The famous quote from one of the most glamorous movie stars in Hollywood’s history was that “Men go to bed with Gilda, but wake up with me.” Rita Hayworth was the very picture of fantasy, she was beautiful, sexually confident and charming. But was she a great actor? That’s an argument worth having, as she glowed with an onscreen persona that could be identified as her acting talent. Kirsten Pullen’s book Like a Natural Woman, which posited that stars like Esther Williams and Zsa Zsa Gabor being cast as “themselves” was actually their performance skill, could easily have accommodated Hayworth as well.
As with most fantasies on screen, the image was just that: the public cover for a woman with a tragic history of childhood sexual abuse, which itself likely contributed to a dependence on alcohol that then obscured any notice of the early-onset Alzheimer’s that claimed her life at the age of 68. The gleaming white goddess with the red hair named Rita Hayworth was actually Margarita Cansino, the New York-born daughter of a father from Seville and an Irish-American “Ziegfeld girl” mother. As a young girl, Rita danced with her father all through California down to Tijuana before a studio head noticed her and gave her a screen test. By the time she reached public prominence in Only Angels Have Wings, her black hair was dyed red, painful electrolysis widened her forehead, and a Latina goddess was transformed into an anglo superstar.
This many years after her death in 1987, with all that painful history taken to her grave with her, we are left with a vibrant image, a sense of confidence that radiated a sense of comfort in her own skin, and that sparkling smile that, in Gilda, provided of the greatest entrances of a star in a movie ever. The Criterion Channel has posted a collection of her films, and here they are in ranked order. All reviews are by Bil Antoniou except where noted, and many thanks to Emma Badame for her contributions.
Gilda (Charles Vidor, 1946)
Bil Antoniou: One of the sexiest movies ever made, in which club owner George Macready picks Glenn Ford up off the street and makes him the manager of his club where his wife Gilda (Hayworth) performs. It’s clear that Macready is having it off with both of them, which is hot enough, but then there’s that striptease where Hayworth only takes off a glove while singing “Put The Blame on Mame” and sets the screen on fire. Gilda is Rita Hayworth at her most iconic, the film that fully encompasses her fame with an image that is wholesomely beautiful but also possesses a layer of intoxicating danger.
Emma Badame: Gilda is the role most often associated with Hayworth, and it’s not hard to see why. She gives an incredibly memorable performance as an equally fragile and feisty femme fatale constantly and dramatically let down by the men around her. Directed by Charles Vidor, the now-classic film noir marked her second pairing with leading man Glenn Ford. Their first outing together in The Lady In Question was fairly well-received but with Gilda, their chemistry set fire to the screen. From the second she pops up on screen (in a spellbinding entrance especially familiar to fans of The Shawshank Redemption), it’s obvious this ain’t business as usual. The film also gave Hayworth a chance to show off her multi-hyphenate talents in two big show numbers: “Put the Blame on Mame” and “Amado Mio.” Though her voice was dubbed by Anita Ellis in both, you can get still get a taste of Hayworth’s own gorgeous voice in the acoustic version of “Put the Blame on Mame” later in the film. Hayworth famously said the role haunted her personal and professional life for years, but that’s not to say she didn’t have a sense of humour about it. When asked by one reporter what kept the iconic strapless black “Mame” dress up (thus avoiding a silver screen wardrobe malfunction), she responded: “Two things”. Hayworth proved many times over that she had more to give audiences than Gilda, but no retrospective of her career could be complete without it.
Only Angels Have Wings (Howard Hawks, 1939)
BA: Hayworth’s major film debut came with her supporting role in this superb Hawks film. Air mail pilots in a fictional South American port town risk their lives for the expensive contracts that keep them afloat. They then have to deal with personal drama when Jean Arthur walks in and endangers Cary Grant’s love of freedom. Richard Barthelmess plays the new pilot with the shady past whose wife (Hayworth) is also Grant’s ex-girlfriend. Her dazzle is not quite in place yet, the twenty-one year-old actress is still finding her footing, but this is one of the best movies in which Rita Hayworth ever appeared.
EB: This oft-forgotten gem from director Howard Hawks sees Rita hold her own against Cary Grant, Jean Arthur, and Thomas Mitchell in her first major studio film role. From the moment she appears on screen, as the wife of disgraced pilot Bat MacPherson (Richard Barthelmess), she monopolizes your attention. It’s impossible to take your eyes off her. The phrase “star quality” gets bandied about quite a bit but the second her eyes flash in anger at old beau Grant, you know she’s got “it.” It’s no wonder the film launched her to mega stardom.
You Were Never Lovelier (William A. Seiter, 1942)
Rita Hayworth said this was her favourite of all her films and it’s easy to see why. She gets to have goofy fun (while still decked in impossibly gorgeous gowns) hoofing it up with Fred Astaire. She plays the daughter of a Buenos Aires nightclub owner whose father (Adolphe Menjou) hires Astaire to pretend to be in love with her in order to cure her of her distaste for marriage. The film has as flimsy a plot as ever there was, but Xavier Cugat is on hand to perform some great numbers and the dances that Astaire and Hayworth perform are fantastic.
The Lady from Shanghai (Orson Welles, 1947)
Hayworth was near the end of her marriage with Orson Welles when he cast her in this film. It’s possible that their strained relationship is the reason she barely registers in it. White-blond and bereft of her edge, she plays the wife of a powerful defense attorney who is saved from a mugging in the park by vagrant Welles. She then hires him to work on her yacht. It soon becomes clear that Welles is being enveloped in a murder plot with a twisty story that is often hard to follow, but features some of the most beautiful monochrome images of the decade.
Cover Girl (Charles Vidor, 1944)
A beautiful but eventually tiresome show-within-a-show musical about a hot stuff chorus girl (Rita Hayworth) who is given the chance of a lifetime when an interested gentleman wants to put her on the cover of Vanity Fair. The trouble is, she’s in love with the selfish choreographer (Gene Kelly) of the nightclub act she’s currently performing in. Too many overly long musical numbers are jam-packed into the Technicolour splendour, but the beautiful score does feature the gorgeous theme “Long Ago And Far Away.” It alone is worth the watch (not to mention another chance to see Hayworth at her most glorious).
You’ll Never Get Rich (Sidney Lanfield, 1941)
This lovable musical pairs Fred Astaire with a breathtaking Rita Hayworth after he has wooed her away from her sugar daddy and convinced her to perform with him. Unfortunately, the draft and army prison soon follow, thwarting their plans but not their eventual romance. You’ll Never Get Rich offers lots of fantastic dancing and singing, and a good lineup of songs including “Since I Kissed My Baby Goodbye.” Astaire would later say that Hayworth was his favourite of all his dancing partners.
Separate Tables (Delbert Mann, 1958)
In Delbert Mann’s painfully dated multi-character drama, Rita Hayworth walks into Wendy Hiller’s seaside British hotel to torture Burt Lancaster about their past. It’s obvious that this glamour goddess is from another world. Hayworth is clearly going for something more dramatic than she’d made before, but she is somewhat overshadowed by the character ticks of the likes of Deborah Kerr’s shy spinster and David Niven as the sex pervert with a soul. However, her scenes with Lancaster have a dangerous sexiness that defeats the painful politeness of everything around them.
Pal Joey (George Sidney, 1957)
Frank Sinatra alternates between two lady loves, a classy dame (Rita Hayworth) and an earnest singer (Kim Novak in a rare bad performance) while trying to realize his personal dream of running his own club. The energy is sluggish and, as is often the case with movie adaptations of stage shows from this period, the score has been dismantled to suit the star (and songs by Rodgers and Hart that weren’t in the play, like “My Funny Valentine,” are inserted).