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Words and Music

1948, MGM. Directed by Norman Taurog. With Mickey Rooney, Tom Drake,
Janet Leigh, Betty Garrett, Perry Como.


The opening few seconds of this not-highly-regarded biopic reveal a promising confusion among reality, fiction, theatrical performance, and film performance. Under the opening credits, a chorus sings a popular song. Cut to a young man leaning against a desk in a neutral-looking environment. It's Tom Drake, an actor I've always found rather engaging (he played The Boy Next Door in Meet Me in St. Louis). He speaks to the camera:

"You've just heard some words and music written by Rodgers and Hart. This is Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer soundstage Number 1. In this film, Mickey Rooney will portray Larry Hart, or Lorenz Hart, as it says on the sheet music. And I am Richard Rodgers."

This is where my jaw hit the floor. At first I thought it might be an eliptical way of saying, "And I am [ taking the role of ] Richard Rodgers," but no--the speaker means that he is Richard Rodgers. Without transition, he starts reminiscing about how he first met Larry Hart and we're into the story. Clearly, though, the man addressing us is not Richard Rodgers any more than Mickey Rooney is Lorenz Hart. To call this a failure of parellelism is to understate the case.

Is this a clever onstage/backstage gambit or just carelessness? Perhaps the filmmakers had hoped to get the real Richard Rodgers to introduce the story, and when that fell through they decided just to have Tom Drake push his role a little farther.

Or perhaps, as with many theatrical biographies, there are just various levels of fictionalization. We see production numbers, and we also see Rodgers and Hart kibbitzing with the performers, some of whom are made-up characters and some of whom are actual celebrities. Betty Garrett does a couple of songs, but not as herself; she plays Larry's fictitious (from what we now know of Hart's personal life, completely fictitious) love interest. By contrast, Vera-Ellen, Judy Garland, and Gene Kelly, who also perform Rodgers and Hart standards, are referred to by their own names. In fact,when "Larry" convinces Judy to join him for an impromptu duet of "I Wish I Were in Love Again" at a Hollywood party, there's a third level of spin, since the number's entire raison d'etre is to show a grown-up Judy and Mickey together again (it backfires; they both look awful).

Again, in the post-mortem tribute to Larry Hart that wraps up the movie, Gene Kelly (as himself) tells the Broadway audience that "Perry Como will sing for you now." It's weird, because Perry Como has been in the movie all along, playing the part of "Eddie Lorrison Anders," a fictitious singer who hooks up with Rodgers and Hart early in their career and stars in many of their shows. What has suddenly turned him back into Perry Como?

What to make of this apparent sloppiness about identity? Perhaps the
producers of Words and Music feel that nothing counts except getting the songs performed and throwing in a bit of Broadway and Hollywood backstage atmosphere. Whether that's Lena Horne herself singing "The Lady is a Tramp," or Lena Horne in a show playing a character who sings "The Lady is a Tramp," is unimportant. That Judy at the Hollywood party is in no sense the "real" Judy Garland; she's just a character who--for the sake of phoney authenticity--shares Judy's name.

This is probably as it should be in a "biography" that purports to portray the
careers of real people but is almost completely fraudulent. Rodgers and Hart did in fact write all those songs; Lorenz Hart really was short; Richard Rodgers
did marry a woman named Dorothy and have a daughter named Mary. That's
about it in the true-to-life department. So I retract my speculation that they originally wanted the real Richard Rodgers; his stolid, non-performer presence would have blown the whole thing wide open.

7/8/1996

 

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copyright ©2005 Barbara Bernstein