American dancer Bob Davis (Fred Astaire) would like to retire from his line of work and spend all his time at the racetrack. Unfortunately for Bob, he isn’t as good with the horses as he would like. Broke and busted in Buenos Aires, Bob heads over to Hotel Acuna to get some work. The harsh hotel owner, Eduardo Acuna (Adolphe Menjou), won’t even see Bob, partially because he doesn’t want to and partially because he is preparing for his daughter’s upcoming wedding. Bob, coincidentally, meets his old friend, bandleader Xavier Cugat (who uses his real name to play his character), and together they devise a plan to get Acuna to notice Bob. At the wedding, Bob will sing a romantic song as the newlyweds come together for their first dance.
During the wedding Bob goes unnoticed by Acuna, and is further discouraged when he is ignored by Acuna’s next eldest daughter, the beautiful Maria (Rita Hayworth). Bob tries to talk to Acuna about a job, unaware that Maria is his daughter, and mentions that she has the personality of an ice box, thus cementing a bitter feel to his and Acuna’s relationship.
Acuna has four daughters and has told them that, as per family tradition, they must be married in age order, making Maria next in line. Her two younger sisters have already found their men and are impatiently waiting for Maria to meet Mr. Right. In an unusual twist for this type of movie, Acuna is not an overly protective or unemotional character. He too wants to see Maria fall head over heels, so much so that he creates an imaginary admirer for his daughter.
After many poems and flowers (all sent by her father), Maria falls in love with her imaginary man, who she mistakenly thinks is Bob. In order to try to help matters, Acuna hires Bob to pose as Maria’s suitor, in exchange for a dancing contract at the hotel. Naturally, once Bob spends some time with Maria’s charming smile, sparkling eyes and irresistible dance moves, he can’t help but fall in love with her, even if under false pretenses.
Alright, so the plot could be interchanged for most other Astaire films, especially when you consider that when Maria and Bob meet there are no sparks, only to later lead to a romance. This seems to be the basic idea of every Astaire dancing film, doesn’t it? Then there are the dancing numbers. As always Fred has an energetic solo number, followed by a romantic duet in the garden, and then another fast-paced modern dance number with his leading lady. All that’s left is a final romantic number right at the film’s climax, and don’t worry, you won’t be disappointed, as Astaire delivers again.
What makes “You Were Never Lovelier” such a great film is the perfection of each and every one of these dance numbers. Fred’s solo, Latin inspired number is one of his personal best. Cramped into a small office while auditioning for Acuna, Astaire manages to make the room seem bigger by jumping on a table, Acuna’s desk, pushing back a chair, and even using things sitting around the room as props. This number seems uncharacteristic of Astaire throughout his career, as there is a special flare to it that really shows his excitement and passion over making this film. This much enthusiasm only appears a few times in his carrer, although he comes quite close regularly.
Likewise with Astaire and Hayworth’s “Zoot Suit” number, these two irresistible stars seem to be having more fun than usual, only making the audience yearn for more from them both. The young Hayworth (who was only 24 years old when the film was released) is able to keep up with the never-tiring Astaire, who despite being 19 years older than Hayworth, still makes everyone watching feel old and decrepit. (How does he move around a room like that?)
Another aspect of this film that I find quite interesting is the wonderful Adolphe Menjou. Capable of so many different types of roles, he adds a sense of legitimacy to “You Were Never Lovelier”. He spends so much of the film barking orders to those around him, but because Menjou is such a talented actor, he mixes things up by making his yelling seem amusing, nicely fitting into the comedy feel of the film. It also doesn’t hurt that the character is written as such a soft-hearted romantic. Even when he treats everyone around him with contempt, he instantly redeems himself with some act of kindness, fully devoted to his daughter’s happiness.
The two pairings of Fred Astaire and Rita Hayworth (the other being “You’ll Never Get Rich”) might not be widely remembered as Astaire’s best movies, but I am unsure as to why. Their chemistry is undeniable, their dancing impeccable and the music is unforgettable. Any opportunity to see Rita and Fred is one that shouldn’t be missed, and I dearly wish they had been able to work together in more than just these two pictures as they quite honestly… were never lovelier.