Chiu chiu to you, baby
Latin kitsch so thick you could cut it with a knife? Yup. Another inane musical comedy plot? Yup. The two best dances Fred Astaire and Rita Hayworth ever did together? Yeah, that too.
The joys of You Were Never Lovelier (1942), Fred and Rita’s second and final film together, are few but stunning — the gorgeously romantic “I’m Old Fashioned” and the endlessly exuberant “Shorty George.” That, along with a nice “Audition Dance” from Fred and Rita’s imperishable good looks are about all this film has to offer.
The U.S. had been at war almost a year by the time You Were Never Lovelier was made, but the suits decided, perhaps wisely, to keep Fred out of it. Naturally, they didn’t want to admit that Fred was over draft age, so they sent him down to Argentina, where he could lead a life of leisure without a guilty conscience. Fred’s a dancer (of course), but he’s tired of dancing, so he trades Manhattan for Buenos Aires.
Fred’s career move coincides with a larger marketing strategy pursued by Hollywood in the forties. With the European market largely shut down by the Nazis, it made sense to pay more attention to our good friends south of the border, who presumably wouldn’t notice that we’d been ignoring them for the past few decades.1)
Once he’s in B.A., Fred checks out the local sounds, notably “Chiu Chiu,” delivered by Lina Romay and Miguelito Valdés (aka “Mr. Babalú”), backed up by Xavier Cugat and his band. For lovers of Latin lounge music, it’s a gift from the gods, but highbrows in the crowd may find all the hip-shakin’ ruffles and flourishes just a bit hard to take.
A trip to the racetrack has left Fred seriously short of funds, and he has to reconsider his vow to give up dancing. He goes to see local bigshot Eduardo Acuna (Adolph Menjou), in search of employment, but his clever “Audition Dance”2) leaves Eduardo unimpressed.
Once we’ve met Eduardo we soon learn that he has three beautiful unmarried daughters! And he won’t let the younger ones marry until the eldest does! And she’s Rita Hayworth! And she says she’ll never get married!
Hey, there’s no plot like an old plot. You Were Never Lovelier could have been fun. But the script, and the acting, let us down hard. The screenwriters simply never come up with anything clever or funny, and the Acuna sisters are left to giggle their way through the rest of the picture.
Fortunately, there are two very high points to come. “I’m Old Fashioned,” by Jerome Kern and Johnny Mercer, is a great standard, and the dance that accompanies it is worthy of the classics that Fred and Ginger had been doing at RKO a few years before.3) “Shorty George,” a superior novelty number, may be even better, thanks to a sensationally sexy performance by Rita. The dance is set up as wholesome bobby-soxer swing, but Hayworth projects a voluptuous energy that practically burns a hole in the celluloid.4
After the dust settles from “Shorty George,” there isn’t a lot going on. “You Were Never Lovelier” doesn’t compare with “I’m Old Fashioned” and we don’t get another dance until the very end, a one-minute wrap-up that isn’t much more than a couple of turns.5 Well, you can’t find the diamonds unless you’re willing to dig in the dirt.
Xavier Cugat is surely not much of a name these days, but he was an enduring presence in American popular music for decades, and several dozen CDs offering his inimitable brand of Latin kitsch are available via the Internet. Cugat led the house band for the fabled Coconut Grove in Hollywood back in the twenties and, according to the Hyp Records “Vinyl Safari” site,6 provided background music for the first two talking pictures, Don Juan and The Jazz Singer.
Latin music had a special niche in American culture back in the day. Dances like the samba, rhumba, cha-cha, and mambo were the sexiest things that white people were allowed to do until the twist came along, and Cugie was always there to fill the bill. He probably had the most successful band in the country during the Eisenhower era, thanks in no small part to the presence of quintessential fifties sex bomb Abbe Lane, Cugat’s vocalist and third wife.7
Jerome Kern also wrote the score (an even better one) for the Fred & Ginger classic Roberta. See the “Afterwords” of my review of that film for more on Kern.
- The U.S. State Department might have had a hand in this as well. A few Latin American governments, and Argentina in particular, had the not very good idea that Nazi Germany might serve as a “Big Brother” to counterbalance the Colossus of the North. Hollywood poured out a stream of Good Neighbor films in the forties, most notably The Three Caballeros (1944), in which Donald Duck and his two Latin amigos dive-bomb South American cuties on a beach. (The New Yorker, too big for its britches even then, described the film as “a mixture of atrocious taste, bogus mysticism, and authentic fantasy, guaranteed to baffle any critic not hopelessly enchanted with the word ‘Disney’.” [↩]
- Bitten by the Latin bug, Fred dances with his ass for one of the few times in his career, and also jumps up on Menjou’s desk and beats him over the head with his cane. (Serves him right, the fascist! [↩]
- The pleasure of the number is slightly diminished by the fact that Rita lip-synchs the words. (Nan Wynn does the real singing. [↩]
- One can imagine the effect this number had on all-male audiences in military theaters. Once can also imagine the numerous shouted suggestions for Fred to step aside and let a “real man” take over. [↩]
- According to an online trivia note, the film originally contained a dance for “You Were Never Lovelier” but it was cut from the film. [↩]
- The dudes at Hyp know absolutely everything about off-the-wall vinyl, but are too pure even to mention CDs, so if you actually want to listen to Cugie, Martin Denny, Yma Sumac, Esquivel, etc., you’ll have to do your own shopping. [↩]
- After he and Abbe split in the sixties, Cugat married infamous sex bombette Charo, passing her off as a folk singer. Hey, what the public wants, the public gets. [↩]