Tuesday, February 03, 2009

You Were Never Lovelier

You Were Never Lovelier posterYou Were Never Lovelier (1942) has charm, rhythm, and leaves you wanting to take a spin in Fred Astaire’s tap shoes. . . What more could one ask from a musical comedy?

The first character to appear is Robert "Bob" Davis (Fred Astaire), a gambling, grinning, tap-dancing New Yorker down in Buenos Aires, Argentina, to try his luck at getting a contract to perform at the prestigious Hotel Acuña. The only thing standing in his way is the grumpy hotel owner, Mr. Eduardo Acuña (Adolphe Menjou), who speaks his mind and lets you know when you’re not wanted or, in this case, when Bob’s not wanted. Fortunately, at the hotel Bob runs into his old friend and bandleader Xavier Cugat (played by himself) and the two conspire for Bob to sing at Mr. Acuña’s oldest daughter’s wedding the following night. Now, the fact that this is the wedding of the eldest daughter is quite significant, as the Acuña family tradition states that the four daughters must marry in order of age, eldest to youngest. This leaves the two youngest, Ceci and Lita, who already have suitors, in a bind because their second eldest sister, Maria (Rita Hayworth), has no interest whatsoever in marriage--to the extent that when she catches her elder sister’s bouquet at the reception and is immediately surrounded by admirers, she promptly shows them all the cold shoulder.

Bob puts on a pleasant show at the wedding and then on the veranda he runs into Maria, whom he immediately tries to charm but all his (disappointing) attempts fall through. We later learn from Mr. Acuña that Maria has been waiting for her ideal "knight in shining armour" since she was fifteen; he and her sisters are by now quite worried that this knight will never show. So Mr. Acuña takes matters into his own hands and begins writing anonymous love letters to his indifferent daughter, who eventually becomes unabashedly captivated by her secret admirer.

Bob arrives at Mr. Acuña’s office to demand a contract, but instead takes up pretending to be the bellboy and has to deliver the latest love letter to Maria. She misinterprets this by thinking that Bob is her secret admirer and falls head-over-heels for the aloof American. When Mr. Acuña realizes what has happened he immediately explains the situation to Bob and enlists him to let Maria down gently in exchange for a contract at the hotel. But that night at dinner, things do not go as smoothly as Mr. Acuña had planned, as Bob and Maria discover they have more in common than they bargained for. They spend the night singing to one another and twirling around the veranda in unison, and continue to act this way even behind Mr. Acuña’s back. A few days later, when Bob arrives at the Acuñas’ 25th wedding anniversary, Mr. Acuña is almost furious, which prompts him to blackmail Bob into leaving or he’ll tell Maria that her sweetheart never wrote her the mysterious letters. The plot is then revealed to all when Mrs. Acuña catches Mr. Acuña writing a final love letter and Bob quickly explains the situation to avoid any rumours that Mr. Acuña is cheating on his wife. This puts Bob in the father’s good books, but the daughter goes back to her old self and the cold shoulder. With the help of the rest of the Acuña family, Bob tries everything to get Maria back: love letters, orchids, singing telegrams. But nothing works until he rides up to the Acuña’s house (and into Maria’s fantasy) as the "knight in shining armour." He thinks she has rejected him when he makes a fool of himself dismounting, but this seems to warm her heart even more, and they carry on pirouetting around the garden in front of two happy Acuña parents and the two younger, and even happier, Acuña daughters.

This film highlights Buenos Aires as a cosmopolitan and sophisticated city, with all its characters being from the upper class/aristocratic society, a subjective view all on its own. The city itself is visually absent from the movie, with the exception of a few shots of national monuments, such as the famous Plaza de Mayo, in the opening scene; rather, the focus is on locations such as Mr. Acuña’s office and home. This lack of connection to the actual culture of Argentina allows the movie to indulge in immigrant characters (Mr. Acuña’s parents left Brittany to come to Buenos Aires) and the music, dance, and dress of American culture. This, not surprisingly, almost transplants the audience from South to North America, instead of the other way around which was, interestingly, what happened in Bob's case.

There is no overt mention of World War II in You Were Never Lovelier, but this doesn’t relieve the glaring observation of copious amounts of US propaganda coinciding with an attempt for an increase in inter-continental relations, such as Maria's comment to Bob that "We love your North American music and dances down here," and Bob's stated admiration for both the city of Buenos Aires and its people. At the time of the film’s release, it was not clear as to whether Argentina was allying with the Axis countries in the war or with the US; although it often the country’s ports would open to American ships and stay closed to ships belonging to the Axis. The clandestine theme of the US encroaching upon Argentina is a stamp of the North American superpower’s desire for more influence in the Southern continent, and a possible demonstration of the filmmakers' intention. On this note, perhaps the best subliminal message passed on from the film is when Maria asserts that her new American lover is “not leaving South America if [she] can help it”; and in the end Bob, of course, continues his stay in Buenos Aires.

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