Cole Porter, not alone among the era’s top tunesmiths, Rodgers and Hart included, managed to pay lyrical tribute (in You’re the Top) to “the nimble tread of the feet of Fred Astaire.” But with The Wedding Cakewalk he pays a more subtle tribute as only he could, by concluding with the exact same words and music which begin the refrain of Night and Day. A girl singer belts the song on film (noted band singer “The Liltin’” Martha Tilton), but when Astaire himself sings it on the record – backed up once more by the Delta Rhythm Boys – the reference is unmistakable.
The abundantly witty wordsmith in Porter couldn’t decide between two possible titles for the wordless number he provided for Astaire’s second guard-house dance. Apparently, Fred asked Cole to give him something similar to one of his favorite big band instrumentals, Bugle Call Rag. The resultant jam session, in manuscript, is known as either The A-stairable Rag or March Milastaire. Still going strong roughly a quarter of a century later, Astaire got to dance to the original Bugle Call Rag on the ABC variety series Hollywood Palace. (Around this time, I overheard a young lady, having just learned the hoofer’s age, exclaiming to her boyfriend, “Did you hear that? Fred Astaire is 67, and he’s still dancing!” Replied her guy, “If I had his money, I’d be dancing, too.”) It starts around 51:25 in the episode accessed below.
At the box office, You’ll Never Get Rich fulfilled its promise, delivering on all its main goals: It gave Harry Cohn a hit movie, it lifted Rita Hayworth into the top galaxy of stars, and it brought new life back to Fred Astaire’s career. A year later, after he’d further secured his place back at the top by rooming with Bing Crosby at Holiday Inn, Astaire returned to Columbia and his glamorous red-headed co-star. This time, the pair teamed for a film which luxuriated in all the dreamy romanticism that was in such short supply in their previous hit. You Were Never Lovelier – was somebody at the studio superstitious, insisting on another movie with “You” and “Never” in the title? – boasted a top-notch score by Jerome Kern and Johnny Mercer, luminous cinematography by Ted Tetzlaff, and was set in a fairy tale Rio de Janeiro, one of many Hollywood products of that time to capitalize on the wartime good neighbor policy and the current popularity of South American music – in this case, supplied by Xavier Cugat and his orchestra.
It was a delightful movie, and another solid hit, but once again the Columbia cutting room – home of Harry Cohn’s ass-pirationss – went to work with a will. Astaire got to sing the title song, but after the first preview studio executives cut out the big romantic dance for Rita and Fred because, as they explained, “it held up the story.” The boogie-woogie-jivey Shorty George stayed in the picture, but a cutaway from Fred and Rita to conductor Cugat was inserted to hide the fact that a major section of the dance – in which Fred and Rita alternately crouch and leap over each other – was inexplicably eliminated. In this trailer, tantalizing snippets of lost footage from both these numbers can be viewed – and mourned:
As a saving grace, Astaire, never one to let hard work go to waste, recycled the missing Shorty George choreography the next year when he and Joan Leslie performed Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer’s A Lot in Common in RKO’s The Sky’s the Limit:
As it happens, Fred Astaire and Rita Hayworth had a lot in common, having both been dancing on the stage well before adulthood. Off the screen, each of them was a shy, hard-working professional. On screen together, an unmistakable chemistry took center stage, empowered by the years of on-the-hoof experience and expertise they had cultivated individually. Astaire was one of the most famously monogamous married men in Hollywood, a town not widely known for such gentlemen, but by all accounts he genuinely liked young Rita and enjoyed working with her. Before giving her a piece of jewelry as a gift, Fred first consulted with Columbia’s chief hairdresser, Helen Hunt, because he didn’t want Rita to misconstrue his gesture as a come-on.
One day in the mid 1960s, Astaire was guest of honor at the San Francisco Film Festival, during which a lucky audience got to see, in his presence, a marathon screening of dance highlights from most of his musical movies. Afterward, Fred submitted to a Q&A session with the happy throng. (“Did you ever fall down?” one lady asked, to which Astaire answered, “Time, after time, after time…”) A moment came when one gentleman rose to declare that, having feasted on all these memorable movie sequences, it struck him that “your best partner was Rita Hayworth.” Astaire of course never publicly was so un-gallant as to single out one of those beautiful ladies over all the others, and he wasn’t about to break his vow of silence this day. But let the record show that, when this anonymous gentleman suggested that Miss Hayworth was worthy of that singular honor, the audience burst into applause.
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.