Talking Up To
A Short Conversation With A Tall Man Reveals What It Was Like To Make Memorable Cinema Moments While Tongue Twisting With Debbie Reynolds And Having A Run-In With Gene Kelly
Carleton Carpenter in an MGM publicity photo.
By David Fantle and Tom Johnson
Reel to Real Special for Modern Times Magazine
May 26, 2015 — Tall, gangly and preternaturally naïve, Carleton Carpenter – the very definition of lanky – appeared in dozens of films, television shows, commercials and stage productions over the decades. But he’s probably best remembered for two musical numbers he performed with Debbie Reynolds in the 1950 MGM films, Three Little Words and Two Weeks with Love.
In the first, Carpenter played the meek (and mute) romantic foil to Reynolds as they cavorted and she lip-synched the Helen Kane chestnut, “I Wanna Be Loved By You.”
“Aba Daba Honeymoon” from Two Weeks with Love was the polar opposite kind of number; a rapid-fire, tongue-twisting duet that Carpenter this time sang with Reynolds. The ditty became an instant hit and, according to Carpenter, the biggest single off a studio soundtrack up until that time. In fact, the tune reached number three on the Billboard chart in 1951.
The song was inserted into the film quite by accident or as Carpenter told us over the phone from his home just north of New York City, it was a case of perfect timing.
“Debbie and I were scheduled to perform a couple of numbers together, but in the rehearsal hall there was a huge pile of sheet music. I pulled out this sheet with monkeys on the cover and played it for Debbie. I was hatching a scheme in my head.” (“Aba Daba Honeymoon” was originally composed in 1914.)
Cut to a couple of days later in that same rehearsal hall and an impromptu visit from the film’s producer, Jack Cummings. Carpenter immediately called Reynolds, gave the sheet music to the rehearsal pianist and they began performing the number at a Gatling gun pace.
Cummings immediately took notice said Carpenter.
“He told us that the number would be great for the two of us and we shot it.”
In the 1950 musical Summer Stock, starring Judy Garland and Gene Kelly, Carpenter played stagehand “Artie,” the foil to the comic patter of Phil Silvers. Carpenter remembers Garland as “wonderful and warm,” but his recollections of song and dance legend Kelly are not as favorable.
“Kelly was mean to me and I’m not sure why,” he said. “All I could figure out is that I was too tall for him (Carpenter stands 6 ft. 3 inches tall). He did everything he could to keep me off camera. He always had a smile on his face, but he had a knife in my back.”
Carpenter said the rest of his MGM colleagues, including Reynolds, Garland and Fred Astaire (star of Three Little Words) “couldn’t have been sweeter.”
Carpenter was born in Bennington, Vt., and before making his first foray into early live television and films, he served in the U.S. Navy as a Seabee. His service includes being part of the 38th Battalion that built the airstrip on the tiny island of Tinian where the Enola Gay took off on its atomic bombing mission of Hiroshima.
Now living in Warwick, N.Y., Carpenter, who turns 89 in July, continues to stay active writing, composing music and occasionally taking on a stage role.
David Fantle & Tom Johnson have been entertainment journalists for more than 30 years and co-authored the 2004 book, Reel to Real: 25 Years Of Celebrity Profiles From Vaudeville To Movies To TV. Fantle teaches film and television at Marquette University in Milwaukee and Johnson is a former senior editor for Netflix. They can be reached at www.reeltoreal.com
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