Fred Astaire was once asked who was his favorite dance partner, in all his years performing. He didn’t want to answer (because he knew Ginger would probably be pissed and hurt) but finally he caved and said, “All right, I’ll give you a name. But if you ever let it out, I’ll swear I lied. It was Rita Hayworth.”
Hayworth and Astaire made two movies together, You’ll Never Get Rich (which was so popular that it led to the second film:) You Were Never Lovelier.
In You’ll Never Get Rich, Astaire plays Martin Cortland, a choreographer theater-manager who continuously gets into scrapes at the hands of his womanizing boss (played by Robert Benchley!). The boss uses Martin as a foil, a back-up, an alibi, sometimes without Martin’s knowledge or consent. There’s a running gag with a diamond bracelet, placed in various pockets. The situation gets so bad – with boyfriends waving guns around, etc. – that Martin joins the army. Then begins the boot-camp shenanigans which has an almost Stalag 17 slapstick quality. All along, Martin is drawn to Sheila (Hayworth), one of the dancers in the chorus. She’s involved with another man. But when she and Martin dance … the whole world and all its problems fall away. Can she trust him? Or is he just a trickster? Can she believe one word that comes out of his mouth?
This is the opening scene of the film (with a really fun credits sequence, the credits revealed on successive billboards along a country road), where the troupe rehearses a number and Martin scolds Sheila for doing it her own way.
Then they dance together. Astaire is a phenom, of course, and it is very difficult to take your eyes off of him when he moves. But Hayworth is equally as good. She’s got her own thing going. When she dances, her persona, her spirit, explodes off the screen.
Astaire biographer Charlie Reinhart said, of the pairing: “There was a kind of reserve about Fred. It was charming. It carried over to his dancing. With Hayworth there was no reserve. She was very explosive. And that’s why I think they really complemented each other.”
What I love about Hayworth’s dancing, especially in partnership, is:
1. Her awareness of them beside her. She’s always throwing glances, smiles, little expressions of delight, showing that she takes joy in what the two of them are creating together.
2. Her joy in herself. She’s ferocious and free.
Which leads me to this:
Rita Hayworth had a hard life and a pretty brutal childhood. She had been dancing from before she could even walk, practically. She had zero fun as a child. It was all work, work, work. Her father was her boss, her dance partner. Some of the stories of those early years are harrowing. She was basically an indentured servant to her dancer dad. The love of performing could have been crushed out of her in that environment. And maybe, on some level, it was. Maybe she would have much rather been a happy wife in a nice little home, without all that pressure on her. But this was the life she had, performing was all she could do.
Rita Hayworth, as a person, took almost no joy “in herself.” She said she had a horrible inferiority complex. She never believed in herself. Men loved her but often were befuddled and afraid when they realized just how MUCH she didn’t believe in herself, how tormented she really was. Orson Welles, no model husband, did love her, but he had no idea how to deal with/handle her. He was not alone. While she may not have been a happy person, what you see when you watch her dance is happiness in herself and her body, total freedom, and “explosive” self-expression. Rita Hayworth was a PRO.
When you watch her dance as an adult, it’s clear (elementary, Watson) that all those years of work paid off. You don’t get to be this good, you don’t get to a point where what you’re doing looks this EASY, without YEARS of hard work.
And let’s face it: it wasn’t easy to go toe-to-toe with Astaire. He was the best dancer in any room. Any gal who danced with him would be “shown up” within 1 second of any dance if she couldn’t keep up, hold her own. Watch how Hayworth leaps into that space powerfully. You want to watch the both of them.
Also, watch when she’s dancing with the whole chorus in the front row, later in the clip. There are 25 dancers onscreen. They’re all dressed alike, her included. But your eyes are drawn to her.
She was a star.