Monday, April 17, 2006

Eight Little Letters That Simply Mean "I Love You"

The DVD Savant has a nice review of Three Little Words,, one of the little overlooked gems among the MGM musicals, and one of the few musical bio-pics that actually works.

The film is a nice example of the special virtues of producer Jack Cummings, who didn't have the lavish budgets or the cachet of MGM's star producer, Arthur Freed. Cummings, best known as L.B. Mayer's nephew, didn't do the big Oscar-winning musicals; he produced modest-sized musicals for modestly-famous stars like Red Skelton and Eleanor Powell. But his musicals, from his first (Born to Dance), to his last (Viva Las Vegas) are always amusing and likable, and never pretensious the way Freed's could be; he created a framework that allowed performers to do what they did best, and provided opportunities for fun performers who Freed didn't tend to use, like Gloria DeHaven and Buddy Ebsen. Cummings also seemed to have better taste in original songs than Freed did; compare the great score Cummings commissioned for Seven Brides For Seven Brothers (1954) to the weak score Freed used in his big production of the following year, It's Always Fair Weather.

Three Little Words blows away all Freed's overstuffed, overblown attempts at biographies of songwriters, and this despite -- or perhaps because of -- the fact that it's about relatively obscure songwriters. Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby, a team best known for their work for the Marx Brothers (they were, in Animal Crackers, Horse Feathers and Duck Soup, basically the only team that could write a good in-character song for Groucho; even Arlen and Harburg's "Lydia the Tattooed Lady" seems generic by comparison with their material), wrote rather simple, even simplistic songs, hardly the great catalogue that was available to Freed when he made his bio-pics of Kern or Rodgers and Hart. But Cummings, writer George Wells and director Richard Thorpe turn this to their advantage by making the musical numbers as light, simple and pleasant as the songs themselves; instead of huge sets and big gimmicks, it's just some great performers -- mostly Fred Astaire and Vera-Ellen -- doing their stuff on a stage. The script doesn't try to attach any huge significance to these people's lives and careers; it's just a series of funny scenes about how a songwriting team gets together, briefly breaks up, and then gets together again in the end. Add in a relatively restrained Red Skelton, the superhumanly beautiful Arlene Dahl, and reliable supporting performers like Keenan Wynn and the young Debbie Reynolds (dubbed by Helen Kane doing her "boop-boop-ee-doop" routine in "I Wanna Be Loved By You"), and you have one of the most entertaining "little" musicals ever made, one that Astaire reportedly preferred above many of his bigger-budgeted films.

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