Cover Girl (1944)
Here’s “the most brilliant musical of our time!” starring Rita Hayworth and Gene Kelly, featuring lots of cover girls, innovative choreography, and splashy Technicolor. Plus various flashbacks into ancestral love affairs, a search for pearls amongst oysters, the eternal clash between love/money, and slight intrusions of WWII into the story.
It’s a bright spectacle with songs by Jerome Kern and Ira Gershwin, choreography by Gene Kelly and his assistant Stanley Donen (who would go on to direct Charade and Funny Face), and plenty of elaborately staged and technologically advanced musical numbers.
The plot is crazy-basic: a beautiful dancer named Rusty (Rita Hayworth) wins a contest to be on the cover of a fashion magazine. Her boyfriend (and boss) Danny (Gene Kelly) owns a fairly shabby nightclub in Brooklyn, and he has a really hard time with her newfound fame and success, and an even harder time with a wealthy producer courting his girl.
Does Rusty stay with Danny or choose a new, shinier life on Broadway with a new, shinier boyfriend? Do Rita and Gene sing and dance about their troubles? Spoiler: yes.
Phil Silvers, who plays basically the same role in Summer Stock, provides some comic relief as Gene Kelly’s bumbling best friend, nicknamed Genius. Another supporting player, Eve Arden, is tremendous as the cynical-but-good-hearted-beneath-the-wild-hats magazine editor, Cornelia Jackson.
You may know Eve Arden as the stepmother in Faerie Tale Theatre’s Cinderella, or as the principal in Grease! She had a sixty year career in entertainment, so you’ve probably seen her in something.
We open in Danny’s nightclub in Brooklyn with a rather ragtag striptease number starring Rusty.
The girls sing about how “the show must go on” as they peel off their capes and pull up their skirts.
Eventually all that’s left is nude fabric studded with gold sequins:
Thank goodness for the striptease though, as the footwork is sloppy and the synchronization quite poor. Look at them go! Awful.
Danny watches from backstage, wincing. You can watch it here.
Maurine (Leslie Brooks), shown giggling with Hayworth on the set, is fed up with this lousy joint and Danny’s relentless rehearsals.
She’s determined to get out of Brooklyn (this is before it was cool) and make her way up in the world.
Maurine announces her intentions to the other women in the dressing room, telling them that she won’t be at tomorrow’s rehearsal because she is going to enter Vanity magazine’s “Golden Wedding Girl” competition.
They are skeptical, but Rusty is intrigued. Unfortunately we don’t get to see the number that goes with those purple and polka-dot be-feathered costumes…
Danny has always told Rusty that there are no shortcuts, and that she needs to get to the big time with her feet, not her face. She loves him and everything, but if her face will help her become a star…
The next morning Rusty shows up at Vanity‘s office. Angelic Maurine goes in for the interview first. Ms. Jackson is unimpressed, but she’s tired of this whole contest. She tells Maurine they are looking for someone relaxed, new, and innocent. She is, after all, supposed to be a bride! Maurine smoothes her skirt back down over her knees and tries to look sweet.
But she’s not sweet. Maurine is kind of a jerk, actually. She tells Rusty that Ms. Jackson is looking for someone extremely animated and energetic, with loads of experience and pep. So Rusty summons up all her courage and bounces into Ms. Jackson’s office.
Ms. Jackson is alarmed. She shoos Rusty out of her office, and Rusty thinks she’s blown her chance. Thanks a lot, Maurine! You can watch it here.
Ms. Jackson shows Maurine’s head shot to her boss, Mr. Coudair (Otto Kruger). He thinks there might be potential there, so he and Ms. Jackson head to Brooklyn to see Maurine in her “natural environment.”
They arrive in time to see Genius performing a patriotic number called “Who’s Complaining?” It’s all about rationing and civilian hardships during the war. Genius and the girls sing that none of it is that bad; no one really minds substituting coffee for chicory! They’ll do anything for the troops!
There are some choice lines, but my favorite is when the girls sing about how “their legs are forgotten in cotton,” but they don’t care what civilians think, anyway!
This is one of the few instances when the war intrudes on the movie. Some others include a line early in the film about how Danny was wounded and sent home, so we know he’s a good guy and not a draft dodger or something. Then when Rusty gets a telegram Genius jokes that it is her draft notice. It’s a little like Thrill of a Romance in that WWII is in the background but only surfaces once in a while.
Mr. Coudair is supposed to be looking at Maurine (in the green dress), but once he sees Rusty, poor Maurine disappears. Cheaters never win, kids.
Despite Ms. Jackson’s objections, Mr. Coudair decides wants Rusty as his cover girl. Later we find out why he is so drawn to her…turns out he had a huge crush on an actress who looked an awful lot like Rusty.
Ms. Jackson is flabbergasted by the resemblance. Cue the flashback, facilitated by the hat on the playbill:
Fifty years ago, a young Mr. Coudair went to Tony Pastor’s theater and fell in love at first sight with Maribelle Hicks. (It’s Rita Hayworth in vaguely turn of the century garb).
We see Maribelle sing a song about “betting on a sure thing.” It has a horse racing theme, complete with tiny horses and women in jockey silks. It’s a trip, especially when Maribelle hitches up her skirts and a horsey follows her about the stage. You can watch it here.
The flashback continues and we learn that Maribelle and the piano player were in love, but Mr. Coudair attempted to woo her away with his wealth and promises of a fancier life.
Ms. Jackson thinks the whole thing is creepy, but she agrees to bring Rusty back in for a meeting with Mr. Coudair the next day.
While Mr. Coudair is falling down memory lane, Rusty, Genius, and Danny are at their favorite oyster bar looking for pearls and dancing about the streets. There’s a lot of street dancing in this film–Gene Kelly asked to have soundstage walls removed to open up the space and allow the dancers to really move about in single takes.
You can watch their exuberant dance here. Gene Kelly had been dying to choreograph his own numbers, but MGM wasn’t too keen on the idea. MGM loaned Kelly to Columbia for this film, and Columbia agreed to let him choreograph his own stuff!
He brought Stanley Donen with him as his assistant (Donen had been a dancer in Kelly’s big break on Broadway, “Pal Joey”). Donen and Kelly worked together wonderfully well, and it was the beginning of a long partnership. In a few years, Donen would direct and help Kelly choreograph arguably the greatest musical of all time, Singin’ in the Rain (1952).
Anyway, when Rusty, Genius, and Danny return to their apartments (they live across the hall from each other–how risqué!), a telegram from Vanity is waiting at Rusty’s door. She’s shocked, Danny is deeply unhappy, and Genius is worried.
So he convinces Rusty she shouldn’t go, and rips up the telegram. They say goodnight, but when Genius goes to clean up the shredded telegram, he sees Rusty furtively collecting the pieces…uh oh.
Rusty goes to Vanity’s offices (coincidentally wearing her hair up so that she looks even more like Maribelle (though she still has no idea about that whole story.)) Mr. Coudair investigates and finds out that Maribelle was Rusty’s grandmother! What are the odds?
He decides that Rusty is the winner of the contest, and away they go into a fantastic makeover sequence. Oddly enough, Rusty looks just about the same after all the cold cream, powder, paint, and hair curlers as she did when they started. They could have just put on the dress and called it a day. Mr. Coudair watches it all like a creeper.
They summon the golden gown and veil, and mess around with colored lights, lenses, and light meters to give it that authentic photo shoot touch.
And voila! She’s a cover girl!
Danny is less than thrilled. He’s actually really pissy about it, and Gene Kelly is pretty good at playing pissy. But suddenly everyone is coming to his nightclub to see the Vanity cover girl! We know this because of this handy, efficient, well-lit newspaper montage.
Danny gets new costumes and sets, and suddenly his ragtag bunch of dancers are amazingly good. They perform a number set in a dress shop with Danny as some sort of employee in a chartreuse vest.
It’s a hugely different number from the sequined striptease we saw at the club on the first night, but don’t ask too many questions.
Rusty has the starring role in the dance, naturally, and she keeps up with Gene Kelly quite nicely. It is distracting to me how much she throws her hair around, and she’s not as smooth as Ginger Rogers, as dynamically mesmerizing as Cyd Charisse, or as versatile as Marge Champion, but she’s very good.
Rita Hayworth began life as Margarita Carmen Cansino, and she was destined to be a dancer. Her father was a dancer, and his father was a famous Spanish classical dancer with an internationally renowned dance school in Madrid. Oh, and her mother performed in the Ziegfeld Follies.
Margarita began performing at age six, and her father moved the family to Hollywood where he opened a dancing school and performed with Margarita as his partner.
When she was about seventeen, a Fox executive spotted her performing with her father at a nightclub, and signed her to a film contract. She first changed her name to Rita Cansino, but eventually changed it even more to Rita Hayworth (her mother’s maiden name), and dyed her hair from her natural dark brown to red…
…And became one of the biggest stars of the 1940s. Although she’s most famous for playing the title role in Gilda (1946), she began her career in musicals, and she is one of only six women who danced with both Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly onscreen.
Although Hayworth obviously does her own dancing, her singing was dubbed by Martha Mears, who also dubbed her singing in Tonight and Every Night (1945). Mears was the voice of several stars, including Veronica Lake and Marjorie Reynolds.
Hayworth would marry five times, and her husbands included Orson Welles, Prince Aly Khan, and singer Dick Haymes.
She also appeared on the cover of Life five times, which makes Cover Girl a very fitting film for her, and her pinup in a a lace negligee was second in popularity only to Betty Grable‘s famous white-bathing-suit shot among GIs in WWII.
Anyway, you can watch the dance here. I’m rather fond of Hayworth’s sparkly, backless green dress.
Costume designers Travis Banton (best known for his glorious 1930s confections in films like We’re Not Dressing, Love Before Breakfast, The Princess Comes Across, Easy Living, My Man Godfrey, and Hands Across the Table), Muriel King, and Gwen Wakeling really outdid themselves. They certainly used Technicolor to great effect, and I’d be interested to know how many yards of sheer illusion fabric were commandeered for this movie. Nearly every stage costume has some sheer panels somewhere, and apparently Columbia couldn’t afford to fully clothe Rita Hayworth. Or they just liked to show off as much of her as they could get away with.
So, Rusty is famous now. One wealthy Broadway producer decides he wants to have her as his star and his wife. At first she’s like, “no, I love Danny, blah blah blah.” She attempts to convince Danny of her love and her complete immunity to the life and stardom she’s being offered.
They have a particularly tender scene when they sing “Long Ago and Far Away,” a song which would become a standard after its premiere in this film. The scene starts with Danny changing light bulbs in a really neat bottle chandelier. Director Charles Vidor uses depth and foregrounding a lot in this film–it’s not all shallow focus Technicolor.
Look at that frothy dress! There are even pink roses beneath the chiffon overskirt to give a little flash of color when Hayworth twirls! But at first she just stands there listening to Danny’s melancholy song.
He might run a very clean place, but I’m not sure I’d touch the bottom of chairs like that. Though the gold legs make for some nice compositions. It’s a lovely song–watch it here.
They dance out their problems, but soon the conflict resurfaces. Dancing isn’t always the best way to resolve major relationship problems, kids.
Rusty’s “I love Danny and I don’t want to be a Broadway star with a wealthy lover” thing weakens mostly because Danny acts like a jealous jerk whenever Rusty needs to do something related to her new cover girl job. Danny eventually drives her away straight into the producer’s loaded arms.
At least this guy is thrilled for her success and doesn’t get mad when good things happen to her, unlike Danny.
The producer takes her to his fancy theater and encourages her to try out the stage. Fortunately, she’s wearing a good dancing dress. Chiffon trimmed with fur. Perfect for a good twirl.
What is Danny doing all this time? Moping, mainly. He is upset that he’s lost Rusty, and he knows it is partly his fault.
While Rusty is performing a pretty insane “cover girl” number on Broadway (more on that later), Danny dances with his “alter ego” on an empty street. It’s one of Kelly’s most famous dances. You watch this, and it’s shocking to think that MGM wouldn’t give Kelly a chance to choreograph his own stuff, because he’s a genius.
A shadowy, “inner version” of Danny chastises him for his petty behavior, and then they dance with/against each other. It’s spectacular.
Kelly and Donen achieved it by filming the number twice (with Kelly as “Danny” and then again as “alter ego”) with Donen standing by the camera and instructing the cameraman with the timing of camera movements.
The two versions had to be perfectly identical or the shots wouldn’t line up and the effect would be lost. Kelly later said, “It was the most difficult thing I’ve ever done, a technical torture.” It would have been much easier to have a static camera, but Donen and Kelly really went for it. It was extremely complicated to create, but amazing to watch. You can watch it here.
Back to a more typical musical number, though it has its own technological achievements. It’s a little like the number “The Girl on a Magazine Cover” in Easter Parade with its fetishization of cover girls and play with huge magazines.
This one features real-life cover girls who would have been recognizable to moviegoers in 1944. They walk into frame, a life size image poses with a close-up, and then they point to their cover. It’s weird and wonderful, and there are a lot of them.
Then Rusty appears in a gold coat which she immediately strips off. I suppose stripteases aren’t just for Brooklyn dives. She runs down a really huge ramp through hanging pink clouds and dances with a whole bunch of men. Because why not?
There’s something a little nightmarish about the whole thing, but there is some nice dancing.
Sparkly somethings fall as she runs away back up the ramp. You can watch the entire insane number here.
Here the spoilers (sort of) end.
Will Rusty stay in this golden world? Will she go back to Danny?
Is Danny still there, or is he off entertaining the troops? Is he also taking the opportunity to work on his hula dance which he also performs in “Good Morning” in Singin’ in the Rain?
Will his time with the troops allow him to slip this patriotic gem to a curious bartender: “You take a look at these guys [the troops] and you don’t have to worry about who’s going to be the boss over there?”
Does Rita Hayworth remain ridiculously gorgeous throughout her heartbreak and struggles?
And are there more flashbacks that perhaps include Maribelle and four friends in weird dotted outfits on stage…
…Before she steps behind a screen in her dressing room and removes the costume? All the while carrying on a coy conversation with a beau? These screens are very popular movie tools. It’s another version of a striptease.
Will there be a wedding with an echoing flashback?
You’ll have to watch to find out.
This movie was extremely popular when it came out in 1944. It won Best Musical Scoring, and was nominated for four other Academy Awards: Best Song (“Long Ago and Far Away”), Art Direction, Cinematography (Color), and Sound Recording. It made Hayworth and Kelly into big stars, and its success helped Gene Kelly gain some power at his home studio of MGM.
Hayworth always spoke fondly of making this movie, remembering: “We had a sensational time with Gene and Phil. I knew we had a rapport – they were both so great to work with. It was a happy time. I didn’t know we were doing anything special, but you knew it was going to be good because it felt good making it.”
Hayworth also eloped with Orson Welles during the production of Cover Girl, reportedly on the same day when they filmed the wedding scene!, so that may have added to her happiness. It does look like fun, though, doesn’t it?