Bright Lights Film Journal

I wish I were in love again? I AM In Love Again!

At long last, one of my favorite neglected musicals, Words and Music, the trés fake bio-pic that does not tell the story of Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart, is finally out on DVD. Words and Music, released in 1948, was one of a number of big-budget, all-star, full-color musicals from that era, usually set in the teens or twenties, celebrating the glory days of Tin Pan Alley and allowing audiences an escape from World War II and the nuclear age. Unlike Till the Clouds Roll By (Jerome Kern) and Blue Skies and Easter Parade (both Irving Berlin), Words and Music was a profound flop.

Words and Music labored under the handicap of having hapless Tom Drake, cast as Richard Rodgers, as both lead and narrator for the film. Casting a nobody in the lead of an all-star film is not a good idea (surely Drake’s only attraction was that he came cheap), and it’s likely that the “breaking the proscenium” opening and closing, which give us a behind the scenes glimpse of the recording of a big Hollywood number, orchestra, chorus, and Perry Como in a big, ugly, battleship-gray recording studio, only confused and disappointed audiences. Folks come to a show for a show. They want magic! When you show them what’s behind the magic, it’s not magic any more.

I raved about Words and Music a millennium or two ago here, so I won’t repeat myself, other than to say that if you like Rodgers and Hart, Judy Garland, Mickey Rooney, Cyd Charisse, Lena Horne, Gene Kelly, Vera-Ellen, Mel Torme, and more!, you’re going to like this picture. Pride of place has got to go to Gene Kelly’s brilliant choreography and performance in “Slaughter on Tenth Avenue,” which is just as overblown, overdramatic, overripe, and overgorgeous as I remembered it. In my review of Three Little Words, another “And then we wrote” bio-pic, I said that Vera-Ellen, Kelly’s partner in “Slaughter,” had a hard time looking sexy on stage. That’s still true, and I suspect that Cyd Charisse would have been more voluptuous in the part, but I don’t care. “Slaughter on Tenth Avenue” is dear little Vera’s place in the sun, and it always will be. Buy this flick. You won’t be disappointed.

The restoration job here is good, but not quite the perfection one might dream of. The disc includes several outtakes, which are “interesting,” but nothing more.

According to online trivia, Judy Garland was paid $50,000 to do one number (“I Wish I Were In Love Again” with Mickey Rooney, their last appearance together). Preview reaction was very positive, so MGM paid her another $50,000 to do another number (“Johnny One Note”), which explains why her appearance in the second number doesn’t quite match the first. Supposedly, MGM assessed the $100,000 against Judy’s outstanding “medical expenses” ($100,000 in uppers?), so that she didn’t get a dime.