November 9, 1905– Roger Edens. What sort of person does not love the MGM Musicals from the Golden Age of Hollywood? Edens was a musical arranger, songwriter, & producer. He was also a congenial, cultured, & clever gay man who brought in other brilliant gay men as collaborators for MGM. Producer Arthur Freed‘s unit at MGM was responsible for making some of the best musical films ever. Freed, who was not gay, was happy to gather the group derisively known as “Freed’s Fairies”: Edens, George Cukor & prop master Edwin Willis.
Although Edens was handsome enough to be a movie star, he worked to give the best & brightest performers of Hollywood’s Golden Era the perfect musical numbers suited for their unique talents.
When Edens left his native Texas & arrived in NYC in the 1920s, he found work as a pit musician. In 1930, when Ethel Merman’s pianist withdrew from George & Ira Gershwin’s Girl Crazy, Edens was hired to replace him. Merman was so impressed that she hired him as the pianist/arranger for her nightclub act, & then brought him to Hollywood with her.
Merman returned to Broadway, but Edens stayed in LA. He was hired by MGM’s Freed as his musical supervisor & associate producer for the famed Freed Unit. As a team, they made: Babes In Arms (1939), Easter Parade (1948), On The Town (1949), Royal Wedding (1951), An American In Paris (1951), Singin’ In The Rain (1952), & The Bandwagon (1953).
In an era when homosexuality was seen as a fatal flaw in Hollywood, Edens managed to keep his sexuality a secret. After his brief marriage to a starlet ended in divorce, he had a beard in his very gifted friend & co-worker Kay Thompson. If you don’t know Thompson, you really should. She was a lithe, effervescent, gregarious, indefatigable, singular writer, musician, actor, comic, singer, songwriter, vocal coach, dancer, choreographer, fashion designer, & one of the most unique show biz figures of the 20th century. Edens & Thompson share the same birthday today. From 1942-1957 they held co-birthday parties where they would each present a surprise production number for the other using special material which featured their party pals: Judy Garland, Lena Horne, Gene Kelly, Dorothy Dandridge, Maureen O’Hara, Ray Bolger, Ann Sothern, Danny Kaye, Cole Porter, & Irving Berlin.
Edens was the special musical mentor to Garland from the start of her career & he was an uncredited coach on almost all of her musical films. Because of his exclusive MGM contract, Edens was not able to take screen credit for his work on Garland’s memorable Born In A Trunk sequence in the Warner Bros. A Star Is Born (1954). Edens & Garland remained close friends until the end of Garland’s time on this planet. He put together her famous Dear Mr. Gable/You Made Me Love You (1937) number, & composed Our Love Affair for Garland to sing in Strike Up The Band (1940), receiving an Academy Award nomination for Best Song. Edens wrote It’s A Great Day For The Irish from Little Nellie Kelly (1940) specifically to showcase Garland’s powerhouse pipes. Not only one of Garland’s biggest hits, the tune became an Irish-American anthem played by marching bands every St. Patrick’s Day. He wrote special material for Garland’s Palace Theatre & London Palladium concerts in 1951.
His long career at MGM culminated with being made credited producer for the all-star Deep In My Heart (1954), a creaky musical biopic about the life of composer Sigmund Romberg, who wrote very old fashioned operettas like The Student Prince, The Desert Song, & The New Moon. It is a film only worth catching because of the Eden’s produced series of musical numbers by nearly every singer & dancer he could rustle up on the MGM lot at the time: Cyd Charisse, Rosemary Clooney, Vic Damone, Howard Keel, Gene Kelly, Ann Miller, James Mitchell, Jane Powell, & ballet dancer Tamara Toumanova.
When MGM cut back on producing musical films & disposed of their creative staff, Edens moved on to work at other studios, producing & giving pal Kay Thompson her best film role in Funny Face (1957) for Paramount Pictures. & working on musical specials for TV. In the 1960s, he composed special nightclub material for Garland & Merman.
His final screen credit was as associate producer for the film version of Hello, Dolly! (1969), directed by fellow MGM alumni Gene Kelly. Edens coached Katharine Hepburn for her Broadway musical stage debut as Coco Chanel in Coco (1969).
Eden’s longtime partner was Leonard Gershe (1922 -2002), a playwright, screenwriter, & lyricist. He wrote the lyrics to Eden’s music for A Star Is Born, many episodes of The Lucy Show, & the screenplays for Funny Face, 40 Carats (1973) & for his own 1969 play Butterflies Are Free (1972).
A longtime smoker, Edens’ final credits rolled in summer 1970, taken by lung cancer. He was just 64 years old.
Edens was portrayed on screen by Michael Parks opposite Andrea McArdle’s Judy Garland in Rainbow (1978), & in an especially good performance by my friend John Benjamin Hickey in Me And My Shadows (2001) with Tammy Blanchard as young Garland & the great Judy Davis as an older Garland.