“I asked her how tall she was as I stood alongside of her,” wrote Fred Astaire. “This was always an important item to me because if the lady happened to be about 5 feet 7 inches minus shoes, and came up to the set with 3-inch heels, she’d be just a bit above my 5 feet 9 1/2 inches…
“As we stood there, both in flat heels, I was easily 3 inches taller and I told her I hoped she didn’t have to wear very high heels with me. She said very quietly that she didn’t think she had to.
“We then danced around the mirrored room in impromptu ballroom fashion, as I wanted to get an idea of how we looked together.
“She knew from experience what this dancing business was all about; that was obvious from the moment I started working with her. She was very nervous and shy when we first met in the rehearsal hall at Columbia.
“When I arrived, Rita was already there, sitting in a corner with Judson. That was the only time I saw him–I never saw Cohn on the set and Eduardo only came once and that was to see me.
“Creating an original dance routine is hard work, and we took seven or eight weeks to compose and perfect the dance numbers for the film before shooting began. The film took another two months after that.
“I never thought much about why I did something; you just did it, you know. If you don’t do it like that, but try to intellectualise every step you take and every step your partner takes, you keep on doing the same damn thing the whole time, which is the only thing I was against. That’s probably why I remember particular things to do with a film or a number or a person.
“Sometimes they’d come and be nervous like Rita was. I remember that because she mentioned it to somebody, and we talked about it to get her to relax. I usually have a lot of fun on a picture because I kid around a lot and if things ever got serious we’d discuss it, because I don’t fight with people I work with and certainly never with Rita.
“She had a lovely sense of humour. We used to play tricks on each other in rehearsals, always clowning around, like I would put my hands into iced water and then say to Rita, ‘Let’s try this step,’ and she’d take a hold of these freezing hands that she wasn’t expecting and let out a yell. Things like that. Silly things to keep tensions away. Laughs.
“She worried about herself, about her work; she was that much of an artist. Always a pro and very anxious to do things right.
“She was a good dancer, easy to work with and a quick study. She learnt steps faster than anyone I’ve ever known. I’d show her a routine before lunch. She’d be back right after lunch and have it down to perfection. She apparently figured it out in her mind while she was eating.
“But she was better when she was ‘on’ than at rehearsal. That’s when she really came alive. I asked Hermes, who’d just worked with her, about her and he told me that at first you said to yourself, ‘Is she going to get this? Will she be able to do this?’ And then she gets before the camera–Wow! And that’s true.
“In fact, sometimes she would do so much that I would say, ‘Whoa, hoah!’, because she got more movement in than we needed or expected at some point. But she was doing her own thing.
“Mostly, you have to draw things out of Rita in rehearsals, then she lights up when she comes on. Of course, for me she used to light up everything because she was such a beautiful girl to be around. That’s why she shines so. That’s why she’s a star.
“She had a saintly quality, you know. She had plenty of fire too–a lot of that, but there was this other quality about her. I don’t know how to tell you any better, it’s just that we used to say she’s like a saint sometimes.
“It’s a shame the two films we did were in black and white–colour would have been so much better, but I think it was something to do with wartime rationing. You couldn’t do those kind of movies nowadays. They were too light. Not like the ones you see now or like the great, big-budgeted musicals I did later on at Metro.
“These were nice little musicals, they did all right and they still look good. You used to be able to make big musicals with a nothing story and a lot of numbers. They must have had some merit because people still like them, but that was our day, and that day is past.”