Monday, September 26, 2011

The Red-Headed Heart of Esteban Vihaio

You Were Never Lovelier (1942)
directed by William Seiter
rating: 2 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

Rita Hayworth, in fact, was lovelier in Only Angels Have Wings and The Lady from Shanghai, and a knockout in Gilda. The role of Maria Acuña, alternately old-fashioned, frivolous, and ice cold, was supposedly her favorite, but Fred Astaire was twenty years her senior and Maria has nothing for his Robert Davis but winning, silly smiles. She's a dreamer, and her father, the Buenos Aires businessman Eduardo Acuña, takes her indifference to marriage as a challenge to pen her anonymous love letters (!). He hopes to match one of the dull young faces at his parties to the words he cribs from British thesauri, but Robert - pestering the man for work at his nightclub - trips flat into the middle of it.

In the screenplay - on paper - the father's romantic but controlling personality is tempered by Bob's insouciance. Maria falls in love with the man in the middle. Onscreen, Bob's behavior is dishonest (he goes along with the charade until Maria cannot differentiate between fiction and reality) and cowardly (petty jealousy is finally the source of his action). The Machiavellian side of Acuña Sr. wins out over his heart when the patriarch's desire to marry his daughters off in chronological order trumps his concern for Maria's feelings.

Still, there are surprises at the periphery. One is Acuña's gay secretary, Fernando, the frequent victim of Acuña's outbursts. Fernando's crush on Robert Davis earns the dancer the slack he needs to win Maria's dowry, and Fernie knows it. The second surprise is Seiter's insistence on awarding the Acuñas a Welsh heritage, as if Hayworth herself would never stoop to playing the daughter of Pittsburgh-born, South American-set Adolphe Menjou.

In a different world, the two sisters (Leslie Brooks and Adele Mara), keepers of the movie's promised spark and charm, would have more to do than ape the worst American stereotypes about women who want to be brides. As it is, they float at the edges and wink at one another's smiles and no doubt flee to other rooms for acts of unspeakable unwed perversion. Astaire, the lifelong Republican, ignores this for a joke with a horse in the courtyard before stealing away the woman he didn't dream of. He'll make her unhappy, in the end.