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 for 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.
Classicfilmboy is a former movie critic who has been in love with films from an early age. His favorite time period is the studio era, from the days of the silents through the mid-1960s. He also teaches noncredit film classes in the Chicago suburbs. You can visit his website at www.classicfilmboy.com.