Robert Davis (Fred Astaire) has not been in Buenos Aires for long, but he has already lost his shirt on a horse that came in last, so must find a job at the hotel and ballroom nearby. The owner of this establishment is Eduardo Acuna (Adolphe Menjou), a very busy man who tells his secretary Fernando (Gus Schilling) that he cannot see anyone today, as his time is taken up with arranging his eldest daughter's wedding the next day. He has told his four daughters that they must be married in order of age, but the two youngest are dismayed that the second eldest, Maria (Rita Hayworth), has no interest in men. What to do?
You Were Never Lovelier was the second musical that Astaire and Hayworth appeared in together, after the success of You'll Never Get Rich, and purportedly the favourite film of Rita's among those she made: she certainly seems more relaxed here than she ever was, and star quality beams from her every graceful movement. Yet for some reason, this duo who seemed so comfortable with each other onscreen never made a follow up, which is a shame as although it's lightweight in some ways, this film represented a step up from their previous outing, and there was room for even more improvement.
That was not to be, and at least this pair were in their element and as charming as they ever were. One actor who is far from charming, however, is Menjou, and that is down to the pretty ghastly character he plays. Determined not to allow Maria to be left on the shelf, he invents a dodgy scheme to make her think she has a secret admirer, and the incestuous implications of him writing love letters to his own daughter might not be studied, but set him up all too well as the villain of the piece. I don't know if Fred Astaire movies really needed bad guys like this one, though, and Menjou is saddled with the most uncomfortable scenes.
Best not to analyse the plot too closely, as it's all an excuse to get Fred and Rita together. What happens is that Robert delivers one of the love letters accompanied by an orchid and Maria believes he is the secret admirer, so Acuna offers him a deal: pose as the man of Maria's dreams and he'll give him a job dancing at the club. The only snag is that Acuna wants Robert to dissuade her from falling in love with him, but there's no chance of that, naturally, so when the dancer is invited over he accidentally entrances her; well, he is Fred Astaire after all. Soon Acuna is dead set on finding a way to split them up, and Robert is in love despite himself.
Frustratingly, director William A. Seiter makes us wait a long time for the stars to get to the hoofing, and it's over a third of the way through the film before Fred even performs a number. When he does break out the tap shoes, it's a sight to see as Robert spins and flies around Acuna's office to show him his moves, but there's even better to come. This is when the starring couple team up to delight us with numbers like "I'm Old Fashioned", the finest they ever participated in together, with Hayworth at her most sensual while still keeping up with Astaire's athleticism. There is an urban myth about You Were Never Lovelier that muses a teenage Fidel Castro is one of the extras, but best to forget about that and enjoy the sense of escapism these South American flights of fancy produced from Hollywood at the time and wistfully wonder what a third team up of this duo might have created. Songs (most of them) by Jerome Kern and Johnny Mercer.