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Synopsis: 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.
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by Glenn Erickson