Cast & Crew
In New York City, in the mid-1910s, Bert Kalmar has reached the height of his career as a vaudeville performer with his dancing partner and sweetheart, Jessie Brown. In between shows, Bert composes music and secretly indulges in another favorite hobby of his: performing magic acts. Bert and Jessie are in love, but when Bert proposes marriage, Jessie insists that they wait until he is through being "everything in show business all at once." Billed as "Kendall the Great," Bert occasionally performs magic acts in disguise at a Coney Island theater. One day, while preparing for his magic show, Bert meets Harry Ruby, a song plugger who plays the piano at the Coney Island theater. Harry is instructed by his boss to serve as the magician's assistant, but he bungles his job and turns the Kendall the Great show into a comic disaster. Bert is angered by the fiasco, but becomes distracted by a more pressing problem when he discovers that his agent, Charlie Kope, and Jessie, who were in the audience, now know about his moonlighting. Bert later tries to incorporate some of his magic show themes into his act with Jessie, but she flatly rejects his ideas. Bert and Jessie continue performing their vaudeville act until the day that Bert injures his knee in a backstage accident. Much to his distress, Bert is told by a doctor that his injury will preclude him from dancing for at least one year. Hoping that Bert will now have more time to devote to her, Jessie suggests that they resume their plans to marry, but Bert rejects the idea. Jessie then decides to leave Bert and tour on her own. A short time later, at Al Masters' music library, Bert hears a tuneful song being played on a piano in the next room and asks to meet the composer. The composer turns out to be Harry, and although Bert remembers his first disastrous encounter with him, he eventually forgives Harry and begins writing songs with him. Following their first song, "My Sunny Tennessee," Bert and Harry create one hit song after another, but Bert grows increasingly depressed over his separation from Jessie. One day, Harry tries to help Bert overcome his depression by taking him on a trip to Buffalo, where Jessie is performing her show. Bert and Jessie resume their romance, and Jessie returns to New York with Bert, pledging to support his songwriting partnership with Harry. Harry, meanwhile, begins a romance with Terry Lordel, a sultry singer who is merely using him to further her career. Realizing that Harry is blind to Terry's scheme, Bert decides to protect him from an inevitable heartbreak by sending him to Florida to spend time with his favorite baseball team, the Washington Senators. When Harry returns to New York, he discovers that Terry has left him for another man. Harry is heartbroken, but Bert forces him to overlook his love troubles and concentrate on his work. A short time later, Harry reads a play that Bert has written and certain that it will fail, secretly sabotages the financing to protect Bert. Soon after the opening of the stage show Animal Crackers , for which Harry and Bert have contributed songs, Harry falls in love with Eileen Percy, a beautiful actress. One evening, at a party, Bert discovers the truth about Harry's involvement in the sabotaging of his play, and demands that they break off their partnership. Bert moves to Hollywood and becomes a successful screenplay writer, while Harry continues to compose songs. Harry eventually marries Eileen, who, with help from Jessie, secretly arranges a reunion of Bert and Harry on Phil Regan's radio show. Bert and Harry commemorate their reunion by singing a medley of their songs, and Bert surprises Harry at the end when he sings Harry's composition "Three Little Words," to which he had secretly written lyrics.
The Great Mendoza
John B. Williams
Edward F. Nulty
Nacio Herb Brown
Ralph A. Pender
C. A. Philbrick
Edwin B. Willis
Three Little Words
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 Oscar®, 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-doop"'s 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).
Producer: Jack Cummings
Director: Richard Thorpe
Screenplay: George Wells
Based on the lives and songs of Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby
Cinematography: Harry Jackson
Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons, Urie McCleary
Music: Andre Previn
Principal Cast: Fred Astaire (Bert Kalmar), Red Skelton (Harry Ruby), Vera-Ellen (Jessie Brown Kalmar), Arlene Dahl (Eileen Percy), Keenan Wynn (Charlie Kope), Gale Robbins (Terry Lordel), Gloria DeHaven (Mrs. Carter DeHaven), Phil Regan (Himself), Debbie Reynolds (Helen Kane), Carleton Carpenter (Dan Healy), Harry Mendoza (Mendoza the Great), Billy Gray (Boy), Helen Kane (Singing Voice of Debbie Reynolds), Anita Ellis (Singing Voice of Vera-Ellen), Harry Ruby (Ballplayer).
C-103m. Closed captioning.
by Frank Miller
Three Little Words
Vocals for Vera-Ellen were dubbed by Anita Ellis (I).
Vocals for 'Reynolds, Debbie' were dubbed by Helen Kane.
Onscreen credits note that this picture is "based on the lives and songs of Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby." As depicted in the film, composer and lyricist Ruby (born Harry Rubinstein 1895-1974) and lyricist and librettist Kalmar (1884-1947), were native New Yorkers and collaborated on many film and stage productions between 1917 and Kalmar's death in 1947. Both men were also successful on their own: Kalmar began writing hit songs in 1911, six years before he met Ruby, and Ruby wrote many songs by himself and with other lyricists. Among the many stage productions featuring songs and books written by Ruby and Kalmar were: Ladies First, which opened in 1918; the 1920 hit, Broadway Brevities, which introduced several famous Kalmar and Ruby songs, including "So Long, Oo-Long (How Long You Gonna Be Gone);" and the 1928 musical Good Boy, in which actress and singer Helen Kane introduced the song "I Wanna Be Loved By You." Kane, who is portrayed in Three Little Words by Debbie Reynolds, became known as the "boop-boop-a-doop girl" following her popular, child-like rendition of "I Wanna Be Loved By You."
In 1930, following a string of successful Broadway productions, Kalmar and Ruby moved to Hollywood, where they wrote music for several films as well as scripts for non-musical films. "Three Little Words," one of Kalmar and Ruby's most famous songs, was introduced in their first film, the 1930 RKO picture Check and Double Check (see AFI Catalog of Feature Films, 1921-30; F2.0845). Other films written and/or scored by Kalmar and Ruby include several Marx Bros. and Wheeler and Woolsey pictures; the 1931 Warner Bros. film Broadminded; and the 1937 RKO film The Life of the Party (see AFI Catalog of Feature Films, 1931-40; F3.0496 and F3.2483). In 1941, Kalmar and Ruby returned to New York and resumed their stage work while continuing to work on films. Their last film collaboration was on the screenplay for the 1949 Warner Bros. picture Look for the Silver Lining. For more information on the music and films of Kalmar and Ruby, please consult the Personal Name Indexes and Songwriters and Composers Indexes in this and other volumes of the AFI Catalog.
An August 1949 Hollywood Reporter news item noted that Sidney Sheldon was "penciled in" to direct the film and that Joe Pasternak was to produce. It is not known whether Pasternak was temporarily assigned to the film or if he was listed in error. Reynolds made her M-G-M screen debut in the film and was awarded a contract with the studio based on her portrayal of Kane. In her autobiography, Reynolds noted that she worked on the film for two days, and was paid $350 per day. Although contemporary news items in Daily Variety noted that actress Joy Rogers was announced for a part and that Jean Adcock, the "M-G-M commissary phone girl," was set for a speaking role, their appearance in the released film has not been confirmed. Daily Variety news items also indicate that Anne Sterling was tested for a featured role, and that Paul Whitemen, who was set to play himself in the film, bowed out of the picture due to a previous commitment.
In addition to Ruby, Kalmar and Kane, some business figures portrayed in the film include: Eileen Percy, a film star who appeared mostly in silent films between 1917 and 1933, and who married Ruby in 1936; Jessie Brown, Kalmar's vaudeville dancing partner who later married Kalmar; and Mrs. Carter DeHaven (born Flora Parker), an actress who appeared in many stage productions and silent films, and who was Kalmar's mother-in-law. Mrs. Carter DeHaven was played in the film by Gloria DeHaven, her real-life daughter. Ruby makes a brief cameo appearance in the film as a Washington Senators baseball player. Filming of the baseball scenes took place in Anaheim Stadium, near Los Angeles, with professional baseball players used as extras. A February 1950 Daily Variety news item noted that some filming was scheduled to take place on the RKO lot due to the great number of musical sequences and the lack of available space at M-G-M. The picture opened to generally favorable reviews, with Astaire and Vera-Ellen singled out for their outstanding performances. The Variety reviewer noted that Vera-Ellen, "with this picture, becomes the undisputed premiere danseuse of the screen," and that as Astaire's dance partner she "looks to be possibly the best partner he's ever had." The film received an Academy Award nomination for Best Scoring of a Musical Picture. The songs of Kalmar and Ruby remain popular and continue to appear in stage productions and motion pictures. The 1996 film musical Everyone Says I Love You, directed by Woody Allen, was titled after and featured Kalmar and Ruby's 1932 hit song.