Three Little Words (film)

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Three Little Words
Three-little-words-movie-poster-1950.jpg
Theatrical release poster
Directed by Richard Thorpe
Produced by Jack Cummings
Written by George Wells
Starring Fred Astaire
Red Skelton
Vera-Ellen
Arlene Dahl
Music by André Previn
Harry Ruby
Cinematography Harry Jackson
Distributed by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
Release dates
  • July 12, 1950 (1950-07-12) (U.S.)
Running time 102 min.
Country United States
Language English
Budget $1,470,000[1]
Box office $4,526,000[1]

Three Little Words is a 1950 American musical film biography of the Tin Pan Alley songwriting partnership of Kalmar and Ruby and stars Fred Astaire as lyricist Bert Kalmar, Red Skelton as composer Harry Ruby, along with Vera-Ellen and Arlene Dahl as their wives, with Debbie Reynolds in a small but notable role as singer Helen Kane. The film, released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, was written by Academy Award winning screenwriter George Wells, directed by Richard Thorpe and produced by Jack Cummings. Harry Ruby served as a consultant on the project, and appears in a cameo role as a baseball-catcher.

This warm and engaging[2] film was one of Astaire's favourites, [3] possibly because of the nostalgic vaudeville connection. As Hollywood film biographies of the period go, it takes fewer liberties with the facts than usual, and Astaire and Skelton's onscreen portrayal of the partnership is considered psychologically accurate,[2] and is complemented by a mutual chemistry, some quality acting by both, and some fine comedy touches by Skelton.[3] Unusually for Hollywood songwriting biographies of this period, two of the songs, "Thinking of You" and "Nevertheless", became major hits on the film's release, reaching first and second place respectively, in the U.S. charts.

In recognition of his acting performance, Fred Astaire was awarded the first Golden Globe Award for Best Actor - Motion Picture Musical or Comedy in 1951.

Key songs/dance routines[edit]

This film provides an object lesson in how to integrate the many songs and dances seamlessly and naturally into the script - a principle first introduced into the Hollywood musical by Astaire as far back as 1934. Hermes Pan collaborated with Astaire on the choreography which takes the opportunity provided by Vera-Ellen's technical prowess[3] to showcase dance routines notable[2] for leg kicks, lifts and - Hermes Pan's innovative combination of the two - the hurdling lift, first invented for "The Yam" number in Carefree (1938). These routines are contrasted with some choreographically primitive numbers typical of vaudeville c. 1920. The spirit of the partnered dances expands on the theme of marital contentment previously explored in The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle (1939) and the prior year's The Barkleys of Broadway (1949). Vera-Ellen's singing voice was dubbed[2] by Anita Ellis.

  • "Where Did You Get That Girl?": Astaire and Vera-Ellen, dressed in top hat, white tie and tails, impersonate the vaudeville partnership of Kalmar and Brown with this genial song and dance duet set c.1919. Fred and Adele Astaire had greatly admired this partnership: "We used to stand in the wings and watch Jessie and Bert with thrilled envy, wondering if we could equal their finesse and reach their headline billing".[3] The routine is very straightforward, and when contrasted with the creations of Astaire, Gene Kelly and others, illustrates the profound evolution popular dance had undergone in the intervening period. Incidentally Ruby, working as a song plugger,[2] had once played tunes for the Astaire siblings.
  • "Mr. and Mrs. Hoofer At Home": A hectic and high-kicking comic dance duet for Astaire and Vera-Ellen - choreographed by Hermes Pan and featuring the hurdling lift - which is set in a suburban family living room and portrays[2] the various challenges of contented domesticity. The routine, which, in contrast to the previous one, is thoroughly modern[2] in conception, is nonetheless shown performed at the Keith's Theatre (which later became the K in RKO) in Washington, D.C. in the presence of President Woodrow Wilson, a noted vaudeville fan.
  • "My Sunny Tennessee": Astaire and Skelton deliver a version of this 1921 hit.
  • "So Long, OO-Long": Kalmar and Ruby's 1920 oriental-themed ditty is performed by Astaire and Skelton.
  • "Test Solo": Danced by Astaire, initially to a spare piano accompaniment by André Previn and then to the music of "Where Did You Get That Girl?". This was his fifth tap and cane solo, the first being "Top Hat, White Tie and Tails" from Top Hat (1935), followed by "I Can't Be Bothered Now" from A Damsel in Distress (1937), the "Audition Dance" from You Were Never Lovelier (1942), and "Puttin' On The Ritz" from Blue Skies (1946), - all remarkably dissimilar in execution. In the beginning of the solo, Astaire places his hat on top of a light stand and then waves to it. One year later, in "Sunday Jumps" from Royal Wedding (1951) he would take a clotheshorse into his arms and dance with it.
  • "Come On, Papa": Another high-kicking song and dance routine, this time for Vera-Ellen and chorus of sailors, to a 1918 song by Ruby and Edgar Leslie.
  • "All Alone Monday": Gale Robbins delivers a performance of Kalmar and Ruby's 1926 ballad.
Vera-Ellen with Fred Astaire in "Thinking of You"
  • "Thinking of You": One of the dance highlights[3] of the film is this romantic partnered routine for Astaire and Vera-Ellen, which follows after Ellen's (dubbed) performance of this 1927 standard. The dance begins quietly and affectionately in a lounge area, and gradually builds becoming progressively more extrovert until the music changes into a rumba - the Latin dance of love - and Astaire embarks on a further exploration of the possibilities of blending Latin and ballroom dance styles, which he had first been inspired to undertake during his celebrated partnership with Rita Hayworth. After this departure - which illustrates the passion than can continue to flourish long after the married nuptials - the dance subsides into a tender coda, recalling its opening mood.
  • "I Love You So Much": Arlene Dahl, accompanied by a chorus of top-hatted men, sings and dances her way through this number originally written[2] for the 1930 film version of The Ramblers (later retitled The Cuckoos).
  • "Medley (incl. Three Little Words)": In this closing scene, Astaire and Skelton perform a medley of most of the songs featured in the film, ending with "Three Little Words" - Kalmar having finally found a suitable lyric for Ruby's melody, a running gag throughout most of the film.

Contemporary reviews[edit]

  • The New York Times, August 10, 1950: "There is a special quality about the new picture...which deserves immediate mention in detail. That is the polished performance of Fred Astaire as Bert Kalmar... Mr. Astaire has been wearing out thin-soled dancing shoes at a great pace over the years while most of us have grown a little heavier and somewhat slower of foot. But, he hasn't changed. Still lithe in appearance, Mr. Astaire has drawn rich dividends from time and is dancing in peak form...In talking of the fine dancing contributed by Mr. Astaire we forgot to mention how engagingly they carry off the romantic interest and bust into song when the script demands it."[4]
  • Variety, July 12, 1950: Stal.:"For Astaire, it's unquestionably his best picture in sometime. His terping, as always, is tops, his singing is adequate and his characterisation of Kalmar, while never deeply-etched, does full justice to the late songwriter's many talents...Vera-Ellen, with this picture, becomes the undisputed premiere danseuse of the screen. She matches Astaire tap for tap...and looks to be the best partner he's ever had."[4]

Box Office[edit]

According to MGM records the film earned $3,019,000 in the US and Canada and $1,507,000 elsewhere, resulting in a healthy profit of $1,252,000.[1]

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ a b c The Eddie Mannix Ledger, Los Angeles: Margaret Herrick Library, Center for Motion Picture Study .
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h Mueller, John (1986). Astaire Dancing - The Musical Films. London: Hamish Hamilton. pp. 300–311. ISBN 0-241-11749-6. 
  3. ^ a b c d e Astaire, Fred (1959). Steps in Time. London: Heinemann. p. 296. 
  4. ^ a b Billman, Larry (1997). Fred Astaire - A Bio-bibliography. Connecticut: Greenwood Press. pp. 127–130. ISBN 0-313-29010-5. 

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