Filmmaking is easy. Or so you would believe when watching the MGM musical Words and Music (1948)… and according to this film, musicals are particularly easy to produce.
In the classical era of Hollywood the majority of talent involved in film production including cast and crew were on long-term contracts to the studios. Money-raking stars like Judy Garland were bound by contracts for seven years at a time. Contracted musicians, designers and technicians working for the studio were selected for films that were made like factory products.
When Garland signed her new contract in 1946 she allegedly regretted this as the worst decision she had made at MGM. She was to be one of the highest paid stars in Hollywood, yet she wanted to become freelance (in much the same way that Fred Astaire worked). Independence also meant that she could choose to do stage work instead (Frank, 1975: 224; Coulson, 2014: 84).
Her appearance in Words and Music was apparently made under some duress to claim back around $100,000 owed to her by Metro from one of her suspensions (Frank, 1975: 242). Yet her performances of her two songs are magnificent.
Appearing in the Hollywood party scene as herself she casually discusses the prospect of making a film with Richard Rogers (played by Tom Drake).
The MGM scriptwriters attempt to hoodwink the cinema audience into thinking that producing a feature film is like putting on a ‘Babes’ show in a barn! We have to suspend disbelief when watching scenes like this. If the party scene is supposedly representing Rogers and Harts’ move to Hollywood in the early 1930s to write scores for films such as Love Me Tonight (1932) and Hallelujah, I’m a Bum (1933) then at the time, Judy Garland certainly wasn’t an established star who could suggest a film project with them. If Words and Music is set in its present (1948), then Lorenz Hart would already have been dead.
Perhaps more accurately, the scene is set circa 1940. During the duet that Judy performs with Mickey Rooney (as Hart) – ‘I Wish I Were In Love Again’ – the plot is postponed momentarily as the film becomes the ‘Mickey and Judy Show’. This song had been omitted from the film score of Babes in Arms (1939)*, and at this time Garland and Rooney were MGM’s most successful musical double act. Rooney’s role as Hart becomes an irrelevance. This is a nostalgic turn that reminds audiences of the ‘Babes’ musicals.
Judy returns for an encore of ‘Johnny One Note’ – the cut between the two songs trying unsuccessfully to disguise a pause of many weeks and a missing belt from Garland’s dress. In MGM musicals filmmaking is easy: A composer from New York meets a Hollywood star at a party. This is how deals are made…
*the stage show Babes in Arms dates from 1937.
Coulson, Joan Beck, 2014, Always for Judy, Witness to the Joy and Genius of Judy Garland, California: Yarnscombe Books
Frank, Gerold, 1975, Judy, London: W. H. Allen