Wednesday, January 5, 2011

THE FILMS OF RITA HAYWORTH (Columbia 1944-53) Sony Home Entertainment

In the history of great movie stars Rita Hayworth is perhaps a footnote; her acting talent a distant second to her undeniable good looks. There is little, however, to deny her place in film history as the undisputed 'love goddess' of the 1940s. In 61 films Hayworth exuded an indescribable, smouldering sensuality, so erotic that it often threatened to tip the censors against her favour. Not that Columbia Studio's chief Harry Cohn would have cared. Hayworth proved time and again that she was Columbia's great lady of the silver and Technicolor screens - a captivating, often exotic creature of intangible and near mythic quality who found her greatest favour with G.I. soldiers overseas as their pin up gal.

If her onscreen persona was that of a powerfully intoxicating and ambitious mantrap, capable of luring men to their doom and/or occasional happiness, Hayworth's off screen reality was all the more bittersweet and remarkably disenchanted. She was groomed as a dancer by her father, a dance instructor, and appeared to varying unremarkable effect in several movies at 20th Century Fox prior to undergoing a name and studio change and dying her hair auburn. Five unhappy marriages briefly interrupted her otherwise promising career and contributed to her increased alcoholism - the most notable of these to director/actor Orson Welles (1943-48), who directed her after their divorce in The Lady from Shanghai, and Prince Ali Khan (1949-53), with whom she had a daughter, Yasmin.

As age intervened Hayworth's screen appeal plummeted and her personal life gradually spun out of control. By the late 1970s she was a near forgotten relic who continued to find bit work in films to pay her growing debts, though increasingly she found it difficult to remember her lines on set. Bad press regarding her alcoholism forced Hayworth into a self imposed exile from which she would never return. In 1987, Rita Hayworth died of complications from Alzheimer's Disease - cared for by her daughter during the last five years of her life.

And now, after an overdue absence on home video, Sony Home Entertainment has finally deemed to furnish fans of the love goddess with The Films of Rita Hayworth - a five disc/five film offering that showcases Hayworth's appeal in films of varying popularity and quality from her Columbia Studios tenure. The movies in this collection include the musical, Cover Girl (1944) - arguably Rita's breakout performance, Tonight and Every Night (1945) - a wildly popular war time musical, Gilda (1946); the seminal Hayworth film noir/thriller, Salome (1953); a would-be Biblical epic without much bite, and, Miss Sadie Thompson (1953); a remake of Somerset Maugham's Rain shot in 3D but included only in its flat 2D version herein.

Cover Girl (1944) is notable for another reason. It marks the cinematic debut of Gene Kelly prior to his work at MGM and also his collaborative efforts with choreographer Stanley Donen. Seen today, Cover Girl lacks the slick polish of MGM's musicals, but it yields an elaborate shadow dance conceived by Kelly and Donen and also features the Oscar winning song, Long Ago and Far Away that has since become a standard.

Hayworth is Rusty Parker, a chorine toiling in nightclub shows produced by her boyfriend, Danny McGuire (Gene Kelly) until John Courdier (Otto Kruger) a wealthy patron of the arts offers to make her over as a wildly popular 'cover girl' for his magazine. Courdier's efforts are only partly philanthropic. Moreover, he was in love with Rusty's grandmother (also played by Hayworth in flashback) long ago and far away and sees Rusty as his opportunity to relive a part of his forgotten youth.

Danny is at first jealous of Courdier's influence but gradually he realizes that Courdier has the power to make Rusty a star. Unable to deny his true love her big break, Danny sends her packing under false pretences. Rusty pursues a loveless romance with Courdier's Broadway associate Noel Wheaton (Lee Bowman) but eventually realizes that her only real love is Danny.

Cover Girl is splashy Technicolor entertainment but it doesn't hold up nearly as well as other musicals of its vintage. In fact, the direction by Charles Vidor is rather static, the musical numbers not terribly engaging and, apart from the aforementioned song, the score is unremarkable in virtually every way. Nevertheless, Rita positively glows in radiant Technicolor and that is, I suspect, the film's enduring appeal.

Next up in this collection is Tonight and Every Night (1945); a middling musical based on a popular play with war time appeal. Hayworth is American born entertainer, Rosalind Bruce, entertaining audiences at a London music hall that refuses to close during the blitz. Rosalind enters into a doomed romance with RAF flyer, Paul Lundy (Lee Bowman). Tragedy, of course, intervenes and the film's awkwardly paced script by Aben Finkel and Lesser Samuels teeters between war themed weepy and buoyant/glossy Technicolor musical. Of note are co-stars Janet Blair and Marc Platt whose own backstage romance mirrors Rosalind's growing love for Paul. But the score and lyrics by Jules Stein and Sammy Cahn is barely serviceable even though Hayworth's solo, 'Anywhere' enjoyed brief popularity on the hit parade.

But now we get the piece de resistance of this collection, Charles Vidor's haunting film noir, Gilda (1946); so eerily compelling in all its self destructive neuroticism that it easily remains Rita Hayworth's most celebrated performance. Hayworth plays the title character - a woman of ill repute who, having spurned her previous lover, Johnny Farrell (Glenn Ford), is reunited with him in Buenos Aires after becoming the wife of his boss, Ballin Mundson (George McCready) - a Nazi sympathizer with ties to illegal gambling. The screenplay by Jo Eisinger and Marion Parsonnett - about a passion so potent that in turns to self destructive hatred before miraculously becoming genuine love once again - makes little sense, but it doesn't matter. From the moment Hayworth appears on the screen, in close up, her head cast upwards as she snaps into camera view, the narrative crackles with a bizarre sexual chemistry, tension and frustration that is utterly mesmerizing to watch.

The last two films in this set are of little consequence. The first, William Dieterele's Salome (1953) is a melodrama pretending to be cut from the same hallowed cloth as a Cecil B. DeMille epic, only without De Mille's eye or budget for overwhelming pageantry. Hayworth is the title character, stepdaughter of King Herod (Charles Laughton) and daughter to Queen Herodias (Judith Anderson). Having spent most of her life away in Rome, Salome is exiled by Tiberius Caesar (Sir Cedric Hardwicke) after her romance with Caesar's grandson threatens the throne. Returning in disgrace to her homeland, Salome learns of her mother's hatred toward John The Baptist (the very creepy Alan Badel) who has been spreading condemnation of Herod's throne to the masses in Jesus' name. Salome's romance with Roman Commander Claudius (Stewart Granger) runs hot and cold. However, after the Queen suggests that Salome sell herself to the King, Salome vows to free John from imprisonment by performing the dance of the seven veils. John is nevertheless beheaded and, as the masses overtake the palace, Salome and Claudius escape to hear the sermon on the mount.

The final film in this set is Curtis Bernhardt's abysmal, Miss Sadie Thompson (1953); shot in Kaui, Hawaii and in 3D to further accentuate Hayworth's obvious assets. Once again, Hayworth is the title character; a nightclub singer with a spurious sexual past that is brought to light by overzealous religious leader, Alfred Davidson (Jose Ferrer). The man and his cloth are soon parted, as Davidson cannot resist Sadie's obvious charms even as he publicly condemns her.

Sadie enters into a relationship with Sgt. Phil O'Hara (Aldo Ray) - a man stricken with throbbing passion for her until he learns the truth and thereafter becomes a jealous mess of conflicted self pity and emasculated self destructiveness. The singular attraction in this heavily laboured narrative - severely emasculated by the Production Code of Ethics and patched together by Harry Kleiner is 'The Heat Is On'; a bawdy bump and grind that Hayworth relishes as she woos the CB's on the island. Otherwise, the story simply has no bite; its one dimensional characters unbelievable and boring.

Sony has once again teamed with The Film Foundation to produce this box set. From the results two quick observations are immediately apparent. First, that Salome's Technicolor print has undergone considerable restoration - resulting in a razor sharp transfer with a considerable amount of fine detail and absolutely lush color imagery throughout - and second, that Miss Sadie Thompson's film elements continue to be stored under a rock somewhere rather than in an archive where they clearly belong. True enough, early 3D films contained more than a modicum of distracting grain, but Sadie Thompson's negative looks as though it were fed through a meat grinder with muddy, faded colours, garishly orange flesh tones and so much grain evident that it often breaks apart not only fine background detail but foreground clarity as well.

As for the rest of the films in this set; the transfer on Cover Girl appears to be identical to the stand alone DVD offering from Columbia nearly six years ago, with a bold Technicolor image that is mostly sharp and clean. Colours do not 'pop' as much as one might expect, but the image will surely not disappoint. On the other hand, the Technicolor transfer on Tonight and Every Night does not hold up as well, with considerable breathing around the edges of the film frame that results in fluctuating tonality. Here, the colour is 'clumpier' than expected, the image more softly focused and the colour occasionally too pronounced, while at other times seemingly slightly faded.

Gilda is the only B&W movie of the bunch. A direct comparison with Sony's original 'Columbia Classics' release from 1999 does indeed reveal that the image in this new box set has undergone some minor restoration to remove dirt, scratches and chips that were evident then. However, when directly compared to the original release, this re-issue appears somewhat softer with a hint more grain evident throughout.

Extras in this box set are limited to several brief personal reflections from Martin Scorsese, Patricia Clarkson, Baz Luhrmann and other film makers and historians on Hayworth's career and films. While its satisfying to have these films on home video, one wishes a bit more care had been taken in bringing them to light.

FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)

Cover Girl 3.5

Tonight And Every Night 2

Gilda 4.5

Salome 3

Miss Sadie Thompson 2

VIDEO/AUDIO

Cover Girl 3.5

Tonight and Every Night 2.5

Gilda 3.5

Salome 4

Miss Sadie Thompson 1

Extras

2.5

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