Cole Porter and Fred Astaire became friends as well as colleagues. In their slight physical stature, their cosmopolitan demeanor and sophisticated outlook, they seemed spiritually well-matched. (In the 1940s, a friend of Porter suggested that the upcoming Warner Bros. Porter biopic was miscast, and that a better portrayer of the songwriter would have been Astaire. Unphased, Porter replied, “Would you have said no to Cary Grant?”) Porter never wrote another Broadway score for Fred, simply because Fred never appeared in another Broadway show. Astaire “went Hollywood,” where he, Ginger Rogers and King Kong made history rescuing RKO Radio Pictures from bankruptcy and rescuing Depression era moviegoers from…well, their depression. Over the next few decades, Astaire would have occasion to sing Porter songs in four of his films and all four of his TV specials.
One of those films, Broadway Melody of 1940, marked Fred’s first venture onscreen since parting ways with Ginger. So sensational had been the success of such pictures as Top Hat and Swing Time that any new film would need an awful lot to come close to replicating their impact. This latest in MGM’s Broadway Melody series had an awful lot, starting with Porter’s score, the lavish production values that only Metro could muster, and above all the sensational tap-dancing co-star Eleanor Powell. Though technically a far better dancer than Ginger Rogers, Miss Powell proved that it took more than perfect dancing to be a perfect dancing partner for Fred Astaire. Absent that special chemistry, Broadway Melody of 1940 was only a middling success. Fred’s fate was even worse in his next, much weaker movie, Second Chorus, a low-budget independent affair in which Fred was uncomfortably shoehorned into a project which originally had been planned as a vehicle for clarinetist/bandleader Artie Shaw. Actress Paulette Goddard gamely joined Fred for one lively dance duet, but in this picture Astaire’s best partner turned out to be Shaw’s orchestra, which the star “dance-conducted” in the film’s finale. (Meanwhile, Ginger Rogers, who had long wanted to prove herself as a dramatic actress, now had, to show for her efforts, an Oscar® for playing the title role in Kitty Foyle. Astaire sent her a telegram which said, in its entirety, “Ouch!”)
Who could salvage Astaire’s career from this slump? Enter the unlikely Lochinvar, Harry Cohn, foul-mouthed kingpin of Columbia Pictures. Crude he may have been, but he was a showman, as much as the Warners, Goldwyns and Zanucks of Tinseltown. And he had, after all, chaperoned Frank Capra through the production of all his Academy Award®-winning 1930s classics. In an infamous dinner table exchange, Cohn explained his theory of film editing: when his fanny started to itch, he knew a movie was too long and would need to be trimmed. “Imagine,” writer Herman Mankiewicz exclaimed, “the whole world wired to Harry Cohn’s ass!”
All the while Fred had been dancing with Ginger, and Harry and Frank had been waltzing with Oscar®, the young and sultry dancer who had shortened her name to Rita Cansino had been pursuing an acting career, starting with a long series of bits and small roles at 20th Century Fox (including a torrid tango in the 1935 Spencer Tracy vehicle Dante’s Inferno). She eventually found herself under contract to Columbia, now named Rita Hayworth, where her first really big break came when director Howard Hawks handed her a featured role in Only Angels Have Wings (1939), playing a character named Judy opposite Cary Grant and Jean Arthur. (Peter Bogdanovich has theorized that this is why generations of comic impressionists always depicted Grant saying, “Judy, Judy, Judy…”) Eventually, more good parts raised her visibility in such prominent features as Blood and Sand and, particularly, on loanout to Warners, The Strawberry Blonde with James Cagney and Olivia de Havilland. Consequently, Cohn was grooming her – literally – for stardom, raising her forehead hairline and dyeing her locks red.
Above all, Cohn planned and prepared what he hoped would be a perfect showcase for his talented star-to-be, a Fred Astaire/Cole Porter musical called You’ll Never Get Rich. (The title, of course, was a reference to the lyrics of You’re in the Army Now: “You’ll never get rich, by digging a ditch…”) Astaire was happy to be working with Porter again, and delighted to be dancing with the daughter of his old vaudeville colleague Eduardo. (Dance director Robert Alton would later work frequently with Fred in the Technicolor glory days at MGM.) Humorist Robert Benchley, another old friend, was cast prominently as the philandering producer who gets his dance director (Astaire) in so much trouble that he’s actually jubilant when the mail brings him “Greetings” from the newly formed army conscription draft. Guinn “Big Boy” Williams and double-talking Cliff Nazarro played Fred’s new bunk buddies, and their presence helped anchor the movie in the general run of service comedies, not really the most congenial fit as a genre for Fred. He had played in one other movie which required him to forsake his tails suit for a uniform, 1936’s Irving Berlin tuner Follow the Fleet, but even so, the production design had been sleek and the overall tone much more sophisticated than would prove to be the case in this new Columbia picture. (Wartime conditions were responsible for You’ll Never Get Rich being shot in black-and-white, much to Astaire’s disappointment. With each early ’40s picture, he kept hoping for color, but for that he ultimately would have to wait until he joined the Arthur Freed unit at MGM.)
In his 1959 autobiography Steps in Time, Astaire wrote: “I kept thinking how extraordinary it was to find myself about to play opposite my friend Eduardo Cansino’s lovely daughter, and I told her so. She laughed.” At this time, she was barely 22, while Fred was in his early 40s. (The following year, when he was co-starred with 17-year-old Joan Leslie in The Sky’s the Limit, Astaire quipped ruefully, “The older I get, the younger they get.”) Of his newest partner, Astaire wrote: “Rita danced with trained perfection and individuality. She, of course, knew through experience what this dancing business was all about. That was apparent the moment I started working with her.”
Preston Neal Jones is the author of Heaven and Hell to Play With: The Filming of The Night of the Hunter and Return to Tomorrow: The Filming of Star Trek – The Motion Picture. Directed by Sidney Lanfield, You’ll Never Get Rich, starring Fred Astaire, Rita Hayworth, Robert Benchley, John Hubbard, Osa Massen, Frieda Inescort, Guinn (“Big Boy”) Williams and Cliff Nazarro, debuts in shimmering 1080p on Twilight Time hi-def Blu-ray April 18. Preorders open April 5.