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Films of Rita Hayworth, The (DVD Review)

10 Jan, 2011 By: Mike Clark

Sony Pictures
$59.95 five-DVD set
Not rated.
Stars Rita Hayworth, Gene Kelly, Glenn Ford, Stewart Granger.

As a World War II pinup icon, Betty Grable was undeniably a cutie, but it’s tough to imagine the heads of servicemen doing 360-degree spins a la Linda Blair’s in The Exorcist the way they did for Rita Hayworth during her too-abbreviated prime.

But life wasn’t all rewards for the musical/dramatic superstar (Columbia Pictures’ biggest) even before she began suffering from Early Onset Alzheimer’s Disease. Hayworth’s high-profile marital tally (Orson Welles, singer Dick Haymes, Prince Aly Khan) was so hectic that standup institution Henny Youngman once got a memorable crack out of claiming he went to L.A. every year for her wedding. I can’t recall if the comic added that it was he or Hayworth who suffered scars from flying rice, but you get the idea.

This five-title box, with newly spiffed-up prints from Martin Scorsese’s Film Foundation, contains three new-to-DVD titles and a pair that were previously released. Better prints are better prints, but be aware going in that the two retreads (color Cover Girl and black-and-white Gilda) are the collection’s high points. Not included here is arguably the best but certainly the most provocative film Hayworth ever made at her home studio: Welles’ 1948 The Lady from Shanghai. But Lady is atypical the way Welles’ movies almost always were — and for it, Welles made his wife cut her hair and turn it blond in a fashion that studio head Harry Cohn and apparently the public hated, given the sorry box office returns.

Actually, for a star of her stature, Hayworth didn’t make that many totally successful movies, though I have substantial fondness for 1942’s You Were Never Lovelier (her second of two pairings with Fred Astaire) and have always thought she held her own with the powerhouse cast of 1958’s Separate Tables, which won two acting Oscars in addition to containing a performance that ranks with Deborah Kerr’s best.

The presentations here, which include intros by Martin Scorsese, Baz Luhrman and redheaded soul sister Patricia Clarkson, have been chosen with the emphasis on star power — even if Hayworth seems somewhat smothered by Salome’s Biblical pageantry. Still, if you’re going to make an ‘A’-movie about Salome in the first place, you have to have a visage that’s up to the task.

This visage component applies as well to 1944’s Cover Girl as well, a movie that did as much for the career of Gene Kelly (borrowed from MGM early in his contract days there) as it did for his co-star. For the most part it’s Hayworth’s picture if one has to choose, but there is one spectacular Kelly solo in which he dances with “himself” (or his character’s alter ego) that may be even more of a special effects marvel than the dance Kelly would do with animated Jerry Mouse a year later in MGM’s Anchors Aweigh. There’s also a memorable montage of real-life cover girls from the period — an impressive example of what real movie magic used to be and a little like having the pages of a 1940s magazine come to life, which was, of course, the intention. This is a movie of which many are justifiably fond, though it will test your saturation point for Phil Silvers comedy relief.

Tonight and Every Night (1945) is just about Girl’s Technicolor equal, dealing with a London theater that continues performances throughout wartime bombing — a premise very similar to that of 2005’s Mrs. Henderson Presents, a disappointingly charmless movie that makes this one look a little better. Hayworth and co-star Janet Blair (a Columbia contract player the studio never quite knew how to market) are attractive as chorines, and the color photography is almost a match for Cover Girl’s. The male leads, however, are sub-par: mustached Lee Bowman (who eventually got relegated to syndicated TV cop drama "Miami Undercover" opposite Rocky Marciano, no lie) and Marc Platt (colorless except for when he was dancing; later he’d be one of the male clan in 7 Brides for 7 Brothers).

Gilda (1946) exploits Hayworth’s signature role for some signature film noir — a she’s-married-to-him-but-I-dig-her-anyway melodrama with some twisted sexual subtext involving the actor who plays her older husband (George Macready in his signature role with the arguable exception of the odious French general he plays in Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory). The pairing audiences paid to see was Hayworth’s with Glenn Ford, a five-time co-star who wasn’t always the world’s most dynamic actor but one who could play inhibited nervous wrecks — which is what he’s asked to do here.

To enjoy Salome (1953), you have to have a taste for religious epics, though this one was pretty well blown off the map by The Robe, which came out (and introduced CinemaScope) six months later. Hayworth was off the screen in 1949, ’50 and ’51, and when she returned in ’52 for Affair in Trinidad (opposite Ford), she had aged some. The same goes here, but she still looks fabulous enough to convince as a Biblical figure who probably didn’t have to bankroll her own veils, even if Hayworth is battling some screenplay cardboard. Otherwise, knowing which wavelength to tune in on becomes a matter of viewer taste. Which is to say that the movie’s standout virtue is either Stewart Granger as Claudius (who gives a credible performance) or Charles Laughton and Judith Anderson as King Herod and the Mrs., who tend to flame it up.

Miss Sadie Thompson (Columbia’s sordid Christmas attraction of ’53) fared better as previous vehicles for Gloria Swanson and Joan Crawford, even if the Crawford version (1932’s Rain) was a flop at the time. By the time this dredge-up got made, Somerset Maugham’s play about a South Sea slattern who destroys a piously hypocritical preacher was showing some mold — though the studio dressed it up with 3D (in some cities, at least) and a cast of equally tempted Marines led by that great gravel-voice Aldo Ray. By this time, Hayworth had aged to a degree that may have been appropriate for the part, though it’s still startling to compare her appearance here with the one in Salome, even though the films only came out a year apart. I’m fairly certain that the restoration here gives a good rendering of the original, yet the colors here are so muddy that one might erroneously assume this was an Eastman Color movie instead of a Technicolor one. Still, Hayworth has one standout scene: her once notorious “The Heat Is On” number, which introducer Clarkson said got verbally annihilated at the time by an outraged and obvious strung-tight Chicago censor. Hopefully, he went the way of Jose Ferrer’s disgraced Reverend Davidson character (a leap off the cliff, baby).

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