YOU WERE NEVER LOVELIER

FIRE DOWN BELOW 

THEY CAME TO CORDURA  (COLUMBIA PICTURES HOME VIDEO)

 RITA   (IMAGE ENTERTAINMENT) 

"There's not much meat on her but what there is is cherce," the famous remark that Spencer Tracy made about Katharine Hepburn in George Cukor's PAT AND MIKE, could also apply to the rapturously charming lighter than air souffle entitled YOU WERE NEVER LOVELIER (1942), which teamed, for the second and, unfortunately, last time, Fred Astaire and Rita Hayworth.

The fact that there's basically no discernible plot (Astaire's down-on-his-luck dancer romances luscious Hayworth against the will of her father) becomes completely immaterial the moment these two set foot on the dance floor to some of Jerome Kern's most beguiling melodies. To see the perfection of style, humor and sheer joyousness that both bring to the infectiously bouncy "Shorty George" number, as well as the almost unearthly level of graceful and utterly romantic eroticism that their collaboration on a sensuous moonlit duet to the strains of Kern's lovely "I'm Old Fashioned" produces is to understand fully why Astaire hinted, in his later years, that Hayworth was his favorite partner. (While the primary focus of this article is on Hayworth, it's impossible not to mention Astaire's brilliant solo in this film, which allows Astaire, the greatest cinema dancer of all time, to execute a spectacularly funny and impossibly intricate choreographic demonstration of his unparalleled skill on a desk, all the while making it look like it was the easiest accomplishment in the world!) 

Hayworth has simply never been as youthfully exuberant and vibrantly gorgeous a presence as she is here. What she represents, in a way that no-one else has before or since, is femininity at its most joyous height, and the fact that she more than holds her own on the dance floor with the phenomenal Astaire attests to the enormous degree of her talent. 

Columbia's full-screen black and white transfer is of such perfection in its stunning black levels, grey scale and lack of grain that it almost, but not quite, equals their previous transfer of Hayworth's GILDA, which is no faint praise, as that remains one of my top ten favorite studio transfers of a black and white film. The film title YOU WERE NEVER LOVELIER is highly apropos, as it is an accurate description not only of the very visible charms of Hayworth, but of Columbia's exceptional dvd treatment of this enchanting  film. 

Audiences were so shocked at Hayworth's suddenly wrinkled and bedraggled appearance in 1957's FIRE DOWN BELOW that it became instantly apparent that the three years of inactivity since her last film and contentious publicity that she endured during that time as a result of a highly publicized divorce and child custody case had left their unmistakable mark, a fact accentuated by the lack of photographic care that she received from a studio no longer interested in her.  For Hayworth, FIRE DOWN BELOW signaled the beginning of a long, sad decline. 

There's simply no getting around the fact that FIRE DOWN BELOW is an insanely schizophrenic film, the first half of which is a not very romantic triangle in which Hayworth comes between two best friends (Robert Mitchum and Jack Lemmon) and the second half of which is a hackneyed disaster film in which poor Hayworth is almost entirely jettisoned. Mitchum's ability to saunter through indifferent trifles such as this with his unique brand of studied indifference is what kept him on top for years despite the occasional shabbiness of some of his projects, but Lemmon as his tough (!?!?) sailor cohort is inept beyond belief in a role for which he is laughably unsuited, and when Hayworth says "Armies have walked over me," it's more the admission of a tired and defeated soon-to-be ex-movie star than a performance enmeshed in character.

Columbia's color 2.55:1 ( looks more like 2.35:1 to me) anamorphic transfer is very good indeed, with very little damage visible, and the mono sound is clear and distortion free, but nothing can disguise the fact that a far more appropriate title for this unfortunate film would be MISFIRE DOWN BELOW. 

While THEY CAME TO CORDURA (1959) is only a marginally better film than FIRE DOWN BELOW, it is a much more well-intentioned effort which tries very hard to have something meaningful to say, though at this point I remain unsure just what the intentions were and what it all means. The most surprising and rewarding thing about this long, ramblingly repetitive film, which tells the story of a career Army officer (Gary Cooper) who, branded a coward, is given the humiliating task of leading five scurvy and unwilling  Medal of Honor candidates across the desert to receive their medals, is the absolutely alert and excellent performance of Hayworth as an American expatriate accused of aiding the Mexicans, which is in stunning contrast to her lethargic turn in FIRE DOWN BELOW. So sharp and deeply felt is Hayworth's work here that she manages to walk away with the picture, an amazing feat, considering that not only Cooper, but the excellent Van Heflin and Richard Conte are in the cast. Hayworth's unwavering commitment to her character injects passionate life into an otherwise lifeless CORDURA, and is more than reason enough to view this film.  

Columbia's anamorphic 2.35:1 transfer is reasonably watchable, and while grainy, accurately reflects the cheap color process inexplicably used originally for this big budget film. (Also included on the other side of the disc is the absolutely horrific pan-and-scan version ------ Walmart customers rejoice!) 

 RITA , the very good documentary about Hayworth's life and career that has appeared frequently on Turner Classic Movies, is now available on dvd with a few minutes of newly extended interview footage courtesy of  Image Entertainment, and the full screen transfer is sharp and confident and looks somewhat better than it did on TCM. But even with the added footage, 58 minutes seems too short a time to donate to this endlessly fascinating icon of the golden years of Hollywood. 

--DICK DINMAN

 

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