Lovely Rita: Rita Hayworth Faves Land On DVD

Every man I knew went to bed with Gilda… and woke up with me.

–Rita Hayworth

Even Rita Hayworth realized she was not Gilda Mundson Farrell, the blowzy wife of casino owner George MacReady, who was once romantically involved with his newly acquired right-hand man, former gambler Glenn Ford. In one of the most sensuous scenes in film history, lovely Rita chirps “Put the Blame on Mame” in a slinky strapless black dress with long black gloves, one of which she slowwwwwly removes, twirls around and throws into the audience of adoring onlookers.

If it was a Tex Avery cartoon, the faces of the cartoon characters would turn red and steam would escape from their ears.

If Jimmy Durante was watching, he’d go: “Ha-cha-cha.”

It was a key moment for sex in the cinema, a striptease in which the stripper left all of her clothes on—except for that glove! As evidenced by Ms. Hayworth’s aforementioned comments, it was a key moment for her career and life as well.

Thespian, singer (but usually dubbed by others), dancer, siren: The many talents of the actress born Margarita Carmen Cansino are showcased in Gilda (1946), as well as the other efforts featured in Sony’s new The Films of Rita Hayworth, a five-disc set of gorgeously restored prints courtesy of the UCLA Film Archives.

Of course, Gilda, a noirish story of jealousy, sexual tensions and odd sadomasochistic relationships between the main characters, has been on DVD before, although it’s never looked this good. It’s Hayworth’s signature film, but the other entries here are certainly worth a look as well.

(Available separately is another noirish fave with Rita: The Lady from Shanghai (1947), co-starring and directed by Hayworth’s ex-hubby Orson Welles. Rita lobbied to get the studio outcast Welles the assignment, which Columbia recut after production).

Also on the set and previously available are Cover Girl (1944)(article), a backstage musical saga with Hayworth as the leggy dance hall dancer who want to make it on Broadway and burgeoning star Gene Kelly as a dancing nightclub owner.  Along with the presence of the two leads, the film is noted for a score by Jerome Kern and Ira Gershwin, lavish Technicolor cinematography and dance sequences choreographed by a young Stanley Donen.

Tonight and Every Night (1945), new to DVD and also shot in glorious Technicolor, is set during the London Blitz, and once again takes a show biz angle to demonstrate Ms., Hayworth’s talents. Here she’s an American hoofer in a decrepit dance hall where she doesn’t miss a show despite the bombing outside. Romance ensues with an RAF pilot (Lee Bowman) who enters the picture, while highlight include Rita singing “You Excite Me” and her duet with Janet Blair for “The Boy I Left Behind.”

Salome (1953), an extravaganza of colorful sights and sounds, offers Columbia head Harry Cohn’s take on the Bible story with Hayworth’s title character no longer evil. The costume hokum is enough to keep viewers interested, and the audiences came out to see Hayworth, in rainbow-colored threads with blue cape and silver bling, shimmying to the famed “Dance of the Seven Veils” as stepfather King Herod (Charles Laughton) tries to keep his composure while watching. It is a strange coincidence—or isn’t it?—that in Billy Wilder’s Sunset Blvd., the comeback dream project of Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) was a version of Salome.

Salome came at a tough time for the actress, during the breakup of her short marriage to Prince Aly Khan. She’d just come off her comeback film Affair in Trinidad (1952) opposite Ford, her fellow Columbia contractee, frequent co-star, and longtime confidante. Cohn immediately put her back to work in Miss Sadie Thompson (1953), a musical version of M. Somerset Maugham’s Rain. Originally released in 3-D with Hawaiian exteriors shot in Technicolor, the film spotlights Hayworth as the title character, a va-va-voom San Francisco singer who flees from Honolulu to New Caledonia. She’s greeted by a group of Marines, including pugnacious Aldo Ray, who takes a liking to her.  Also on the island is missionary man and Christian zealot Jose Ferrer, who wants to put the kibosh on Rita’s flashy ways.  Although the Hays Office scrubbed some of the saucier parts of the story, Rita’s song and dance number to “The Heat is On”—featuring the actress shimmying and swerving in a lacy orange number in front of a group of libidinous marines—is still a sight to behold.

After Sadie Thompson wrapped, and much to Harry Cohn’s dismay, the actress’s tumultuous home life—the highly-publicized divorce from Khan, legal problems, custody battles, bouts of excessive drinking, a short-lived marriage to abusive, cash-strapped singer  Dick Haymes—led to Hayworth’s absence from the screen for four years.

The personal stuff took its toll on the performer as well and, by the time she made Pal Joey with Frank Sinatra for Columbia in 1957, Cohn had chosen a new sexpot to supplant her, and she he even cast her in the picture: Kim Novak.

Although she and Cohn’s Columbia parted acrimoniously, Ms. Hayworth did go on to make other films of note, like Delbert Mann’s Separate Tables with Burt Lancaster and David Niven for husband number five, producer James Hill; and Henry Hathaway’s Circus World with John Wayne and Claudia Cardinale.

But while her striking looks were still intact, her health was deteriorating and taking its toll on her performances. She was forgetting lines, taking to fits, and becoming increasingly unpredictable in her behavior. Was it the alcohol, or the weariness of a search for true love that stretched all the way back to her first walk down the aisle with Edward Charles Holgrom Judson when she was 19 years old? Her troubles, it was revealed, stemmed from a disease that was ultimately diagnosed as Alzheimer’s—and which eventually lead to her death in 1987 at the age of 69.

The Films of Rita Hayworth, which includes special comments by Martin Scorsese, Baz Luhrmann, Patricia Clarkson and a commentary on Gilda by Richard Schickel, offers a fascinating overview of the often overlooked versatility of one of Hollywood’s greatest lookers, who had underrated acting chops and carpet-cutting dexterity to boot.