When it’s not, cinematically speaking, evoking more recently skewed memories of a tumultuous Steven Spielberg-directed comedy, 1941 can also be fondly remembered as Rita Hayworth’s breakout year. She started it with one of her best “charm” roles yet, as the Gay-Nineties neighborhood beauty who turns roughneck striver James Cagney’s head as the title character of director Raoul Walsh’s nostalgic The Strawberry Blonde. As the summer began, her coming-out party in ravishing Technicolor showcased her as a seductive socialite who attracts the romantic attentions of star matador Tyrone Power in the lavish Blood and Sand from director Rouben Mamoulian. Then came another milestone that spotlighted her blazing talent as a musical performer with comedy flair to spare, starring opposite Fred Astaire and supported by a tuneful Cole Porter song score in the box-office hit You’ll Never Get Rich (1941, directed by nimble jazzman and ex-vaudevillian Sidney Lanfield), which began its national release 76 years ago today. Because the studio was Columbia, not then a heavy player in the musicals genre, the production was relatively modest, yet because its stars were such an elegantly matched, equally talented constellation unto themselves, no one complained about the uneasy mix of showbiz-backstage vs. military-service vs. extramarital-complications comedy. As distilled by biographer John Kobal in his 1977 Rita Hayworth: The Time, The Place and the Woman: “The film opens with a bang: a Broadway dance director (Astaire) is trying to drill a group of chorines into a snappy routine; the new girl (Rita) is out of step; to wry looks from the other girls, he gives her a private demonstration of The Boogie Barcarolle, an explosive little mixture of tap and ballet, only to find her matching him, beat for beat, step for step, leap for joyous leap. But shortly after, Fred and Rita are thrown together again in a rooftop restaurant, where the two slide onto the dance floor and into a simple Samba that makes it obvious they were meant for each other even if the script has to find ways of keeping them apart for another hour, only possible through musical-comedy misunderstandings….Continued confusion allows for more dances and leads to the best known number, a haunting Rumba, So Near and Yet So Far, sultry and elegant in rhythm, spirit and emotion. She brings him her youth, her beauty and her devotion; he takes her flying among the stars.”
There were not-unpleasant distractions worked into the proceedings, courtesy of comedic compatriots Robert Benchley, Guinn “Big Boy” Williams, Donald MacBride and Cliff (“Swivel Tongue”) Nazarro and the merrily militaristic finale The Wedding Cake Walk as performed by the estimable “Liltin’” Martha Tilton, it was the zippy self-choreographed Astaire dance solos and the sweeping duet and ensemble numbers devised by ace dance director Robert Alton that cinched the movie’s magical spell. Kobal observed: “As with Ginger, but quite differently, Astaire’s personality gained an extra dimension from dancing with Rita. In their nine films, Astaire and Rogers epitomized the classless ‘aristocratic’ Americans of the ’30s. Compressed in their two films [this and You Were Never Lovelier (1942)], Fred and Rita bridged generation and age difference to embody timeless romanticism. Those two lovely introverts, so private in life, are transformed when dancing so that, like the lovers of The Enchanted Cottage whose beauty becomes singularly apparent only in their world, they, too, never need fear the stroke of midnight.” Shortly after You’ll Never Get Rich opened in late October to cheering crowds at Radio City Music Hall, Hayworth received another signal honor: a glamorous magazine cover dated November 10, 1941, with the actress splendidly arrayed in her flowing You’ll Never Get Rich black dress. “Time Magazine devoted its cover to Rita at a time when to put a movie star on their cover was still a special accolade,” Kobal recounted, “and opened their story, California Carmen, with: ‘It was news in Hollywood that a new star had been made. But it was news throughout the U.S. that the best tap dancer in the world, Fred Astaire, had a new dancing partner – and there could be no doubt that she was the best partner he had ever had.’” Twilight Time’s lustrous hi-def Blu-ray of You’ll Never Get Rich is all the evidence you’ll ever need.