. Freeman also built in Chalmers Street, Sydney, a three-storey building which housed the firm’s national and State headquarters from the end of 1933. Under his direction M-G-M led the local industry from the 1930s to the 1960s, presenting such landmark attractions as Ben-Hur (1927), Gone with the Wind (1940) and Dr Zhivago (1965). With the construction of twin drive-in cinemas at Chullora, Sydney, and Clayton, Melbourne, in the 1950s, his company was among the pioneers of this form of entertainment outside the USA. M-G-M later diversified into indoor bowling alleys.
When Freeman retired on 31 December 1966, M-G-M had about one thousand employees, many having served since the 1930s. Retirement was not entirely his choice but rather the result of overseas-driven company politics; his retention in an honorary capacity did little to assuage his bitterness. He devoted the rest of his life to charitable activities and to his favourite recreation, lawn bowls. A life member of the State branch of the Returned Sailors’, Soldiers’ and Airmen’s Imperial League of Australia from 1945, and of the federal organisation from 1948, he was also chairman of the Anzac House Trust from 1947, the Miss Australia Quest, the New South Wales Committee for World Refugee Year and the United Nations Appeal for Children; president of the Rotary Club of Sydney; a member (1962-69) of the Sydney Opera House Trust and its music and drama panel; chairman (1962-67) of the Universities’ International House appeal and a member of the board of management of the International houses of the universities of Sydney and New South Wales; and a life governor (1961) of the Royal New South Wales Institution (Institute) for Deaf and Blind Children and of the Royal Victorian Eye & Ear Hospital. Having been appointed CBE in 1956, he was knighted in 1967.
Freeman was energetic and tough, but fair; he expected loyalty from his employees but was always prepared to accept advice. With drive, acumen and vision he created a major Australian business entity from almost nothing and successfully guided its operations for forty-six years. Although short and stocky, he was in youth a skilful footballer, cricketer and rower. He never lost the common touch. One of his least known but most characteristic activities was to arrange Saturday morning film showings for disadvantaged children. His nickname, `Sonny’, dated from World War I when he signed letters to his family that way. Survived by his wife, and their son and daughter, Sir Bernard died on 26 November 1982 at his Darling Point home. He was Jewish but not Orthodox: his funeral took place at the Chevra Kadisha, Woollahra, and he was buried in the Jewish section of Rookwood cemetery.
Joel Greenberg, 'Freeman, Sir Nathaniel Bernard (1896–1982)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/freeman-sir-nathaniel-bernard-12513/text22515, published first in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 24 May 2016.
This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (MUP), 2007