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WORDS AND MUSIC

Review by Ed Nguyen

Stars: Mickey Rooney, Tom Drake, Janet Leigh, Betty Garrett, Judy Garland, Gene Kelly, Cyd Charisse, Vera-Ellen, Lena Horne, June Allyson, Ramon and Royce Blackburn, Perry Como
Director: Norman Taurog
Audio: English monaural
Subtitles: English, French
Video: Color, full-screen
Studio: Warner Bros.
Features: Film commentary, A Life in Words and Music featurette, short and cartoon, Perry Como outtakes,  audio-only outtakes, theatrical trailer
Length: 121 minutes
Release Date: July 24, 2007

"Thou terrific!  Thou sensational!  Thou grand!"

Film *** ˝

There was once a time when the name Arthur Freed on the credits of any musical was a virtual guarantee of quality.  Freed was the top musical producer at MGM, and many of the musicals made under his creative and artistic control are now considered among the best in the genre.

The remarkable Words and Music (1948) is not usually listed among Freed's top achievements, but in terms of the voltage power of its star-studded cast and the sheer magnificence of a score filled with songs by the stellar songwriting team of Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart, this is a musical against which few others can compare.  The nearly continuous barrage of classic Rodgers & Hart tunes performed by MGM's greatest stars of the day is a dream for any musical lover, and even if the film's story is merely perfunctory (and an outright fabrication of Hollywood lore), the film remains memorable for its musical numbers. 

In general, Words and Music is a fictional account of the lives and careers of Rodgers & Hart.  It is a musical biopic in the tradition of such films as The Great Ziegfield, Yankee Doodle Dandy, and Till the Clouds Roll By.  The typical musical biopic of the day did not integrate music into the story very well but rather served as a platform for its musical numbers, frequently compressing the timeline and rewriting actual history in the process.  Words and Music follows this same formula and as a result suffers from the same general flaws.  But where the story may falter, the musical numbers never fail to impress!

The real team of Rodgers & Hart was a Broadway sensation.  Rodgers composed the music for which Hart would create some of the wittiest song lyrics ever penned.  Together, the pair enjoyed a string of stage hits during the 1920's and 1930's.  Their Hollywood career was not as successful but did still produce some classic tunes (such as "Blue Moon").  Still, there was a dark side to the team as particularly personified by Lorenz Hart.  By the 1940's, Hart's personal demons had driven the two men to end their long-term collaboration, Rodgers to form an immortal songwriting partnership with Oscar Hammerstein II and Hart to simply fade away into sad obscurity.

The real Lorenz Hart was a repressed and tormented individual - a brilliant lyricist but a man insecure about his own physical appearance and sexuality.  His personal problems eventually led him to alcoholism and a premature death in 1943 from pneumonia.  Such an individual would seem an interesting and ideal subject for any drama but hardly a happy musical such like Words and Music.  To tone down the story, MGM opted to fabricate a fictional backstory for Lorenz Hart.  Incredibly, the studio also cast the top-reigning Hollywood star of the era, Mickey Rooney, to further reinforce the film's desired light-hearted tone.  Rooney was a chipper, happy-go-lucky personality, hardly the image projected by the morose Hart.  Nevertheless, for MGM's new biopic, the lyricist's personal despondence would now simply be a reaction to his inability to grow taller as well as to the failure of his relationship with fictional girlfriend Peggy (Betty Garrett).  To complement this love story, another maudlin subplot was crafted for Richard Rodgers (Tom Drake) and the real future Mrs. Dorothy Rodgers (a young Janet Leigh).

Words and Music follows the career of Rodgers & Hart (but mostly Hart) from the team's early struggles to the triumphs and lastly to a tribute for Hart when his health falters.  The film is quite jovial for the most part, although there is a touch of pathos and melodrama during the last twenty minutes of the film.  Overall however, Words and Music does not allow its brief dialogue and obligatory narrative interludes to linger very long before proceeding to the next show-stopping musical number.

And without a doubt, Words and Music's true raison-ętre is to be a virtual showcase for some of the best show tunes ever created.  Think of this film as a sequel to MGM's own The Ziegfield Follies but with some semblance of a storyline.  Rooney and Drake perform a charming duet of "Manhattan."  A rather stiff and wooden Perry Como, in a rare film appearance, gets his lion's share of tunes, including "Mountain Greenery" and "Blue Room."  There is a velvety rendition of "Blue Moon" by Mel Torme.  On the brighter side, there is a perky number for "Where's That Rainbow?" and an even cheerier "On Your Toes" ballet sequence with a young Cyd Charisse, who appears in quite a few other musical numbers herself.  The best show-stopper is surely the thoroughly delightful 'Thou Swell" medieval number between June Allyson and the Blackbird twins.

There are also a pair of knockout performances by Lena Horne in "Where or When" and "The Lady is a Tramp."  Astute viewers will note that her numbers feel quite isolated from the rest of the film, the reasons for which are revealed in the documentary included elsewhere on this disc.

And what top-tier MGM musical would be complete without a cameo by Judy Garland?  During Words and Music's production, Garland had just finished the soon-to-be smash hit Easter Parade with Fred Astaire and smash flop The Pirate with Gene Kelly.  Not surprisingly she was a bit fatigued.  Still, Garland was a trooper, and one simply cannot have Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland together in a film without a duet, in this case the very amusing "I Wish I Were in Love Again."  Test screenings proved so uniform in their praise for this number that Judy Garland was brought back during post-production to record another number for the film, a knockout performance of "Johnny One Note."  Coincidentally, both songs were originally cut from Babes in Arms, an earlier Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland musical!

Words and Music's most innovative number, however, has to be its Gene Kelly-choreographed ballet, the sensual and poignant Slaughter on Tenth Avenue.  Co-starring new dance sensation Vera-Ellen in her MGM debut, this ballet almost certainly influenced subsequent Gene Kelly fantasy sequences in An American in Paris, Singin' in the Rain, and Invitation to the Dance.

Words and Music concludes with a montage of the images and show numbers from the film, weaved into a reprise of "With a Song in My Heart" by Perry Como.  While these final images are meant to be a tribute to the genius of Lorenz Hart, they close the film on a down note.  Nevertheless, a few moments of melancholy is acceptable, given the nearly two fabulous hours of song and dance which precede this finale.

This film may not be the innovative and artistic triumph of such later Arthur Freed productions as The Band Wagon, Gigi, or Singin' in the Rain, but it is a wondrous showcase for Rodgers & Hart tunes.  Many of these tunes have never been performed to greater effect in any other film.  So, ignore the story and enjoy the music!

BONUS TRIVIA:  Norman Taurog, a veteran director of numerous musicals including Words and Music, would later direct many Elvis Presley musicals as well!

Video *** ˝

Words and Music benefits from the glorious and vibrant colors of the Technicolor process.  This is a film that really leaps off the screen.  Of course, it suffers from the usual flaws of the process as well, such as mild color bleeding and an image clarity that is not as sharp as that seen in newer films.  Still, these are minor flaws, and aside from a few age-related dust specks and spots, Words and Music looks very good for a Technicolor film.

Audio ***

The film is presented in the original English monaural sound.  There are some fabulous standard tunes from the Rodgers & Hart repertoire, and truly, these segments of the film will be what most viewers will gravitate to time and again.  Thank goodness for chapter stops!

Features *** ˝

This Words and Music disc is one of five included in the box set Classic Musicals from the Dream Factory, Vol. 2.  This particular disc is one of the set's standout offerings and can also be purchased separately should viewers opt not to buy the entire set itself.

Among the bonus features on-disc are a commentary by film historian Richard Barrios.  He examines the real-life story of Rodgers & Hart in comparison to its fictionalization in Words and Music.  The commentary gleams over many true tidbits about Rodgers & Hart, their approach to songwriting, and their public and private lives.  Barrios also offers many trivial facts about the delightfully endless parade of musical stars in the film and gives background information on the songs performed in this film.

A Life in Words and Music (20 min.) provides a counterpoint to the fictional depiction of Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart's lives and careers in Words and Music.  Watch the film for entertaining Hollywood whitewash, then watch this featurette for a more realistic portrayal and more accurate chronology of the brilliant but troubled songwriting team's career on stage and film.

Also included are a pair of MGM shorts; these shorts have nothing in common with Words and Music other than also being MGM releases from 1948.  First is the Oscar-nominated Going to Blazes! (20 min.) about life for busy firemen as they fight fires, perform drills, maintain their equipment, and encourage public safety measures.  The other short is the funny Tex Avery cartoon The Cat That Hated People (6 min.)

Many MGM musicals during this period routinely shortened or entirely deleted their musical numbers for time consideration.  A few such outtakes (32 min.) from Words and Music are offered here.  A few performances by Perry Como are featured - "Lover" (the original intended opening number) and four versions of "You're Nearer."  Audio-only outtakes are also included for "Falling in Love with Love," "I Feel at Home with You," "My Funny Valentine," "My Heart Stood Still," and "Way Out West on West End Avenue."  There are even extended audio-only versions of "Manhattan" and "On Your Toes."  While not identified on these tracks, some of the featured performers on these songs appear to be Gene Kelly, Mickey Rooney, June Allyson, and Perry Como.

Lastly, there is a vintage if faded theatrical trailer; compare this to the actual film to observe the stellar restoration performed upon the film elements for Words and Music.

Summary:

Words and Music's story simply provides a basic framework for its numerous song and dance sequences, but in terms of sheer musical pedigree, no other film remotely approaches Words and Music's astounding parade of classic Rodgers & Hart tunes.  Highly recommended for musical fans!

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