There are some movies that are just fun to watch, from start to finish. ‘Three Little Words’ is one of them.
It’s based on the story of Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby, and how they form one of the most famous songwriting teams in the 1920s. It stars Fred Astaire (Kalmar) and Red Skelton (Ruby), with able support by Keenan Wynn, Vera Ellen, who plays Kalmar’s patient wife Jessie Brown, and Arlene Dahl, Ruby’s elegant movie star wife. So you get Astaire and Skelton together in a musical – what’s not to love?
Kalmar and Jessie start out as vaudeville dancing partners, but Kalmar secretly harbors dreams of becoming a famous magician. He regularly has side gigs as a magician under a fake name, and it’s on one of these occasions that he meets Ruby, who is assigned as his assistant. However, Ruby messes all of Kalmar’s props and ruins his act, which effectively derails Kalmar’s future as a magician.
Later, a freak accident backstage leads to a knee injury for Kalmar, which also ends his dancing career. He ends up in the offices of a songwriter friend, where Ruby (whom he doesn’t recognize at first) is now working as a song plugger. Somehow they end up collaborating on a song, and its publication starts their songwriting partnership.
And what a partnership! I had never heard these songs before seeing the movie, but they’re all beautifully written especially songs like ‘Who’s Sorry Now’ (performed in the movie by Gloria De Haven, as herself), ‘Nevertheless, I’m In Love With You’, and ‘All Alone Monday’. And the opening song ‘Where Did You Get That Girl’ is so darn catchy that I sing songs to my puppy with nonsense words using that tune.
Of course, being set in a much earlier period, there’s a pretty racist song among their works, the unfortunate ‘So Long Oo-Long’. It’s meant to be a novelty song, but it is so unbelievably racist, the way Kalmar describes the need for a Japanese song, but the title sounds nothing like a Japanese name, and the way they perform the song in stores with offensive accents and references to an “Oriental sky” – oy. It’s too much. In fact it’s too much, that you have to actually find it funny.
But that’s the only hiccup, and because back then people didn’t know any better, we have to give them a pass. Astaire and Skelton play off each other so perfectly that every scene with them is gold. Astaire plays the straight man to Skelton’s funny man, but Astaire gets in his comic moments too. The title of the movie (and the title of my post) refers to a running gag between the two. Ruby has a tune that Kalmar can’t seem to find the lyrics for, so they try to set it aside. But Ruby trots it out at every songwriting session and tries to pass it off as a new tune for Kalmar, until finally after years of bickering Kalmar blurts out “You’re a dope!” as the perfect lyrics to the tune.
In fact, I think the heart of this movie is encapsulated in the title. Underneath all the lively musical numbers and comic moments, it’s the friendship between the two partners that gives it depth. Because Kalmar and Ruby are together for a long time and become really close, some friction inevitably develops. They become estranged for a while, and it’s only after Kalmar finally comes up with the words (the titular ‘Three Little Words’, not ‘You’re a dope’) to the long-suffering tune that they make up again.
This is one of my feel-good movies and it never fails to cheer me up!