Forgotten biopic offers a baker’s dozen of delights
Is Words and Music, MGM’s 1948 “and then they wrote” biopic of songwriters Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart, a masterpiece? Although long available on video, the film has inspired remarkably little praise. Yet it probably contains more first-rate production numbers than any other Hollywood musical ever made. Consider the lineup:
1. “Manhattan”: Mickey Rooney
2. “There’s a Small Hotel”: Betty Garrett
3. “Mountain Greenery”: Perry Como, Allyn McLerie, dancers and chorus
4. “Where’s That Rainbow?”: Ann Sothern, the Blackburn Twins, dancers and chorus
5. “Up on Your Toes”: Cyd Charisse, Dee Turnell, dancers
6. “Blue Room”: Perry Como, Cyd Charisse
7. “Thou Swell”: June Allyson, the Blackburn Twins
8. “Where or When?”: Lena Horne
9. “The Lady Is a Tramp”: Lena Horne
10. “I Wish I Were in Love Again”: Judy Garland, Mickey Rooney
11. “Johnny One Note”: Judy Garland
12. “Blue Moon”: Mel Tormé
13. “Slaughter on Tenth Avenue”: Gene Kelly, Vera-Ellen
Words and Music does have problems. It’s much more accurate to say that it doesn’t tell the story of Rodgers and Hart than that it does. Lyricist Lorenz “Larry” Hart was a gay dwarf, never a good combination, but particularly unfortunate in early twentieth-century America. Hart was twenty-four when he met sixteen-year-old Richard Rodgers in 1919. He took one look and fell instantly in love, an emotion that was not reciprocated. Although both men were Jewish and musically gifted, they had little in common otherwise. Rodgers was tall, athletic, and straight. He was a hard worker, aloof and distant. Those who knew him best always ended up admitting that they didn’t really “know” him. His one real enthusiasm seemed to be earning millions of dollars by writing dozens of great popular songs. Hart, on the other hand, hated working. In fact, Rodger’s real job was getting Larry to work. Hart loved to carouse, and died a furious alcoholic at forty-seven. In his later years, his closest companion was his pimp, “Doc” Bender, who supplied him with young men.
Naturally, none of this gets on the screen. The plot of Words and Music is deadly; but when the music starts, the stars come out. At their best, Rodgers and Hart were a match for the Gershwins, Cole Porter, and Irving Berlin. Robert Alton, who directed the musical sequences, turns out one lavish production number after another without ever falling on his face,1 something that, in an MGM musical, is just about unheard of.
Mickey Rooney, as Lorenz Hart, gets most of the screen time in Words and Music. Rooney, still alive and kicking as the twentieth century gets ready to fade into the sunset, is regarded as something of a joke today, if he’s noticed at all. Yet in his heyday, he really was “the biggest star in Hollywood,” as he’ll be glad to tell you. For three straight years, 1939-1941, he was the highest-grossing star in Hollywood, tying Clark Gable’s record for a male actor.2 He made a lot of his money pounding out a series of “teen-age” musicals with Judy Garland — most of them ending up with the kids putting on a show in Mickey’s barn.3 Words and Music was Rooney’s last lead role in an “A” picture. He was simply too short to play a romantic lead as an adult.
Rooney’s talents, as a singer and dancer if not as an actor, are on full display here. Although naturally “ebullient,” to make up for his lack of height, Rooney could shift gears when he wanted to. He gives a lovely, quiet rendering of the quintessential Manhattan song, “Manhattan,” doing a particularly nice job with Hart’s clever introduction, or “verse”: “Summer journeys to Niagara and to other places aggravate all our cares, We’ll save our fares/ I’ve a cozy flat in what is known as old Manhattan, We’ll settle down, right here in town.”
“I Wish I Were in Love Again,” Rooney’s last film duet with Garland, is one of the best things he (and Garland) ever did. The number is extremely well choreographed, and both performers exude endless energy as they rip through two full choruses of some of Hart’s best lyrics.4 Hart, Rooney, and Garland all knew a lot about unhappy affairs, but for three minutes on the big screen at least, there are no regrets.
“Where’s That Rainbow?”, with Ann Sothern, is the one production number in the film that drags. In her prime, Sothern was a sleek, art deco beauty,5 but by 1948 she was slowing down a little. She rejuvenated her career via television in the fifties, starring in Private Secretary and The Ann Sothern Show, which may still inhabit cable. The song isn’t one of Hart’s best, featuring forced, too-clever rhymes like “In each scenario you can depend on the end when the lovers agree/ Where’s that Lothario, where does he roam, with his dome vaselined as can be?” Fortunately, the upbeat finale gets a boost from the Blackburn Twins, a pair of lanky song-and-dance men who make up in oomph what they lack in subtlety.
The Twins are back in “Thou Swell,” probably the highlight of their career, in which they play knights competing for June Allyson’s6 hand. Their alternating smiles and scowls as she plays them off against one another is a good sample of old-fashioned musical comedy entertainment. The three dance up a storm, too.7
Lena Horne takes the floor in a nightclub to sing two Rodgers and Hart standards in a fine, straightforward manner, and then disappears from the picture. As is well known, the old Hollywood liked to feature blacks in “specialty numbers” where they wouldn’t interact with the leads, bits that could be cut out altogether if need be. While Lena’s on we get both choruses of “The Lady Is a Tramp,” which contain some of Hart’s wittiest lines. It might help to point out that the lady is a “tramp” because her behavior is the opposite of polite society’s — she admits to reading the gossip columnists, she stays awake at the opera, and, most of all, she’s “all alone when I lower my lamp.”
“Mountain Greenery” gets a very nice treatment from a young Perry Como, who didn’t do much in the movies, but was a very successful pop singer before the advent of rock and roll.8 Allyn McLerie, his attractive partner, is a dancer rather than a singer, but plays off him nicely. The song is a mixture of clever and too-clever lyrics, but has a rousing finish — “down with noise and clutter, up with milk and butter, down with city slickin’, up with cows and chickens, down with life’s machinery, bless our mountain greenery home!”
Como is paired again with a dancer in “Blue Room,” and again the song is a mixture of clever and too-clever lyrics, but this time the dancer is Cyd Charisse.9 Charisse performs a nothing-but-class dance number full of balletic tricks before moving into a sustained close up with Como while he sings. The pose is Hollywood Romance with a capital “R,” full of dreamy eyes and gleaming diamonds.
Charisse is also in full balletic gear for “Up on Your Toes.” She dances with Dee Turnell. (The two are nicely dubbed by singers whose names I couldn’t track down.) Turnell, a blonde, is given a “cherry vanilla” makeup job, with snow-white skin and cherry lips and cheeks, while Charisse’s skin is darkened until she’s almost a match for Lena Horne. Apparently, this was done for sheer visual contrast. There’s nothing in Charisse’s costume or behavior to indicate that she’s supposed to be “black.”
Viewers will probably get a kick out of seeing chubby old man Mel Tormé as an elegant young man, doing a nice job with “Blue Moon.” Rodgers and Hart wrote “Blue Moon” as a delicate ballad. No doubt Rodgers hated the stomping doo-wop version turned out by the Marcels in 1961. (Hart would have hated it too if he’d been around to hear it.) Ten years later, the retro doo-wop group Sha-Na-Na had an even bigger hit with the same arrangement.
Words and Music saves the best for last: a rousing, over the top version of “Slaughter on Tenth Avenue,” a jazz ballet tale of Love and Death set among Manhattan’s demimonde. Jazz ballets were all the rage in the forties and fifties, and did a lot to sour Americans on both art forms. Artsy, arty, and contrived, they lacked the spontaneity of jazz and the purity of ballet. As a friend of mine liked to say, they “begged for parody.”10
Remarkably, “Slaughter on Tenth Avenue,” choreographed by Kelly, rises above its roots. Gaudy, clichéd, melodramatic, and theatrical, it simply moves too fast to get bogged down in its own excess. Kelly, in his trademark too-tight shirt and pants, has a ball as a tough guy who dies for love, and Vera-Ellen is the sweetest bad girl you’d ever want to see. This is kitsch that never gets old.11
- Alton worked with Fred Astaire and other big stars, but never did anything to match the quality and consistency of Words and Music. [↩]
- Neither Gable nor Rooney could match Shirley Temple, who was Hollywood’s highest grosser for four years in a row, a record that will probably last forever, if only because no modern A-list actor could stand the strain of making four pictures in four years. In her prime, Shirley was knocking out four in one year. [↩]
- The best of the Garland-Rooney vehicles was the atypical Girl Crazy, a remake of one of the Gershwins’ finest shows. Garland does a very nice “Embraceable You,” accompanied by about a hundred chorus boys (it’s her birthday), as well as a three-hanky version of “But Not for Me.” But the most satisfying number is a Garland-Rooney duet on the virtually unknown “Could You Use Me?”, which has some of Ira Gershwin’s best low-key lyrics: “I’m the chappie who’ll make you happy, I’ll tie your shoesies, and chase your bluesies, Lady, could you use me?” [↩]
- The number gives unusual insight into the performers’ physical peculiarities. When they’re sitting down, Rooney is significantly taller than Garland. When they’re standing up, Garland is significantly taller than Rooney. Rooney had a normal-sized head and torso, but diminutive legs. Garland had long legs (which is why she liked to show them off), but a rather constricted torso. Louis B. Mayer, that lovely old man, used to call her “my little hunchback.” No wonder she took drugs. [↩]
- Check Ann out in the Eddie Cantor musical Kid Millions, where she’s surprisingly reminiscent of the Marilyn Monroe of Some Like It Hot. [↩]
- June Allyson was a long way from Depends in 1948, thank God. [↩]
- Hart’s lyrics include the line “I choose a sweet lollapalooza in you.” The recent Lollapalooza rock tours have resuscitated this example of heavy-handed twenties humor from the dead. If you like the tune of “Thou Swell,” you might track down the version recorded back in 1927 by jazz great Bix Biederbecke, available on CD from Columbia. [↩]
- Como had best sellers like “Catch a Falling Star” in the early fifties, and also hosted a long-running variety show on TV. His attempted segue into rock, “Dungaree Doll,” was pretty disastrous. [↩]
- It may be necessary to point out that Charisse was the biggest female dancing star of the late forties and early fifties. Vera-Ellen, who was also in Words and Music, was probably her closest competition. [↩]
- Both Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly did excellent parodies of jazz ballets. See Astaire’s “Girl Hunt” in The Bandwagon, performed with a deliciously sexy Cyd Charisse, and Kelly’s Marlon Brando parody, “Why Am I So Gone About That Gal,” with Mitzi Gaynor, in Les Girls. To see a bad jazz ballet parody (but why would you want to?), check out Danny Kaye’s “Choreography” in White Christmas. [↩]
- Although Rodgers and Hart wrote directly for the screen, and many of their Broadway musicals were made into movies, there is no classic Rodgers and Hart film. Pal Joey, starring Frank Sinatra, Rita Hayworth, and Kim Novak, made after Hart’s death, probably comes closest, although it’s a long way from the acerbic Broadway original, which provided Gene Kelly with his big break. If you want to hear Rodgers and Hart, start with Ella Fitzgerald’s “Rodgers and Hart Songbooks.” If you want to read about them, try Frederick Nolan’s Lorenz Hart or Thou Witty, Thou Swell, a picture book tribute assembled by Hart’s sister-in-law Dorothy Hart, containing short reminiscences by many of the famous people who knew or worked with Hart. Both books provide more information about Broadway in the twenties, thirties, and forties than many people want to know. But if you’re still not satisfied, try the Web. The Lorenz Hart Homepage gives, among other things, a listing of all Rodgers and Hart songs and lets you download musical selections. If you’re tired of Rodgers and Hart, there are plenty of other Hart sites to visit. Try the Gerber/Hart Gay and Lesbian Library & Archives (“the Midwest’s leading lesbian and gay archives”) for all your Midwest gay and lesbian needs. If your tastes lie in another direction, you might track down a “Teen Lust” page devoted to Melissa Joan Hart, who apparently started more than a few depraved hearts beating faster when she starred in Clarissa Explains It All for You on PBS a few years back. Melissa’s no longer a teenager, so you can probably visit the multitudinous sites devoted to her without being busted. If you’re an eighties TV fan (and who isn’t?), check out the Hart to Hart Homepage for all things Jennifer and Jonathan. [↩]