Bright Lights Film Journal

When Fred Met Red: Fred Astaire, Red Skelton, and Vera-Ellen Commingle in Three Little Words

It’s Bert and Harry, together again! Why are you not excited?

Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby are not names to conjure with, unless you’re excessively fond of conjuring, but back in 1950 Hollywood didn’t have much choice. The great songwriters of America were dead (George Gershwin, Larry Hart, and Jerome Kern) or dying (Irving Berlin1 and Cole Porter). There were hundreds of Gershwin/Berlin wannabes trying to make it on Tin Pan Alley, but somehow the zeitgeist had moved on.2 They just weren’t writing tunes like they used to, and it’s damned hard to make good musicals without good tunes.

Quite sensibly, Hollywood responded by recycling, starting with Berlin, so prolific, and so good, that his œuvre ultimately served as the basis for no fewer than five hit films — Alexander’s Ragtime Band, Blue Skies, Easter Parade, White Christmas, and There’s No Business Like Show Business. Hollywood also raided the treasures of Gershwin (Rhapsody in Blue), Kern (Till the Clouds Roll By), and Hart (Words and Music).

But there are œuvres and then there are œuvres. Though the song-writing team of Bert and Harry turned out dozens of snappy tunes, many of them palpable hits, they probably reached their aesthetic peak with “Hurray for Captain Spaulding,” written back in the twenties for Groucho Marx in Animal Crackers. But, sometimes, you do not what you wanna do but what you gotta do, and in 1950 MGM turned to Bert and Harry for the score, and the story, for Fred Astaire’s latest film.

Astaire, who was friends with both Bert and Harry and often thought it would be fun to write songs, was happy with the idea and always claimed that the result, Three Little Words, was one of his favorite films, perhaps because he was so glad not to be working with Ginger any more.3 Fred was cast as lyricist Bert Kalmar, while comedian Red Skelton4) played composer Harry Ruby, with dancer Vera-Ellen as Astaire’s partner/wife.

Vera-Ellen (her full name was Vera-Ellen Westmeier Rohe, though she sometimes billed herself as Vera Ellen) was a precise, graceful dancer with extensive ballet training, who began working as a Rockette at an early age. She didn’t get into films until she was 34, in part because she couldn’t sing, but also in part, one guesses, because of emotional problems.5 Although she had an excellent figure, she seemed to feel nervous about being sexy on screen. When dressed in “naughty” outfits, she kept a fixed, little-girl smile on her face that conveyed the opposite of passion.6

The film opens in 1919 with Fred and Vera in matching white tie singing “Where Did You Get That Girl,” a tune with music by Harry Puck and words by Bert/Fred. The choreography that accompanies the piece is simple and straightforward, typical of what we will see throughout the film. Astaire said that making the film reminded him of his old vaudeville days. Apparently, the glow of nostalgia was so strong that Fred forgot that it was his job to entertain us.

Fred and Vera are up again in “Mr. and Mrs. Hoofer,” a number, we are told, being performed before President Woodrow Wilson at the Keith’s Theatre on 15th Street in DC, two blocks from the White House.7 In contrast to what went before, this is a “modern” number8 that makes no pretense of attempting a period flavor. The choreography, probably from Hermes Pan, is closer to Gene Kelly than Astaire, with lots of balletic touches (which Vera-Ellen could easily handle, unlike most of Fred’s previous partners), but also lots of broad humor and mugging.9

The number, which is sometimes enjoyable and sometimes not, ends with an irritating gag. Fred and Vera, heading for the door, go into a furious spin that seems destined to take them crashing into the wall. Guess what? They do crash into the wall, ripping right through a paper backdrop! Definitely too easy.10

After all this dancing, Bert/Fred and Harry/Red have got to settle down and write some tunes. They meet cute, of course, but the byplay gives some insight into the song-writing business circa 1919. Harry’s got a tune he’s calling “The Shores of Araby,” but Bert says that “Araby tunes are out. There hasn’t been a good Dixie tune in a while.” So they come up with “My Sunny Tennessee,” which they sing in a charmingly old-fashioned manner. They do the same for “So Long Oo-Long,” a shameless exercise in “Japanese” kitsch.11 Unfortunately, the introduction, or “verse,” of “So Long Oo-Long” is written in atrocious pidgin12 English, and both Fred and Red mug ferociously, enough to win them a place in the appendix to Robert Ito’s “A Certain Slant.”

Bert has taken to writing songs full-time because he hurt his knee. But after a year of r and r he feels he’s ready to get back in step, and we seem to be on our way to classic Fred solo, but after about a minute of excellent tap he tries a knee drop and lives to regret it. Ouch! Not to Fred, but to us! Three Little Words is one of the very few films Fred made that lacks a serious solo performance.13

After Fred’s mini-solo, we see Vera-Ellen doing her own solo, “Come on Papa,” a semi-enjoyable exercise in French oo-la-la, handicapped by Vera’s discomfort when called upon to display overt sex appeal. She much preferred to work her technique rather than her body. Vera’s working solo because she and Bert have split up, but naturally Harry brings them together again, uniting them on stage for a rendition of “Nevertheless,” a ballad that provides the setting for a brief, elegant dance that has the sentiment, though not the drama, of the great romantic dances that Fred did with Ginger.

Later on, we get a more elaborate romantic number, “Thinking of You,” that once again reminds us of past triumphs. There’s a nice color contrast between Fred in midnight blue and Vera in rich, flowing pink, though Fred definitely could have lost the ascot. The choreography takes advantage of Vera’s superior technique without being an exercise in mere display. She also takes a dramatic back bend in the number, which Astaire hadn’t used since the RKO black-and-whites with Ginger.

Unfortunately, that’s it for the dancing, even though the film has another half hour to run. And that’s pretty much it for Three Little Words: lots of snappy tunes, a fair amount of good dancing, but nothing great. Bert and Harry were pros, all right, but they were no Irving Berlin.14

Afterwords

What about the title? “Three Little Words” (which happen to be “I love you”) was, of course, a Kalmar-Ruby tune. There is a running gag, entirely untrue, that Bert couldn’t come up with the lyrics for some twenty years. (The picture ends with him singing Harry the lyrics he’s finally invented.) “Three Little Words” got the workout of its life in 1944 at the hands of master saxophonists Coleman Hawkins, Tab Smith, Don Byas, and Harry Carney, helped along by master drummer Sid Catlett. The recording is available on a number of collections of Hawkins’ work from the forties. In 1957, Stan Getz and the Oscar Peterson trio took “Three Little Words” for another ride. Bert and Harry never sounded so good!

  1. Berlin wasn’t actually dying, but he could make so much money selling his old songs to Hollywood that he couldn’t be bothered with writing new ones. Porter, in constant, crippling pain due to a riding accident, achieved a stunning success on Broadway with Kiss Me Kate in 1948 but never reached those heights again. []
  2. Only God knows why for sure, but the Swing era had led a lot of composers to think in terms of instrumentals rather than vocals, a trend accentuated by bop, which was essentially unsingable, unless you were Sarah Vaughn. Bop-oriented big band leaders like Dizzy Gillespie, Woody Herman, and Stan Kenton couldn’t make enough money to hold their bands together, but LPs allowed bop musicians, particularly the less -angular ones like Stan Getz, to make a decent living. Vocalists like Frank and Dean dominated the charts, but beneath it all the lumpen proletariat of America was longing for a voice — the voice, of course, of Elvis Presley. []
  3. Fred had been reunited with Rogers in his previous film,The Barkleys of Broadway. The Barkleys lost money, while Three Little Words was quite profitable, which may help explain Fred’s attitude. []
  4. Skelton was very successful in films in the forties, but is probably more remembered today for his long-running (1951–1971) television series. His memories of movie life were not always fond ones. Referring to the crowds at Harry Cohn’s funeral, he famously said on the air “It just goes to show — give the public what it wants and they’ll turn out for it.” (I remember seeing this as a kid, both because I didn’t get the joke and because of the stunned silence from the audience. But Skelton didn’t care. He was laughing his ass off. []
  5. She had a lot of trouble with eating, or rather with not eating. In White Christmas, her last big film, she wore a variety of scarves and high collars to conceal her thin neck. On the other hand, her dancing is the main reason for seeing White Christmas. []
  6. Cyd Charisse, Vera-Ellen’s major dancing competitor in the late forties and early fifties, was quite the opposite, excelling in sultry roles in such famous numbers as the “Gotta Dance” finale to Gene Kelly’s Singin’ in the Rain and the “Girl Hunt” number with Astaire in The Band Wagon. []
  7. Since Harry Ruby served as technical advisor for the film, we can assume that this did happen, more or less. []
  8. Modern for 1950, that is. []
  9. There seemed to be a belief in the forties and fifties that audiences would laugh at anything as long as they knew it was supposed to be funny. []
  10. Remember the line that says if you show the audience a gun in the first act it has to go off in the fifth one? It helps a lot if it’s a real gun. []
  11. Yeah, oolong tea is Chinese, not Japanese. Sue Bert and Harry, not me. []
  12. “Pidgin” is supposedly the Chinese pronunciation of “business.” Chinese and British merchants talked “pidgin” when they made their deals. []
  13. The painfully bad Yolanda and the Thief is another. Dunno why Fred bailed on us, but he did. I guess he was just feeling lazy. []
  14. Not only did Easter Parade have the advantage of Berlin’s tunes, Judy’s voice, Ann Miller’s dancing, and ambitious choreography from Fred, but the period décor was much more carefully and satisfyingly wrought. While Three Little Words tries to look authentic in the early going, it quickly settles down to late forties comfortable — nice, but no real class. []