Friday 27 December 2013

Movie Review: Three Little Words (1950)

A biography of the Bert Kalmar - Harry Ruby songwriting team, Three Little Words is an infectiously bubbly celebration of musical creativity and friendship.

It's the early 1900s, and Bert Kalmar (Fred Astaire) forms a successful vaudeville dance partnership with Jessie Brown (Vera-Ellen). Kalmar is full of show business ideas and ambition, and wants to also prove himself as a magician. Harry Ruby (Red Skelton) is a piano plugger, wannabe baseball player, and struggling to get his music writing noticed. The two have a disastrous first encounter, with Harry inadvertently wrecking Bert's magic show.

A backstage accident injures Bert's knee, forcing him to temporarily retire from dancing. Another fortuitous meeting with Harry results in their writing a hit song, Bert providing the lyrics to Harry's music. A series of hit songs follow, and the partnership grows to include stage shows and movie soundtracks. The men also develop a deep friendship, Harry helping Bert and Jessie to reconnect and get married, while Bert and Jessie together save Harry from a series of disastrous relationships before he finally settles down with screen star Eileen Percy (Arlene Dahl). But every friendship has its rough spots, and Bert and Harry have disagreements that seriously threaten their partnership.

A perfectly constructed film, Three Little Words is one of the more underrated classic musicals. Finding an impeccable balance between dancing, singing, comedy and story, the movie just simply works as a seamless whole. Within the packed 100 minute running length, director Richard Thorpe gives each element of the film its proper due, and the result is an experience with just the right ingredients mixed in just the appropriate amounts.

Astaire and Vera-Ellen are a formidable dance team. She is full of balletic energy and fluid leggy seductiveness as she partners Astaire in the classic Where Did You Get That Girl? and the much more modern and thoroughly delightful Mr. and Mrs. Hoofer At Home. She then goes it alone with Come On, Papa before they team up again the the beautifully dreamy Thinking Of You.

The songs are just as good, and Three Little Words explores that always mystical and sometime frustrating process of creating a successful song. Sometimes every word is a struggle, while at other times inspiration just descends in the middle of the night. My Sunny TennesseeSo Long, OO-LongWho's Sorry Now? (sung by Gloria DeHaven), Nevertheless (I'm in Love with You), and I Wanna Be Loved by You (featuring one of Debbie Reynolds' earliest performances as the boop-boop-a-doop girl Helen Kane) are all featured. And the film's running joke is Bert's long-term inability to find lyrics to a simple Harry tune, which finally ends up being Three Little Words.

The George Wells screenplay effortlessly weaves the song and dance numbers into the story, and keeps them short and sharp. The result is that rare movie in which the music only enhances the narrative, without unnecessarily interrupting or delaying it. At its heart Three Little Words never forgets that this is a story about a friendship and a partnership between two real people, and the relationship is portrayed with all the magic moments and troubled patches that emerge when two men work closely together over the decades.

The presence of Skelton adds a natural dose of comedy, Harry portrayed as a well-meaning, positive personality, but susceptible to getting himself into trouble. Astaire gets to dance, sing and act in one his most well-rounded performances, while Keenan Wynn provides his reliable support as Bert's agent Charlie Kope.

Greatness arrives in modest packages. The words may be little, but the success is large.

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