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The composer biography was a Hollywood staple when MGM took on the life ofsongwriters Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby for Three Little Words (1950). And for once, the studio actually got it right.
The genre had been pioneered by Warner Bros., who had scored hits withRhapsody in Blue, with Robert Alda as George Gershwin, in 1945 andNight and Day, with Cary Grant as Cole Porter, in 1946. Since then,however, the genre had performed spottily at the box office. MGM hadscored a hit with Robert Walker as Jerome Kern in Till the Clouds RollBy (1946) but had fared less successfully with Tom Drake and MickeyRooney as Rodgers and Hart in Words and Music (1948). One problemwas that most songwriters hadn't led very interesting lives or had donethings Hollywood didn't deem appropriate for the movies (no Hollywood filmof the period would have dealt with Porter or Hart's homosexuality).Another was that the films' stars rarely had the musical chops to carry amusical, leading to tacked-on assemblages of guest stars who often stolethe movie for one number.
With Three Little Words, those problems didn't exist. For once, thefilm's subjects had an interesting problem that translated easily to film-- they never really got along. Both had interests outside of songwriting-- Kalmar was a magician and wannabe playwright; Ruby dreamed of playingball -- that ultimately came between them. With that hint of a story andthe promise that Ruby, the team's surviving member, would share his storieswith writer George Wells, producer Jack Cummings managed to convince LouisB. Mayer that this was one film that couldn't fail.
Just to insure the picture's success, he also landed three stars who could hold their own musically. Fred Astaire was committed to co-star withBetty Hutton at Paramount, but the film wouldn't be ready to shoot for sixmonths. When Cummings sent him the script, he decided it was worth givingup the long vacation he had planned. Helping him agree to the project wasthe fact that he had known Kalmar and Ruby from his Broadway days. He andhis sister, Adele Astaire, had even modeled part of the act that made him astar on Kalmar's vaudeville act with his future wife, Jessie Brown. Toplay Brown, Cummings enlisted another dancing star, Vera-Ellen, who hadrecently scored a hit in MGM's version of On the Town (1949). ForRuby, Cummings went after an actor who actually resembled the composer, RedSkelton. Then he had to convince Skelton to take a script that didn'tallow for his usual frantic comic business. Fortunately, Skelton's wife,Georgia, saw the wisdom of his trying a change-of-pace role and helpedCummings sell him on the project. The film still featured some guest stars-- most notably Gloria DeHaven, who played her own mother, who hadintroduced "Who's Sorry Now?" -- but most of the musical numbers werecarried by Astaire, Vera-Ellen and Skelton.
Three Little Words also provided a boon for two relative newcomersto the screen. Composer Andre Previn had been doing orchestrations for MGMsince before he graduated from high school. Now, he had his first opportunityto score a major film. The fact that it was a Fred Astaire musical addedto the assignment's prestige. Previn forged an instant bond with Ruby, whoshared his passion for rare books, and was impressed with Astaire's abilityto deliver a song. Previn was still young enough to be as much a fan as afilmmaker and eventually asked Astaire for an autograph. The star turnedhim down, claiming he never signed autographs, but when the film wasfinished he sent Previn one of the black canes he'd used in the film. He'deven scraped away some of the paint and signed the exposed wood. Anotherbonus Previn got from the film was his first Oscar® nomination. By thetime the nominations were announced, he had been drafted. In fact, he wasdigging a latrine when he was called to Orderly Room to receive thetelegram notifying him of the honor. Although he would be nominated for 14Oscar®, winning four times, this was the only instance in which hecould remember exactly what he was doing when he learned of hisnomination.
Also given a big boost from the film was Debbie Reynolds. She was undercontract at Warner Bros. but was clearly on her way out after playing onlythree short roles in six months. Then the studio talent scout who haddiscovered her took her to MGM to show off her ability to impersonatesingers while miming to their recordings. She was cast on the spot to playHelen Kane, who had introduced Kalmar and Ruby's "I Want to Be Loved byYou" and would perform the number on the soundtrack. Reynolds only had twoscenes. In one Kalmar and Ruby discover her when she interrupts their workon the song by interjecting "boop-boop-a-doop" after each line. Then sheperforms the song on Broadway while vamping another screen newcomer,Carleton Carpenter. The first scene was a total fiction. Kane was alreadya Broadway star when the song was added to the score of a show she wasworking on. She hated the song and had interjected her famous"boop-boop-a-doop"'s during performances to spoof it, only to see it becomeher biggest hit. But the fiction paid off for Reynolds. By the time herfan mail started coming in, MGM had signed her to a contract and cast her,along with Carpenter, in a flashier role in Two Weeks With Love(1950).
Producer: Jack Cummings
Director: Richard Thorpe
Screenplay: George Wells
Based on the lives and songs of Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby
Cinematography: Harry Jackson
Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons, Urie McCleary
Music: Andre Previn
Principal Cast: Fred Astaire (Bert Kalmar), Red Skelton (Harry Ruby),Vera-Ellen (Jessie Brown Kalmar), Arlene Dahl (Eileen Percy), Keenan Wynn(Charlie Kope), Gale Robbins (Terry Lordel), Gloria DeHaven (Mrs. CarterDeHaven), Phil Regan (Himself), Debbie Reynolds (Helen Kane), CarletonCarpenter (Dan Healy), Harry Mendoza (Mendoza the Great), Billy Gray (Boy),Helen Kane (Singing Voice of Debbie Reynolds), Anita Ellis (Singing Voiceof Vera-Ellen), Harry Ruby (Ballplayer).
C-103m. Closed captioning.
by Frank Miller