MGM produced this musical biopic which tells the true story of top tunesmiths, Bert Kalmar (Fred Astaire) and Harry Ruby (Red Skelton). Bert has a successful dance act going with lovelorn Jessie Brown (Vera-Ellen), but longs to be a stage magician. Wannabe songwriter Harry inadvertently sabotages Bert’s magic debut with his goofy antics, but wins him over with his marvellous music. The boys join forces and scale the heights of success as a song-writing duo. While Bert eventually admits his love for Jessie, naïve Harry dallies with a succession of unsuitable women until he meets onetime understudy turned Hollywood megastar, Eileen Percy (Arlene Dahl). Fearing Bert will flop with his new play, Harry scuppers his chance to find funding, causing a rift between the two that lasts several years until their wives conspire to reunite them for a radio show.
While the studio enjoyed great success with their Jerome Kern biopic, Till the Clouds Roll By (1946), the follow-up feature Words and Music (1948) was unable to convince anyone that Tom Drake and Mickey Rooney were Rodgers & Hart. Studio mogul Louis B. Mayer was reluctant to bankroll another, but the makers convinced him this story couldn’t fail and were proven right. Later known for wonderful historical adventures like Ivanhoe (1952), Richard Thorpe helms an entertaining concoction of energetic tap numbers, goofy comedy and marvellous songs. Ruby and Kalmar had one heck of a songbook, ranging from the lovely “Thinking of You”, the politically incorrect “So Long, Oolong”, the instantly recognisable “Who’s Sorry, Now?” and “I Wanna Be Loved By You.” Later made famous by Marilyn Monroe, here a cute, teenage Debbie Reynolds supplies the “boop-oop-ee-do’s”.
Astaire plays a more abrasive character than was usual for him, but remains wholly likeable as the eternally frustrated magician. Comedian Red Skelton might not seem the most convincing songwriter, but his “aw shucks” charm imbues Ruby with a vulnerability that is most endearing. He and Astaire click together surprisingly well, although sensibly it’s Fred who handles all the dancing. Unlike many MGM musicals at the time, this isn’t over-reliant on extravagant sets or fancy lighting and mostly lets Astaire’s feet do the talking. The charming Vera-Ellen proves a sprightly partner for the indefatigable Astaire. Their “Life at Home with Mr. and Mrs. Hoofer” routine is delightfully off the wall, while a sequence where Kalmar struggles to dance on an injured knee is a moment of minimalist brilliance.
Skelton also plays to his strengths and indulges some physical comedy on the baseball field. Much to Kalmar’s ongoing exasperation, Ruby is as obsessed with baseball as he is with magic tricks. Like several Hollywood biopics, this is somewhat sugar-coated and lightweight, but yokes mileage from two fairly complex characters who are thrust together by necessity and never entirely got on. Harry’s boyish grin when he hears Bert finish the title song that took them three years to write is a heartwarming moment. At heart this remains a likeable story about likeable people, and all the more likeable for it.