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DVD Review: The Films of Rita Hayworth

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An immensely appealing screen presence, Rita Hayworth captivated audiences in the 1940s and 1950s with her blend of sex appeal, graceful dancing and genuine charm. Her pin-up girl status may have caused some to ascribe her success more to her looks than her talent, but in a new collection of five films from her heyday at Columbia Pictures, it’s readily apparent that Hayworth possessed a magnetism that allowed her to thrive in widely divergent genres, from musicals to film noir to a biblical epic. Even when the films aren’t terribly engaging, it’s hard to take your eyes off her.

Included in this five-disc set are three films being made available on DVD for the first time.

Cover Girl (1944)
Hayworth stars as chorus girl Rusty Parker in Charles Vidor’s Cover Girl, one of her most recognizable films and one that has been previously available on DVD. When Parker goes to audition for a spot on the cover of a fashion magazine, she is chosen because she looks just like her grandmother (who Hayworth also plays in flashbacks), a star of the stage who the magazine editor (Otto Kruger) had fallen in love with long ago.

The position launches her into stardom, but it might come at the cost of her relationship with Danny McGuire (Gene Kelly), who runs the nightclub where she performs.

With music by Jerome Kern and lyrics by Ira Gershwin, one would expect an instant classic musically, but most of the numbers feel like remainders from their better work. (The flashback 19th Century numbers are especially turgid, even if Hayworth does look good in the costumes.)

Cover Girl is on more solid ground when it’s engaging in the playfulness of Kelly (who had a significant amount of control over the film) rather than the more romantic strains that Kern thrived on. “Make Way for Tomorrow,” which Hayworth and Kelly perform with Phil Silvers, gives the film a bolt of energy and Kelly’s “Alter-Ego Dance,” which uses superimposed trick photography to allow Kelly to dance with himself is probably the most enduring moment of the film. Hayworth would shine more later.

Tonight and Every Night (1945)
While the narrative is certainly thinner here than in Cover Girl, Tonight and Every Night is often a more enjoyable musical and a better showcase of Hayworth’s talents. Available here for the first time on DVD, the film, directed by Victor Saville, introduces a flimsy frame narrative to look back on a London theater that never missed a performance despite the bombing raids of World War II.

Hayworth stars as Rosalind Bruce, an American showgirl who attracts the attention of Royal Air Force pilot Paul Lundy (Lee Bowman). Their will they-won’t they relationship is pretty standard stuff, but the musical numbers are uniformly solid, from the graceful dancing of Marc Platt to Hayworth’s fetching rendition of “You Excite Me.”

The film’s Technicolor photography is represented beautifully here. The print is in almost pristine condition and it’s fantastic to see this underrated film finally available on DVD.

Gilda (1946)
Likely the masterpiece of Hayworth’s career and certainly the masterpiece of this set, Gilda has been previously released on DVD (and one hopes it will receive a Blu-ray release that truly showcases its striking black-and-white photography at some point). The film features Hayworth’s most iconic scene ever: a striptease in which she only removes a single glove — proof that sexy is an attitude, and she had it in abundance.

Directed by Vidor again, the film stars Glenn Ford as Johnny Farrell, a down-on-his-luck gambler in Buenos Aires who’s given a job and friendship by wealthy casino owner Ballin Mundson (George Macready). Everything is going well until Mundson returns from abroad with a new wife — Gilda (Hayworth), a former lover of Johnny’s. The two have a love-hate relationship that Johnny is desperate to keep hidden from Mundson. Ford is magnificent at displaying tension always on the precipice of boiling over and Hayworth is a revelation as a devil-may-care fast talker who’s undeniably a bit of a slut.

The film simmers with sexual tension and adeptly combines elements of film noir and melodrama. While its final act veers into territory that’s a bit dull and preposterous simultaneously, Gilda is a resounding scorcher.

Miss Sadie Thompson (1953)
One of many adaptations of the W. Somerset Maugham short story Rain, Miss Sadie Thompson comes to DVD for the first time here. Hayworth stars as the titular character, a former nightclub singer (a prostitute in the original story, but changed for the Production Code here) who gets stranded in American Samoa with a bunch of eager Marines and a zealous religious leader (Jose Ferrer), who is determined to rid the island of immorality.

The simmering seductive nature of the plot is toned down thanks to Production Code concessions, but director Curtis Bernhardt keeps the proceedings lively with a loose, jazzy feel to the scenes.

Hayworth excels here in one of her more tragic roles, displaying a fully realized sense of rage in the film’s climactic moments. Her alluring nature also works well for the character, who attracts plenty of Marines, but Sgt. Phil O’Hara (Aldo Ray) most of all.

The interplay of sex and religion doesn’t feel fully explored, merely hinted at, so the shocking climax feels a bit out of the blue, but Miss Sadie Thompson works on a number of levels — Hayworth’s performance being the primary one.

The film was originally released in 3-D — quite the different kind of film than what gets shown in 3-D these days.

Salome (1953)
An ill-advised Technicolor biblical (sort-of) epic, Salome is also a newcomer to DVD. Hayworth stars as the titular daughter of King Herod and Queen Herodias, but that’s about as close as the film sticks to the biblical story, adding all sorts of dubious story elements and culminating in a finale that’s the direct opposite of the Bible.

Although the costumes are fine, much of the production feels like it was created on the cheap, and the proceedings — Salome gets banished from Rome, falls in love with a Roman soldier (Stewart Granger), tries to save John the Baptist (an over-the-top Alan Badel) — feel interminably dull.

Hayworth’s climactic “Dance of the Seven Veils” is a demanding and engaging number and it’s enjoyable to see Charles Laughton camp it up as King Herod, but Hayworth’s beauty, lovingly framed in a number of close-ups by director William Dieterle, isn’t enough to redeem this one.

Martin Scorsese, Baz Luhrmann and Patricia Clarkson all lend introductions to the set, with Scorsese reminiscing about Gilda, Luhrmann talking about Cover Girl and Gilda, and Clarkson introducing Tonight and Every Night and Miss Sadie Thompson. Apparently no one had anything good to say about Salome. I’m not surprised. Clarkson’s entries are painfully pre-written and seem to be read off cue cards, but Scorsese and Luhrmann lend infectious passion to their thoughts. A commentary track from Richard Schickel is also included for Gilda, along with trailers for each of the films.

The Films of Rita Hayworth is an impressive set, with each Film Foundation-supervised transfer looking marvelous, and three previously unavailable classic films now on DVD.

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About Dusty Somers

Dusty Somers is a Seattle-based editor and writer. He is a member of the Online Film Critics Society and Seattle Theater Writers.