‘You Were Never Lovelier’ or — The Irresistible Thrill of Sexual Scheming?

Bob Davis has just lost all his money on the horses down in Buenos Aires. Bob’s not too concerned though as Bob’s Fred Astaire and Bob’s pal Xavier Cugat and his band have a residency at the Sky Room so maybe good old Cugy could put in a good word for Bob with the club’s owner, the irritable Mr. Acuña, for some song and dance work.

Unfortunately Mr. Acuña is too busy writing love letters to his own daughter (?!) to be bothered with such nonsense and takes an instant dislike to the overly enthusiastic Bob. You see, Mr. Acuña is writing annoymous love letters to his “refrigerated” daughter, Maria (Rita Hayworth), in an attempt to soften her icy heart to the point where she might, finally, let a man into her life. Besides, he has to marry Maria off to someone so he can then “dispose” of his other daughters, too.

Needless to say a mix-up occurs resulting in Maria thinking that Bob is her mysterious admirer, something which infuriates her father to the point that he offers Bob a contract at his nightclub if Bob agrees to do everything he can to put Maria off him and to let her see Bob for the obnoxious cad that he is. The thing is, Bob might be irresponsible but who can resist that singing and dancing? Certainly not Maria, or us for that matter. It’s almost enough to make a father give up on interfering and meddling with his daughter’s sex life for good!

It all sounds pretty silly, and it is, but it’s also very funny with ‘You Were Never Lovelier’ (1942) being possibly the Astaire movie that works most successfully in terms of pure comedy. The basic set-up allows for a nice range of sexual scheming, mistaken identities, perceived infidelities and thwarted plans, all of which the film exploits to the hilt.

Adolphe Menjou is fantastic as the controlling Mr. Acuña whilst Astaire and Hayworth fire off each other with the perfect amount of fizzy chemistry although, for me, it was Gus Schilling as Mr. Acuna’s constantly persecuted secretary, Fernando, who steals the show with a delightfully camp performance. This means the film could satisfyingly stand on its own even without the wonderful song and dance numbers, and when they do occur they beautifully power-charge everything along even more as opposed to feeling like stand alone set-pieces to be admired in isolation.

The stand out number here is ‘The Shorty George’ which is a spectacularly virtuosic performance by Hayworth and Astaire that’s full of syncopated energy and pizzazz, although I might even prefer Astaire’s solo number where he auditions for Acuña in his office, dancing all over the furniture and kicking Mr. Acuña’s knick-knacks about the place.

All these numbers keep to a somewhat “grounded” reality within the plot itself so the film never achieves, say, the berserk monumentalism such as the climax of ‘Swing Time’ (1936), the modernistic abstraction of ‘Top Hat, White Tie and Tails’ or the peak-experience perfection of ‘The Piccolino’ from ‘Top Hat’ (1935). Instead, there’s a relaxed, almost informal looseness at play (despite all the technical skill, precision and concentration going on) that fits the spirit and tone of the movie. Not that ‘YWNL’ isn’t without a whole load of style all of its own with the film brimming over with gorgeous set and costume design and with director William A. Seiter keeping everything skipping along with a seemingly effortless briskness.

‘You Were Never Lovelier’ might not have the ecstatic élan of Rogers and Astaire at their best but it’s still an incredibly funny, gorgeous, energetic and dazzling piece of entertainment. It’ll leave you beaming like a grinning laser.

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Colin Edwards

Colin Edwards

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Comedy writer, radio producer and director of large scale audio features.