Tuesday, January 12

Miss Rita Hayworth

She was known as The Love Goddess and her sultry looks set the standard for her generation.  During the war-torn first half of the 40s she became one of the two most popular pin-up queens for the men in the military (Betty Grable being the other) and her photos were plastered in lockers and adorned the sides of bombers.  Unlike a lot of top actresses, Rita Hayworth had a warm, personal appeal that stemmed greatly from an innate shyness from which she never recovered.

While a young girl, she fancied becoming an actress but once that became a reality, she was a most reluctant one.  She scored in a number of dramatic roles but was mostly famous as a dancer... and a damned good one, too... one of my favorites.  She is one of the few dancers to partner in the movies with both Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly.  By far her best dancing role was with Kelly but a whispering Astaire, not wanting to hurt anyone's feelings, once admitted Rita was his favorite dancing partner.  And that was quite an admission considering she was a real-life cousin to Ginger Rogers.

And while I say she was most famous as a dancer, it would not be wrong to add that she was as famous for her personal life... on a number of levels.  Nearly every level had to do with a man.  Her life spreading across the pages of newspapers and in movie and scandal magazines made her retreat more.  She hated publicity more than most.  If she had to expose her life, she'd rather not have been a celebrity.  She was famous or maybe infamous from barring the two powerful columnists of the day, Louella Parsons and Hedda Hopper, from her movie sets.  I'm not aware of anyone else who did that.  If they then said nasty things about her, she didn't care.  She would say she really wanted to quit it all and simply be a good wife and mother.

Everyone wanted to tell Rita what to do, to control her.  Some would go to any lengths to do just that... five husbands, a maniacal movie mogul, some boyfriends and directors but it all started with her father.  

She was born Margarita Carmen Cansino in 1918 Brooklyn, New York, to a Spanish father and an Irish mother.  Both were rather volatile people but her father, Eduardo, ruled his domain with an iron hand.  He was a dancer and part of a dance troop.  Dance was everything to him.  Mother Volga wanted desperately to be an actress but after Rita and her two younger brothers were born, Eduardo would tolerate no more talk of her actress nonsense and insisted she care for the children and be a dutiful wife.

Meantime little Margarita began dancing lessons around the age of five.  She resisted it in her head but her body kept practicing and practicing because her father demanded it.  By age 12 she was not only in her father's dance act, but she performed as his partner.  She looked more mature than she was and it was further enhanced by her grooming, particularly hairstyles, and revealing gowns.  What adult qualities she may have lacked during those years were not so noticed because she was already an exciting looking young woman who knew her way around a dance floor. 

Some of those dance routines caused many to chirp that father and daughter looked more like boyfriend and girlfriend.  It's been rumored for years that there may have been an inappropriate and unwanted relationship with her father.  Some biographers have touched on the subject while most skirted around the subject, noting a close but upsetting nature to the pair.  Her entire life she had an anger for her father and they would have many explosive moments.  I always find it fascinating how some children hate traits in a parent but go on to marry people just like them.  He was her first controlling man but they would come time and again into her life.

On the other hand, Margarita loved her mother like no other and when Volga died later in Rita's life, she was so inconsolable that those close to her say that she never recovered.  In a misguided effort to manage to get through her hardship marriage, Volga turned to the bottle, just as her daughter would do years later.

In 1926 the Cansinos moved to Hollywood where Eduardo hoped to find more work.  He also relaxed over his daughter's rants about wanting to be an actress but it was more money-related.   Rita had been the breadwinner in the family since she was 13 and Eduardo saw even more profit if she could be turned into a movie star.  Actress didn't impress him... movie star did.  Funny how his daughter would come to feel the exact opposite.

A Fox (not yet 20th Century Fox) Studio executive spotted her in one of her dancing gigs around L.A. and promptly put her under contract.  She had small parts, some just dancing bits, in a number of forgettable films and then Fox dropped her. 

Around this time she met a car salesman, a considerably older man named Edward Judson.  She was singing the blues about her so-called career and he liked to think he was Mr. Big Deal and soon had her slack-jawed over all the things he was going to do for her.  He was stunned by her beauty and her talent as a dancer and her malleability.  By 1937 they were married and he controlled her every move.  Her family despised him and she, in fact, did not speak with her father for the length of the short marriage.

Judson got her out to all the big nightclubs.  There was no doubt in his mind that a woman who looked like this and who could still a crowd of partygoers and noisy waiters while she swirled on the dance floor would soon reignite Hollywood.  It didn't take long.  The name of Judson's game was exploitation and there was no one better.  In no time at all he secured her a contract at Columbia Pictures.  Husband and wife argued fiercely and it got physical.  She had not been slapped around before but she watched it happen to her beloved mother and she vowed it would never happen to her.  After a fierce argument in which Judson told her she was no more than a business investment to him, she divorced him.

Her troubles were just beginning.  Harry Cohn, head of Columbia, saw her photograph and went nuts.  He was immensely attracted to her and had an eerie sense that she alone could make his little junior varsity studio into something to be reckoned with.   Even by the time Rita met him, he was hated by most who worked for him. A monumental bully, he spoke like a gangster and had consorted with them.  He was crude, threatening, crafty and could cut the little people to the quick.  He also imagined himself, of course, as a stud and made it a point to sleep with most of his contract actresses.  When that couldn't happen for whatever reasons, he devoured the actress, making her life a living nightmare, that is, if he didn't fire her.

Rita saw him for what he was from the beginning and she hated his guts.  She got sick of his sexual propositions but she mainly hated his control.  He changed her name to Hayworth.  Electrolysis was ordered and her forehead appeared larger.  He changed her to a redhead and determined to showcase her full, lustrous head of hair whenever he could.  Of course he told her what pictures she would make and would suspend her when she refused, which was often.  But when he spied on her, via cameras and detectives hiding in bushes, and told her where to live, whom to see and whom to marry or not marry, she became a tigress.  Few would deny that Hayworth didn't give as much as she got.  She admitted (although not to him) that he tortured her and made her life most unhappy but she loved it when she got under his skin.  Their relationship was the talk of Hollywood.

After making a passel of forgettable films for Columbia, director Howard Hawks assigned her the role of a mantrap in an A project, 1939s Only Angels Have Wings.  It would be her breakthrough film.  The dramatic story of airmail starred Cary Grant and Jean Arthur.  Arthur was at the time the queen of Columbia and had been suffering under the weight of Harry Cohn just as Hayworth would.  In fact it was Hayworth's arrival that finally allowed Arthur to breathe.  She was perhaps even more shy than Hayworth but she hated him just as much.  She got tired of being chased around the couch by him.  She likely told him to stop because she was married
but she was also lesbian.  One day Hayworth would assume the Arthur role when another new girl came on the lot and Hayworth would also costar with her in a film.

Rita was the quintessential 40s actress.  Her best work is in this decade.  She also appeared in a number of terrible films in her overall career, the 40s included, and at least for concerns of space and your time, we will not delve into all of them.  It is surprising that the controlling Cohn would loan her out to other studios but he did and her star became even brighter.  Her gift for comedy was evident when she arrived at Warner Bros to support James Cagney and Olivia de Havilland in a film in which Rita had the title role, The Strawberry Blonde (1941).  That same year she went to 20th Century Fox to become memorable as the femme fatale Dona Sol driving Tyrone Power crazy in Blood and Sand.

In 1941 she appeared on the cover of Life Magazine in the photo that would be seen around the world, achieving for Rita a fame she had never known.  Kneeling in bed in a sexy, satin nightgown and a welcoming smile, it was more than the GIs could stand and she rose to the top of the era's pinup queens.

Her first chance to dance in a major film also came in 1941 opposite Fred Astaire in You'll Never Get Rich.  Few cared about the plot.  Seeing these two dance together produced pure joy.  Of course he made her look good but there was no question that she returned the favor.  The public clamored for a reunion and the following year they made the even more popular, You Were Never Lovelier.  Indeed.

She stayed at Fox to make the gay 90s musical My Gal Sal (1942).  She fussed and feuded with Victor Mature on screen but off screen they had eyes only for one another.  Both professed undying love for one another and the public, again, just couldn't get enough of the Love Goddess now that she was in the arms of The Hunk. Imagine everyone's surprise when she upped and married boy genius but enfant terrible Orson Welles.  Hollywood, thunderstruck wondering what they had in common, called them The Beauty and the Brain.  More importantly, perhaps, the marriage made Harry Cohn beyond furious.  Welles was never a favorite of any of the studio heads.  Welles stayed home long enough to father a daughter with Hayworth, Rebecca, but in their 5-year union he was rarely around.  When he indulged in affairs, so did she.  He appreciated her the most when she was an appendage on his arm.  He certainly used her for her immense celebrity.

Two important events occurred in 1944.  One was the release of Cover Girl, back at her home studio, which is, hands down, the best dance movie she ever made.  Personally, I found the story too silly to contemplate but the partnership of Hayworth and Gene Kelly was simply too difficult to take in in one breath.  Her beauty is breathtaking.

The other event is much sadder.  Rita's mother died and she was the person to whom the actress was the closest.  Hayworth's friends and family said that she never recovered from the death and that there was an evident sadness in her from then on.  I confess I always saw a sadness in Hayworth's face... no matter how beautiful, no matter how made up, it was there.  She had been drinking too much for several years (like mother, like daughter?) but it increased after Mama's death.  She became a full-fledged alcoholic and would remain so until the end of her life.

No one could ever forget Rita Hayworth as Gilda (1946).  She immortalized the part of the vulnerable femme fatale who marries a sinister gambling club owner she doesn't love and has a love-hate relationship with her former lover, who now works for her husband.  Its nourish qualities and steamy dialogue holds interest from beginning to end.  We will discuss Gilda in more detail later but let's take a look at the musical number that became world-famous.

Hayworth had begged Cohn for years to pay for singing lessons so that she would not have to be dubbed.  She did occasionally sing bits and pieces of songs but she was always dubbed by Anita Ellis.  One would be hard-pressed to not think Ellis' voice is Hayworth's.  All of the screen's great goddesses knew what an iconic role could do to their personal lives.  They would go to bed with Gilda but awakened with Rita, she would say in her way to describe how difficult it is living up to such an image.  If one were to name the top 10 iconic female roles forever entangled in the life of the actresses playing the parts, Rita/Gilda needs to be included.

Gilda costarred Glenn Ford in one of their five films together.  They may have had a brief fling once but they settled into friendship and were nextdoor neighbors for years in Beverly Hills.  Ford was always very protective of Rita.  He would fight a battle here and there with Cohn over his treatment of Rita.  Toward the end of her life, when she was doing so poorly, Ford was particularly kind to her.

Hayworth and Harry Cohn

Though separated from Welles in 1947, he convinced her to take the title role in the film noir, The Lady from Shanghai.   It's odd that it was so ill-received at the time of its release, because in the general look, it has much of the same Welles stamp that Citizen Kane had.  It is the story of a yachtsman who finds himself in the unenviable position of being accused of a murder he didn't commit.
It's another femme fatale role for his wife but Welles had her hair cut short and blonded.  Cohn again hit the ceiling.  Her hair was certainly her trademark as you saw in the clip.  Though the two got on during the filming, the divorce still became final shortly thereafter.

She was excellent as a sexy gypsy dancer in The Loves of Carmen (1948).  In fact one might have thought back to the days of Margarita Cansino.  Afterward, she gathered her daughter and some household staff and took off for an undetermined time in Europe.  Cohn was incensed because he always insisted that she remain at his beck and call.  She flouted her independence but was really simply seeking quiet time while abroad.  That notion and a lot more changed when she met Prince Aly Khan.

He could drink and laugh and make hot, passionate love... three qualities Hayworth greatly admired.  But how she thought being with the randy, jetsetting prince was going to get her rest, privacy and quiet remains a curiosity.  He knew how to exploit her.  Eager to be photographed and fussed over, with Hayworth tagging along, things were made easier.  No one would have guessed at the time that he spent all her money and little of his own.

She decided to marry Aly even though many of her friends thought it was a wrong move.  Cohn said he wouldn't permit it.  Maybe she wanted to be Hollywood's first real princess.  They lived more in France than anywhere and she had a difficult time learning French. She became even shyer and more withdrawn when she realized his family disliked her.  His oldest friends felt much the same.  No matter how hard she tried to be what they wanted, it would never work.  She gained a little momentum when daughter Yasmin was born but suffered more than ever when she and Aly divorced and she would not promise to raise the child as a Muslim.  She returned to the states and went into hiding.  The marriage would only last three years, although about half of it they lived on different continents, but the two remained lifelong friends.

Rita would have loved to have not worked and to have lived off her vast resources but the prince used up all of that.  So back to Cohn she went (she was still under contract), less confident, less emboldened to fight with him.  He seized his prized investment and hobbled her.  He loved winning and he loved demeaning rebellious underlings.  Her post-Princess life was going to be real different.

Cohn wanted some of the old magic back immediately.  He assigned her to star in An Affair in Trinidad (1952).  It's actually one of my favorite Hayworth roles that, along with Glenn Ford and some sexy dances, is Gilda2.  She refused to do it.  She wanted something meatier, the hell with the Love Goddess stuff.  She was getting older, she said, she looked it and it was time to move on.  When Cohn threatened suspension, she acquiesced and her hatred for him grew to greater heights. She did very much enjoy a romance she had with its director, Vincent Sherman.

Around this time she had the great misfortune to have met Dick Haymes, one of the best crooners there ever was.  His career was not only on the skids but his drinking was at an all-time high and he was being threatened with deportation.  He was Argentine-born and never bothered to acquire U.S. citizenship.  Cohn was apoplectic when they married and many believe that although on paper it looked like Haymes would be deported because of unpaid bills, Cohn was likely behind the entire deportation affair.  He hated Haymes and he wanted to make life difficult for his star.

There are many reasons she married him but regardless, it was not to work and it would be her shortest union.  While it lasted, he used her at night to sit front row in his supper club engagements and during the day they got blasted on highballs and he beat her.  Several of their public entanglements wound up in the newspapers.  Much of the undercurrent concerned what's happened to our Rita?

Cohn punished her by insisting that she appear in Salome (1953).  It was never intended to be taken seriously and Rita hated doing a sand and sandals epic when she wanted to do serious drama.  Despite looking a bit older she was still glamorous as the dancing princess with all her veils.  Stewart Granger, Charles Laughton and Judith Anderson all added to the allure.

To end her contract with Columbia and get away from the beast, Miss Rita Hayworth took on the role of Miss Sadie Thompson (1953), a reworking of the old chestnut, Rain.  It turned out to be the type of dramatic fare she was looking for.  Playing a south seas tramp, she becomes quarantined on an island much to the delight of the marines and the consternation of a rigid reverend.  Sadie had never been played so warmly and Hayworth gave a highly praised performance.  Along with Gilda, it's my favorite Hayworth performance.  She and Aldo Ray were a sizzling duo.  I suspect they practiced off screen.

Hot in the tropics with Aldo Ray

Hayworth didn't work for another four years.  She was already tired of the old Hollywood grind.  She needed to disentangle herself from the abusive Haymes.  She wanted to spend time with her daughters and she wanted, above all else, quiet and privacy.  She was drinking more than ever and didn't seem to mind the puffiness that was settling on her face.  There was also a new man in her life... and he wanted her working.

She joined Robert Mitchum and Jack Lemmon for Fire Down Below (1957).  The story of two tramp boat owners and friends in the Caribbean who fight over a sensuous and mysterious woman was no great shakes for anyone except fans of any of the three actors.  It fared well but not as well as her next film and oddly, she returned to Columbia to do it.

Pal Joey (1957) would be Hayworth's swan song to musicals.  Given the title of the film, it's about the guy, a heal of a singer who uses people to climb to the top.  Frank Sinatra is the lead but he was so enamored of Rita in real life and thrilled that he was working with her that he insisted she be given top billing.  As his main benefactress, she has the song The Lady Is a Tramp sung to her and she gaily flits about her bedroom (lip) singing Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered.

And just as she had been paired years earlier with a rival of sorts, Jean Arthur, in Joey it was Kim Novak.  She was Cohn's current protégé and for a few years he had been threatening Hayworth with Novak.  (Earlier he had done the same with a little-known actress, Mary Castle, who looked like Rita's identical twin.)  He hoped that by putting them in the same film, there would be a catfight like no other, but it didn't take.  The actresses not only liked one another but they had their innate shyness in common and a hatred for Cohn.

Producer James Hill would somehow worm his way into Rita's life.  He convinced her he would take care of her and she appeared happy to have finally found a man who promised the solace she so desperately craved.  After their marriage she realized she was a pawn once again.  They had public spats, always resulting from drinking and his slapping her, which made the public think Hayworth, at husband number five, must have a screw loose herself.

It was also true that Hill wasn't as much of a producer as he was a wannabe producer.  It's likely he married Rita because she could help pave the way for his future.  He became the Hill that one saw in the credit roll as Hecht-Hill-Lancaster.  He teamed up with Burt Lancaster and Harold Hecht to produce their own films.  One of the best was 1958s Separate Tables.  It took place at an English inn and concerned the dramatic lives of several guests.  Hayworth was top-billed over a stellar cast that included Lancaster, Deborah Kerr, David Niven and Wendy Hiller. Niven and Hiller won Oscars but all of them were superb.

Her last two films of any consequence came in 1959.  They Came to Cordura was an average western yarn with Hayworth playing a prisoner who is being escorted across the Mexican desert by a group of ragtag men including Gary Cooper, Van Heflin and Tab Hunter.  One of her best acting jobs ever came with The Story on Page One about a woman and her boyfriend who are accused of murdering her husband.  Tony Franciosa and Gig Young were her costars.  Actors from both films would comment that Rita was sweet and easy to work with but they saw nothing of the temptress who played Gilda.  In both films her characters are highly depressed and it's been suggested that that was more real than acting.

By 1961 Hill was producing somewhere else because Rita divorced him.  Her alcoholism was so out of control that for years it masked another problem.  At first the drinking was blamed for causing an extreme irritability in her.  That, in turn, could lead to outrageous anger directed at just about anyone who was near.  In time she would become easily disoriented. 

In the few poor films she was yet to make, most coworkers reported issues with her.  They could be temperament or her inability to memorize lines very well.  Insuring her could turn out to be an issue.  In time her short term memory would go.  Some had been talking about her having some sort of dementia.

Rita's illnesses had been kept from the public until 1976 when she became distraught and uncontrollable on a flight.  The authorities were contacted and when the plane landed, she was taken into custody.  Pictures of an enraged and disheveled Rita were spread all over the world.  She had a thorough mental and physical checkup and it was determined that she suffered from Alzheimer's.

She became unpredictable and quite violent and for the most part was kept out of the public view.  While Alzheimer's had been noted as early as 1906, without a doubt Rita Hayworth having it brought it into a national consciousness.  I presume she is to Alzheimer's what Rock Hudson was to AIDS. Her daughter, Princess Yasmin, would oversee everything that involved her mother and she, too, became a voice for the disease.  It is so, even today.

She died of the disease in New York City at age 68 in 1987.  She would have been happy being a wife and mother.  It's true that she wanted to be an actress... until the day she became one.  While that is a bit fluffy, it is true that just a short time after she became an actress, she became disillusioned with it.  All she really knew how to do was dance.  She knew she had to add some other performing skills to that.  Gilda changed the rules of the game.  From Dad to Jim Hill, she was mistreated by men... exploited, slapped, used, depleted.  She took on one of the worst bullies in her life but she couldn't truly succeed at that level with others.  The husbands brought her down and she took to drinking for comfort and amnesia.

How sad that a person who had so much really had so little.

Next posting:
Rambling Reporter III
(Let's talk Oscar nominations)


  1. Amazing how many Hollywood stars have such tragedy in their lives. I suppose acting and celebrity are attempts to get away from the demons. Doesn't seem to work often enough.

  2. What a joy to read something on Rita. I possess that 1941 Life Magazine and I think that that was real glamour! I think I saw most of the movies made by her and of course Gilda is unforgettable. Miss Sadie Thompson is my favorite movie but even the preceding musicals are very dear to me, mostly for the songs. You said all that can be said on this shining star. To me just the same, maybe boring GRAZIE: