In case you all haven’t noticed by now, I went a little crazy with the boxed sets at Christmas, and one of the last collections I bought this year was The Films of Rita Hayworth. I wasn’t that familiar with her work, but I had seen You Were Never Lovelier with Fred Astaire and knew she had been married to Orson Welles. I knew Rita was one of the few stars under contract at Columbia Pictures, and that she donated the bumpers off her car for scrap during World War Two. Plus, Rita’s pin-up was second only to Betty Grable’s. It’s easy to see why, but these two ladies couldn’t be more different. Betty’s style says, “Come see,” whereas Rita’s is very much “You’re already there.” That about sums up her film career as well, as I quickly figured out when I watched the five movies in the package. Heads up, everyone–this is a long post. 🙂
Cover Girl (1944): Hollywood sure had a thing in the forties and fifties for framing beautiful women in magazine covers, and this may have been the first such instance. Rita played Rusty, a dancer at Danny McGuire’s club who was offered a job as a (what else?) cover girl by a man who used to be in love with her grandmother. Danny was, of course, put out because he was in love with Rusty, and Rusty’s moving up in the world hampered the Three Musketeers dynamic they had with Phil Silvers’s character, Genius. Their treks to a dive bar to look for pearls in oysters are among the highlights of the movie, especially when Rusty, Danny, and Genius dance their way home. It made me kind of nostalgic, too–my best friends back in college were both guys, and we had all kinds of schtick. Onward…
This is the film in which Gene Kelly really hit his stride as a filmmaker, as Columbia gave him almost total creative carte blanche. In that sense, it’s his movie, but it didn’t do Rita any harm, either. She’s not only a terrific dancer, but Cover Girl allowed her to flex her acting muscles, which she does in fine style. Rusty’s audition is probably my favorite scene. Eve Arden is in it as well, and her facial expressions are priceless.
Cover Girl is also a terrific time capsule of nineteen-forties fashion and World War Two spirit. The film drops the usual not-so-subtle hints to audiences to do their part for the war effort and to keep their chins up. As far as the storyline goes, the inevitable happens. Rusty has to decide what’s really important to her–status and money, or love. Fame and fortune generally come at a high price, and it sounds like a line, but there are certain things that money can’t buy. It’s a musical, though, so the lessons are easy to swallow. Sorry, guys–not gonna give any spoilers. You’ll just have to watch it, but that’s no chore. Cover Girl is a real pleasure.
Tonight And Every Night (1945): Loosely based on the real-life Windmill Theatre, Tonight And Every Night is a backstage story set in a London theater that didn’t miss a single performance during the Blitz. Rita played Rosalind, the lone American in the troupe. Just as in Cover Girl, Tonight has Rita at the center of a trio of friends, and in this case the other two corners are Judy and Tommy. Tommy’s entree into the film is via probably the most unique dance number I have ever seen. Seriously. I’ve watched a lot of musicals. I have never seen anyone ad lib choreography to whatever’s on the radio, and I do mean whatever. Including an Adolf Hitler speech. I wasn’t sure whether to be weirded out or awed by it. The theater’s proprietor, Mrs. Tolliver, erred on the side of weirded out, though, and told Tommy he needed to learn to take direction before she would hire him. Up stepped Ros and Judy, who took Tommy under their wings and helped him refine his talent.
Since it was wartime, the theater saw plenty of soldiers and sailors on leave file through its doors. One of them was an RAF pilot named Paul, who tried repeatedly to pick up Rita. She rebuffed him at first, then slowly changed her tune, but then Paul flew too high and tricked her into coming to his apartment alone. Like a lady, Ros beat a hasty retreat, but not before giving Paul a piece of her mind. After that Paul had to eat serious dirt to get her to even talk to him, and even then she needed to be really convinced Paul wasn’t just a stage door johnny. Adding to the mix is Tommy being secretly in love with Ros, and Judy being secretly in love with Tommy. Whew.
As is the case with many musicals, Tonight‘s plot is simple, and the movie is a whole lot of fun. Between the love triangle, fantastic music, not to mention a xylophone player named The Great Waldo, Tonight doesn’t hit a false note. It doesn’t have a cookie-cutter happy ending, but probably went a long way in cheering up and motivating a public weary of war.
Gilda (1946): I let my son watch the first two movies with me, but not this one. When he saw Rita’s picture on the menu, even before we hit the play button, his eyes just goggled. He’s only nine, so this little show of manhood was just a bit too much for me. That being said, Gilda is a great film.
Rita plays, well, the title character, who is a straightforward, no-holds-barred femme fatale. Opposite her, a young Glenn Ford played Johnny Farrell, a suave and savvy American cardsharp who landed a job as an assistant to Ballin Mundson, a casino owner and German expat living in Buenos Aires. One day, Ballin brought Johnny home to meet his wife, and with one epic hair-flip, Gilda is revealed for the first time. What follows is a Casablanca-esque look passing between Johnny and Gilda, but they both shrug it off when Ballin questions them. It’s not clear (or maybe I missed it) if this was a chance meeting or Johnny followed Gilda to Argentina on purpose, but either way, the two of them have a history.
Baz Luhrmann said recently that the overall theme in Gilda is running, and I agree with him. It’s not of the track and field variety, either. Gilda ran from her past and herself. Johnny ran from his past toward Gilda. Ballin ran from Germany to Argentina towards the end of World War Two, and then he kept running from his own wife to see in what direction she would run. The big questions are where and when these characters will stop running and what will cause them to stop.
For her part, Gilda is a lusty creature. Even though she was married, she…ahem…entertained men she met at her husband’s casino. Her theme song throughout the film is “Put the Blame On Mame,” which sticks in the head with good reason. A lot of the trouble Gilda got into was brought on by her actions, and as the saying goes, she reaped what she sowed. On one hand she’s pathetic, but on the other, she just needed to get a clue. Add to that the casino’s seedy underbelly, not to mention Ballin’s past coming back to haunt him, and the sum is an exciting, intriguing, and tense story.
Miss Sadie Thompson (1953): My son didn’t watch this movie, either. Even though the title character (played by Rita, of course) was toned down considerably from the novel’s Sadie to keep the Production Code folks happy, there was still quite a bit of raciness going on.
Sadie Thompson was a singer with a past who fell in with some Marines during a long layover in American Samoa. Also on the island, except he’s visiting a mission hospital, was Mr. Davidson, who radiated disapproval of Sadie–she danced, flirted with the men, and played jazz on a record player. Horrors. Mr. Davidson flat-out called her a prostitute, to which Sadie called him a lout. On the surface, Sadie almost felt like a nineteen-fifties version of Footloose, with the horrible Christian spoiling everyone’s fun.
Fortunately, the film stopped just short of that, with wise and kind Dr. McPhail standing up for Sadie and reminding Mr. Davidson not to judge her prematurely. In fact, he summed up the entire movie: “Fanatics are often too obsessed by what they fight against to know why they’re really fighting it. All of us have hidden desires which we disguise in one way or another.”
Surface appearances very often don’t tell the whole story. Sadie was really pitiable–I honestly felt sorry for her. She was a woman with a past, she was a brassy character, but she wasn’t mean. In fact, she taught the village kids songs and played games with them when she had downtime. Meanwhile, Mr. Davidson appeared to be doing everything right, when in actuality he struggled with the same desires as every man Sadie met.
Miss Sadie Thompson is a tough movie to watch, but it does make a lot of salient points about reality and human nature. Parents may want to handle with care, though.
Salome (1953): 1953 seemed to be the Year of the Pendulum for Rita, as she went swinging from one character extreme to another. Before she played Sadie Thompson, Rita was Salome, a Jewish princess and the daughter of Herodias, who lived in the time of Jesus.
Salome is a very minor figure in the Bible. In fact, her entire story is found in Mark 6:17-29. So yeah, the filmmakers took a lot of liberties with the plot of this film. Mostly it’s because there aren’t many details to be had, but some of it is just historically inaccurate. For instance, the film had John the Baptist finding out about Jesus’s ministry while in prison. This wouldn’t have been news to John–he was Jesus’s cousin and had baptized Him in the Jordan River, so John knew exactly what Jesus was doing even before he was arrested. They also mentioned in the same scene that Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead. According to the Bible, this happened after John’s death. Another thing that gave me pause was when Caesar greeted one of his generals by saying “Hail.” I’m not an expert on the Roman Empire, and someone please correct me if I’m wrong, but I doubt Caesar would have said this to anyone. Wouldn’t doing so imply that others were his equals?
However, there’s a lot in this movie that was done right. They nailed the essence of the Biblical account, namely, that Salome was used as a pawn by her mother. Only the film fleshed out her story, so it’s easier to have sympathy for her, whereas in the Bible she just seemed a little dopey. Salome’s Dance of the Seven Veils was pretty spectacular as well. Rita Hayworth later said they had to do endless takes and retakes, but it paid off. Also, as in Ben-Hur, Jesus’s face was never shown—only an arm or a shadow, plus the film includes an excerpt from the Sermon On the Mount. I think this was done in Salome and Ben-Hur because the filmmakers wanted audiences to focus on people’s reactions to Jesus and not the actor playing Him. Another thing Salome had going for it was a distinguished cast–Cedric Hardwicke, Judith Anderson, Stewart Granger, and Charles Laughton, to name a few, and each of them put in great performances. If the anachronisms are ignored, it’s a very sumptuous, sprawling film.
Once upon a time, Columbia was considered the riff raff studio–the one where stars were sent on loan as “punishment”. To the chagrin of the bigger moguls, though, Columbia managed to churn out some very respectable and profitable films. Rita Hayworth was one of the secrets to their success, as she was a fantastic performer. I think the reason Betty outdid Rita in the pin-up department, though, was that even though sex sells, subtlety is more intriguing. Still, Rita easily deserves her place in film history.
Okeydokey, all–I’ll see you on Friday. Well, technically Saturday because I’ll be posting on Friday night and most of you probably won’t read my entry until the morning. It’s not confusing. Anyway, a certain iconic character is returning to TV in a new series, and I’m going to review the pilot. It may be fun, it may be painful, but it probably won’t be boring (I hope). Until then…
This collection is available on Amazon.