Roger Edens was the single most important creative musical figure at MGM -- and, possibly, in Hollywood -- from the end of the 1930s until the beginning of the '60s. Working principally for MGM as part of the renowned "Freed Unit" (built around producer/songwriter Arthur Freed), he brought a unique combination of cleverness, subtlety, and panache to the studio's movies -- as an arranger, songwriter, and, later, a musical supervisor, composer, and producer. His influence began with individual songs and extended, from the early '40s, to the musical content of complete films and, eventually, the overall production of those movies.
Born in Hillsboro, TX, in 1905, Edens spent most of his childhood in Richmond, VA. He arrived on Broadway as a pit musician at the end of the '20s and was playing in the orchestra in the production of George Gershwin's Girl Crazy when fate took a hand. The star, Ethel Merman, was to appear on-stage with the show's pianist and voice arranger, Al Siegel, but the latter had suffered a heart attack on opening day. Edens volunteered to replace Siegel and became Merman's arranger for her next show, Take a Chance, and her accompanist on-stage. When Merman was signed to appear in Samuel Goldwyn's production of Kid Millions (1934), Edens went with her, and he soon came to the attention of Arthur Freed, the songwriter-turned-production executive at MGM. Ironically, Freed was supposed to be judging the talent of a singer whose work didn't pass muster, but he ended up impressed by the arrangements of the songs she sang and the man who had written and played them. He ended up hiring Edens, whose career at MGM began with Victor Fleming's Reckless (1935, starring Jean Harlow), on which he served as musical supervisor. Edens also arranged songs in various non-musical vehicles for the studio (including the Marx Brothers' A Day at the Races), and worked with the studio musical talent behind the scenes, as well. It was Edens who took over the piano at the 1935 audition of Judy Garland, helping out the girl and establishing a creative relationship and friendship that would last for more than three decades. The first tangible result of that friendship was his adaptation of "You Made Me Love You" for the singer at Clark Gable's 1937 birthday party, which so impressed the studio brass that singer and song were used in Broadway Melody of 1938.
Edens' star rose along with Garland's. He was the musical arranger on Everybody Sing and Listen Darling (both 1938), among some of her other early films, played the rehearsal piano for her on The Wizard of Oz, and adapted the score of Babes in Arms (both 1939). As the studio's releases advanced in complexity and breadth, his work became prominent across a range of projects. Edens was the musical arranger for the Cole Porter score of Broadway Melody of 1940, the musical adaptor of the Judy Garland/Gene Kelly vehicle For Me and My Gal (1942), and the adaptor of the Broadway score on Vincente Minnelli's debut film, Cabin in the Sky (1943). By the mid-'40s, Edens was rating credit as an associate producer on such films as The Harvey Girls, and had his creative hand in virtually every major musical that the studio released, including such popular fare as Minnelli's Meet Me in St. Louis (1944) and his much more daring and experimental Yolanda and the Thief (1945). With Meet Me in St. Louis, Edens also began a close creative collaboration with Kay Thompson, who started at MGM as a vocal arranger, but soon revealed a talent for clever lyrics. Edens' most visible projects of the late '40s included Good News (1947), for which he also wrote new musical material; Easter Parade (1948), for which he earned an Academy Award; On the Town (1949), for which he wrote several new songs and won his second Oscar; and Annie Get Your Gun (1950), for which he received his third. The composer extended his string of successes in the next decade with An American in Paris (1951, and one of the biggest Oscar winners in history), Show Boat (1951), where he also briefly moved into the director's chair for the "Ol' Man River" sequence, and The Band Wagon (1953).
Edens proved to be among the relatively few major creative talents who was allowed to move up in the pecking order (in terms of both responsibility and screen credit) beyond the music category. From associate producer, from as early as 1944, he ascended to the coveted rank of producer on the Sigmund Romberg songbook musical Deep in My Heart in 1954. Alas, by that time, the musical film as made by MGM was no longer the successful genre that it had been even three years earlier. The 1948 agreement severing the studios' ties to the theater chains had cut one leg out from under the industry, and the booming success of television was threatening to saw off the other one at the knee. From working on several movies per year, Edens went to near inactivity after the Romberg film. His other major project that year was working (uncredited) as the musical supervisor on Garland's intended comeback vehicle, A Star Is Born, at Warner Bros. His name also showed up as a composer on the long-delayed release of Gene Kelly's ballet feature Invitation to the Dance (1956) and the RKO musical The Girl Most Likely (1957). Most of that time, however, was spent by Edens securing the production of his last great musical, Funny Face (1957). A very free adaptation of the George Gershwin musical of the same name, the film had started its life at MGM, but the studio's declining interest in producing musicals, coupled with Paramount's unwillingness to allow contractee Audrey Hepburn to work in an MGM movie, left the project in limbo. Edens persuaded Paramount to produce the movie itself, using MGM's creative personnel; the resulting film, although a commercial disappointment at the time, proved to be a career high point not only for Edens, but also for director Stanley Donen and co-star/co-author Kay Thompson. It was also one of Hepburn's greatest films, in addition to being among the last of the great Hollywood musicals.
Edens later worked on The Unsinkable Molly Brown (1964), which was a hit, and was reunited (as associate producer) with his MGM stablemate Gene Kelly (now moved up to the director's chair) for Hello, Dolly! (1969). Neither of those films, however, represented Edens at his best -- as a production executive or a creative artist -- though, ironically, Molly Brown yielded a promotional short, The Story of a Dress, which featured the 30-year musical veteran appearing onscreen as himself.
Edens died of cancer during the summer of 1970, late enough to see Hello, Dolly! earn an Academy Award nomination, but too soon to witness the rebirth of interest in his classic work at MGM, which began four years later with the release of That's Entertainment. His legacy, like that of Arthur Freed, is spread across dozens of movies, the best of which have only improved with age. Even some of the decisions for which he and the studio were criticized at the time -- such as removing most of the original songs from On the Town -- now don't seem such bad ideas, and some of Edens' numbers for that film, written with Betty Comden and Adolph Green, are now perceived as holding up extremely well. In movies like On the Town, the best moments of The Harvey Girls, Show Boat, and all of Funny Face, one can see a true creative legend at work.