Fred Astaire tells Rita Hayworth... You Were Never Lovelier (1942)

In the early 1940s, Fred Astaire was already a legend, thanks to his massively successful teaming with Ginger Rogers. Amazingly enough, although the actor had conquered vaudeville, Broadway, and Hollywood, he still had many more iconic achievements to look forward to. Rita Hayworth, on the other hand, was just beginning her rise to film stardom when she was first paired with Astaire for 1941's You'll Never Get Rich. As Fred tells it, "Gene Markey, then a producer at Columbia Pictures, asked me to discuss an idea about working with a little girl they had under contract there. She was primarily a dancer, he said, and sure to become a terrific star. She had only done a few B pictures up to that time. Her name was Rita Cansino -- recently changed to Hayworth. I had heard about this beautiful daughter of my old vaudeville-days friend Eduardo Cansino."

Time passed, though, and Astaire began to wonder why he hadn't heard from Markey again until he read that the producer had been called into the Navy. Eager for a break, Astaire decided to take a vacation, but soon became worried as more weeks went by without any film offers from any studios. And then it happened: not only did Paramount want to put him with Bing Crosby in Holiday Inn, Columbia wanted to star him with Hayworth in two back-to-back musicals. "I liked all three prepositions," Fred recalled. "Suddenly, I had so many pictures to do that they were getting in each other's way. An extensive musical cycle was cooking in Hollywood, inspired, I suppose, by a desire to counteract the gloomy wartime atmosphere." For the next two years, Astaire was swamped with a busy schedule that included filming You'll Never Get Rich, Holiday Inn, and You Were Never Lovelier in that order, USO tours, and countless war bond appearances.


When Hayworth and Astaire met, it was at a rehearsal hall at Columbia Studios. According to Fred, "As I came up the last few steps I gave a hurried glance around, expecting to see Rita, as I had been told she would be there. I didn't see her and asked one of the assistants, 'Isn't Miss Hayworth going to be here this morning?' He pointed to a remote corner of the room, 'Why, yes -- she's been here for some time.' There she was. Oh yes -- a beautiful sight. Bob Alton, choreographer on [You'll Never Get Rich], brought her over and introduced us. I said, 'I'm an old friend of your father's.' 'Yes, I know,' murmured Rita."

Fred then asked her how tall she was, something he was always concerned about with his partners, and was relieved to discover he stood three inches taller than her. "We then danced around the mirrored room in impromptu ballroom fashion, as I wanted to get an idea of how we looked together. I kept thinking how extraordinary it was to find myself about to play opposite my friend Eduardo Cansino's lovely daughter, and I told her so. She laughed."

You'll Never Get Rich, while not a masterpiece by any means, was an important film for both of its stars. It was Rita's first major movie for Columbia and it helped launch her as a box office sensation. For Fred, the picture was much-needed assurance that he could do well without Ginger always by his side. Astaire was excited to reunite with Hayworth for You Were Never Lovelier, writing in his autobiography,  "I looked forward to it mainly because Rita was so delightful to work with and I wanted very much to have a big hit with her. She had gained a lot of experience and was by then one of the top feminine stars on the screen."

Directed by William A. Seiter, the film is a remake of the 1941 Argentine musical Los martes, orquídeas (On Tuesdays, Orchids). Thanks to the Good Neighbor Policy, Columbia kept the film's Argentina setting and brought in Xavier Cugat and his orchestra to add some more Latin authenticity to the project. The movie's elegant score was courtesy of Johnny Mercer and Jerome Kern, who, surprisingly, was reticent about the inclusion of Cugat. After production, however, Kern was so happy with Cugie's contributions that he gifted the bandleader with a silver baton. In addition to Cugat's hiring, Kern was also uneasy about composing in the Latin style. Astaire was adamant that he wanted to explore Latin dance, though, and he was able to do so with the help of special arrangements by Cugat and Lyle Murphy, and Hayworth's own influence. The results, as you'll soon see, are pretty spectacular.

At Palermo Race Track in Buenos Aires, American dancer Bob Davis (Astaire) is penniless after betting on the wrong horse. Not to worry, though -- Bob simply heads to the ritzy Hotel Acuña to try and get a job. After all, he's a big deal in New York, so surely Eduardo Acuña (Adolphe Menjou), the hotel's owner, would be thrilled to employ him. Wrong! As Bob quickly learns from Acuña's put-upon secretary, Fernando (Gus Schilling), the man is basically a tyrant. We see that for ourselves as we join Acuña while he picks out the trousseau for his oldest daughter, Julia, who is getting married the next day. When Maria Castro, a longtime family friend and Julia's future mother-in-law, points
out that it is odd that Delfina, Acuña's wife, isn't putting together the trousseau, he shuts her down, explaining that Julia should be dressing for her husband and not for other women, therefore it's necessary that a man choose her clothes.

Okay, so let's just stop here for a second. I adore this movie. It's honestly one of my absolute favorites. However, I'm not blind to its biggest issue: Mr. Acuña. He is disgustingly misogynistic, manipulative, stubborn, and controlling. Oddly enough, the film recognizes he is a problematic character, and there are a few ways in which it is commented on, but (spoiler
alert) he never receives any kind of comeuppance for his terrible behavior. It's very unfortunate, but I try not to let it ruin the whole film for me.

Back to the plot! Bob is disappointed by Acuña's dismissal, but his hopes are raised when he runs into old friend Xavier Cugat, who is working at the hotel's Sky Room. He offers to help Bob get Acuña's attention by having him perform with Cugat's band at Julia's wedding. Acuña would have to notice him then!

The next day, the wedding ceremony is just minutes away as Julia and her sisters -- Cecy, Lita, and Maria (Hayworth) -- finish getting ready. All of them are excited for Julia, but Cecy and Lita soon begin voicing their frustration that it'll be years before they can marry their own beaus because their father insists that they wed in order of age and Maria, the second oldest, isn't interested in matrimony. The girls, of course, think something is seriously wrong with their sister and as the film goes on, you start to wonder if the film's alternate title could be How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?

After the ceremony is over, though, and the guests watch Bob's marvelous rendition of "Dearly Beloved," we can tell that Maria doesn't have "an ice cube for a heart" as Cecy and Lita claim. Looking at Julia and her new husband as she listens to Kern and Mercer's gorgeous ballad, Maria practically swoons at the romance of it all.

Someone who isn't swooning, though, is Acuña, much to Bob's dismay. He tries to find the hotelier during the reception by asking Maria if she has seen him. Realizing how stunning this random woman is, Bob tries to engage her in some small talk, but she refuses to do anything other than give him a blank stare. Bob gives up and locates Acuña, but when he shudders as Maria walks by and remarks that her personality is like "the inside of a refrigerator," Acuña reveals she is his daughter and an embarrassed Bob shows himself the door.

At his office the next morning, Acuña complains about this episode to Maria Castro, whom his daughter was named after. Acuña just can't understand why Maria acts so coldly toward men, but Maria C. explains that his daughter is really "as old-fashioned as a hoop skirt" and that she wants to be swept off her feet. Maybe if a man were to write her love letters or send her flowers every day... Just then, Acuña gets an idea: he'll start sending Maria orchids and a handwritten card every day from a "secret admirer" and then once she is intrigued, he'll supply the man, whoever he may be. Maria C. instantly sees this as the awful plan it is, but Acuña won't listen.

Before long, Maria has fallen for her mysterious suitor, much to Cecy and Lita's delight. They happily eavesdrop on their sister as she reprises "Dearly Beloved" alone in her room, wearing one of the most risque nightgowns I've ever seen in a classic film. Throughout this movie, Hayworth is outfitted in backless, low-cut gowns and diaphanous skirts. Irene must have tested the censors with these creations because they seem pretty racy for the time. Hayworth's singing voice, by the way, was dubbed by Nan Wynn. Although Rita had a good voice herself, Columbia head Harry Cohn never let audiences hear it, except for a brief scene in Gilda.





When Acuña goes on a business trip, he forgets to keep sending the orchids, devastating Maria. Having been unable to get a meeting with Acuña, Bob steps into his office while Fernando is away from his desk and receives instructions for delivering the flowers from Acuña, who is too busy shaving to realize that he is speaking to Bob and not a bellboy. When Bob takes the orchids and accompanying note to the Acuña house, Maria recognizes him from her balcony and discerns that he is her mystery man.

Bob returns to the hotel and tells an annoyed Acuña that now that he did him the favor of delivering that stuff, Acuña will finally let him audition. With Cugat and his band backing him up, Bob executes a fun, loose dance routine that might just be one of the most playful solos Astaire ever did. Fred himself called the number "one of my best solos" and remembered that while filming the part where Bob taps Acuña on the head with a cane, Menjou told him, "Now, don't be afraid to really hit me on the head. I've got a hard head." After the first take, though, Menjou admitted, "I wish I had kept my big mouth shut -- I didn't know that cane was a baseball bat!" When Astaire told him he should have stopped the scene, he replied, "I couldn't. I was unconscious." This routine actually inspired Jerome Robbins, who created his own solo Latin dance in his first ballet Fancy Free.





Although Acuña is highly impressed by Bob's talent, he still won't hire him. After Bob leaves, Maria arrives and excitedly tells her father that she has discovered the identity of her admirer -- Bob! Acuña is horrified, but he reluctantly agrees to invite Bob to the house that evening. Backed into a corner, Acuña tells Bob everything and then asks the dancer to continue the charade, confident that Bob's "obnoxious" personality will repel Maria and she'll quickly move on. Bob is appalled by the idea, but when Acuña offers him a contract in return, he accepts.

That evening, Bob arrives at the house and is soon
smitten by Maria. Out in the garden, Bob remembers that he is supposed to be making himself unattractive to her, but it turns out that they are remarkably compatible:

Bob: "You don't know my kind of life."
Maria: "It's music and dancing, isn't it? Well, we love your North American music and dances down here."
Bob: "Imagine a man like me having to dance for a living."
Maria: "I can't imagine a happier way to earn one."
Bob: "You know, there's a great weakness in my character. I'm a sucker for a horse race."
Maria: "They thrill me, too."
Bob: "Oh, but I'd probably bet my last cent on a horse. As a matter of fact, I did."
Maria: "I have a gambler's heart myself! You know, I think that's why your notes intrigued me so."
Bob: "Look, little lady, as they'd say in Brooklyn: I can't bat in your league. I'm a plain, ordinary guy from Omaha, Nebraska. Just an old-fashioned, every day Midwesterner. Why, my grandfather was a cattle raiser."
Maria: "So was mine!"

To illustrate that they belong together, Maria begins to sing "I'm Old-Fashioned" and the two are soon in each other's arms, dancing their little hearts out. This beautifully photographed routine perfectly encapsulates Astaire and Hayworth's chemistry. They both look like they are having the time of their lives, and this dance goes a long way in making you believe in Bob and Maria's blossoming relationship.






Although he is definitely drawn to Maria, Bob remembers his deal with Acuña just as she leans in for a kiss. He makes a hasty exit, but Maria is far from disenchanted. At Acuña's office the next day, Bob declares that he is going back to New York. Convinced that his family will think he forced Bob to leave, Acuña threatens legal action and demands that Bob fulfill his contract but stay away from Maria. That way, she'll think Bob only wooed her to get the job and she will eventually move on to a more "acceptable" suitor. Bob hates this idea, but he feels trapped.

Over at the Acuña house, the women are preparing party invitations for Acuña and Delfina's 25th wedding anniversary. When Maria sees that Bob is not on the guest list, she goes to the Sky Room where he is rehearsing with Cugat and personally invites him. Unable to resist, he accepts and then lets her stay to watch him practice "The Shorty George," a routine that Bob says was brought over from Brooklyn. Bob is amazed when Maria joins in, and together they do an incredible, fast-paced tap number which required four weeks of five-hour-day rehearsals for Astaire and Hayworth to perfect. "The Shorty George" title refers to a popular dance step of the time, which was credited to George "Shorty" Snowden, a champion African-American dancer at Harlem’s Savoy Ballroom who also invented the Lindy Hop.







At the anniversary party, Acuña is beyond irritated to see Bob show up and announces that Bob received a job offer from New York and will be leaving tomorrow. Maria tries to play it cool, but she is clearly hurt. Determined to make Bob feel jealous so he will realize he wants to stay in Buenos Aires with Maria, Cecy and Lita have Fernando continually butt in on Bob and Maria dancing. The plan goes awry, though, when Fernando gets pushed into a fountain and the girls confess what they were trying to do. Humiliated, Maria states that she and Bob aren't in love, so there is nothing for anyone to get excited about.

Unwilling to leave things as they are, Bob takes Maria to the garden and cheers her up by adorably acting as though he can't even look at her because she is too radiant before he launches into "You Were Never Lovelier." According to Astaire, there was a dance that followed, but it was cut after the movie's preview because the studio thought it "held up the story." It's depressing to think that we lost any Fred Astaire number, particularly one with Hayworth, but there you are. Although they don't dance, by the end of the song, Bob and Maria admit they love one another and kiss.

Bob takes Acuña aside and tells him he can't give up Maria. Acuña decides to discourage him by saying that Maria has been in love with the romantic ideal of the Scottish knight Lochinvar ever since she was fifteen and it's clouded her judgment. He twists in the knife even further when he says that Maria would have fallen for any man who claimed to write those notes; Bob just happened to be that guy. It's an immensely insulting load of bullshit, to be frank, and Bob falls for it. Throughout the film, Acuña brings up Lochinvar and tries to situate his daughter as this stunted woman who still worships a mythical knight, but we never hear
Maria herself confirm that this has been her trouble with men. In my opinion, Maria has a right to desire a certain kind of man and she obviously hadn't found anybody worth her time until she made a genuine connection with Bob.

My frustration with Acuña only intensifies as the scene goes on. He writes a goodbye note for Maria from "Bob," but gets caught by Delfina, who believes that the Maria he mentions is Maria Castro. The whole thing becomes a big mess, yet Acuña refuses to explain himself, even when Mr. Castro challenges him to a duel. Finally, Bob steps up and admits everything, breaking Maria's heart. He tries to explain that he does love her, but she refuses to listen. Impressed that Bob spilled the beans to help him, Acuña gives Bob permission to court Maria. (Oh, how generous.)

For days, Bob sends Maria endless orchids -- and even a quartet of singing delivery boys! -- but she remains steadfast in her anger, which is slightly ridiculous because she has already forgiven Maria Castro for her complicity in her father's plan. (We're never told whether or not she has forgiven her father.) Bob is at a loss what to do, so he asks Acuña what this Lochinvar fellow did. With that as inspiration, Bob has Cugat's band come play below Maria's balcony before he hilariously appears in a suit of armor atop a white horse. When he falls off the horse and breaks apart his armor, Maria runs down to him and they reunite with one final, joyous dance.






Although I'm not a fan of the domineering father he plays, Adolphe Menjou was the ideal actor for that character. No one did scheming control freaks quite like Menjou. As Cecy and Lita, Leslie Brooks and Adele Mara are also quite good, and Barbara Brown is a hoot as daffy Delfina. My favorite supporting player, though, is without a doubt Gus Schilling. I love Fernando, and Schilling brings so much sass and humor to the role. It is absolutely delicious to watch.

Of course, the main attraction here is Fred and Rita. From the moment they first danced together, Astaire was in heaven. In private, he often called her his favorite dancing partner and every time they share the screen, you can tell how happy they are to be working together. Their rehearsals for this film were quite unique -- with no available space at Columbia, the two had to practice above a funeral parlor! Every time a procession went by, they had to halt rehearsals. To keep things light, Astaire would tell Hayworth jokes. One time, he even put his hands in ice before taking her into his arms for one of their routines. "Oddly enough," Fred wrote, "we pulled some good dance material out of those weird surroundings."


Although Hayworth is definitely one of the most beautiful people you'll ever see, what I love about her first and foremost is her talent. Don't let the shallow "love goddess" image fool you -- Hayworth wasn't just a pretty face. Throughout her career, she often played women of mystery, complicated vixens who usually turn out to have hearts of gold. But I must admit my favorite films of Hayworth's are her musicals. These are the movies where I feel like we are closest to seeing what she was really like. Born Margarita Carmen Cansino to two professional dancers, Hayworth started performing at the age of three. She became her father's dance partner in the 1930s before making her way to Hollywood, where she was encouraged to change her name and her appearance to be more "American."

Hayworth loved working with Astaire, and years later would say that the films they made together were "the jewels" of her life, along with Cover Girl. "Rita danced with trained perfection and individuality," Astaire gushed. "She, of course, knew through experience what this dancing business was all about. That was apparent the moment I started working with her." There are many moments in You Were Never Lovelier were we get shots of a completely enamored Bob looking at Maria, and I think you can see Astaire's own fondness for Hayworth shine through.


Kern and Mercer's Oscar-nominated score is truly a thing of beauty. (Astaire himself called it "exceptionally fine.") "Dearly Beloved" is so simple, yet earnest and heartfelt. Although it was nominated for a Best Original Song Academy Award and became a huge hit, particularly at weddings, I feel like the tune has been forgotten, which is such a shame. "You Were Never Lovelier" and "I'm Old Fashioned" are darling as well, and "The Shorty George" is incredibly fun. "Wedding in the Spring," a syrupy sweet song, is wonderfully performed by Cugat's band and never fails to get stuck in my head.

Speaking of Cugie, there is a fascinating scene where the bandleader demonstrates his skill as a cartoonist by drawing a caricature of Menjou. You can also see some of his other works on the walls of his hotel room, including one which I think is supposed to be Astaire. Cugat's cartoons were actually featured in an article for Life Magazine to publicize You Were Never Lovelier. Check out his depictions of the Rita, Fred, and more below:






A romantic, exquisite film, You Were Never Lovelier is one of the finest musicals to come out of the Golden Age of Hollywood. Astaire is delectable as the sarcastic dancer who would rather gamble, and Hayworth captures everyone's hearts, not just Astaire's, as the dazzling woman who falls for him. I'm not even kidding when I say that the screen literally glows when these two are together. Don't take my word for it, though -- you'll just have to see the film for yourself!























































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This is my contribution to my 100 Years of Rita Hayworth Blogathon. You can check out the full roster of awesome participants here! Happy 100th, Rita!

Comments

  1. Bravo, gorgeously illustrated and beautifully written essay on a Hayworth gem! Astaire and Hayworth were magic together, and if it had not been for Ginger, I think Rita and Fred could have become the most iconic dance couple in film history. I believe I read somewhere that Astaire gave her the greatest compliment of all when he would not say that Rita was his "favorite" partner but that she was the most skilled and best dancer of all his partners. It was true!

    Looking forward to exploring this wonderful blogathon! I love Rita!!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Aw, thank you! I hate that we only got two films from Rita and Fred. They were so magical together, and as you point out, Fred really appreciated her abilities.

      I can't wait to read the other entries myself! :)

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  2. Glorious Kern music and Rita and Fred make You Were Never Lovelier a sheer delight. From one lovely dance to the next you feel an enchantment.

    My goodness, Cugat's cartoons are marvelous. Thanks for that. Thanks also for hosting this blogathon; a wonderful tribute to Rita.

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  3. It's been a little while since I've seen this memorable film. What I most remember about it is The Shorty George routine and how Rita absolutely sparkled!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. "Sparkled" is right! She is absolutely luminous in this movie, especially when she is dancing. Thanks for reading!

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  4. I left a comment a couple of days ago but a "mail not deliverable" notice may have been referring to it, so apologies if this is a repeat.

    Your article made me fall in love with this movie all over again. And it is the combination of Rita and Fred that made me fall in the first place.

    Cugat's drawings are wonderful and thanks so much for sharing them, and for hosting this grand tribute to Rita Hayworth.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I'm so sorry about your comments not going through! I started moderating my comments because I was getting a ridiculous amount of spam, but now Blogger has begun blocking certain people, including you and Quiggy from The Midnite Drive-In. I just can't seem to win with Blogger.

      Anyway, thanks for your lovely words. I'm glad you enjoyed Cugat's drawings. He was quite good, wasn't he? I think his caricature of Menjou is spot-on.

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  5. Ah, Michaela, you've done a wonderful job reviewing this film, and now I want to drop everything to see it again. There's so much to love here, not the least of which are the scenes with Rita and Fred. Thanks for all the background info, too. And a big thanks for hosting this event! :)

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    Replies
    1. Thanks, Ruth! Since I've been so swamped with other commitments, I was really hesitant to do a full-blown review for this blogathon, but writing this proved to be just the thing I needed to relax for a few days. Focusing on Rita and Fred is good medicine, I guess. :)

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  6. A great informative article Michaela! I had heard about this film but have never seen it. No wonder Fred was paired to Rita. She was a great dancer! I like the part where you tell us how they came to work togheter. Interesting that Fred was friend with Rita's father. However, he was quite an horrible man (the father not Fred!), but that's another story.

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    1. Thanks, Virginie! You really must check this one out. It's quite wonderful. I haven't read much about Rita's father, but it is surprising to me that Fred seemed to be such good friends with him when Fred was kindness personified.

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    2. By the way, if you like Rita's musicals, have you seen Music In My Heart? My favourite Hayworth's film along with Separate Tables! Her father (part due to alcholism) was a violent and abusive man. It affected Rita a lot psychologicaly :(

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    3. Music in My Heart is still one I need to see. I've been hoping TCM would play it for a while now, but no such luck.

      How terrible for Rita! Sometimes it seems like she never could catch a break. :(

      Delete

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