It’s Official –

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– Columbia Pictures musicals suck. Actually, Columbia Pictures generally kind of suck. They had Capra, and then they had Rita Hayworth, and they didn’t appreciate Orson Welles, and that’s about it. (But they made MAN’S CASTLE for Borzage and no doubt a good few other great things. But nothing consistent.)

Apart from that bit in TONIGHT AND EVERY NIGHT, where a fey young fellow dances to a Hitler speech, I was struggling to find any musical joy in all of Columbia’s output. Fred Astaire does have some very good dances, both solo and with Rita in YOU’LL NEVER GET RICH, but the movie itself is a drag and a waste of talent. The great Fred films always had great stories and comic relief and everything else, AND sensational dancing and songs. I was moaning about all this here before and then the esteemed David E said “They made COVER GIRL, you know,” and I though, Oh. I’m stupid. And David unquestionably knows his musicals. COVER GIRL is obviously a classic.

But it’s not! It doesn’t have any memorable songs, as far as I could see. It has Phil Silvers trying to be cute, and robbed of any of the comic vices that make him funny — being a sidekick doesn’t automatically make you amusing, you know. It has Gene Kelly sort of exploring his dark side, but not enough to actually allow any drama to emerge. It has Rita Hayworth as a wimp, and a script that requires her to embark on a character journey that basically involves learning to know her place and subjugate all her desires to Gene’s. The happy ending involves her voluntarily retreating under his thumb again, while giving up wealth and fame. He doesn’t even come to get her, she has to go to him.

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There ARE some plus points. The screenplay, partly the work of Rita’s best pal Virginia Van Upp, comes to life whenever she deals with the character of “Stonewall” Jackson, played by Eve Arden. Van Upp liked writing smart-mouthed women, as demonstrated by Jean Dixon in SWING HIGH, SWING LOW (my favourite ’30s love story) and Valerie Bettis in AFFAIR IN TRINIDAD, and Arden’s character is the only one with a sensible attitude in the whole film.

Then there’s the cameo by proto-supermodel Jinx Falkenburg, which caught Fiona’s eye. Jinx acquits herself admirably, far better than many modern model-turned-actors.

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And, most importantly, the famous scene of Gene Kelly dancing with himself. This is undoubtedly very impressive, both for the dancing and the special effects — not content with double-exposing the film, with a split-screen effect, so that Kelly can dance with a transparent doppelganger, director Charles Vidor (who did Van Upp and Hayworth’s most celebrated collaboration, GILDA) does all kinds of camera movements, which should be impossible to pull off with the technology available. The only clue as to the struggle involved is when, at the end of a pan, the spectral Kelly continues to slide for a few frames, as if not firmly rooted to the ground, or gravity, or the film. It’s a technical flaw but rather a nice effect, giving his performance an extra lighter-then-air quality (and it’s not visible unless you really look for it). I was reminded of Billy Wilder’s direction to William Holden in SABRINA: “When you’re jumping over the fence, pause for a moment halfway.”

But the sequence comes out of nowhere — Kelly starts musing in internal monologue to kickstart the trick effect, something nobody’s done in the previous half of the movie, and there’s no preparation for this kind of stylised sequence elsewhere, which mostly confines its numbers to the stage. (Amusingly, when Rita moves from burlesque to a bigger stage, “at least a mile wide,” suddenly Vidor lets rip with optical effects and other non-theatrical devices, as if these are only possible in a big theatre.) The plot is mostly garbage, with lots of dramatically irrelevant bits of wartime propoganda dropped in, which feels mostly rather sinister, and definitely inefficient. Whenever we go to a turn-of-the-century flashback detailing the life and affairs of Rita’s grandmother, the “plot” grinds to a halt — plot may not be the most central point in a musical, but I feel cheated if it’s as weak and fitful as this.

There ARE some splendid images:

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Better watch out you don’t collide with Sabu going the other way.

And the colour is nicer, rich and intense but more balanced, than in most of the Rita musicals I’ve seen. But Rita kind of sucks in her dramatic bits, especially an embarrassing, lachrymose drunk scene, which is a dreadful shame because we all know how terrific she can be.  She’s lovely, of course, and dances magnificently (although Fiona finds her loveliness distracting, and would be almost as happy if she’d just stand still and let us admire her), but I do rather wish she’d been under contract at MGM. And I wouldn’t say that about many stars.

It’s strange to me that GILDA is so excellent (and GILDA is very nearly a musical, with a couple of really great renditions of “Put the Blame on Mame”) and this film, with the same star, director and writer, is so uninvolving. And listen: Glenn Ford = Gene Kelly, Rita Hayworth = Rita Hayworth, turtle-like Joseph Calleia = turtle-like Phil Silvers, and George MacReady = that bland rich schnook Rita almost marries. COVER GIRL is GILDA’s shrivelled twin that’s kept in a basket.

(The scene we want is about 6 minutes in)

I use this scene a lot, to illustrate to students that you don’t always show the person who’s talking. As the scene gets going, poor old George MacReady gets shoved out altogether, so that the shots of Glenn and Rita can actually tell us the true story, which he’s unaware of. There’s only the occasional shoulder or whatnot to remind us that he’s more than a phantom purr. He doesn’t even have a reflection, poor chap. “Shoot the money,” the old directors used to say, but here it’s far more than just favouring the stars over the paid help, it’s a smooth and sly bit of storytelling wizardry.

Of course Rita’s entrance — from below — is great, and amusing, since it’s presented like a POV shot from Glenn Ford, but doesn’t realistically make any sense as such, since it would require him to be staring at empty space for a second before noticing her crouched down under it. And if we can get over how great her hair moves, and the fact that she’s framed so she appears nude, there’s the brilliance of that first line, “Sure, I’m decent,” which is in fact the truth, and the punchline of the film, but is delivered as an ironic joke and will be called into question as the story unfolds.

The other best number in COVER GIRL:

I’m giving Columbia one last chance, with PAL JOEY…

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51 Responses to “It’s Official –”

  1. I am very much enjoying the expression on the gent who gets his breadstick yoinked by Hayworth at 1.41. Also – don’t I know the drunk at the end from somewhere? I’m thinking Preston Sturges but maybe that’s too obvious a guess.

  2. Hey, I didn’t say it was Good News, ya know! it’s a Rita Hayworth movie, and as such revolves entirely around her ineffable loveliness. Gene Kelly takes a back seat to that. Plus the songs are by Jerome Kern. “Long Ago and Far Away” is a favorite of mine.

    Incidentally, about that screen-grab, my boyfriend Bill recounts how he once saw it back in the 60’s with another friend. They were both, of course, stoned on some killer weed and lost in the Technicolor splendor of it all. That shot comes at the end of a musical montage tracing the rise of Hayworth’s character as a “Cover Girl” on famous magazines. Whe they got to that shot Bill said “What cover is that?” and his friend said “Ramparts?”

  3. Well, it’s always nice to have Rita around. Maybe listening to the songs again would help my appreciation of them, but the movie doesn’t encourage me to do so.

    Good News is indeed awesome though, so I still very much trust your judgement on these things!

  4. Columbia started out as the most low-budget of the big studios but in retrospect they look pretty okay I think. Ray, Fuller, Lang all worked at Columbia briefly in the 50s as did Ford.

    ”Gilda” is an example of a great film happening because of the right elements. Rita, Glenn and George. Then Rudolph ”Vampyr” Mate, those astonishing costumes and a good script. Although Charles Vidor’s direction certainly is a key reason why the film works, but it’s not really an auteur film or rather it’s an example of a metteur-en-scene of accomplished quality engaging with the right material. ”Love Me or Leave Me” is a real masterpiece from Chuck Vidor, the use of Eastmancolor, the sets are stunning. It was made at MGM under Joe Pasternak(whose musicals had roughly the same status as Columbia musicals). Do see that.

  5. Yes, that drunk is one of Hollywood’s favourite drunk acts: Jack Norton, who’s in several Sturges films, including as a member of the Ale and Quail Club.

  6. I have Love Me or Leave Me Lined up. Asides from Gilda, the other amazing work I’ve seen from C Vidor is his version of Incident at Owl Creek Bridge, a short silent film that’s relentlessly inventive and original. When he came to life, the guy could really work wonders.

  7. Glida as I trust you know, is a major source for Last Year at Marienbad. Resnais even copies specific shots from it. As for its theme, read Parker Tyler.

  8. Gilda also informs Mulholalnd Drive, where a poster for the film informs Rita’s choice of name, and Naomi Watts’ audition scene is a direct swip from the “hate is a very powerful emotion” spiel in the 40s film.

  9. We interrupt this dicussion o Cover Girl and Gilda to bring you My Favorite Bad Review EVAH!

  10. I started reading and was thinking, “New Will Smith movie? But this doesn’t sound like the new Will Smith movie…” and then I realised I was confusing it with the new Jim Carrey movie. And then I realised… I can no longer tell Will Smith and Jim Carrey apart.

    Returning to Gilda’s theme, are you referring to the gay subtext that isn’t sub because it’s right on the surface? Because that’s extraordinary.

  11. It is indeed. I would say the subtext is hustling. MacCready picks Ford up in an alley. “We make our own luck.” The cane/knife is too obvious to be “symbolic.” The Rita enters the picture and Glenn goes into a jealous rage.

    But over what? That he want her, or that he wants MacCready?

    Heterosexuality wins out in the last reel, but just barely.

    As has been noted the DP is the great Rudolph Mate, who as we all know drove Carl Th. Dreyer mad with passion. So much so that he claimed not to recall directing Vampyr at all.

  12. I wonder how many of the movie’s eccentric visuals we can credit to Mate, then… I love the opening shot with the giant dice: if they mistimed the little camera move up out of the floor, we’d see Glenn Ford about to throw two dice the size of Easter Egg boxes.

    But that sort of thing is all over Vidor’s silent short I was talking about.

  13. I always thought the film was about masochism. Glenn Ford is deranged enough to like being George MacReady’s bitch and being a two-bit con artist and the love story between him and Gilda is creepy as hell, but then I don’t think the love story between him and George MacReady is healthy either. It’s a film about masochism and fucking with other people’s minds. It’s really interesting because ”Gilda” is the rare example that the male lead is totally unlikable guy and most people who see this film are wondering what exacty is the matter with Gilda. The ending therefore satisfies no one.

    I see C. Vidor as a stylist who was thanks to the studio system able to flourish and consistently work well as a craftsman refining his craft and with his own style. ”Love Me or Leave Me” is in some ways a better film than ”Gilda”. In that the characters are better developed and more consistent, even if the mise-en-scene is just as baroque and grand as ”Gilda” with it’s vibrant saturated colours. Francois Truffaut, a huge fan of the film, said that the film testified to the powers of musicals(even if it’s not a traditional musical) in that when in a drama something bad happens audiences expect it and are prepared for it but when it happens in artifice and splendour audiences are shocked and moved even more.

    ”Mulholland Dr.” like ”Gilda” also has a similar story of S&M at it’s centre. I guess Naomi Watts is like Glenn Ford and Laura Elena Harring is both MacReady and Rita. Though the sex scene in the film which takes place presumably in a fantasy is totally healthy and beautiful. ”Mulholland Dr.” is essentially a love letter to old Hollywood whose ghost is buried over by a present day monstrosity, like look at the way Ann Miller in her final role is treated.

  14. Just because Mate was a great DP and worked with Dreyer doesn’t mean that he was behind all the stuff. The lighting is where he truly shines but then he was equally helped out with the costumes especially the one worn by Rita Hayworth which is covered with trinkets making it look like she’s wrapped in a dress made out of outer space. What Vidor brings to the film is the mise-en-scene which is if you look at it twice is sober and direct. That is to say it deals with the characters and the sets at a certain distance never really allowing the audience a safe harbour and the framing and calibration of the tracking shots would be from Vidor more than Mate I think. The DP’s job is to paint with light, the director’s job is to give meaning to the images. But then I am not familiar with the production history of ”Gilda”.

  15. You’re right about the masochism, Arthur. But Ann Miller totally LOVED doing Mulholland Drive. The fact that after all her years of work on both stage and screen she was given a part in a film by director of Lynch’s stature made her ever-so happy.

  16. david wingrove Says:

    OK, I know Columbia never made a ‘great’ musical. But can I just put in a good word for Down To Earth? It’s about as entertaining as a bad musical can get.

    On top of its gloriously kitsch Grecian dance numbers and Adele Jergens as on over-the-top Broadway diva (ousted from the star slot by sweet little understudy Rita Hayworth) it was also a seminal influence on that all-time bad movie classic Xanadu.

    For that alone, it deserves a place in Camp Movie Heaven.

  17. Down to Earth really annoyed me — horrible colours, and a mish-mash of mythologies and approaches. And largely a comedy, but not funny at all. I could just about say I hated it.

    Will come back and reply to the other comments, but right now I’m watching Can Heironymous Merkin Ever Forget Mercy Humpe and Find True Happiness? Un film de Anthony Newley. Now THERE’S a great musical!

  18. Don’t forget, Down To Earth inspired Xanadu ! Now THERE’S a musical!

  19. Tony and Joan were quite a couple. There’s a great shot of them frugging the night away at some London club in Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired

  20. I’ll stand behind David E. in my affection for “Cover Girl” and for “Long Ago and Far Away” in particular. I’ll also say a good word or two for the song “Sure Thing.” (Those are both collaborations between Kern and a nimble Ira Gershwin, in case anyone asks.) With all that as an understanding, though, it must be admitted that when good musical things were done at Columbia they were usually done by talent that had established itself elsewhere.

    Here are two good Columbia-connected moments:

    (That’s Fosse as performer and choreographer, Richard Quine as director)

    (SOng by Jerome Kern and Johnny Mercer, dubbing by Nan Wynn)

  21. Frugging? We’re lucky that’s all they were doing.

    Heironymous Merkin demands a very special place all its own, perhaps at The Forgotten. It’s… rather special. I have a little Xanadu post lined up: David W was kind enough to supply a copy.

    It’s go-slow time on YouTube but i look forward to viewing those clips later, Chris.

  22. That’s Fosse with the great Tommy Rall.

  23. Rita, like Ava Gardner, belongs to that select group of actresses that people (cough**malecritics**cough) make a lot of excuses for because they are so goshdarned lovely. She was pretty good on a few occasions, but just a few. She was one hell of a dancer though. And I love the look of this movie, Long Ago and Far Away is pretty and there’s that amazing Cover Girl production number. But you are right about the retrograde politics and flat jokes, and Kelly’s character needed a punch in the jaw, not Rita.

    I second Arthur S.’s support of Love Me or Leave Me. I didn’t know Truffaut liked the movie too. It’s quite good.

  24. I probably haven’t seen enough Rita and Ava films to accurately assess their dramatic talents, but this was the only time I’ve seen Rita be bad (that drunk scene!). I think she’s terrific in Lady from Shanghai and Gilda and Only Angels Have Wings. So I’m blaming the movie.

    Of course, there’s an argument that sometimes incredible beauty and a little acting talent is what a role needs — not that more acting talent wouldn’t be better, but that beauty is sometimes what matters more. Ava in The Killers is completely convincing as a woman Burt would throw away his life for, just like Yvonne deCarlo in Criss Cross.

  25. And then there’s Ava in The Barefoot Contessa and Pandora and the Flying Dutchman.

  26. Why haven’t I watched Pandora yet? I got the Kino disc of that AGES ago. I could recitify that right now but instead it seems more likely I’ll watch The Living Skeleton. I despair of me sometimes.

    The Fosse clip is astounding. Clearly My Sister Eileen is worth seeing if only for that moment alone.

  27. Rita Hayworth as an actress might have her limitations but Ava Gardner is genuinely great. ”The Barefoot Contessa”, ”The Killers”, ”Pandora…”, ”Mogambo” to name a few.

  28. Night of the Iguana…

  29. david wingrove Says:

    Please don’t forget Ava’s possibly greatest-ever role as the half-caste Anglo-Indian girl in Bhowani Junction. That’s the movie where I first saw her, and the one I will always remember her for.

    Not only does she look utterly ravishing in a sari, but her performance is deeply felt and utterly heartbreaking. OK, I’m sure she had help from the director George Cukor, but not even he could get a great performance if the talent wasn’t already there.

  30. I’d rather watch that one than gorilla-snuff-film Mogambo: do you have the DVD?

  31. Mr. Cukor really liked Ava a lot and had a teriffic time working with her on Bhowani Junction. He said the main problem withb the film was censorship resptrictions at the time. But Ava’s sensuality helped immesurably in putting on the screen what they couldn’t put in the script.

  32. david wingrove Says:

    No DVD, alas – just an old off-air VHS!

  33. I’ll look into renting BJ (hmm, better not use those initials).

  34. The BJ you’re referring to can only be rented, not bought or given away freely. So you’re in the clear.

  35. I suspect you CAN buy it. And it lasts longer.

  36. Years ago I was lucky enough to spend a while with Hurd Hatfield, who lived in Ireland the last ten-fifteen years of his life. I remember asking him about Albert Lewin. He exhaled luxuriantly and said, “Albert? He was (in italics) sensitive.” I wish I’d managed to get invited to one of Hurd’s famous dinner parties before he died. Or after even.

  37. (I meant to mention that the Hurd quote related to Pandora – we have jumped quite a few posts since then – I would hate to be accused of random namedropping).

  38. We love Hurd! Fiona will be so excited to hear you met him.

    There’s that great Lewin story, undoubtedly concocted by Lewin himself, about when producer Pandro S Berman asked him about why he did his long tracking shots. “Well, it’s my style.”
    “Style? What is that?”
    “Well, it’s like Manet has a certain way of using the brush that makes him different from Degas. That’s style.”
    “It is? I always heard about it but never knew what it was. Well I don’t want any of it in MY pictures!”

  39. *Love* the wallpaper shot of Rita from “Cover Girl.”

  40. Yeah, after trashing the film, I couldn’t resist that shot. I was looking for something Christmassy, but nothing fitted the rather awkward shape of the banner.

  41. Gentlemen, I think you are proving my point. I love Pandora and the Flying Dutchman AND The Barefoot Contessa but I can’t argue that Ava gives a good performance in either. Actually, neither would she and neither did her directors. She is awfully decorative, though.

    On the other hand, David Ehrenstein brings up Show Boat and she has very nice moments in that. She was good at conveying her protective love for Kathryn Grayson’s character.

  42. P.S. I think Gardner started to become a real actress when her wondrous looks began to fade a bit–I like her in Night of the Iguana.

  43. aw–I like Columbia!

    they let Ben Hecht make ANGELS OVER BROADWAY–which justifies the company’s existence all by itself!

    They also combined with RKO to make just about all of the great screwballers of the 1930s; they did wonderful things for both <a href=”http://ynot.motime.com/post/735729/Meme-itation+of+Life#735729″Jean Arthur and Barbara Stanwyck; and they also gave Robert Rossen a chance to make Johnny O’Clock… sure, they made some lame movies too (and it’s certainly true that “Cover Girl” has problems–although I quite enjoy it–Kern is by far my favourite pop composer), but then, everyone did that.

    What did you think of Pal Joey? It’s drastically different from the play–but the Sinatra numbers are fantastic, and I think it uses Kim Novak very effectively

    Dave

  44. Pal Joey is on my to-do list. I’ve seen bits of it over the years, but somehow never watched it properly.

    Everything you say about Columbia is true, David, but it still looks pretty thin to me — much of the Stanwyck-Arthur work is down to Capra, while Warners also did much with Stanwyck: her wildest pre-code roles. I think Columbia comes off worst when compared with any of the majors. Try it!

    As to the question of Ava — it’s one of the more touching phenomena that sometimes actresses who are known mainly for their looks blossom in talent as those looks fade. But Ava was never bad in anything I’ve seen. Snows of Kilimanjaro sure rubbed me up the wrong way, but it wasn’t HER fault. And even in something like The Killers, where she’s mainly there to be femme and fatale, she comes into her own in the last scene.

    It may also be that we’re underrating the ability of actresses like Ava and Rita to USE those stunning looks, which is a kind of talent in itself. Lots of glamorous-looking actresses can’t do that, even with studio backup.

    There’s a contradiction here, because I always believe in casting the best actor, not the prettiest. But when glamour is a role requirement (as it more often was back then) it can’t be faked — although sheer force of personality (the true source of glamour) can make the unlikeliest face into an icon.

  45. > sometimes actresses who are known
    > mainly for their looks blossom in
    > talent as those looks fade

    I don’t think the word “fade” applies, but I *do* like what Hayworth did in the unjustly-maligned “Fire Down Below.” A film with absurd moments, yes, but good things too — notably some baroque dialogue by Irwin Shaw.

    To quote the IMDb version of her lines:
    “I’m no good. I’m all worn out. I’ve been passed from hand to hand. I’ve had to submit to things that nice young American boys couldn’t conceive of in their wildest nightmares. I’ve lived among the ruins. Armies have marched over me.”

    Perhaps we should imagine those words coming from the mouth of Divine.

  46. That would make an awesome speech for the Divine one.

    I’m still trying to decide if there’s anything in Robert Parrish — I saw bits of Fire Down Below and his filming didn’t impress me. But I just watched Mississippi Blues, where he makes an agreeable onscreen presence and collaborator for Bertrand Tavernier. And his memoir, quoted here, is extremely entertaining.

  47. “It may also be that we’re underrating the ability of actresses like Ava and Rita to USE those stunning looks, which is a kind of talent in itself. Lots of glamorous-looking actresses can’t do that, even with studio backup.”

    Excellent point, sir.

  48. I was going to reach for the example of Maria Montez, but she achieves something pretty extraordinary with her particular brand of anti-talent. And she’s actually pretty good in The Exile.

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