Monday, November 6, 2017
Director: Charles Vidor
For many iconic motion picture personalities, most times than not there appears to be a singular film in their careers that captures a character or even an image that defines how they will be perceived for all of time. For Rita Hayworth that film is Gilda. Having already established herself as a sex symbol Hayworth’s appearance in this film noir would encapsulate the image by which she will forever be remembered. In a wonderful drama that is a bit 1930s gangster picture and part Casablanca, Gilda is an intelligent feature, interestingly crafted, yet at the same time can be unsatisfying. Beyond Hayworth this film is the woman’s picture with a strong, sexy female lead, and produced by one of the era’s most powerful female Hollywood executives.
Gilda is a film noir of gambler hired to help operate an underground casino when he discovers the proprietor has married his ex-lover. Small-time American gambler Johnny Farrell (Glenn Ford) is hired for his cunning eye for cheating to help manage an upper-class, underground casino in Buenos Aires by its owner Ballin Mundson (George Macready). Johnny in introduced to Ballin’s recently wedded wife, a beautiful singer named Gilda (Rita Hayworth), Ballin’s new pride and joy. Johnny and Gilda keep the truth from Ballin that they were once lovers and share a relationship long soured on each other, complicating Johnny’s relation to Ballin. With Johnny tasked to watch over Gilda as well as the casino, Gilda and Johnny carry on an opposition towards each other that hides their past while attempting to keep Ballin’s illegal operations running.
Johnny and Gilda separately become friends with everyone throughout the casino, but in private together are terrible rivals with hints of their romantic past. Ballin as an Agentinian crime boss in post World War II has ties to a German cartel and goes to great means to keep his empire running, but discovers Johnny and Gilda’s romantic feelings for each other. Angry at both, he attempts to murder Johnny and Gilda. However, Johnny and Gilda are saved by the friends they had made under Ballin, freeing them to finally live out their romance away from the seedy world they once were swallowed up in.
The film is an enjoyable mix of a gangster film, a noir, and a powerful woman’s picture. When you attempt to look at the overarching plot of the Ballin and the German cartel he is entangled with, the picture stands on shaky ground failing to make much sense, and that is because the true heart of the film is the relationship of Johnny and Gilda. The chemistry between Rita Hayworth and Glenn Ford is what makes this feature work. Above it all is the sex appeal and complexity Hayworth gives to the character of Gilda, which transformed Hayworth from being a simple pin-up girl that could act into a major motion picture personality, sadly a personality Hayworth did not feel pleased with.
By this time Rita Hayworth was already a star for Harry Cohn’s Columbia Pictures Studio. She was arguably one of the two most famous admired female images during World War II, being a popular pin-up model that rivaled Betty Grable with their all-American girl-next-door looks. Under the newly named production head, Virginia Van Upp, the only female in such power in Hollywood at the time, Hayworth was a the studio’s leading female star. In Gilda she was not only made into the ultimate vision of attraction for men, but she was given a character that understood her power as a beautiful woman, using it to influence the male characters on screen, with both positive and negative results. This character’s use of beauty delivered both a sense of empowerment, as well as a sense of helplessness all in one. Her performance along with director Charles Vidor’s vision, helped shape the film into a classic masterpiece that it would be considered.
Beyond her performance Hayworth is known in Gilda for her radiant beauty and seduction. In one simple shot where Gilda first enters the frame with a flip of her hair is what Rita Hayworth would become so well known that it would the shot Hayworth would be best known for. Her sex appeal and demand for the screen’s attention is overpowering to the point that you may not realize how little is done on in by her. For example, Hayworth is known for her “striptease scene” in Gilda, considered one of her sexiest displays by a female lead, when all she actually removes is only one arm-length glove. Her performance plays beyond her physical nature of her character. Her eyes, words, and delivery plays beyond the movie frame and into the collective minds of audiences, cementing herself as an icon of female sex appeal of the 1940s with Gilda, despite having a far more significant career beyond this film.
The casting for Hayworth’s co-star was a bit of a challenge for Columbia. The role of Johnny was originally intended for Humphrey Bogart, a veteran of such noirs as Casablanca and The Maltese Falcon. Feeling that the role of Gilda would far overshadow any performance he would have brought to Johnny, Bogart turned down the role and Columbia eventual cast Glenn Ford.
For Ford Gilda was a return to Hollywood after serving for the Naval Reserves during World War II, allowing him to reinforce his acting after having his name fade away with a three-year absence. Gilda was his second pairing with Hayworth, the first being 1940’s courtroom drama The Lady In Question. The chemistry the two shared in Gilda was memorable enough for the Ford and Hayworth to be cast together in three future motion pictures, and during a portion of this time they shared a romantic affair, despite both being married. Hayworth’s marriage with actor/director Orson Welles was already on the rocks at the time, while Ford kept his marriage to actress Eleonor Powell intact, at least until their divorce in 1959.
George Macready’s performance as Ballin, the protagonist by film’s end, provides a villain that is both cunning and likable at times, but ultimately menacing. Despite weak writing for this character, Macready delivers a portrayal that is adequate for the role, but forgettable in the long run. The same can be said of Joseph Calleria, who plays a peculiar individual at the casino that reveals to be the officer tailing Ballin illegal dealings, and therefore Johnny’s actions. As a forgettable character, Calleia does his best to make this pursuer of Johnny’s underworld deeds a friendly man, one that can bring our heroes down, but ultimately decides that the they were pawns in Ballin’s plans. The most likable and somewhat memorable character is the attendant Pio, portrayed by character actor Steven Geray. He serves primarily as necessary comic relief and a character that despite being funny, sees more than he lets on to. He becomes a dear friend to both Gilda and Johnny, willing to sacrifice himself for them, a lovable trait even into the later, deadlier stages of the plot.
The image of Gilda and Rita Hayworth would transcend popular culture. Hayworth’s appeal was so robust for male audiences that Hayworth had the dubious “honor” of her image painted on the forth ever detonated atomic bomb in history. Tested at Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands, the bomb was brazed with the image of Hayworth with the name “Gilda” gilded on its shell, drawing the parallel that Rita Hayworth was a “bombshell.” When news of her likeness adorning this destructive weapon reached Hayworth, she became deeply upset to the point where she planned to go to Washington to voice her displeasure with great publicity. Studio head Harry Cohn advised her from doing so, with the fear that such an act would appear unpatriotic in the recent post-WWII state the nation was in., and Hayworth thought better of it.
Gilda remains one of the fondest remembered pictures from immediately after World War II. Despite the lack of better writing, the performances an visuals leave a last imprint on Hollywood’s memory. The film is honored as one of American cinema’s great cultural impactful film’s and Hayworth’s costumes were from her musical numbers remain some of the most prized pieces of Hollywood memorabilia. Gilda became how Rita Hayworth was viewed in popular culture, a fact that she despised to a small degree, because the character was nothing like her. However, her attractiveness and seductive qualities have transcended time and continue to leave marks on the collective minds of movie lovers decades later.
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