How do you solve a problem like Maria? That’s the question on many people’s lips in You Were Never Lovelier, a stellar 1942 musical about an American dancer (Fred Astaire) who is mistaken for the secret admirer of Maria Acuña (Rita Hayworth), an Argentinian hotelier’s daughter. As embodied by Hayworth, Maria is a clever and vivacious woman blessed with stunning good looks, and yet her family is convinced that there is something wrong with her simply because she isn’t interested in hunting for a husband. While I enjoy You Were Never Lovelier for the enchanting escapism it so clearly offers, I’m also fascinated by its portrayal of Maria and what it means to watch her cling to her agency as she subtly transcends the misogyny of her environment while still conforming to the conventions of a traditional musical from Hollywood’s Golden Age.
If you’re not obsessed with classic films, the plot of You Were Never Lovelier will likely sound… insane. Because of Maria’s romantic indifference to the men who throw themselves at her, her father (Adolphe Menjou at his blustery best) decides he must save his daughter from a life of loneliness by sending her orchids and a handwritten card every day from a “secret admirer.” Once she is interested, he’ll supply a suitor of his own choosing, whoever he may be. It’s an incredibly invasive and unethical plan as one character — a woman, Maria’s godmother — immediately points out (it also wades into Oedipal-complex territory, although that is a much different essay that frankly I don’t want to write), but it is indicative of the kind of problematic character Acuña is. Manipulative, stubborn, and dominating, his arrogance knows no bounds — and the other characters are fully aware of this. Everyone rolls their eyes and chides Acuña for his controlling behavior, but in the end he is never persuaded to change, probably because he doesn’t endure any real consequences for his actions.
A walking paragon of toxic masculinity, Acuña tries to situate Maria as an emotionally stunted woman who still worships the romantic ideal she had when she was fifteen years old: Lochinvar, the Scottish knight from Sir Walter Scott’s epic poem Marmion. “You’d think she’d outgrow a tin hero by now,” Acuña opines. “She’s probably waiting for a myth to come to life. . . . I know women. They all fall in love with an illusion.” The irony here is that we never hear Maria herself confirm that this has been her trouble with men. If anyone is guilty of chasing an illusion, it’s Acuña. He is the one who fabricates a beau for his daughter and then tries his damnedest to keep up the charade, even when it threatens his own marriage.
Acuña’s smug attitude about his daughter strikes such a chord with me because it is a blatant example of how women’s emotions and thoughts, whether real or projected upon them, are often weaponized to discredit or infantize them. If we’re angry, we’re unstable; if we’re sad, we’re incapable; if we express a romantic longing for someone or something, we’re laughable, especially when we’re teenagers. Instead of respecting Maria’s autonomy to reject would-be suitors and pursue romance on her own terms, her family and the various men who attempt to flirt with her declare she is cold and haughty, including Astaire’s Robert after they first meet. Coupled with Acuña’s insistence that she is hopelessly devoted to a fictional knight, Maria could easily come across as the trope that classic Hollywood believed women were deathly afraid of becoming: a bitter old maid whose life is unfulfilled because she doesn’t find love or marry.
However, Maria not only resists others’ definitions of her, she also thoroughly subverts her father’s scheme. Although the story begins with the wedding of Maria’s older sister, which in turn reveals that her younger sisters are also desperate to marry their beaus, Maria refuses to be as consumed as they are by matrimony and domesticity, a perspective that is hilariously encapsulated by the scrunched-up face she makes at her younger sisters when they pointedly sing melodramatic lyrics about never being “a beautiful, blushing bride.” Because she is portrayed by Rita Hayworth, one of cinema’s most charismatic and winsome stars, we know how ridiculous it is to think that Maria could be frigid or distant. From her very first scene, she is playful and warm, her smile infectious and brilliant. If this is the woman who is supposed to have a personality like “the inside of a refrigerator,” who in this film really understands her? And more importantly, who cares to try?
Despite their rocky meet-cute, the answer would seem to be Robert, who becomes entangled in Acuña’s machinations when he delivers the latest handwritten card and orchids to the Acuña house one day. Recognizing him from the wedding reception, Maria concludes that Robert must be her admirer, much to her father’s horror. Acuña loathes the American and tries to convince his daughter she is wrong, but Maria ignores his protests and picks up the phone to invite Robert to their home for dinner. “What’s gotten into you, Maria?” Acuña gasps. “Nice girls don’t act this way!” With a mischievous grin on her face, she replies, “Nice girls don’t feel the way I do.” In just a few minutes, Maria has taken control of her father’s ruse and chosen her own suitor, someone who her father never would have selected, once again demonstrating that he doesn’t care to take into account what she wants or needs.
Bewildered by Acuña’s scheme, Robert reluctantly agrees to play along in exchange for a job. Once he and Maria begin to spend time together, though, it is obvious that she picked the right man as they discover they share similar upbringings and a fondness for gambling. The rapport between them is adorable, and the way they sing and dance with one another — the greatest test in a musical of whether a couple is meant to be or not — is heavenly. Astaire and Hayworth adored working together, with Fred privately admitting that she was his favorite partner, and it absolutely shows on the screen. Throughout You Were Never Lovelier, the camera captures Fred looking at Rita euphorically, as if he can’t believe that such a woman exists, which only makes Robert and Maria’s relationship feel that much more genuine. Just like Fred was blown away by Rita’s talent, Robert is enraptured by who Maria is as a person. The best example of this is the “Shorty George” number. Robert thinks he is showing her a new American dance that she hasn’t seen before, but Maria soon joins him and makes the routine a duet to his shock and delight. The start of their relationship may have been manufactured, but their sincere affection for and enjoyment of each other is completely organic.
Once they have fallen in love, Robert tells Maria the truth about her secret admirer, devastating her. When sending her endless flowers and apologies doesn’t work, Acuña remarks that Maria is still upset with Robert because he is replacing her romantic ideal of Lochinvar. “I don’t believe that. She’s a big girl now,” Robert responds. Still, using the knight as inspiration, he has a band play under Maria’s balcony while he strides into the courtyard wearing a suit of armor atop a white steed. Maria isn’t impressed and stays on her balcony — until Robert falls off of the horse, his armor falling apart to reveal Astaire’s signature white tie and tails underneath. This indelible image of the Astaire romantic figure emerging from the destroyed attire of the knight-in-shining-armor stereotype highlights how Robert has always been the ideal Maria wanted, not Lochinvar as her father assumes. With Robert now free of Lochinvar’s costume, Maria runs to him and they embrace. “Before we go any further,” he says, “I’ve got to get something straight. This Lochinvar fellow…” Maria smiles and replies with mock innocence before they dance into the sunset, “Lochinvar? Never heard of him.”
You Were Never Lovelier makes my heart sing in a way that few movies do. It is just an absurdly charming film, which makes its portrayal of Maria and its exploration of her romantic ideal even more intriguing to me. Films that are considered “fluff,” breezy confections with silly plots and questionable logic, are the kind of the cinema I live for because there is always something beneath that glorious, goofy, sunny exterior that is worth examining. You Were Never Lovelier is as conventional as they come — for one thing, Maria’s story revolves only around romance while Robert gets a subplot about wrangling a job from Acuña — but Maria’s ability to negotiate the patriarchal restraints of her father and assert her complexity represents the unexpectedly and weirdly feminist ways in which classic Hollywood could operate. There are always going to be limitations there, but if you look close enough, there are also moments of victory.
And with any luck, those moments will look as divine as Rita Hayworth dancing in the moonlight with a bewitched Fred Astaire.
To hear more about You Were Never Lovelier, check out A Place for Film: The IU Cinema Podcast‘s latest episode! Co-hosts David Carter and Elizabeth Roell speak with guest Emma Kearney about the film as part of the podcast’s excellent summer series on movie musicals, which so far has included West Side Story, In the Heights, and Bells are Ringing.
IU Cinema previously screened the Astaire classic Top Hat in 2017 and Hayworth’s Gilda in 2019 as part of the City Lights Film Series. It also screened the Hayworth-Gene Kelly musical Cover Girl in 2018 for the Sunday Matinee Classics series.
Michaela Owens is thrilled to be the editor of A Place for Film, in addition to being IU Cinema’s Publications Editor. An IU graduate with a BA in Communication and Culture and an MA in Cinema and Media Studies, she has also been a volunteer usher at IU Cinema since 2016. She never stops thinking about classic Hollywood, thanks to her mother’s introduction to it, and she likes to believe she is an expert on Katharine Hepburn and Esther Williams.