Music Director and Composer. Nationality: American. Born: Hillsboro, Texas, 9 November 1905. Career: Piano accompanist for ballroom dancers; 1935—joined MGM as musical supervisor, composer, and later as associate producer. Awards: Academy Awards for Easter Parade , 1948, On the Town , 1949, and Annie Get Your Gun , 1950. Died: In Hollywood, 13 July 1970.
Kid Millions (Del Ruth)
Broadway Melody of 1936 (Del Ruth)
San Francisco (Van Dyke); Born to Dance (Del Ruth); The Great Ziegfeld (Leonard)
Broadway Melody of 1938 (Del Ruth) (song); A Day at the Races (Wood); Rosalie (Van Dyke)
Love Finds Andy Hardy (Seitz); Everybody Sing (Marin)
The Wizard of Oz (Fleming); Babes in Arms (Berkeley) (songs)
Strike Up the Band (Berkeley); Go West (Buzzell); Little Nelly Kelly (Taurog) (songs)
Kathleen (Bucquet); Ziegfeld Girl (Leonard) (songs); Lady Be Good (McLeod); Babes on Broadway (Berkeley)
Panama Hattie (McLeod)
Presenting Lily Mars (Taurog); Cabin in the Sky (Minnelli)
Thousands Cheer (Sidney); Ziegfeld Follies (Minnelli) (songs); Meet Me in St. Louis (Minnelli) (+ assoc pr)
Yolanda and the Thief (Minnelli) (+ assoc pr); The Harvey Girls (Sidney) (+ assoc pr)
Good News (Walters) (songs, + assoc pr)
Words and Music (Taurog); Easter Parade (Walters) (songs); The Pirate (Minnelli)
On the Town (Donen)
Annie Get Your Gun (Sidney)
Singin' in the Rain (Kelly and Donen) (song)
Deep in My Heart (Donen) (song, + pr); A Star Is Born (Cukor) (song)
Funny Face (Donen) (songs, + pr)
Jumbo (Walters) (songs, + assoc pr)
Take Me Out to the Ball Game (Berkeley) (composer)
Show Boat (Sidney) (assoc pr); An American in Paris (Minnelli) (assoc pr)
The Band Wagon (Minnelli) (assoc pr)
The Unsinkable Molly Brown (Walters) (assoc pr)
Hello Dolly! (Kelly) (assoc pr)
Sight and Sound (London), Spring 1958.
* * *
If the musical genre reached its artistic and commercial peak with the MGM/Arthur Freed vehicles of the 40s and 50s, then some of the credit must go to Roger Edens. Composer, lyricist, arranger, producer, and associate of Freed's, Edens built a career in Hollywood that was synonymous with the genre that typified the glamour and extravagance of the Golden Age of Hollywood. He worked behind the limelight that fell on Ethel Merman, Eleanor Powell, Mickey Rooney, Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly, and, most especially, Judy Garland. His lyrics and compositions included "I've got a Feeling You're Fooling," "Think Pink," "Bonjour Paris," and "Dear Mr. Gable," Garland's breakthrough number from Broadway Melody of 1938 (1937).
A former ballroom pianist, Edens began his film career at Paramount, where he was hired in 1933 to write material for the studio's Ethel Merman pictures. From there he moved to MGM in 1935, where he would remain until the decline of the musical in the mid- to late-'50s. He began as musical supervisor working on such early chorus-line pictures as The Broadway Melody of 1938 , Born to Dance (1936), and Everybody Sing (1938). It was at Warners, however, where Busby Berkeley was staging the glamorous, kaleidoscopic numbers for such films as 42nd Street (1933) and Footlight Parade (1933), that the genre was achieving its fullest expression. Edens found himself working on imitations of Berkeley's mechanical, impersonal style. In Born to Dance for example, Eleanor Powell dances to the Cole Porter tune "Swingin' the Jinx Away" while encircled by hundreds of singers and dancing sailors on the prow of a huge glittering battleship. In Gotta Sing, Gotta Dance: A Pictorial History of the Film Musical (London: Hamlyn, 1971) by John Kobol, Edens is reported to have referred to the scene as "that really monstrous epitome of nonsense" (p. 133).
Edens's discomfort with the baroque, non-narrative spectacle of the Berkeley style was shared by fellow lyricist and future producer Arthur Freed. Freed had set about refining the musical, moving the genre toward a more integrated form, with music and narration as integral parts of the overall plot. Babes in Arms (1939), Freed's debut as producer, employing Edens as lyricist and a more subdued Berkeley as director, begins an inexorable movement toward such plot-integrated, character-driven musicals as Ziegfeld Girl (1941), Ziegfeld Follies (1944), and Take Me Out to the Ballgame (1948), all of which were worked on by Edens as supervisor and sometimes composer.
The Freed unit as MGM, of which Edens was becoming an increasingly integral part, sought a new intimacy in the genre. Freed's "integrated musicals" became more character bound, employing such stars as Fred Astaire, Judy Garland, and Gene Kelly to add a warmth and personality previously left wanting in the en masse chorus-line picture.
Through his various approaches to the genre, Edens was seeking a way to achieve this through lyrics and composition. His work as music supervisor/arranger on The Wizard of Oz (1939) contributed to the film's groundbreaking integration of music and plot. While "Over the Rainbow" establishes the theme of the picture, and songs like "Off to See the Wizard" propel the narrative, numbers such as "If I Only Had a Brain" establish characterization. In short, the music routines fulfill plot functions—creating character, theme, and movement.
Elevated in the early '40s to the position of associate producer, Edens found himself with even greater control and influence over the genre. Freed was beginning to view him as indispensable; by mere suggestion Edens could veto even the most major ideas from his collaborator/boss. He was Freed's right-hand man on Meet Me in St. Louis (1944), Easter Parade (1948), On the Town (1949), Annie Get Your Gun (1950), and An American in Paris (1951). During this period, the musical reached its most perfect form. Extraneous numbers such as Garland and Astaire's "A Couple of Swells" from Easter Parade were skillfully and believably worked into the storyline. Others, such as those in On the Town attained an almost minimalist quality, foregrounding not the excess and artificiality of the genre, but a realism (in terms of both character and landscape) heretofore left untapped. By the end of the '40s, Edens had earned three Academy Awards, and the musical, with MGM at the crest of the wave, was the most popular genre of the industry.
In 1954, at the prompting of Freed, Edens began to produce. His first project, Deep in My Heart (1954) was a minor success. However, Funny Face (1957), his next assignment as producer, was far more accomplished. Though the "Freed Unit" had begun to disband (due to a sudden and inexorable decline in popularity), Edens moved many of the MGM craftsmen to Paramount and there, with his frequent collaborator, director Stanley Donen, produced one of the last great musicals of the Hollywood era. Starring Audrey Hepburn and Fred Astaire, Funny Face used a tantalizing, sophisticated mixture of color and music to enter the world of fashion photography and fairy-tale romance.
Following Funny Face Edens's career began to fade. The genre was now outmoded and his final two productions, The Unsinkable Molly Brown (1964) and Hello Dolly (1969) were further evidence to the fact. Overblown and splashy, they conformed to the emerging philosophy of what is bigger is better, and performed poorly at the box office.
Edens died in 1970 at the cusp of a new era in American cinema. He was sixty-five years of age and his career in the industry had spanned over half his lifetime. Though his contributions to the genre's development were substantial, Edens worked continuously in the collaborative environment of the studio system. His career runs alongside that of great musical talents of the time, and his impact on the genre must be viewed in the light of his peers. Indeed, the story of Edens's career is not only the story of the great American genre of song and dance, but also that of the factory system itself.