Friday, June 14, 2013

More Than a Song-and-Dance Man: Three Little Words and The Astaire Story

My wife, Erin, and I recently watched Three Little Words, a Fred Astaire movie that is actually a biopic of the songwriting team of Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby. This prompted me to do some research into the lives and careers of Kalmar and Ruby, as well as dusting off my copy of Fred Astaire's great 1952 meeting with the Oscar Peterson Trio, The Astaire Story, where Astaire shows, as if proof were really needed, what a fantastic jazz singer he was.

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
In 1950, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer decided to produce a movie about the popular Tin Pan Alley songwriting team of Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby. Its title was Three Little Words, and though it is not as well known as the films about Kern, Gershwin, or Jolson, it does feature an extraordinary cast: Fred Astaire and Red Skelton star as Kalmar and Ruby respectively, supported by Vera-Ellen and Arlene Dahl. The result is a hidden gem, an atypical Astaire movie in that his dancing sort of takes a backseat to the music, and also an atypical Red Skelton vehicle in which the comic appears rather subdued and shows that he did have a talent for more dramatic roles. The prominence of the music may well have been one of the reasons that attracted Astaire to the project, since songwriting was one of his unfulfilled passions, and this film offered him the chance to play a professional songwriter. As a matter of fact, in his 1959 autobiography, Steps in Time, Astaire only has positive things to say about Vera-Ellen and the rest of the cast, and notes that he "enjoyed singing the old Kalmar and Ruby hits with Red." Overall, Astaire remembers Three Little Words as "an outstanding film and one of my top favorites. I'd like to be doing it all over again" (296).

It certainly is a delightful little movie, showcasing the great compositions of two talented men who are unfairly overlooked these days and strangely omitted in several book-length studies on Tin Pan Alley and the Great American Songbook. For instance, Alec Wilder does not even mention Kalmar and Ruby in his classic study American Popular Song, and they are not included among the large group of songwriters profiled by William Zinsser in Easy to Remember and by Wilfrid Sheed in The House that George Built. Philip Furia, in his Poets of Tin Pan Alley, briefly discusses the lyrics of their composition "Three Little Words," noting that its melody sets it apart from other Hollywood songs of the period: "Since it consisted of a four-note phrase, it was too long for the three-syllable standard 'I love you'" (236). This critical silence on the work of Kalmar and Ruby seems unwarranted to me, since their partnership produced some of the most popular songs of the 1920s and '30s, simple but very catchy tunes such as "I Wanna Be Loved by You," the moody "Nevertheless (I'm in Love with You)," and "A Kiss to Build a Dream on." Moreover, one of their most successful compositions, the irresistible "Who's Sorry Now," has been recorded by artists as disparate as Connie Francis, Marie Osmond, and Jerry Lee Lewis, to name but three.

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.

The Astaire Story (Verve, 1952)

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).

Oscar Peterson
Yet, much more than a mere collector's item, The Astaire Story is a very revealing portrait of Astaire the jazz singer, a relaxed crooner who instinctively plays with the beat and whose phrasing is so casual that at times it almost sounds as though he were reciting the lyrics. The program is made up almost entirely of songs associated with Astaire, and the LP format allows for lengthier arrangements of the tunes, punctuated by lovely solos from Peterson on piano, Shavers on trumpet, Phillips on tenor sax, and Kessel on guitar. Astaire is clearly enjoying himself on these dates, and he sounds as much at ease with Peterson's group as Bing Crosby does on Bing with a Beat accompanied by Bob Scobey (by the way, it is really too bad that nobody ever thought to pair up Der Bingle with Peterson). The result of the Astaire-Peterson sessions is what Will Friedwald has called the climax of Astaire's recorded legacy, among the most spontaneous music that either man ever committed to wax, a classic set that offers a definitive glimpse of Astaire having fun and singing jazz.

Astaire is heard dancing and even playing piano on The Astaire Story

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