Before Rodgers and Hammerstein, there was Rodgers and Hart: Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart, that is, the popular Depression-era songwriting duo responsible for a bevy of songs now commonly accepted as American cultural currency—”Blue Moon,” “The Lady is a Tramp,” and “My Funny Valentine” included, among many others. Their sometimes prolific, sometimes turbulent partnership is the focus of the 1948 musical comedy, Words and Music, starring Tom Drake as Rodgers and Mickey Rooney as Hart. Though many of their most famous songs embody a kind of wistful, depressive nature, and their partnership ended on uncertainly unhappy terms, this film is highly sanitized depiction, and really uses only the most basic elements of the real-life story. Any weaknesses in the plot, though, are ably enhanced by some fun dance numbers from an exceptional array of guest stars and cameos brought in to celebrate the pair.
The movie is full of familiar faces, including Janet Leigh and Betty Garrett as the guys’ two love interests (though Garrett’s character is decidedly NOT interested), and Perry Como as their recurring leading man. Other guest stars include Lena Horne, who does a jazzy rendition of “The Lady is a Tramp,” Mel Tormé, singing “Blue Moon,” and Cyd Charisse, who dances two numbers, “Blue Room” and “Up On Your Toes.” I also particularly enjoyed the fun “Mountain Greenery,” which features Como and Allyn McLerie in a rousingly rural scene.
One of the numbers was immortalized in the first edition of That’s Entertainment: “Thou Swell,” from the Rodgers and Hart musical A Connecticut Yankee. It’s a sweet, simply staged scene, with June Allyson caught trying to decide between the Blackburn twins in a medieval kingdom. It’s not choreographed in any particularly innovative way, but the dancing is perfectly fluid and smooth, making it look effortless. It’s a nice, near-maddeningly catchy tune and features much of Rodgers’ fun, distinctive wordplay and rhyming.
The stand-out number for me was definitely the ballet piece, “Slaughter on Tenth Avenue,” featuring Gene Kelly and Vera-Ellen. It’s a jolt of slinky, sexy energy into an otherwise squeaky clean picture, but it ends up being an appropriate transition for the impending darkness of the film’s conclusion. This was one of Gene’s first attempts at introducing ballet to mainstream audiences on the movie screen, and it’s a fabulous, evocative piece of dance.
Words and Music also became notable because it would be the final on screen pairing of Rooney with old pal Judy Garland. She appears in only a few scenes, so it’s a nice surprise, though bittersweet—this was a dark time in Judy’s life and career, and it’s apparent that she’s not in the best of shape here. She spends most of the scene sitting down, and in a few instances where she must stand, Rooney seems to steady her with a protective hand at her back. Though she must have been utterly exhausted at this point, she does put on a great performance, as always. It’s said that Louis B. Mayer offered her the opportunity to perform in the film partly in order to help her pay her mounting medical bills, and sadly, within a month or two of filming her scenes for Words and Music, Arthur Freed would suspend Garland’s contract at MGM. Even without knowing the exact history, or where exactly the film fit into her life’s timeline when watching it, I still felt a certain sadness to her performance that was tough to ignore, so I’d imagine Judy aficionados must have an even rougher time.
Though the film ignores a lot of the real-life tragedy that befell Rodgers and Hart, it still ends on a sad, respectful note. Perhaps glossing over the reality of their day-to-day lives was, in the end, a more appropriate tribute to the two men who so aptly captured love and loss in their songs—letting their work take the stage and speak for itself, instead of focusing on describing exactly how it came to be.