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Even working on a non-musical film, Johnny Mercer and composer Harry Warren couldn't stop themselves from turning out a hit. The 1938 comedy Hard to Get was designed to change Dick Powell's image from boy crooner to romantic comic. Still the studio (Warner Bros.) couldn't resist giving him at least a few songs such as "You Must Have Been a Beautiful Baby," a sure bet for the Hit Parade.
The Busby Berkeley musicals that had made Powell a star were fading in popularity by 1938, but Warner Bros. had a hard time envisioning the genre's top male star doing anything else. When Powell fought for more dramatic roles, their response was to put him into fluff like Hard to Get. The film pitted gas station owner Powell against spoiled heiress Olivia de Havilland, who has to work as a maid at his motor inn when she has no cash to pay for the gas she just pumped. For revenge, she tries to thwart his plans to get her father (Charles Winninger) to back his proposal for a chain of motels. Somehow, their animosity turns to love in time for the fade out. And just to keep the fans happy, the studio shoehorned two songs into the plot. "There's a Sunny Side to Every Situation" was a mere throwaway, with Powell only singing a bit of it. But for "You Must Have Been a Beautiful Baby," they created a romantic scene with the star rowing de Havilland on a lake during a brief respite from their quarreling. That and the disguises Powell dons to get in to see her father (including a brief turn in drag) provided the most memorable parts of his performance.
The film couldn't have been much of a thrill for de Havilland either. Although she had achieved stardom quickly at Warner Bros. when she was cast opposite Errol Flynn in Captain Blood (1935), only her fourth film, her dreams of becoming a dramatic star were far from coming true. The flighty heiress was a role she had already played twice before, in 1937's It's Love I'm After and the film made just before Hard to Get, Four's a Crowd (1938). Her only shot at heavy drama to that point had come as the female lead in Anthony Adverse (1936), a film practically stolen by villains Claude Rains and Gale Sondergaard.
Hard to Get was almost stolen, too, by Winninger. A vaudeville star since childhood, Winninger focused on movies almost exclusively in his forties with the coming of sound. He was most often cast as lovable old men like Cap'n Andy in Show Boat (1936), a role he had originated on Broadway. With impeccable comic timing and a background as a song and dance man, he excelled at physical comedy, as in this film. One of the running gags involves his devotion to athletics, which leads him to force his valet (Melville Cooper) into a series of slapstick boxing, fencing and wrestling matches.
At least Powell got a hit song out of the proceedings, though as was the case at the time, he didn't get to make the popular commercial recording of it. Instead, Bing Crosby released a version that stayed in the top ten for nine weeks, three of them at number one (at one point it was unseated by "Jeepers Creepers," another song Mercer had written for Dick Powell). Tommy Dorsey's orchestra also recorded the song successfully, while later versions were released by Perry Como in the late '40s, Bobby Darren in 1961 and The Dave Clark Five in 1967.
Powell's disappointment in not getting a shot at more serious roles was compounded by the failure of Hard to Get at the box office. Audiences may have been tired of musicals at the time, but they also didn't want to see the star in anything else. He had more success with his final two films at Warner Bros., Going Places (1938) and Naughty But Nice (1939), both of them musicals with songs by Warren and Mercer. At that point, he left the studio in search of more variety, a goal he finally achieved at RKO in the late '40s when he finally shed his boy singer image to build a new career as a tortured film noir hero.
Producer: Hal B. Wallis
Director: Ray Enright
Screenplay: Jerry Wald, Maurice Leo, Richard Macaulay, Wally Klein, Joseph Schrank
Based on the story "Classified" by Stephen Morehouse Avery
Cinematography: Charles Rosher
Art Direction: Anton Grot
Music: Leo F. Forbstein
Principal Cast: Dick Powell (Bill Davis), Olivia de Havilland (Margaret Richards), Charles Winninger (Benjamin Richards), Allen Jenkins (Roscoe), Bonita Granville (Connie Richards), Melville Cooper (John Case), Isabel Jeans (Henrietta Richards), Grady Sutton (Stanley Potter), Thurston Hall (John Atwater), Penny Singleton (Hattie), Irving Bacon (Gas Station Attendant), Jimmy Conlin (Dour Diner).
by Frank Miller