Tuesday, February 03, 2009
Words and Music (1948)
In an excellent piece in Bright Lights Film Journal, Alan Vanneman asks if Words and Music is "An Unsung Masterpiece?" The short answer is no. What it may be, however, is the ultimate drug for musical purists, those souls who genuinely do not care about plot, dialogue or any other kind of connective tissue in a musical, but instead jump from number to number. When the numbers are from Rodgers and Hart, this has its definite advantages. Along with the Gershwins, this is the team whose songs always stop the Siren in her tracks. There were others equally as fine--Porter, Berlin, Kern, oh yes--but none to surpass.
The usual knock on Words and Music involves the phrase "sanitized biopic." Why yes, the movie does neglect to mention that Lorenz Hart, tormented genius, was tormented in part because he was gay. But it isn't as though gay themes were cropping up in a number of other movies that year, and Hart alone got his subplot scrubbed. Here's the Hart biographical stuff that does make it into the movie: his alcoholism, his unreliability, his self-hatred, his feelings of ugliness, his shortness (he's played by Mickey Rooney) and his doomed attempt to get a Broadway chanteuse to marry him. All true. Even an episode toward the end, where a drunken Rooney reels around the rainy streets of Manhattan after one final opening night and catches his death, amazingly happened in a very similar way. (Although the Siren hopes that Hart did not finally collapse in front of a store selling elevator shoes, as poor Rooney is made to do here.)
Compare this total score for accuracy to Song of Scheherazade, where the filmmakers got two things right: Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov was Russian, and he composed "Scheherazade."
As for the airbrushed gay theme--the Siren thinks there are signals for the hep, as much as could be under Joe Breen's watchful eye. Check out Hart's overly dependent relationship with his mother (ah, shades of Christmas Holiday) and the singer's delicate references to gosh, just something about Hart that keeps her from marrying him.
Complaining that any MGM movie is sanitized is like yelling at Lassie for shedding. Of course it's sanitized, that's what MGM did. They took life and made it shinier. This is the studio that built a Hall of Mirrors set twice as big as the Versailles original. The real problem with the frame story is that Hart, even played by Puck, is a huge downer, only fleetingly portrayed as the witty life of the party that Hart's real-life friends remembered. The quiet, rather stuffy Richard Rodgers ("Boy Next Door" Tom Drake), robbed by the script of his legendary taste for chorus girls, can't sustain a role as a foil. Perhaps most composers and lyricists just aren't great subjects for biopics, unless they eventually went deaf or crazy.
But anyway, who in their right mind would watch this for the biographical drama? What you should want, and what you get, is Technicolor, great singing, and Robert Alton's choreography, supplemented with Gene Kelly's magnificent "Slaughter on Tenth Avenue" , the best dancing the luscious Vera-Ellen ever got to put on film.
What's that? You prefer Cyd Charisse? She's in there too, looking lovely in "On Your Toes" and spinning like a top to "Blue Room."
The Siren loves "Where or When," sung by Lena Horne. There is a melancholy feel to most Rodgers and Hart songs that is easy to overemphasize. Many singers opt for a happy surface with a tear-stained underpinning. Here, Lena flips that, the yearning right out on top, but a certain brightness underneath.
Then notice how Judy Garland takes the complicated and rather strange lyrics to "Johnny One-Note" and renders them clear as rainwater. How much does the Siren miss enunciation...
He may not be a convincing Hart, but Mickey Rooney has some great moments, too. He was one of those triple-threat entertainers who, as Pauline Kael once said about Liza Minnelli, are electrifying when all they need to be is charming. Instead of drawing a performance out of Rooney, a good director (which Norman Taurog pretty much wasn't) had to put a visor on the camera and tone him down a bit. Rooney's Words and Music scenes go back and forth between delightful and way-too-much, but his joyful, no-frills rendition of "I'll Take Manhattan" is perfect, a summary of everything that was best about him as a musical performer. And his duet with Garland (the last they ever did together), "I Wish I Were in Love Again," is almost as good.
Then you see Rooney during Mel Torme's superb rendition of "Blue Moon," doing a depressed drunk act and still managing to mug, and you realize that even if he had magically grown several inches, he was never going to fit in with the socially conscious 1950s, not even in the artier Freed-unit musicals that lay ahead.
There are many other numbers in Words and Music, including this one
which, the Siren is happy to report, is the perfect length for going down to the kitchen and whipping up a sandwich. (It isn't just June Allyson, the Siren can't stand "Thou Swell," finding it strained and cutesy in a way that Hart usually avoided.)
Ann Sothern gets a production number ("Where's That Rainbow?") that Vanneman didn't much care for, but the Siren adores it, mostly for the dancing boys behind Ann. Robert Alton was famous for individualizing the chorus--instead of a kaleidescope of identically clad, synchronized movement, his dancers stand out one by one even while they are backing the main singer. (This biographical entry reads that characteristic as "queer," an interpretation that the Siren found fascinating, although not completely convincing.)
Which brings the Siren to her favorite number, "Mountain Greenery," with a jaw-droppingly young Perry Como and a lovely dancer named Allyn McLerie. (Twenty years later, a very different kind of dancing would cause McLerie to bug out in They Shoot Horses, Don't They?) The lyrics are almost goofy, but the dancers and Como put it across with such utter, fetching sincerity that the Siren is charmed every time. To me, the dancers and singers twirling around to "down with noise and clutter, up with milk and butter " are, like the rest of Words and Music, just so utterly MGM, another step on the road to the perfection of The Band Wagon and Singin' in the Rain.