Fred Astaire: The greatest male dancer in the history of film. Does that sound about right? Sure you can make the argument for Gene Kelly, but since he was adamant about Astaire being the best, I’m not going to argue with him. Throughout Astaire’s career he appeared in musicals with many of the top stars of his time, like Judy Garland, Cyd Charisse, Paulette Goddard, Jane Powell, Audrey Hepburn, Majorie Reynolds, Eleanor Powell, and of course, Ginger Rogers. What is amazing about Fred Astaire in these films is that time and time again he electrifies the screen with his graceful beauty, no matter who is dancing next to him. Occasionally, there would be a co-star who did more than that- someone who could give as much to the chemistry of the number as they took away, and that is when you can see the magic happen. It worked with Ginger Rogers during “Cheek to Cheek” in “Top Hat” (1935), and again during “Pick Yourself Up” in their film “Swing Time” (1936). Cyd Charisse did some of her best dancing along side him during “The Girl Hunt Ballet” and “Dancing in the Dark” in “The Band Wagon” (1953). Eleanor Powell is invigorating with Astaire during “Begin the Beguine” in “The Broadway Melody of 1940” (1940), and of course, there was that hat rack during “Sunday Jumps” in “Royal Wedding” (1951). And then there were those two films he made at Columbia Pictures alongside up-and-comer Rita Hayworth- now there’s a match made in heaven.
In their first film together, “You’ll Never Get Rich” (1941), Fred Astaire plays Robert, a theater manager and choreographer working for a womanizing theater owner, Martin Cortland (Robert Benchley). Cortland is trying to attract his new chorus girl, Sheila (Hayworth), but when his wife (Frieda Inescort) finds a diamond bracelet with Sheila’s name inscribed, Cortland pretends he bought it for Robert to give to Sheila instead. Robert, being the obliging friend, plays along and goes out in public with Sheila, who is delighted to have Robert’s attention, until she discovers that it’s all just for show.
The situation worsens when Sheila’s long-time admirer, Barton (John Hubbard), comes to town, and Robert finds himself looking to escape an embarrassing scene. The answer to his problems comes from an unusual source, as he is drafted into the Army, and finds himself happy to run away from this ever-increasingly difficult situation.
Once in the army, with time for thought and reflection on his hands, Robert decides that he really does have feelings for Sheila, and longs to see her again. Then, in Hollywood fashion, his dreams are answered as Sheila just happens to come stay at a farm nearby the Army barracks. Why you might ask? Because her would-be-suitor Barton is actually Robert’s superior officer! Imagine that.
Alright, so the plot couldn’t be much more ridiculous or Hollywood driven, but do we really watch Fred Astaire movies because of the outstanding plots? No, we come for the dancing, and that it where “You’ll Never Get Rich” shines. The film is filled with songs intended to showcase Astaire, but the only solo numbers that really stand out are when he is in the guardhouse and does some fancy footwork to the jazz music created by his fellow inmates. The real memorable numbers are the ones where Astaire and Hayworth get together. Just a few minutes into the film Robert accuses Sheila of being “off” during a chorus number and he pulls her out of line to go through it with him. This is the moment that the audience begins to pay attention. Hayworth steps up next to Astaire and dances as his equal. Perhaps it’s because it’s unexpected for a “lesser known” actress to be able to handle herself so well, but for whatever reason, it is Hayworth that captivates us for these few moments.
Unfortunately for the film, these moments don’t continue. The legendary Cole Porter wrote the music and lyrics for this film, and clearly it is not his best work. Most of the film is spent focused on Astaire’s dancing, distracting us from the lack of musical greatness in the songs. It’s not until the film’s climax that we get another stimulating Astaire/Hayward number, but it clearly is worth the wait. Porter wrote the number, “So Near and Yet So Far,” with a rumba melody in order to accentuate Hayworth’s natural talents, but cleverly ties in a ballroom dance feel, giving this one number an original and highly captivates allure. The two appear to be having the time of their lives dancing together- and the feeling is quite contagious.
Overall, “You’ll Never Get Rich” isn’t a spectacular movie. It has its ups and downs, but is still worth watching just to see these two screen icons together. The real shame of the situation is that they only rejoined once more.