Giving credit where it’s due, let me start by emphasizing that most of what we know about MGM musicals originated with Hugh Fordin and his remarkable book, The World Of Entertainment. A few weeks ago, Val Lewton was a Greenbriar subject. Much of what I learned about him was gleaned from Joel Siegel’s The Reality Of Terror. Both Fordin and Siegel broke ground for a generation of film scholars who’d benefit from research and interviews these two contributed. How many such detailed books were published in the early to mid-seventies? These were historians ahead of their time. Fordin made contact with a staggering number of MGM musical veterans in their twilight years. If you look at reunion footage taken at the 1974 premiere of That’s Entertainment, it’s startling to note how many of those performers would be gone within a few short years. This was about the time Fordin conducted a lot of his interviews, as The World Of Entertainment was published in 1975. There have been many reprints since, some under different titles. The book covers Arthur Freed’s career and the many great musicals he produced at Metro. Fordin interviewed Freed extensively, and not a moment too soon, as the producer died in April of 1973. The best anecdotes about MGM musicals originated with The World Of Entertainment. It’s a book that belongs on the shelf of everyone who cares about movies. I found various editions on Amazon at ridiculously low prices, some less than two dollars.
Mickey Rooney says he did much of Words and Music hung over. It was his last MGM picture under the old contract. They would have kept him on, but Mick got impatient and argued his way out of the best money he’d ever see acting in movies, admitting later it was a colossal mistake to leave. You watch him playing Lorenz Hart and it’s hard to believe the guy was just twenty-eight. Show biz and dog years are much the same. Both put on miles far in excess of wear and tear the rest of us experience. Even in 1948, it must have seemed Mickey had been around forever. Some people find him hard to take. I think he’s one of the best actors that ever worked, but I’m not necessarily a fan. Last year, he did a show not forty miles from my house, but I didn’t attend, preferring the beach instead. Eighty years this man’s been in show business, and I passed. Do we take him so much for granted still? Life Is Too Short was the second of his published memoirs. He settles scores and writes a near-porn account of trysts with actress greats. The stories Rooney could tell would fill more volumes than the Warren Commission, so how come his interviews are so rigid and rote?
Judy Garland’s in Words and Music just enough to sell a double-sided 78 RPM platter of the two songs they paid her $100,000 to perform. Metro held out on pay she’d earned for previous work on The Pirate, as cost overruns on that one were laid at Judy’s doorstep, and bosses figured on hoarding her checks in retaliation. According to biographers, the only way she could extract money coming to her was by agreeing to do Words and Music. This was one of those extended cameos wherein Judy played herself, belting out numbers at a Hollywood party not dissimilar from those at which she was asked to sing for benefit of industry revelers. Garland was always the highlight of any revue in which she turned up. There just wasn’t enough of this entertainer to go around. No wonder she cracked up. Morphine pills were getting her through days by the time she did Words and Music. Judy and various doctors begged for a year off, but hers was talent too valuable, product too profitable, to turn loose of. An extended break she expected was withdrawn, for the simple reason every promising idea for a musical was just that much more so when Garland was attached. No other female performer could deliver like this one, a status that had become more curse than blessing. She was too great for her own good, a performer so unique and in such demand that it finally had to finish her off.
Poor Tom Drake. Amidst uncommon talent in Words and Music, he is commonplace. Another link sausage ground out of a star-making machine operating at soulless efficiency. Pre-war personalities were largely born of vaudeville and stage. Anxious Metro scouts were now plucking hopefuls off college (and high school) campuses in hopes of finding another Gable. Seasoned males were off to the service, lowering standards by necessity rather than choice. Would Van Johnson have clicked if not for the war? Tom Drake was several years on Metro’s payroll by the time he played Richard Rodgers in Words and Music. The eternal boy next door, potential for stardom still unrealized and hopes of same largely gone. Still I sympathize with him over the hard chargers with their specialty numbers. There’s such yearning to make good, and a seeming awareness he can’t. Soon enough they’d let him out of Metro, but unlike Judy Garland’s departure, few would notice. Drake carries the thankless "book" sections of Words and Music. He’s either watching others sing, or lying beneath Rooney’s steamroller. Boys next door were a type no one wanted once the peace was won, and Drake had not the chops to graduate into film noir or reveal anti-social tendencies such as would rescue Robert Walker’s legacy. Like a lot of ex-contract driftwood, he went where they’d have him, generally television, occasional westerns, and sci-fi. Old friends like Elizabeth Taylor tossed a bone, and he’d turn up in an unaccustomed big one like Raintree County. There’s a particularly bittersweet anecdote among many in Richard Lamparski’s (he’s back!) recent Hollywood Diary, in which the author recounts Drake’s unannounced appearance at a 16mm collector’s showing of Meet Me In St. Louis. The one-time almost star was feted by this handful of fans gathered in a Hollywood apartment, but was cruelly brought to earth when one of them exclaimed as to what those years had done to his once youthful appearance. Drake would eventually sell used cars a hundred or so yards from the Metro gate. By then, the studio’s luster would be as faded as his own.
Composers thrust into the limelight for something other than songs they’d written were probably as embarrassed and reluctant as any of us would be under similar circumstances, which explains why these musical bios generally emerged as packs of lies. Rodgers and Hart, Jerome Kern, Cole Porter --- all regarded themselves as private citizens (accent on the private) who just happened to write popular hits. They’d never have expected to see their own lives immortalized in movies. When that cycle gained ground in the forties, a tacit arrangement with writers and studios assured that real lives would be fictionalized beyond recognition, with music catalogues the only tangible link between subject and finished product. Cole Porter is said to have laughed off Night and Day along with intimates hep to the real facts, while uneventful lives such as those of Kern and Richard Rodgers guaranteed audience boredom relieved only by snappy tunes they’d penned. What little real-life drama propelled Lorenz Hart’s career was of an exceedingly unpleasant sort. Photos of him reveal a dwarfish stature. He’s said to have suffered grievously when not taking bows. Mickey Rooney matched him only in terms of height. Hart had died in 1943. Mick plays him as habitually lonely because he could never get it together with chicks. Mostly this is Rooney’s let’s put on a show character from the Mickey/Judys grown up and finding Broadway streets won’t buy him a ticket to paradise. The drama works fine as a chronicle of Mick’s song-and-dance career in twilight, though he seemed far too resilient a sort to collapse pajama-clad on a rainy street as (supposedly) did Hart. Richard Rodgers viewed his participation as strictly business. Years later, when Hugh Fordin contacted him for a reminiscence of Words and Music, he curtly replied there was nothing to say. By the early seventies, the man had probably forgotten he'd even been the subject of a screen bio.
The Barkleys Of Broadway was the reunion (after ten years) for Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. It was yet another project intended for Judy Garland. The idea was to reunite she and Fred after Easter Parade. Special numbers were prepared for Garland. Most got dumped when Rogers took over. For all the musicals MGM wanted Judy to do, they could have worked her three shifts a day and still wanted retakes. Once she was off a project, you could forget about it becoming anything special (with the arguable exception of Annie Get Your Gun). Legend has it Rogers was lured from her country retreat to fill in after Garland flaked out following two weeks in rehearsal, though I’m betting the woman nearly got a charlie horse racing to Culver City once she heard the spot was open. Fans tend to withhold approval from Barkleys they extend to earlier RKO musicals from this team. Something’s missing after that decade apart. Could it be they’re playing a married couple and bickering for most of its length? With age now an issue for both, you could hardly depict them meeting cute with Edward Everett Horton in tow. That formula could not be recycled. Technicolor is an asset, their first and only time dancing together in multi-hues. I liked The Barkleys Of Broadway for what it reveals of demands now being made by both Astaire and Rogers. She’d been empowered in drama since 1939, brandishing an Academy Award and playing to the hilt a sequence where her Barkleys character delivers a stunning on-stage audition. Garland would have essayed that for humor with a well-judged dose of pathos. Rogers is intent on reminding us she’s graduated to loftier heights. From the pressbook: In addition to appearing with Astaire in five singing and dancing routines, the ambitious role calls for Miss Rogers to do not only romantic comedy but moving dramatic acting in sequences in which she portrays the celebrated Sarah Bernhardt in a play within the film. Said sequence lays an egg scrambled by an actress willing to dance again for old time’s sake, yet committed to distancing herself from audience notions she’ll return to same as a steady occupation.
Astaire is said to have insisted composers throw together a thing he called The Swing Trot. It was a new dance executed during (and under) the credits. Fred wanted honey he could spread over ads for his dancing school. Franchises were salted all over the country. They’re probably as good a reason as any for his willingness to un-retire and continue making musicals. Again the pressbook: The picture opens with Astaire and Miss Rogers introducing the "Swing Trot," a modern ballroom dance created by Astaire and expected to gain considerable popularity among America’s dancing couples. Exhibitors were expected to push the dance mightily in whatever circulars and Roto sections it could go. Contests encouraged patrons to duplicate The Swing Trot on theatre stages. Astaire assured would-be steppers they could execute necessary moves on dime-sized floors in the midst of a typically overflow crowd (preferably among paid-up members of local Fred Astaire Dance Academies!). He predicted the appeal would extend to bobby-soxers, for after all, their dollars would spend as well as old-timers who’d swung to the Carioca and Piccolino. Metro released The Barkleys Of Broadway in May of 1949. This was a fallow year for all of Hollywood. Much of what they’d release lost money. Words and Music had come six months earlier and posted a deficit of $317,000. Barkleys would bring back profits of $346,000. Metro musicals we love today were never sure bets at the boxoffice. A Date With Judy could track 1.5 million in black ink, then see the good of that swept away with 2.6 million lost on a thing like The Kissing Bandit. Both Words and Music and The Barkleys Of Broadway shine on Warner DVD. Their release schedule has yielded more treasure this year than any so far, with the Rooney/Garlands imminent and a long awaited Vitaphone collection just beyond. That’s the event of 2007 I look forward to most.