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Words and Music

Words and Music(1948)

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teaser Words and Music (1948)

Jam-packed with blockbuster songs performed by some of MGM's top talent, Words and Music (1948) is a lavish film biography of the songwriting duo Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart. In the early 1920s the diminutive Hart (played by the equally short Mickey Rooney) teams up with Rodgers (Tom Drake) to launch a successful 24-year music career, penning nearly 500 songs together until Hart's death in 1943 at the age of 47. In the highly fictionalized story arc, Rodgers marries his dream girl (Janet Leigh) while Hart (who was gay in real life) pines after Peggy (Betty Garrett). After Peggy's rejection, Hart spirals into depression and eventually death.

Most critics panned the bare bones plot but showered praise on the sparkling musical numbers that were liberally sprinkled throughout the movie. According to a Variety review at the time, MGM had made the Rodgers and Hart biopic a "slim and pleasant framework on which to hang some 22 of their most melodious and best-known tunes." Many of the musical stars played themselves or small character parts so they could convincingly break into song at some point in the film. June Allyson, Perry Como, Ann Sothern, Mel Torm and Cyd Charisse were just some of the singing sensations in the extravaganza.

Among the singing standouts was Lena Horne, who appeared as herself singing in a nightclub scene. Horne was among the few singled out in reviews for special accolades. "The best number in the show will be Lena Horne's sweet enunciation of the haunting `Where or When,'" the New York Times reviewer wrote, while Newsweek reported, "Lena Horne... brings the film to its toes with her vocalization of `Where or When' and `The Lady is a Tramp.'" Horne had numerous fans on the Words and Music set, too. In her autobiography There Really Was a Hollywood, Janet Leigh recalls the electricity while filming Horne's scenes at the nightclub surrounded by tables of extras: "Those eyes were so on fire they needed an extinguisher, that mouth passionately caressed each word, each syllable. She was dynamite. It wasn't in the script but the `audience' spontaneously responded with a standing ovations."

Also earning high marks from fans and critics alike was Judy Garland, appearing as herself, too. She first sings solo the showstopper "Johnny One Note," and then duets with familiar screen partner Rooney in "I Wish I Were in Love Again." The tune had been cut from the original score of the 1939 Garland-Rooney hit Babes in Arms because it was considered then too sophisticated. Leigh writes in her autobiography that crowds of people arrived on the set the morning Garland was scheduled to appear for a glimpse of the superstar. But they had a long wait. "Normally, Mickey would have boiled over, but he was only calm and patient. He knew, I guess most knew (except me), that Judy had been going through one of her rough periods and was having trouble pulling herself together. Around eleven o'clock [producer Arthur Freed] escorted Miss Garland to the stage, where she was greeted like royalty."

Rooney, himself, wrote in his autobiography Life Is Too Short that he wasn't very dependable while making Words and Music, either. It was his last picture under contract to MGM, and he was going out at night and drinking heavily with a crowd led by bandleader Tommy Dorsey. His hangovers got so bad he started skipping work on Mondays to help recover. "Our old friend [director] Norman Taurog shot around me and Judy. It was a wonder that the picture went only $140,000 over budget."

Words and Music also features the first full-length modern ballet piece in a Hollywood movie. Choreographed and danced by Gene Kelly, with Vera-Ellen as his partner, "Slaughter on Tenth Avenue" provided the show-stopping seven-minute finale to the film. Originally appearing in the Rodgers and Hart Broadway musical comedy On Your Toes, the music was used by Kelly to tell the story via dance of a sad love affair on the New York streets. Vera-Ellen always considered it the best work of her Hollywood career.

Like many biographical movies, Words and Music glosses over the real lives and relationship between Rodgers and Hart, the men behind the clever words and brilliant music of so many songs. But with the abundance of hits by the duo in the movie - such as "I Married an Angel," "Blue Moon," and "Thou Swell" - "one gladly forgives the story - which doesn't matter," as the Hollywood Reporter noted.

Producer: Arthur Freed
Director: Norman Taurog
Screenplay: Guy Bolton, Ben Feiner, Jr., Fred F. Finklehoffe, Jean Holloway
Cinematography: Charles Rosher, Harry Stradling, Sr.
Film Editing: Albert Akst, Ferris Webster
Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons, Jack Martin Smith
Music: Richard Rodgers
Cast: Mickey Rooney (Lorenz Hart), Perry Como (Eddie Lorrison Anders), Tom Drake (Richard Rodgers), Ann Sothern (Joyce Harmon), Cyd Charisse (Margo Grant), Betty Garrett (Peggy Lorgan McNeil).
C-122m. Closed captioning.

by Amy Cox

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