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Warner Home Video presents
Bert: I wouldn't write that song with you if you begged me.
DVD ReviewSongwriters Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby never achieved the same renown as contemporaries Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, and Jerome Kern, but thanks to MGM's musical biopic, Three Little Words, today's audiences often assume they did. The toast of Tin Pan Alley during the 1920s and '30s, the duo penned a number of catchy tunes—standards like Who's Sorry Now?, Nevertheless, All Alone Monday, and that boop-boop-a-doop ditty, I Wanna Be Loved By You—but lacked the élan of more sophisticated Broadway composers. To its credit, this charming, nostalgic musical doesn't sugarcoat that fact, and paints the pair as very much a product and reflection of their time. Like all Hollywood songwriter biographies, the film fabricates a few episodes in their lives for dramatic and comedic effect, but Three Little Words rarely lets us forget that Kalmar and Ruby were just two regular guys who happened to team up and write a bunch of hit songs. And it's much the stronger because of it.
Three Little Words easily could have been a run-of-the-mill, forgettable musical, but the participation of Fred Astaire transforms it into a classy affair. As the cranky Kalmar, a vaudeville hoofer who also harbors a secret desire to be a magician, he gets a chance to both dance and clown (sometimes simultaneously), while Red Skelton, as the genial Ruby (a "song-plugger" and baseball fanatic), blessedly keeps his mugging to a minimum, and as a result, files one of his best portrayals. Together, this odd couple creates a warm, comfortable chemistry that helps sustain the film during its frequent narrative lulls.
After a knee injury curtails his dancing career, Kalmar turns to lyric-writing, and when he overhears one of Ruby's melodies in a music publisher's office, he volunteers to supply the words. The song becomes a hit, and thus begins a rocky partnership marked by periodic bouts of bickering, personal meddling, and a string of musical successes, all of which seem to be written in the blink of an eye. (If one believes Hollywood's depiction, songwriting is hands-down the world's easiest profession.) The only tune that gives them any trouble is, of course, the title song, and Kalmar's futile efforts to come up with a suitable lyric becomes a running gag.
Three Little Words is essentially a buddy film, with only a hint of romantic conflict disrupting the composers' lives. In one of cinema's quickest boy-gets-girl/boy-loses-girl/boy-gets-girl-back plots, Kalmar courts and marries his long-time dancing partner Jessie Brown (Vera-Ellen), and Ruby—after a parade of domineering girlfriends—hooks up with actress Eileen Percy (Arlene Dahl). (In real life, Percy barely registered a blip on Hollywood's radar screen, but in Three Little Words, she winds up a major musical star.) Other plot points are largely trivial, as most of the movie chronicles the team's squabbles, which mask—but never destroy—their underlying bond.
Like the music it showcases, the film's strength lies in its simplicity. Director Richard Thorpe is no Vincente Minnelli, and in this case, that's a good thing. Never does he allow Three Little Words to go overboard with garish production numbers or unnecessary melodrama; Thorpe keeps the film on track, efficiently telling the slight story and seamlessly integrating Kalmar and Ruby's musical catalog. Astaire and choreographer Hermes Pan follow his lead by shunning the gimmicky special effects they employed in Easter Parade and The Barkleys of Broadway, and keeping the numbers faithful to vaudeville. Consequently, we can marvel at Astaire's talent without the distraction of any technical wizardry.
None of the dances are worthy of inclusion in That's Entertainment, but they're still fresh and lively, and executed with Astaire's trademark precision. Though Vera-Ellen could be a lovely ballerina, the story of Three Little Words keeps her exclusively in tap shoes, so she can hoof it alongside her on-screen husband. Whether in the opening Where Did You Get That Girl? (in which she and Astaire don matching tuxedos) or the adorably perky Mr. and Mrs. Hoofer at Home, she acquits herself well, and shines in her solo spot, Come On, Papa. Gloria DeHaven supplies a heartfelt rendition of Who's Sorry Now? (a song introduced by her own mother, Mrs. Carter De Haven—herself a major Broadway star), but it's 18-year-old Debbie Reynolds who nearly walks away with the picture as Helen Kane, the boop-boop-a-doop girl who turned I Wanna Be Loved By You into a major hit. (Kane reprises her performance by dubbing Reynolds vocals in the film.)
Three Little Words is hardly a jewel in MGM's musical crown, but it's solid entertainment from beginning to end, and makes a fine addition to the library of any musical aficionado.
Rating for Style: B+
Rating for Substance: B-
Image Transfer Review: From the moment the opening credits roll, it's obvious Warner has once again fashioned a top-flight transfer bursting with well-saturated color and marvelous clarity. The brilliant hues of Technicolor look dense and vibrant, though a few brief instances of fading remind us of the film's mortality. Sharp lines, however, prevent any bleeding—and help accentuate the excellent contrast levels—and only a few errant blotches dot the print.
Image Transfer Grade: A-
Audio Transfer Review: The original mono track has received a shot in the arm from Warner technicians, and provides distinct, distortion-free audio. Dialogue is always clear and comprehendible, and the musical numbers benefit from a robust dynamic range and lovely fullness of tone. Any pops, crackles, or hiss have been removed, leaving us with sparkling sound that beautifully complements the lush visuals.
Audio Transfer Grade: B+
Disc ExtrasStatic menu with music
Scene Access with 30 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, French, Spanish with remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
Packaging: generic plastic keepcase
Layers Switch: 22m:02s
Creeping sands, crystal blue lakes, cherry trees, and unspoiled wildlife distinguish the nine-minute vintage short, Roaming Through Michigan, part of James A. FitzPatrick's long-running Traveltalk series. The leisurely state tour is followed by the amusing Tex Avery cartoon, Ventriloquist Cat, in which a sadistic dog-hating cat drives his canine enemy nuts with magic tricks, and Paula Stone's Hollywood USA radio promo, which refreshingly trades typical Hollywood ballyhoo for informal conversation á la Oprah. The 11-minute program brings us to MGM's Stage 9 for a visit with Astaire and Harry Ruby. Ruby discusses his passion for baseball, days as a song-plugger, and lovingly remembers his late partner, Bert Kalmar, while Astaire talks about his outside interests, co-star Vera-Ellen, and how Stone's sister, Dorothy, danced with him during the original Broadway production of The Gay Divorce.
The film's original theatrical trailer, which includes the presentation of Astaire's 1949 special Oscar for "raising the standard of all musical pictures," rounds out the extras package.
Extras Grade: B+
Final CommentsThree Little Words may not be as splashy as most Hollywood songwriter biopics, but it's equally entertaining and far less bloated. Astaire and Skelton make a fine team, and the lilting Kalmar-Ruby score—which may not ring a bell with today's viewers—keeps the mood light and airy. Warner's luscious transfer and customary spate of interesting extras makes this an attractive disc that's sure to delight even casual musical fans.
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