THREE LITTLE WORDS (1950) C 102m dir: Richard Thorpe
w/Fred Astaire, Vera-Ellen, Red Skelton, Arlene Dahl, Keenan Wynn, Gale Robbins, Gloria DeHaven, Phil Regan, Harry Shannon, Debbie Reynolds, Paul Harvey, Carleton Carpenter, George Metkovich, Harry Mendoza
From The Movie Guide: "An utter delight, this musical biography portrays the lives of composers Bert Kalmar (Fred Astaire) and Harry Ruby (Red Skelton). Kalmar is a vaudeville song-and-dance man and would-be magician who turns to writing lyrics after a knee injury puts an end to his dancing. Ruby plays the piano at a Coney Island honky-tonk and also writes lyrics, though he dreams of playing baseball. Eventually, the two meet, and a great songwriting team is born; they go on to write numerous hits for Broadway and the movies. A misunderstanding ends the partnership, but Kalmar's wife, Jessie (Vera-Ellen), and Ruby's wife, Eileen (Arlene Dahl), finally bring the two men back together for a happy, if somewhat fictionalized, conclusion. For the most part, though, this movie sticks to the facts, and it never fails to entertain. Astaire is as suave as usual and he dances a couple numbers with Vera-Ellen, while Skelton gives one of the best performances of his career. The film is sparked by wonderful supporting work by Vera-Ellen and Dahl. Appearing as themselves in cameo roles are Phil Regan and Harry Mendoza. Ruby himself served as technical advisor."
From the Turner Classic Movies website (www.tcm.com), this 2004 article about the film by Frank Miller:
"The composer biography was a Hollywood staple when MGM took on the life of songwriters Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby for Three Little Words (1950). And for once, the studio actually got it right.
"The genre had been pioneered by Warner Bros., who had scored hits with Rhapsody in Blue, with Robert Alda as George Gershwin, in 1945 and Night and Day, with Cary Grant as Cole Porter, in 1946. Since then, however, the genre had performed spottily at the box office. MGM had scored a hit with Robert Walker as Jerome Kern in Till the Clouds Roll By (1946) but had fared less successfully with Tom Drake and Mickey Rooney as Rodgers and Hart in Words and Music (1948). One problem was that most songwriters hadn't led very interesting lives or had done things Hollywood didn't deem appropriate for the movies (no Hollywood film of the period would have dealt with Porter or Hart's homosexuality). Another was that the films' stars rarely had the musical chops to carry a musical, leading to tacked-on assemblages of guest stars who often stole the movie for one number.
"With Three Little Words, those problems didn't exist. For once, the film's subjects had an interesting problem that translated easily to film --- they never really got along. Both had interests outside of songwriting --- Kalmar was a magician and wannabe playwright; Ruby dreamed of playing ball --- that ultimately came between them. With that hint of a story and the promise that Ruby, the team's surviving member, would share his stories with writer George Wells, producer Jack Cummings managed to convince Louis B. Mayer that this was one film that couldn't fail.
"Just to insure the picture's success, he also landed three stars who could hold their own musically. Fred Astaire was committed to co-star with Betty Hutton at Paramount, but the film wouldn't be ready to shoot for six months. When Cummings sent him the script, he decided it was worth giving up the long vacation he had planned. Helping him agree to the project was the fact that he had known Kalmar and Ruby from his Broadway days. He and his sister, Adele Astaire, had even modeled part of the act that made him a star on Kalmar's vaudeville act with his future wife, Jessie Brown. To play Brown, Cummings enlisted another dancing star, Vera-Ellen, who had recently scored a hit in MGM's version of On the Town (1949). For Ruby, Cummings went after an actor who actually resembled the composer, Red Skelton. Then he had to convince Skelton to take a script that didn't allow for his usual frantic comic business. Fortunately, Skelton's wife, Georgia, saw the wisdom of his trying a change-of-pace role and helped Cummings sell him on the project. The film still featured some guest stars --- most notably Gloria DeHaven, who played her own mother, who had introduced 'Who's Sorry Now?' --- but most of the musical numbers were carried by Astaire, Vera-Ellen and Skelton.
"Three Little Words also provided a boon for two relative newcomers to the screen. Composer Andre Previn had been doing orchestrations for MGM since before he graduated from high school. Now, he had his first opportunity to score a major film. The fact that it was a Fred Astaire musical added to the assignment's prestige. Previn forged an instant bond with Ruby, who shared his passion for rare books, and was impressed with Astaire's ability to deliver a song. Previn was still young enough to be as much a fan as a filmmaker and eventually asked Astaire for an autograph. The star turned him down, claiming he never signed autographs, but when the film was finished he sent Previn one of the black canes he'd used in the film. He'd even scraped away some of the paint and signed the exposed wood. Another bonus Previn got from the film was his first Oscar nomination. By the time the nominations were announced, he had been drafted. In fact, he was digging a latrine when he was called to Orderly Room to receive the telegram notifying him of the honor. Although he would be nominated for 14 Oscars, winning four times, this was the only instance in which he could remember exactly what he was doing when he learned of his nomination.
"Also given a big boost from the film was Debbie Reynolds. She was under contract at Warner Bros. but was clearly on her way out after playing only three short roles in six months. Then the studio talent scout who had discovered her took her to MGM to show off her ability to impersonate singers while miming to their recordings. She was cast on the spot to play Helen Kane, who had introduced Kalmar and Ruby's 'I Want to Be Loved by You' and would perform the number on the soundtrack. Reynolds only had two scenes. In one Kalmar and Ruby discover her when she interrupts their work on the song by interjecting 'boop-boop-a-doop' after each line. Then she performs the song on Broadway while vamping another screen newcomer, Carleton Carpenter. The first scene was a total fiction. Kane was already a Broadway star when the song was added to the score of a show she was working on. She hated the song and had interjected her famous 'boop-boop-a-doops' during performances to spoof it, only to see it become her biggest hit. But the fiction paid off for Reynolds. By the time her fan mail started coming in, MGM had signed her to a contract and cast her, along with Carpenter, in a flashier role in Two Weeks With Love (1950)."
THREE LITTLE WORDS was nominated for an Oscar for Best Score (Andre Previn).