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Warner Home Video presents
Words and Music (1948)

"Let's face it, maybe Mr. Hart's lyrics are a hit, but Mr. Hart's life is a flop."
- Lorenz Hart (Mickey Rooney)

Review By: David Krauss   
Published: August 08, 2007

Stars: June Allyson, Perry Como, Judy Garland, Lena Horne, Gene Kelly, Mickey Rooney, Ann Sothern
Other Stars: Tom Drake, Cyd Charisse, Betty Garrett, Janet Leigh, Marshall Thompson, Mel Tormé, Vera-Ellen
Director: Norman Taurog

MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (nothing objectionable)
Run Time: 02h:01m:07s
Release Date: July 24, 2007
UPC: 012569795327
Genre: musical

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
B+ B-AA- A

DVD Review

The songwriter bio craze was in full swing by the time MGM mounted Words and Music, its highly fictionalized tribute to composer Richard Rodgers and lyricist Lorenz Hart. Like its predecessors, Till the Clouds Roll By, Rhapsody in Blue, and Night and Day, this tuneful but often tedious screen treatment slathers on the schmaltz in between a cavalcade of delectable musical numbers showcasing Metro's formidable star stable. Judy Garland, Gene Kelly, Lena Horne, June Allyson, and Vera-Ellen are only a few of the top-tier personalities who drop by to sing and dance, and their sublime contributions provide a welcome respite from the film's ponderous story.

Long before Rodgers teamed up with Oscar Hammerstein, he and Hart conquered Broadway with such sophisticated hits as Babes in Arms, The Boys from Syracuse, and Pal Joey. You may not remember the shows, but the songs are immortal: Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered; Where or When; My Funny Valentine; This Can't Be Love. Both men possessed inestimable talent, but whereas Rodgers was serious, disciplined, and—if you believe Fred Finklehoffe's screenplay—rather dull, Hart was a pint-sized firecracker. At just five feet tall, the witty, effete, cigar-puffing lyricist was always the life of the party, yet his outward gregariousness masked an insecure, turbulent soul, tortured by his homosexuality and physical shortcomings. Hart's urbane rhymes rivaled those of Cole Porter, but his pain and melancholy inspired brilliantly sardonic lyrics that added newfound depth to theatrical love songs of the 1920s and '30s. Sadly, alcohol soothed what poetry couldn't, and slowly poisoned his spirit.

The real story of Rodgers and Hart would have made a good picture, but Hollywood's stringent moral code prevented MGM from exploring the more unsavory aspects of Hart's life. (Of course, even if given the go-ahead, it's doubtful the family-friendly studio—under the aegis of the notoriously prudish Louis B. Mayer—would have tackled it anyway.) Instead, an aspiring (and fabricated) singer named Peggy (Betty Garrett) sends Hart (Mickey Rooney) into a tailspin when she rejects his love, and after years of self-abuse—which strains his working relationship with Rodgers (Tom Drake)—he finally succumbs to one of those vague, nameless movie diseases. The maudlin script wallows in Hart's torment, and also shifts around dates and shows, making it impossible to get a clear picture of the team's accomplishments. Like most musical biopics, truth comes at a premium in Words and Music, yet there's just enough of it to befuddle even those with a fair grasp of theatre history.

The film's myriad inaccuracies are certainly frustrating, but let's be honest: How many of us sit down to watch Words and Music to learn about the ups and downs of Rodgers and Hart? An electrifying musical program is what we're really after, and commercially conscious MGM obliges in spades. Not all the numbers shine (in fact, there are a couple of real clunkers), but the ones that do make plodding through the tiresome drama well worthwhile. Though pleasant enough, the early songs (with the exception of Rooney's charming rendition of Manhattan) favor style over substance, but the musical mood markedly changes when perky June Allyson croons Thou Swell. Ably assisted by the Blackburn Twins, Allyson dazzles in a dynamic dance routine that nicely complements her sugary vocals and boundless effervescence. It's tough to steal a movie from the likes of Garland, Kelly, and Horne, but with this winning performance—the finest of her MGM career—Allyson does.

Yet make no mistake; Judy, Gene, and Lena also acquit themselves well. Very well. The breathtaking Horne steps up first, raising our pulse rate (and the rafters) with a mesmerizing one-two punch beginning with the haunting ballad, Where or When, and climaxing with the chicly humorous The Lady Is a Tramp. Both songs showcase Horne's impeccable phrasing, stage presence, and photogenic features, and it's hard not to classify her no-holds-barred rendition of the latter tune as the definitive version. (Sorry, Sinatra.) Not to be outdone, Garland first reunites with Rooney—five years after their final let's-put-on-a-show backyard musical—for a slick duet of the sarcastic I Wish I Were in Love Again. The two stars enjoy a wonderful rapport, as Garland's class balances Rooney's clowning, and their mutual esteem is evident throughout. Preview audiences so loved the number, they demanded another Garland solo, and a few months later (and a few pounds heavier), Judy returned to the reassembled set to belt out a rip-roaring rendition of Johnny One Note, a song perfectly suited to her powerful, vibrant voice.

Equally powerful and vibrant, Slaughter on Tenth Avenue pairs Kelly with Vera-Ellen in a jazzy ballet pantomime about a couple of streetwise New Yorkers who romantically connect in a seedy bar before violence and tragedy strike. As he did a few months earlier in The Pirate, Kelly executes the kind of virile, physically demanding dance routine that would soon change the direction of Hollywood choreography. Vera-Ellen, who combines grace, athleticism, and allure, partners him well, and though the two would make a bigger splash the following year in the iconic On the Town, their passionate, nuanced work here should not be overlooked.

Unfortunately, it's impossible to overlook the ill-conceived performances of Drake and Rooney, who drag the picture down just as it starts to soar. Few movie actors are as wooden as Drake; his bland personality may suit the bashful boy next door in Meet Me in St. Louis, but his monotonic line readings and disinterested demeanor turn Rodgers into a boring stiff. Although Rooney embraces Hart's mannerisms and exhibits an affecting vulnerability early on, he dives off the dramatic deep end during Hart's interminable decline. Watching the overdone display is both agonizing and embarrassing; we feel bad for Hart, but worse for Rooney, who can't seem to stop the histrionic hemorrhaging.

So forget the made-up lives of Rodgers and Hart, and concentrate instead on their very real and glorious words and music. Such a tack just might be the only way to really enjoy this glossy musical salute to one of the greatest songwriting teams in show business history.

Rating for Style: B+
Rating for Substance: B-


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: Warner has done a superb job with the Words and Music transfer, thanks to a spotless source print and meticulous color reproduction. The bright, vivid hues enjoy excellent saturation, but stay within realistic parameters, so they never detract from the on-screen drama and performances. Contrast is good, fleshtones look natural, and light grain lends the image a lovely warmth and depth. Musical buffs will go bonkers over this first-rate effort.

Image Transfer Grade: A


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access

Audio Transfer Review: The original mono track has been scrubbed clean, eliminating any age-related surface noise. Vocal numbers sound robust and dynamic, while instrumentals avoid the tinny shrillness that often afflicts vintage musicals. Solid fidelity lends the songs fine presence, and dialogue is always clear and comprehendible.

Audio Transfer Grade: A-


Disc Extras

Static menu with music
Scene Access with 29 cues and remote access
Music/Song Access with 14 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, French with remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
2 Deleted Scenes
1 Documentaries
1 Feature/Episode commentary by historian Richard Barrios
Packaging: Amaray
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: dual
Layers Switch: 01h:05m:36s

Extra Extras:
  1. Vintage short, Going to Blazes!
  2. Classic cartoon, The Cat That Hated People
  3. Audio outtakes
Extras Review: Historian Richard Barrios kicks off the extras with a workmanlike audio commentary that lacks the pizzazz of the musical numbers he often describes. More of a primer than a master class, Barrios' discussion rarely achieves the kind of detailed depth fans of the genre crave. On the plus side, he clarifies MGM's skewered chronology of Rodgers and Hart's professional lives, cites many inaccuracies in the script, and addresses the pair's frustrating tenure in Hollywood in the early 1930s. But he's also maddeningly vague about any unpleasant traits or events concerning both men (as if he fears more specificity would denote a lack of propriety), and repeats himself on more than a couple of occasions. Those new to Golden Age musicals will learn a lot, but diehard devotees might find the track a bit dull.

Far livelier, the 20-minute documentary A Life in Words and Music provides a more dimensional portrait of Rodgers and Hart than both MGM's sugarcoated biopic and Barrios' commentary. The well-produced piece illuminates the demons that eventually destroyed Hart, and allows those who knew him a chance to reflect on his character and abundant gifts. Mary Rodgers, daughter of Richard Rodgers, calls Hart "a man of many moods, and he knew how to rhyme them all," and humorously remembers her family's initial reaction to Words and Music: "We all thought the movie was ridiculous." Various historians separate fact from fiction and analyze the duo's immense contributions to musical theatre, while Mickey Rooney touchingly recalls his last on-screen collaboration with Judy Garland in this classy, forthright featurette.

The 21-minute short, Going to Blazes! (part of MGM's Theatre of Life series), honors the brave, dedicated men of the Los Angeles Fire Department, and provides viewers with a firefighting tutorial, as well as an in-depth look at the intense training, preparation, and daily rigors these unsung heroes must endure. The film is chock-full of statistics, dire warnings, and platitudes, but also offers some wise preventative tips, many of which still apply today. Far less preachy, the seven-minute Tex Avery cartoon, The Cat That Hated People, hilariously examines all the horrible treatment felines receive at the hands of humans.

Up next, two filmed outtakes from Words and Music will please fans of Perry Como. The first finds the crooner singing Lover, and Warner technicians have reconstructed the movie's opening to include the tune in its original slot, while the second is a 10-minute collection of takes (four in all) of the touching ballad, You're Nearer. Seven audio outtakes follow, and feature performances by Como (who warbles a lovely rendition of My Heart Stood Still), Gene Kelly, Mickey Rooney, and Betty Garrett, but the lack of any performer credits on the menu screen make the task of identifying the singers a challenge for less savvy viewers.

The film's original theatrical trailer completes the disc's supplements.

Extras Grade: A


Final Comments

If you really want to learn about Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart, hit the library. But if you'd rather just revel in their marvelous music and see it performed by such legendary artists as Judy Garland, Lena Horne, and Gene Kelly, then Words and Music is right up your alley. The numbers alone make the disc worthy of a purchase, but the sluggish story prevents this lustrous musical from scaling the lofty heights to which it aspires.


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