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A congenial musical with Fred Astaire as Bert Kalmar and Red Skelton as Harry Ruby

  • Jul 3, 2011
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Rating:
+3
Three Little Words is like a mother's cooking. It may not be haute cuisine, but it's tasty and it's nice sitting around the table with friends and family. The movie has no great highs and no great lows; it's a genial, comfortable musical with a strong performance by Fred Astaire as Bert Kalmar and a low-key one from Red Skelton as Harry Ruby.
 
The two met in 1918 and formed a song-writing partnership that lasted until Kalmar's death in 1947. Kalmar wrote the words; Ruby wrote the music. They were successful as Tin Pan Alley writers, on Broadway and in Hollywood. Perhaps what makes the movie so easy going is that in real life the two never had any major conflicts. They liked each other and worked well together. Hollywood, of course, thought some tension was needed to make the movie interesting so some minor issues have been added. These are so soft-pedaled that we hardly notice them as important, and there is always a wife or two to help smooth things over. What we're left with is Astaire and Skelton, Vera-Ellen playing Kalmar's wife and Arlene Dahl playing Ruby's wife, and an ongoing number of Kalmar-Ruby songs sung and danced to. The two stand-outs for me are the Astaire and Vera-Ellen pairings in Where Did You Get That Girl, a fast, funny vaudeville routine, and Thinking of You, a romantic, elegant waltz which ends with a latin beat. Among the songs featured are such Kalmar-Ruby standards as Who's Sorry Now?, I Wanna Be Loved By You, Three Little Words and one of their best, Nevertheless.
 
Maybe I'm right, maybe I'm wrong,
maybe I'm weak, maybe I'm strong,
but nevertheless I'm in love with you.
 
Maybe I'll win, maybe I'll lose,
and maybe I'm in for crying the blues,
but nevertheless I'm in love with you.
 
Somehow, I know at a glance, the terrible chances I'm taking.
Fine at the start, then left with a heart that is breaking.
 
Maybe I'll live a life of regret,
and maybe I'll give much more than I get,
but nevertheless, I'm in love with you.
 
We ought to remember, although it's just briefly touched on in the movie, that Kalmar and Ruby provided the songs for three of the Marx Brothers great, early movies, Animal Crackers, Duck Soup and Horsefeathers. Try not thinking of Groucho when you hear this one:
 
"Hooray for Captain Spaulding!
The African Explorer!"
"Did someone call me shnorrer?"
"Hooray, hooray, hooray!"
 
Fred Astaire not only provides the creative focus with his dancing, but he gives a strong performance as a confidant guy always thinking of ways to do more. He may overshadow Red Skelton's Ruby but I think that was the nature of the Kalmar/Ruby partnership. Skelton plays Ruby as a lovable, slightly naive big lug. He does a nice job of it. Vera-Ellen, as always with her movies, had her singing dubbed, in this case by Anita Ellis. A legend seems to have grown about how awful a singer she was. As far as I know there is only one recording that contains Vera-Ellen singing her own songs. This is the CD of A Connecticut Yankee, the 1943 Broadway revival where Vera-Ellen played the comic second female lead. She does a fine job. She has no vibrato, sings flat out and comes perilously close to missing a note now and then, but her personality shines though; she's funny, sexy and endearing. 
A congenial musical with Fred Astaire as Bert Kalmar and Red Skelton as Harry Ruby A congenial musical with Fred Astaire as Bert Kalmar and Red Skelton as Harry Ruby A congenial musical with Fred Astaire as Bert Kalmar and Red Skelton as Harry Ruby

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About the reviewer
C. O. DeRiemer ()
Ranked #33
Since I retired in 1995 I have tried to hone skills in muttering to myself, writing and napping. At 75, I live in one of those places where one moves from independent living to hospice. I expect to begin … more
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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[1] film was one of Astaire's favourites, [2] 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,[1] and is complemented by a mutual chemistry, some quality acting by both, and some fine comedy touches by Skelton.[2] 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 here, Fred Astaire was awarded the first Golden Globe Award for Best Actor - Motion Picture Musical or Comedy in 1951.

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