Rita Hayworth was, hands down, one of the most beautiful actresses ever. And she was a better dancer than Ginger Rogers. So why isn’t You’ll Never Get Rich, the first of two films she made with Fred Astaire, a match for the great Astaire/Rogers films of the thirties?
As is so often the case, it’s all about the ambiance. The Astaire/Rogers films took place in a sort of Wonderland, with Ginger as Alice. She’d tumbled into an art deco fairyland and pretty much had to marry Fred, because who else was there? In Wonderland terms, Fred was as close to a knight in shining armor as Ginger was going to get. And Ginger needed a knight, needed someone to watch over her, night and day.
Rita, on the other hand, didn’t look like a girl who had fallen down a rabbit hole. Rita was a goddess par excellence. Goddesses expect attention, and they can cut up pretty rough when they don’t get it, but they don’t need it. And it’s pretty hard to believe that Rita ever needed Fred.
You’ll Never Get Rich had some other flaws as well, notably a second-drawer score from Cole Porter, who managed to turn out six numbers without a single hit. Furthermore, the sets are strikingly mundane. Apparently, the affected, black and white extravagance of the earlier Astaire films was just too thirties. After eight years of the New Deal, and U.S. involvement in World War II looming ever closer, the style in popular culture was starting to get more democratic, a trend that’s also visible in the supporting cast. The regular-guy shtick of Guinn “Big Boy” Williams (“Kewpie” Blain) and Cliff Nazarro (“Swivel Tongue”) will make you long for the timeless swish of Erik Rhodes and Eric Blore.
But You’ll Never Get Rich does have a few pluses as well — notably, six dance numbers that include first-rate performances from the stars.
The film begins with Fred as choreographer for the “Boogie Barcarole,” a strained jazz/classical conglomerate that nonetheless features some terrific dancing from both Fred and Rita. “Someone’s a beat off,” Fred says, inspecting the chorus with an eagle eye and singling Rita out for some extra training. But we can guess that he’s looking more at her knees than her footwork.1
Rita responds to his chastisement with an impudent mock innocence, strongly suggesting that she’s quite aware of Fred’s true motivation, even if he isn’t. He gives her a “lesson” that doesn’t seem to teach her anything she doesn’t already know. We then see a full performance of the dance, during which Rita naughtily ignores a choreographed turn so she can keep her eyes on Fred.
The two seem to be on the way to romance, but naturally complications arise — something about a diamond bracelet, I think — and it turns out that Rita already has a boyfriend,2 Tom Barton.3 She doesn’t love him, of course, but she doesn’t know that yet. Fred’s so despondent that he’s happy to get his draft notice. The U.S. had instituted the first peace time draft in its history in 1940, a year before You’ll Never Get Rich4 began production, and the film was one of the first to feature a GI theme, though Fred was certainly among the less likely draftees.5
As Fred prepares to depart from Grand Central Station, the gals in the chorus rush in to give him a send-off, in a flurry of fur coats, high heels, and hot pants. The number, “Shootin’ the Works for Uncle Sam,” is more about the girls than Fred, a kind of chorus line thing that didn’t appear in Astaire’s films very often, though the girls are cute.
As the troupe marches Fred down the platform, his dancing pumps dissolve into marching boots. He’s in the army now, but his luck hasn’t changed, because he runs into Tom, wearing civvies and giving Fred some sass. Fred bops him, as any red-blooded American choreographer would, but unfortunately Tom turns out to be an officer, and Fred’s in the guardhouse.
Luckily, it’s a nice guardhouse, spacious and well-lit, with a resident jazz band and vocal group, as opposed to one of those bad guardhouses, where sadistic guards beat inmates mercilessly with axehandles.6 The guys provide back up for Fred in his briefest but most explosive dance, the brilliantly percussive “Since I Kissed My Baby Goodbye.”
The tune, performed in gospel style by the “Four Tones,” isn’t exactly standard-issue Cole Porter, but it has a nice flavor, and it spurs Fred to passionate heights of rhythmic invention. He first catches up with the beat sitting on his cot, tossing a box of wooden matches back and forth. Then he starts kicking the wooden frame of his bed. Unable to contain himself, he leaps to his feet and starts tapping, kicking the wooden posts that support the barrack’s roof for emphasis. In the midst of a dramatic flurry, he’s interrupted.
“You’re a beat off, soldier,” says a mischievous Rita, peeking in the window. She’s on her way to see Tom and she just stopped by. Fred claims to be a captain, inspecting the barracks, but somehow Rita isn’t buying. When Fred gets out, he calls on her — she’s staying nearby to see Tom — but gets busted for wearing a captain’s uniform to impress Rita. So it’s back to the guardhouse for some more tap, a high-speed instrumental called variously “March Milastaire” and the “A-Stairable Rag.”
When Fred finally gets out for good, he does what any red-blooded soldier would do — he puts on a show. Fortunately, Rita agrees to dance with him even though she’s still mad—otherwise there would be no plot, and, more importantly, we wouldn’t get to see “So Near and Yet So Far,” one of Fred’s post-Ginger dances that comes very close to the romantic elegance of their classic performances. The impact of the dance is weakened because the song isn’t that great, the dance doesn’t have any dramatic significance (Rita doesn’t let herself be charmed), and because of the cheesy set (pretty much a bare stage with some fake palm trees).
When the day of the big show arrives, Rita still isn’t happy with Fred. The closing number, “The Wedding Cake Walk,” which is all we see, is sung by Martha Tilton, who worked with Benny Goodman in the thirties. Martha gives way to a military wedding, with Rita and Fred as the bride and groom, of course, Fred looking a little silly in a “Student Prince” style dress uniform. Fred and Rita have some good moments, but the large chorus gets in the way, and the finale, with the cast dancing up the tiers of a giant wedding cake, which is topped by a full-sized, pastel tank, can only be described as misconceived.
Once the dance is over, we learn that the justice of the peace in the number was a real JP! They’re really married! Somehow, Rita adjusts, but I’m afraid that the rest of us have stopped caring.
Rita Hayworth started in show business as Margarita Cansino, dancing professionally for years with her father. She picked up bit parts under her real name but in 1937 she married a cut-rate Svengali named Ed Judson, who helped her turn herself into Rita Hayworth.
Hayworth named her two films with Astaire, You’ll Never Get Rich and its follow-up, You Were Never Lovelier, as her two favorite pictures. The only non-Astaire film I’ve seen her in that involves dancing is Cover Girl, which helped make Gene Kelly a film star. Cover Girl is a major disappointment. It seems that Kelly at that time lacked the clout to make his co-stars rehearse and apparently Rita didn’t like rehearsing on her own. The dances Gene and Rita have together are quite sloppy and heavy-handed. Even Kelly’s solo piece is unimpressive.
Hayworth’s last big picture was Pal Joey, with Frank Sinatra and Kim Novak in 1957, but she remains very much a screen legend, a statement that can be verified by visiting “Rita Hayworth: Screen Goddess.”
“Fredastaire.net” tells you just about all you could want to know about Fred.
- We’ve already been informed that they’re “dimpled” by the lecherous Robert Benchley, filling in, but never very well, for Edward Everett Horton. [↩]
- But if she already has a boyfriend, why is she making eyes at Fred during the rehearsal? Rita isn’t planning on plowing a few pertinent choreographers on the way to the top, is she? The plot here is really pretty random. One could also note that when Rita isn’t toiling in the chorus she clearly enjoys an “old money” life style. Why work at all? [↩]
- Barton is played by John Hubbard, a colorless actor who labored in bit parts for more than 40 years, from Hold ‘em, Navy in 1937 to OHMS in 1980. The casting for this film, like the plot, was quite uninspired. [↩]
- It may be necessary to explain that the title of You’ll Never Get Rich refers to the chorus of an old World War I song:
You’re in the army now!
You’re in the army now!
You’ll never get rich,
By digging a ditch! [or “You son of a bitch!”] You’re in the army now!
The military scenes in You’ll Never Get Rich all look like they’re set in World War I instead of World War II because the pre-war army, operating on a tight budget, relied heavily on WWI left-overs. Hence the broad-brimmed “Boy Scout” campaign hats, etc., which rarely turn up even on the History Channel. [↩]
- In real life, choreographers didn’t have to worry much about the draft back in 1940. According to Jackson Pollack: An American Saga, the excellent biography by Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith, the WWII military rejected anyone involved in the arts, under the assumption that any man who took an interest in beauty had to be queer. Just giving a Greenwich Village address could get you bounced. [↩]
- See James Jones’ famous novel From Here to Eternity, or the film version, for a look at the latter. When I was in the army I met a soldier who’d spent some time in a navy brig. He said that at every meal the prisoners had to crawl into the mess hall on their hands and knees while the guards beat them with billy clubs. [↩]