By Raquel Stecher
October 17th marks the 100th birthday of legendary actress Rita Hayworth (1918-1987). Born Carmen Rita Cansino in Brooklyn New York, Rita left school at a young age to join her father’s troupe as a dancer. A born performer, it wasn’t long before Hollywood came knocking and she added acting to her repertoire. This was an opportunity for Rita to break free from her abusive father’s hold.
However, her acting career was off to a rocky start. Something was holding her back. Billed as Rita Cansino, her look proved “too exotic” for the studio system. She got bit parts playing characters of varying ethnicities, but leading roles escaped her. Columbia Studios, her home base, couldn’t afford the big marketing campaign she needed to launch her career.
Their next best move was to give her a total makeover; one that would allow her to keep some of her exotic Latina charm but would still conform to the more… shall we say… traditional tastes of the era. Before the transition, Hayworth had one request: she wanted to be unique. She refused to become a poor man’s copy of other Latina actresses that came before her.
First, there was the name change. Rita Cansino became Rita Hayworth, borrowing from Rita’s mother’s maiden name. Hayworth went on to have extensive speech training and was put on a strict diet and exercise regimen.
But the most drastic change was her hair. Switching from jet black to a soft red, Hayworth wore her locks long and in sultry waves. Gone were the Spanish bangs and low brow. They were replaced with a more “acceptable” widow’s peak through a year’s worth of hairline electrolysis treatments to fit Old Hollywood’s beauty ideals. With the transformation complete, Hayworth was now on the road to stardom.
One thing you have to understand about 1940s Hollywood is that the studio system was a well-oiled machine that cranked out movie stars, their most bankable commodity. In some cases, manufacturing stars worked, and in some cases it didn’t. Rita Hayworth already had what it took to become the next star. The superficial changes only helped the studio executives and movie-going audiences appreciate what was already there: an effervescent actress who had the talent and screen presence to hold her own in Hollywood.
Audiences flocked to see this beautiful bombshell in romantic musicals, exotic dramas and film noir. She played the female lead alongside some of the biggest stars in Hollywood including Frank Sinatra, Orson Welles, Fred Astaire, Glenn Ford, Gene Kelly and Tyrone Power. Hayworth could be sweet or tempestuous but always inviting.
To celebrate Rita Hayworth’s 100th birthday, let’s take a look at five of her best known films available to rent on DVD Netflix.
“Did you ever hear of the word ‘trust?’” – Geoff
“I did once, but I forgot it.” – Judy
Director Howard Hawks’ high flying classic put Rita Hayworth on the map. Set in South America, the story follows Geoff Carter (Cary Grant), an airline manager whose business practices put his employees in grave danger. His romance with pianist Bonnie (Jean Arthur) is thwarted by the arrival of his old flame Judy (Rita Hayworth). Cary Grant fans love to utter the line “Judy, Judy, Judy” to best imitate Grant’s signature voice. However, this line is never spoken in the film but persists until this day as a popular myth and a go-to Cary Grant line.
“If this is death in the afternoon, she is death in the evening.”
Director Rouben Mamoulian’s bullfighting epic follows a Spanish torero Juanillo (Tyrone Power) in his quest for glory. He finds himself caught in a love triangle with his childhood sweetheart turned wife Carmen (Linda Darnell) and socialite Dona Sol (Rita Hayworth). The polar opposite of the pious Carmen, Hayworth’s character proves she can be as dangerous to Juanillo as the bulls he fights in the ring. Hollywood often put Hayworth in films set in exotic locations and her femme fatale type role in this movie would set her up beautifully for her biggest role as Gilda a few years later.
“Men fell in love with Gilda but they woke up with me.”
In her most iconic role, Rita Hayworth plays the title character of Gilda, a glamorous woman caught between her casino-owner husband and her old flame, gambler Johnny Farrell (Glenn Ford). Two key scenes in the film have become emblematic of Hayworth’s status as a Hollywood legend: The Blame on Mame musical number where she dances and seductively removes her long black gloves and her entrance where she’s asked “are you decent?” and with a flirty hair flip she responds, “who me?” Hayworth’s Gilda would play a key role decades later in prison drama The Shawshank Redemption (1994).
“How could this get you into the big time? Getting your face on a magazine?” – Rusty
“Listen, a Cover Girl's face can unlock any door in this town. So, I've got a face, I'm gonna use it!” – Maurine
Rita Hayworth in Technicolor? Yes, please! Set in the Gay Nineties (that’s the 1890s), Charles Vidor’s musical follows the story of a chorus girl who dreams of fame. Winning a contest to be the next cover girl might just be her ticket to Broadway. Hayworth stars alongside dance legend Gene Kelly and the cast is rounded out with some of the best character actors in the business including Eve Arden, Phil Silvers and Otto Kruger.
Kelly and Hayworth are perfectly matched. Hayworth proves her worth as a top notch dancer alongside one of the the best in the industry. And this film marks Gene Kelly’s first foray into dance choreography. Cover Girl is a veritable feast for the eyes and ears. This film is packed with fantastical music and dance numbers and the costumes are to die for. If you love musicals in all their full color splendor, this one is not one you’ll want to miss.
“Me and Joey are the same type of cat, we understand each other.”
When you have a Rodgers and Hart musical, with arrangements by Nelson Riddle and starring legendary singer Frank Sinatra, you know you’re in for a treat. Sinatra plays the title role of Pal Joey, a nightclub singer whose caught between two women: newbie chorus girl Linda (Kim Novak) and his former love interest Vera (Rita Hayworth).
Pal Joey came at the end of Hayworth’s reign at Columbia Pictures and Frank Sinatra insisted that Rita Hayworth get top billing for this film. In Hayworth’s musical number Zip, she wears a beautiful black and white dress with white gloves that she seductively removes, paying homage to her iconic scene in Gilda (1946). Pal Joey went on to be nominated for several Oscars including Best Art Direction and Best Costume Design.
Raquel Stecher has been writing about classic films for the past decade on her blog Out of the Past. She attends the TCM Classic Film Festival as well as other events where old movie fanatics get together to geek out. Raquel has been a devoted DVD Netflix member since 2002! Follow her on her blog Out of the Past, or find her on Twitter @RaquelStecher and @ClassicFilmRead, Facebook, and Instagram.