Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Classic Films in Focus: COVER GIRL (1944)

Rita Hayworth gets top billing in director Charles Vidor’s musical romance, Cover Girl (1944), but most modern viewers will be drawn to the picture as an early Gene Kelly vehicle, and it’s true that the movie would be a lot less memorable without him. Although it’s not the most iconic picture made by either performer, Cover Girl offers a worthwhile look at Hayworth’s star power and Kelly’s rise to fame during the 1940s. Moreover, it's a fun musical outing that pairs two talented dancers with tremendous screen presence, and fans of Hayworth's earlier work with Fred Astaire will appreciate an opportunity to contrast her pairing with Kelly.

Hayworth plays Rusty Parker, a dancer who goes against the wishes of her sweetheart and boss, Danny McGuire (Kelly), by trying out for a magazine’s cover girl contest. She wins the competition and attracts the notice of the magazine’s publisher, John Coudair (Otto Kruger), who long ago fell in love with Rusty’s grandmother, Maribelle (also played by Hayworth). Coudair encourages Rusty to abandon Danny’s small-time Brooklyn show for the glamour of Broadway, especially when a wealthy show producer wants to make her his leading lady on stage and at the altar.

Although her singing is dubbed, Hayworth proves herself as a dancer in the numerous musical scenes. Her signature red tresses are also on full display, and she does look stunning, particularly in the turn-of-the-century costumes worn by Maribelle. By the time Cover Girl was made, Hayworth already had years of screen experience and had become an established leading lady; just before Cover Girl she had co-starred with Fred Astaire in You’ll Never Get Rich (1941) and You Were Never Lovelier (1942). Kelly, in contrast, was only two years into his Hollywood career, having started out on Broadway and then gotten his big break in For Me and My Gal (1942) opposite Judy Garland. Still, the highlights of the picture belong to Kelly, especially the delightfully surreal mirror dance sequence, in which Kelly dances with his own reflection after it escapes from a shop window. Choreographed by Kelly and Stanley Donen, the number would launch the collaborative screen efforts of the pair and lay the foundation for future efforts like On the Town (1949) and the glorious Singin’ in the Rain (1952).

Hayworth and Kelly make the movie worth watching, especially for the Hollywood musical devotee, but the dual plot involving Rusty’s grandmother is pretty thin, really just an excuse to give Hayworth more screen time in various costumes and hairstyles. Phil Silvers, who is much funnier with Kelly and Judy Garland in Summer Stock (1950), adds little to the story and distracts from the romance with his ill-timed gags, while the wonderful Eve Arden deserves more attention and development as Coudair’s wise-cracking, hard-working assistant, “Stonewall” Jackson. Modern viewers probably won’t appreciate the parade of real-life cover girls as much as the original audience, but they will find a lot to enjoy in Leslie Brooks’ performance as the bitchy, ambitious dancer Maurine, who constantly tries to upstage and sabotage Rusty’s career.

Cover Girl was nominated for five Oscars and won for Best Musical Score. Charles Vidor would go on to direct Hayworth in her signature role in Gilda (1946). For more of Rita Hayworth, see Blood and Sand (1941), The Lady from Shanghai (1947), and Pal Joey (1957). You’ll find Gene Kelly in The Three Musketeers (1948), An American in Paris (1951), and Brigadoon (1954). Catch Eve Arden in Mildred Pierce (1945) and Anatomy of a Murder (1959), and give Phil Silvers another look in It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963) and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1966).

An earlier version of this review originally appeared on Examiner.com. The author owns all rights to this content.