"Words & Music"

“Words and Music” is an MGM musical of 1948 that chronicles the lives of the composer Richard Rodgers and his lyricist Lorenz Hart from when they met to when Hart died in 1943. It is one of a series of films, biopics, that depicted American popular composers, partly in order to provide the occasion for elaborate production numbers, hang whether they got the biography straight. Each of these borrowed from the others and altered the biography to make it more acceptable. George Gershwin’s 1945 biography “Rhapsody in Blue” provided him with a girlfriend who it was never clear why he did not marry her, when, in truth, he had many girl friends. Gershwin’s movie also provides the ending for the Rodgers and Hart biopic. A lead character dies, and you go through an elaborate death scene, Mickey Rooney, as Hart, dying as many times as Wagner’s Isolde. “Words and Music” also borrows the idea of using a post death gala as a way to sum up the accomplishments of the fallen musician, just as had happened with Oscar Levant playing “Rhapsody in Blue” at a concert soon after Gershwin’s death. The Jerome Kern biopic, “Till the Clouds Roll By”, made in 1946, is not so fortunate in its ending because its hero was not yet dead and so the movie had to settle for a long series of production numbers featuring any number of MGM stars singing Kern’s greatest hits, though the picture shoe horns in at the beginning a highly abbreviated version of “Show Boat”, Kern’s masterpiece, his signature musical, and the climax of the musical tribute to Kern is Frank Sinatra, wearing a double breasted cream tuxedo, singing “Ole Man River” in front of a full orchestra. The Cole Porter biopic “Night and Day”, also from 1946, does not allude to his homosexuality, but also has memorable production numbers and “Words and Music” does not allude to the fact that the cause of Hart’s discomfort in the world may have been that he was a closet homosexual rather than just subject to headaches that come from nowhere.  

There is something about “Words and Music” that captures my imagination, or maybe only appeals to my nostalgia for a time, that of its composition rather than the time it covers, that I dimly remember. Everything about the movie is 1948, all the numbers put into the style of set decoration popular then, and all the costumes also 1948 like, in that they are art moderne of the sort found in Rockefeller Plaza, here in part the single flower that is placed on a pastel colored dress given Lena Horne to wear. There is a brief use of coffee cups to serve liquor in the Twenties but chronology is unimportant, shows presented out of order and some of the great ones, like “Pal Joey”, neglected altogether. So I return to my question of why I find “Words and Music” so poignant. 

Trotting out the MGM parade of stars makes a point. They are not just there because MGM had them under contract and so had to find a way to use them. They establish the frame of what these biopic movies are. The stars are the idols of show business, people who are deep as well as glamorous, Irving Berlin in that same year of 1948 immortalizing that idea in “There’s No Business Like Show Business” in his musical, “Annie Get Your Gun”.  A phalanx of stars is a way to treat popular arts, like musicals and movies, as kind of the high art of America, to take the place of symphonies and the novels that more and more appeared to be merely the source material for movies. Everybody in America knew who these people were and the musical, more than even jazz, was the American art form. French film makers envied the elaborate production values that American movies could afford. 

Trotting out those stars also allows a back turned eye to see where each of these people were in the arc of their careers. There were new people, like Perry Como and the young, not yet slim Cyd Charisse, Como to make it big not as a movie star but as a recording star and the host of a television program. Ann Sothern and June Powell put in their appearances doing numbers from one or another Rodgers and Hart musicals. Janet Leigh is early in her career and plays Rodgers’ wife as a rock steady bourgeois wife alongside a deliberately rather wooden Tom Drake as Richard Rodgers. It is striking to see an artist portrayed as such a reliable guy. In “Three Little Words”, on the other hand, a biopic made by MGM only two years later about the lesser team of Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby, there are also a lot of stars but both of the songwriters are portrayed as quirky sorts held down to earth by their sensible wives. 

Ann Sothern and June Powell are part of the MGM stable who also put in appearances in ”Words and Music” doing numbers from one or another Rodgers and Hart musicals. Nothing noteworthy there. But Lena Horne, who sings two Rodgers and Hart songs, was at the height of her beauty and MGM had not figured out what to do with her after having made a name for her by having her star in an all black musical, “Stormy Weather”, in 1943. They missed their chance some five years later when they considered casting her as Julie in the remake of “Showboat”, but thought that too dangerous and so passed her over for Ava Gardner as the mulatto singer banished from the showboat when her race became an issue. Although it would probably have still alienated Southerners and so lost the movie its appearance in a number of Southern States, and would also probably not have occurred to Kern or Hammerstein or to Edna Ferber, who authored the novel on which the show was based, it would have given a fresh twist to the story line. Rather than someone who passes as white, Lena Horne as Julie would have clearly been someone who was black and who depended on people not taking that as disqualifying, and so the beneficiary of a conspiracy in her favor, something a 1953 audience might have found very daring and also praiseworthy, given their own evolving feelings about race.

Judy Garland, the great doyen of MGM sings a duet with Mickey Rooney, which recalls their years together as youngsters on the MGM lot. She is also caught in the middle of her own story. Garland had labored at MGM for a decade, constantly on diet pills while turning out hit after hit,  and was showing some wear and tear. She looks puffy and drawn at the same time, though not as much as later on in her career, and without the mannerisms that some in her audience found charming and I always found neurotic. (Rooney, by the way, in spite of all the other stars recruited for the movie, steals the picture as Hart. He is, as they say, the one you are always looking at and want to keep coming back on the screen.)

There is another theme, like death, that seems obligatory in all of these biopics of the period, even as a ballet would become obligatory in a musical for a while as something that just had to be there. That theme is love. Every story revolves not about the man and his music but the love of his life. Rodgers finds true happiness and his friend does not, though for reasons never explained. The kicker about love in these biopics is that not just women have to find their man; men are incomplete if they do not find their true loves. Everything else, including making great music, is just something to pass the time before and after falling in love. I think these movies are declaring, in a way, the end of a double standard that precedes the breakdown of the double standard by which women are to remain chaste before finding wedded bliss and, otherwise, are tragic figures, like Camille, or coarsened by being fallen women. Here both men and women have to be open to having their hearts broken, and nothing has happened since to break that pledge. These movies therefore display a heartfelt idealism of a certain sort that is matched by a show business long on good feeling and good cheer, performers never less than ebullient when they are on stage, and so creating a jolt when they settle down to be their ordinary, off-stage selves. This is a far cry from the moodiness of an Elvis Presley in the Fifties or the somber tone of Bob Dylan in the Sixties. Maybe that is what I want to recapture.