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Words and Music

Words and Music
Warner DVD
1948 / Color / 1:37 flat full frame / 121 min. / Street Date July 24, 2007 / 19.98; also available in the Classic Musicals from the Dream Factory, Vol. 2, with The Pirate, That's Dancing, The Belle of New York & Royal Wedding and That Midnight Kiss & The Toast of New Orleans
Starring: June Allyson, Perry Como, Judy Garland, Lena Horne, Gene Kelly, Mickey Rooney, Ann Sothern, Tom Drake, Cyd Charisse, Betty Garrett, Janet Leigh, Marshall Thompson, Mel Tormé, Vera-Ellen, Jeanette Nolan, Richard Quine
Cinematography Charles Rosher, Harry Stradling Sr.
Art Direction Cedric Gibbons, Jack Martin Smith
Film Editor Albert Akst, Ferris Webster
Written by Fred F. Finklehoffe story by Guy Bolton and Jean Holloway
Produced by Arthur Freed
Directed by Norman Taurog

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Some of the most popular MGM musicals from the late 40s - early 50s heyday were not musical comedies or Broadway adaptations but variety shows disguised as biographies of popular composers and songwriters. 1948's Words and Music is an expensive Arthur Freed production featuring top Metro musical talent. "The Biggest Musical!" proclaims the poster copy, showing off seven star names as disembodied heads.

The musical biography format charts a star's rise to fame and fortune interrupted by personal heartbreaks that only add to the poignancy of their work. As explained by author Richard Barrios, the music makers immortalized in these films didn't come from backgrounds of hardship, and their real personal problems were often compatible with the 'everything's rosy' requirements of the MGM musical. Lorenz Hart was a self-loathing gay man who drank himself to a tragic early death, while Richard Rodgers cautiously guarded his private life. Words and Music invents an almost entirely bogus biography for both of them.


Broadway hopefuls Richard Rodgers and Lorenz "Lorry" Hart (Tom Drake & Mickey Rooney) have difficulties finding acceptance for their innovative songs. When finally launched as a composer-lyricist duo, success rains down on them both. But their personal relationships differ greatly. Richard is lucky in love and marries Dorothy Feiner (Janet Leigh), the sister of a friend. Lorry reels from bouts of depression and becomes an erratic collaborator, disappearing at odd times.

Several of the musical numbers in Words and Music are considered classics, but the connecting biographical segments are kitsch of the highest order. Tom Drake is a bland Richard Rodgers while Mickey Rooney as Lorenz Hart is, well, Mickey Rooney. The large cast is drawn from the MGM acting stable, some of whom worked with Rodgers and Hart both in films and on Broadway. Gene Kelly, for instance, gained stardom in their musical play Pal Joey. This creates a bizarre situation in which some actors (Marshall Thompson, Cyd Charisse, Janet Leigh) are playing characters, and some (Gene Kelly, June Allyson, Vera-Ellen) play themselves. When Rooney and Garland are on screen together, they have to pretend that she's herself but Mickey is somebody else. Meanwhile, Perry Como wanders through several songs as Eddie Lorrison Anders, when we all know he's Perry Como. Audiences had to be confused.

The songwriters' career arc provides emotional cues for the film's fourteen musical numbers, a parade of sparkling Rodgers and Hart hits. Words and Music doesn't present the songs in the order they were written, and we don't see original Broadway staging or choreography. The production numbers look more or less like generic 1940s MGM work with updated dancing. A ballet corps falls out to accompany Cyd Charisse for one number, and Gene Kelly turns Slaughter on Tenth Avenue into his first major dance-narrative set piece.

A number of songs are associated with specific characters. Betty Garrett sings There's a Small Hotel at a party; Rooney demos his lyrics for Manhattan at the piano. Rooney and Garland (as Hart and Garland) entertain a party with an impromptu rendition of I Wish I Were in Love Again, a showcase for lyricist Hart's elaborate interior rhymes. Billed as himself but pretending to be a bandleader, Mel Tormé warbles Blue Moon to Lorry at the end of an all-night party. Most of the other numbers are on stage or in nightclubs: Mountain Greenery (Perry Como), Where's that Rainbow (Ann Southern) and Thou Swell (June Allyson). Lena Horne sings The Lady is a Tramp and Where or When in a stunning nightclub sequence purposely designed so that it could be cut out without harming the film's continuity: Major theaters in Southern communities would not play movies with African-American performers.

For a semi-tragic ending Words and Music has a rather foolish-looking Mickey Rooney stumble from his hospital bed and rush to the theater. The real climax, and the lasting reason for watching the movie, is Gene Kelly's Slaughter on Tenth Avenue. In the 1936 stage show On Your Toes Ray Bolger performed it in more of a comedy mode. Kelly and Vera-Ellen dance a straight seven-minutes of tour-de-force jazz ballet with some fairly strong erotic content. Audiences apparently responded enthusiastically; Kelly proudly showcased the number whenever he made a 'career highlights' personal appearance.

Warners' DVD presentation of Words and Music accurately replicates the film's overpowering Technicolor and is free of visible damage. The disc producers come through with excellent extras. Richard Barrios may be the best musical commentator yet, offering well-researched insights and a fair-minded attitude toward the film's twisted back-story. Barrios describes the frustrations encountered by the real Rodgers and Hart when they worked in Hollywood, writing scores of songs that were never used. That experience explains why the composer demanded complete artistic and business control over the film versions of his later Oscar Hammerstein hits, starting with Oklahoma! Barrios also explains the reasons behind wild continuity shifts in the film, as when, between two songs in the same scene, Judy Garland's dress and hair make a sudden radical change.

Richard Barrios also appears in Peter Fitzgerald's featurette A Life in Words and Music which lets us see what the real Rodgers and Hart looked like. Mickey Rooney briefly describes his working relationship with Judy Garland. Musical outtakes show Perry Como singing two more ultra-relaxed songs, and another menu choice leads to a full gallery of audio outtakes. In addition to an original trailer, we're given a short subject about Los Angeles firemen (directed by Gunther V. Fritsch of Curse of the Cat People) and the surreal Tex Avery cartoon The Cat that Hated People.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Words and Music rates:
Movie: Very Good
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Commentary by Richard Barrios, Featurette by Peter Fitzgerald, 2 song outtakes, audio outtake, short subject Going to Blazes!, Tex Avery cartoon The Cat that Hated People, Trailer
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: August 4, 2007

Republished by permission of Turner Classic Movies.

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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