All the major songwriters in Hollywood and Broadway enjoyed writing their best work for Fred Astaire, and Cole Porter was no exception. Happy as he may have been to be collaborating again with old friend Fred, Porter took a strong dislike to Harry Cohn, especially the way the studio chief would audition each new Porter song with his studio secretaries before pronouncing his approval and acceptance to the composer. What's more, Porter was unhappy with the treatment of his songs in the film, though he also felt he’d done less than his best with the lyrics of Dream Dancing, and was probably relieved that they were not heard on screen. It didn’t help matters when, at the time of the film’s release, ASCAP went on strike against network radio, keeping Porter’s tunes off the air. For whatever reason, the songs for You’ll Never Get Rich didn’t seem to catch on with the public to any great degree, and from the score there emerged no hit of the caliber of What Is This Thing Called Love? or I Get a Kick Out of You.
Although the song-buying public may not have responded as hoped to Porter’s score, there was one consolation: an Academy Award® nomination went to the film’s song which sounded least like a Cole Porter ditty. With Since I Kissed My Baby Goodbye, quintessential urbanite Porter ventured into the countryside usually explored by the likes of Hoagy Carmichael or Johnny Mercer. This guard-house lament was crooned by an uncredited African-American group called The Four Tones (lead singer Lucius Brooks), with instrumental backing by such jazzbos as drummer Chico Hamilton – later to collaborate with Elmer Bernstein on Sweet Smell of Success – and clarinetist Buddy Collette. One of the traits for which Astaire was admired was his easygoing ability to ease into a song as if it were a natural extension of the dialogue. Here relieved of the vocalist’s duty, Fred displays another Astaire specialty: the pleasure that he – and we – derive from his response to somebody else’s beat. The cot-prone Astaire drums his chest with his fingers, kicks the wall with the side of his shoe…He’s already dancing, even before he sits up and lights his cigarette in time to Porter’s folksy melody. Soon, of course, he is airborne, tapping his mood around the space shared by his fellow prisoners (including the black musicians in this unrealistically integrated lockup).
Astaire did get to sing this song, and three of the others from the film, when he recorded them on discs (78 RPM, natch). This time, his backup group was The Delta Rhythm Boys, no longer as famous, perhaps, as their contemporaries The Ink Spots or The Mills Brothers, but in their day a very popular and well-regarded aggregation (whose take on the Duke’s Take the A-Train remains definitive). In this, their only collaboration with Astaire, the Deltans contribute importantly to establishing the song’s bluesy, folksy feeling. Not heard in the film, nor on this recording, is the verse Porter wrote to establish the atmosphere (and the African-American dialect):
Oh, what nights, glory be
When my baby and me
Used to ramble Lover’s Lane
From sundown to dawn.
Then a voodoo, I guess,
Put the jinx on our happiness,
And the mockin’-bird’s refrain
Is done dead and gone.
Two of the other tunes are much more in the elegantly witty Cole Porter vein, So Near and Yet So Far and Dream Dancing. And it’s a good thing Fred recorded them, especially the latter, because in the film nobody sings Dream Dancing. It’s thrown away as a background instrumental for dancing customers in a nightclub. Mind you, two of those dancers are Fred and Rita, but this is definitely a dialogue scene, not a number. Even on the record, Porter’s introductory verse is dispensed with:
When shades enfold
The sunset gold
And stars are bright above again,
I smile, sweetheart,
For then I know I can start
To live again, to love again.
Happily, Fred in the film gets to sing the verse for So Near and Yet So Far, arguably the only You’ll Never Get Rich song to achieve the status of a standard in the Porter hit parade. (Bobby Short gave it his usual brilliant best in the LP era.) It’s possible that Astaire recorded and filmed the verse, but in the final cut the Columbia editor gets right down to business by leading with the vocal refrain and then the dance duet. “Business” may be an appropriately operative word, because this number is not a private moment for Fred and Rita’s characters but a dress rehearsal for the camp show. In this, we see how You’ll Never Get Rich deviates from the Fred-and-Ginger paradigm, in which the romantic impulse that carries the plot often arises in a natural – i.e., offstage – setting. Not for Astaire and Hayworth the rain-locked bandstand or the French resort patio with the nearby shore gleaming in the moonlight. No, whenever Fred is dancing with Rita, they’re either rehearsing a number or performing one, whether it’s the scene where Rita fakes a mistake so she can dance one-to-one with choreographer Fred, or the climactic production number in which Fred’s art imitates life, much to Rita’s surprise. This matter-of-fact presentation serves to emphasize that what we’re watching is not the poetic musical comedy that eased the public’s Depression pains but a more prosaic tunefest for a nation and a world heading for war. Where the RKO films took place in a fantasy realm held aloft by shiny white sets and Noel Cowardly wit, this down-to-earth Columbia offering is a bit more Buck Privates than Private Lives.
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.