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Cover Girl (Blu-ray Review)

23 Jul, 2012 By: Mike Clark

Available via ScreenArchives.com
Twilight Time
$29.95 Blu-ray
Not rated
Stars Rita Hayworth, Gene Kelly, Phil Silvers, Eve Arden.

Cover Girl is to Rita Hayworth in Technicolor what Gilda is to the black-and-white dimension of her drop-you-dead screen persona, in that these are the movies even the semi-educated automatically think of when the subject of Golden Age Columbia’s biggest star comes to mind. Of course, Gilda doesn’t have a Jerome Kern-Ira Gershwin score that produced a standard — “Long Ago and Far Away” — that, even at the time, generated four singles that cracked Billboard’s top 10 (by Perry Como; Bing Crosby; Jo Stafford; and a Dick Haymes-Helen Forrest duet). Even Guy Lombardo’s version went to No. 11.

Unlike some musicals of the era (though not to put too fine a point on this) the Virginia Van Upp screenplay here has a few chops. In my experience, the 1944 movie’s dark elements have generally gone underreported, though it features a wealthy New York editor who’s been lovesick for 40 years (the ever-malleable Otto Kruger); a head case of a male protagonist (Gene Kelly); and a singing/dancing heroine named Rusty (Hayworth) who, when she finally makes it to Broadway, starts drinking and shedding weight due to personal stress. The production numbers here are good, and a couple of them are even better than that, but the melancholy subtext enables it to get a few more miles to the gallon in terms of lingering effect. This is definitely one of the best musicals in the 1940-60 span not made by MGM. Maybe the best. 

Rusty is one of several chorines working a rundown Brooklyn nightclub run by Kelly’s “Danny” — who, in one of the film’s surprisingly few acknowledgments of World War II, is portrayed as a vet who’s seen combat but is now playing drill sergeant to the tappers he overworks. One of his professional stable gets wind of a contest to select a major magazine’s cover girl, and a born-to-it Rusty tags along. Through a misunderstanding, she isn’t hired on the spot – a situation soon enough rectified for the movie’s second half to devote most of itself to the inherent tension between remaining devoted to her old job (and colleagues) or pursuing broader success.

At this point in his career, Kelly had been in a couple musicals at home studio MGM: His debut with Judy Garland in For Me and My Gal and a more featured role than most of his cameo-ed co-stars had in the all-star revue Thousands Cheer. But he’d also been shunted into the war drama likes of Pilot No. 5 and The Cross of Lorraine (coincidentally just released as Warner Archive selections), which suggests that MGM didn’t know what it had (or wasn’t prepared to know). This Kelly loan-out, which Girl producer Arthur Schwartz apparently talked Columbia’s reluctant chief Harry Cohn into accepting, did immeasurable good for the dancer’s career, with a young Stanley Donen (later co-director, with Kelly, of new-to-Blu-ray Singin’ in the Rain) coming along as an off-camera part of the deal.

Neither of Girl’s standout numbers is “Long Ago,” which is almost thrown away here. The film’s indisputable all-timer is Kelly’s famed “alter ego” scene, in which via trick photography and meticulous staging by Kelly and Donen, the dancer pulled off what he eventually called the most difficult set-piece of his career. (And it still kills.) The other is the irresistibly upbeat “Make Way for Tomorrow” — performed by on a predominantly outdoors-simulated set by the two leads and comedy-relief Phil Silvers, whose propensity to wear out his welcome in certain contexts is mostly kept in check here. Eve Arden, who never ever wore out her own, is also good for some chortles as Kruger’s predictably wisecracking boss — and while we’re at it, Jess Barker (as the younger Kruger in flashback scenes) contributes to a very good young/old physical matchup.

I’ve never seen an original Technicolor nitrate print of Cover Girl (Hayworth’s Down to Earth, yes) — but Twilight Time’s Blu-ray approximates my very good memories of a 35mm safety print I saw mid-’70s in the AFI screening room, which may have been (not sure) an Eastman Color job. In other words, the Blu-ray looks pretty darned good beyond one or two brief passages with some color registration wobble — though I won’t claim it’s the equivalent of, say, The Red Shoes via Criterion. Hayworth is so stunning that she could have gotten away with it if she hadn’t also been a superb musical performer (the singing here is very deftly dubbed by Martha Mears, but the dancing – and those legs — are real). Meanwhile: see if you don’t think this is a movie ripe for feminist discussion because it seems to impose a guilt-trip on Rusty’s decision to better herself professionally.

About the Author: Mike Clark

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