Thursday, November 5, 2009

Who to Blame? Not Rita

I recently fixed a gaping hole in my classic film education. "Gilda," one of Rita Hayworth's best movies, is infamous for her simulated strip-tease to "Put the Blame on Mame" and is considered one of the sexiest musical numbers put on film during the 1940s.

But I had never seen this movie until recently. While it lived up to its notoriety, what struck me was how Hayworth owns this character. In short, this actress had talent beyond her breathtaking looks. And her chemistry with co-star Glenn Ford is so hot it nearly ignited the TV.

Plus, you can't discount the third actor who comprises the plot's love triangle. George Macready provides his own heat as Ballin Mundson, a sinister South American casino owner with a gorgeous new wife, Gilda. He hires Johnny Farrell (Ford) as his new right-hand man and is surprised to find out Johnny and Gilda know each other. In fact, they have a past together, one they are trying to hide from the powerful Ballin.

That's the short of it. There's the shady business dealings of Ballin, which I found detracted from the love triangle. In addition, the fact that Johnny and Gilda landed in the same South American casino is a stretch, so you must be willing to believe or ignore the various coincidences that occur within the plot.

Still, all three actors are tops, and the psychological battles -- particularly between Johnny and Gilda -- are fascinating to watch as they play out.

I'm not happy with the climax, and since I hate to give away endings, I'll be general and blunt. It was a cop-out, particularly with how dark the story is and how tangled the romantic triangle becomes. Still, I like the fact that this film isn't the standard romantic triangle. As film noir was firmly in place as a genre, I like how edgy it feels and how it taps into a dark seriousness that was more common in films during the first years of the post-WWII era.

The joy in "Gilda" is watching the two stars together. Released by Columbia Pictures in 1946, it is arguably the pinnacle of Hayworth's success on film. She came to Hollywood as Margarita Carmen Cansino, who had danced professionally since the age of 12. Upon signing with Columbia, her name was changed -- her first name is simply shortened from her real first name, and her last is a variation on her mother's maiden name. Her hairline also was changed to make it more attractive.

She made her first mark in a supporting role in 1939's "Only Angels Have Wings" opposite Cary Grant and Jean Arthur. Harry Cohn, boss of Columbia Pictures, had taken an immediate liking to Hayworth and, since he despised Arthur, saw her potential as a top star for his company. After proceeding cautiously, her first starring role was opposite Fred Astaire, who hadn't done well in the two years since he last danced with Ginger Rogers. Their 1941 film together, "You'll Never Get Rich," was a hit, and the two made a terrific pair -- in fact, I think she's one of Fred's best partners.

Hayworth's success continued to build, and during World War II, she became one of the major pin-up girls of the men overseas. "Gilda" solidified her status as a sex goddess when it was released. But I think it's unfair to slap that label on her when she could do so much more. She's not just an object of desire in this movie, nor is she simply a calculating golddigger. When Johnny begins to treat her cruelly in the latter half, Hayworth nails the combination of fury and resignation she feels at this point. It's a terrific performance.

As for the always dependable Ford, he was newly returned from World War II, in which he served in the Marines. His success in "Gilda" was followed by more than two decades of dependable work.

Their potent combination gives "Gilda" a memorable jolt. Even if I disagree with the ending, it's still a movie to recommend, because the star power is mesmerizing to watch.

9 comments:

  1. Such a fabulous take on the film, "Gilda". Thank you for your thoughts and criticism. So, what do you think should have happened to Gilda at the end of the film? Also, tonight I came back from seeing THIS and in it are scenes from GILDA.

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  2. Glad you liked the piece. Without spoiling the ending for people who haven't seen it, I feel it compromised. I expected something darker.

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  3. Rita is one of my favorite actresses, so I really liked this post. I think she's absolutely wonderful in this.

    There's a pretty strong subtext that the Glenn Ford and George Macready characters had a romantic relationship before Gilda came along, or am I reading too much into this?

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  4. Hmmm ... I'm usually pretty good at picking up on things, and I didn't read that subtext at all. I'll have to watch it again.

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  5. Admittedly it's been a while since I've seen it, but I just remember thinking that Johnny seems unreasonably angry and sullen when Ballin comes back from his vacation with Gilda. And some of the dialogue is pretty telling too, but, of course, now I can't think of an example. I'll have to watch it again also.

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  6. I turly enjoy Hayworth;s performance, but I think Glen Ford is a little stiff. Geroge Macready is always great. I suggest comparing Marilyn Monroe's singing performance in "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes" (parodied by Madonna) to "Put the blame..." After I saw Gilda, I thought "Now I get it" for what Monroe was trying to do.
    JB

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  7. Hi JB, glad you liked the post. Interesting comparison to Marilyn. Her number, "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend," is playful, whereas Hayworth's in "Gilda" is seductive.

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  8. I LUV THIS ABOVE ALL RITA'S PICTURE....OF COURSE RITA NEVER SANG IN A PICTURE.....ALAS SHE DID ON THE CAROL BURNETT SHOW AND NOW WE KNOW WHY SHE WAS DUBBED...IN GILDA, ANITA ELLIS DID THE SINGING...ALSO FOR VERA ELLEN IN THREE LITTLE WORDS....BUT WHO CARES...RITA WAS ALSO GREAT IN MISS SADIE THOMPSON AND IN SEVERAL LATER PICTURES...SPARATE TABLES COMES TO MIND...TERRIC STRAIGHT ACTING....

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  9. She was great in Separate Tables. Really underrated as an actress.

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