The 1940s saw a proliferation of biopics of songwriters from the Great American Songbook, names by then already legendary like Jerome Kern (Till the Clouds Roll By) and George Gershwin (Rhapsody in Blue). This was also the decade in which Al Jolson's career was revived thanks to two movies that dramatized his life and career, The Jolson Story and Jolson Sings Again, which were box-office hits (particularly the former) and would bring about similar films in the 1950s devoted to other stars such as Gene Krupa, Benny Goodman, Eddy Duchin, Eddie Cantor, Ruth Etting (the superb Love Me or Leave Me, starring Doris Day and James Cagney), and others.
|Harry Ruby and Bert Kalmar|
As for the movie, one of the main problems that screenwriter George Wells faced was the fact that the lives of Kalmar and Ruby, as well as their songwriting partnership, had been fairly uneventful and badly needed some dressing up. Therefore, even though Kalmar's interest in magic early in life and Ruby's obsession with baseball are reflected in the film, many of the events that make up the plot come courtesy of the typical Hollywood poetic license of the time, that is, they are mere inventions meant to drive the storyline forward. Thus, Kalmar never wrote a serious play whose success on Broadway was thwarted by Ruby's schemes, Kalmar did not begin his songwriting career because of a dancing injury, and Kalmar and Ruby's long partnership never suffered any sort of breakup. More importantly, the song that lends its title to the movie, "Three Little Words," did not lay dormant and unfinished for years but was published as early as 1930 and cut by Frank Crumit and Nick Lucas, among others.
|"I Wanna Be Loved by You": Debbie Reynolds as Helen Kane|
Despite Astaire's fondness for Three Little Words, it is not one of the best-remembered titles of his long filmography, and in my opinion, that is a real shame. Though Astaire does not dance quite as much as usual, his portrayal of Kalmar is charming and convincing, and the cast interacts seamlessly, making it a very entertaining movie. The finished product, by the way, profited from Harry Ruby's input (Kalmar had passed away in 1947, three years before the making of the project) and is a thoughtful tribute to the two men. Gloria DeHaven appears as her mother, Flora, singing "Who's Sorry Now," and Ruby himself is seen briefly playing baseball with Red Skelton. Even a young Debbie Reynolds makes her debut appearance as Helen Kane, lip-synching to Kane's boop-boop-a-dooping her smash hit "I Wanna Be Loved by You." The main protagonist is, indeed, the musical output of Kalmar and Ruby, all those vintage hit songs that shine throughout the film.
Fred Astaire considered himself, as did most of his audiences, primarily a dancer and often derided his own abilities as a vocalist. Songwriters knew better, though, and recognized in his voice the perfect vehicle for their compositions. To be sure, his range was limited, but what he lacked in voice quality he more than made up for in phrasing and style. His singing is characterized by a rare elegance that is perfectly suited for the urbane melodies and witty lyrics of the songs of Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, and George and Ira Gershwin, among others. No wonder, then, that he introduced a large amount of tunes by these composers that have become standards, titles such as "Let's Face the Music and Dance," "Night and Day," and "Fascinatin' Rhythm," to name but a few.
Although he claimed not to take himself seriously as a vocalist, Astaire loved jazz and jazz musicians (which is not surprising, since there is quite a bit of a jazz element in his tap dancing) and had a particularly soft spot for a record project that he did for Verve Records, at the request of label owner Norman Granz, entitled The Astaire Story. Let us quote again from Astaire's biography:
"I found this [album] a most interesting and enjoyable job as Oscar Peterson, Alvin Stoller, Flip Phillips, Charles Shavers, Barney Kessel, Ray Brown and I cut these discs spontaneously on the spot without any prearranged orchestrations. This album, called The Astaire Story, with limited printings, became prominent in the collectors' item category" (301).
|Astaire is heard dancing and even playing piano on The Astaire Story|