Throughout the 40s MGM released several of these thinly veiled revue films disguised as (highly fictionalized) biographies of famous composers. This one tackles Lorenz Hart and Richard Rogers, and the dramatics connecting the musical numbers is positively inert, which is a shame since Mickey Rooney could be a highly effective performer if utilized correctly. The one reason to check out Words and Music are the musical performers doing great variations on the Rodgers and Hart songbook.
Words and Music is an odd bird in this brief sub-genre of musicals, opening with Tom Drake in character as Richard Rodgers addressing the audience, breaking the fourth wall, and proceeding to narrate the film’s series of events. Drake, while tall and handsome, is a bland performer, saddled with an even blander character. Words and Music will never be accused of sticking too closely to the facts, but it’s full-scale inventions aren’t improvements or even dramatically interesting. Rodgers was an enigma of a man, intensely private, but here he’s a blank space, an empty vacuum.
In contrast is Mickey Rooney as Lorenz Hart, a better character, but Rooney needed a steady guiding hand to form his manic energy into a coherent performance. Moments here and there demonstrate how effectively he could be, but the whole is formless and vague. Granted, no one should expect a film from this era to tackle Hart’s homosexuality, but replacing it with a serious case of short-man syndrome is just another strange choice in the series of strange dramatic choices that the film makes. Clothing and hair styles, period accuracy, or an accuracy to the chronology of the works – none of that matters, and little attention is paid towards it.
No matter, Words and Music is still worth a watch for the various performers tackling the Rodgers and Hart songbook. June Allyson is pleasant and adorable in a version of “Thou Swell” that sees her being fought over by two handsome knights. A lovely ballet from Cyd Charisse and Dee Turnell to “This Can’t Be Love” is a dreamy confectionary treat.
Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland team-up for their final on-screen duet in “I Wish I Were in Love Again.” Rooney and Garland bring out the best in each other, and their duet is a playful symphony between two old friends. It feels like two performers trying to please themselves and each other by pulling faces and making each other laugh, and it translates to an absolute highlight for the audience.
High marks also go to Lena Horne in a nightclub sequence where she performs two numbers back-to-back. “Where or When” is all slow burning intensity, she gives the song a dramatic reading that made the song a very popular addition to later live shows. “The Lady Is a Tramp” is even better, a playful gas in which Horne does some nimble dance moves, plays with her dress, and delivers the lyrics with a knowing wink and a tongue planted firmly in her cheek. She looks positively radiant in this section, wearing a white gown adorned with pink and purple accessories, and proves that she didn’t need a lot of bells and whistles to make a large impression in a film loaded with top-tier talent.
While the dramatic passages are grandly indifferent, Words and Music gives us a grand climatic moment in “Slaughter on Tenth Avenue.” One of the first grand, hyper-kinetic jazz ballets from Gene Kelly, “Slaughter” sees Kelly and Vera-Ellen dancing up a storm for seven straight minutes. It’s a grand bit of movie-making, reminding us of the power and punch of the movie musical. This is a little piece of cinematic heaven. No wonder Kelly highlighted this sequence in his career highlights.
But then the film goes one for another twenty minutes or so after this logical conclusion, without another musical sequence to match it. Words and Music is probably one of the better, maybe the best, of these weird, sanitized loosely biographical films about composers despite its numerous flaws. All of that lands squarely on the strength of the music and the various performers bringing them to vivid life. Shame something couldn’t be done about the wrap-around stuff.