It’s Official —
— 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.
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.
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:
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…