‘The Films of Rita Hayworth’ Is a Set Nearly as Beautiful as Hayworth Herself

Mention Rita Hayworth and the first thing that springs to mind is invariably the image of the fiery bombshell in a seductive pose. In the early-’40s Hayworth was a favorite pinup—second only to Betty Grable—among G.I.s, but by the end of the war she had become a favorite leading lady in Hollywood, as well. The Films of Rita Hayworth collects five of her films, spanning from 1944-1953, in newly remastered form. Three of these—Tonight and Every Night, Miss Sadie Thompson and Salome—are apparently available for the first time on DVD in this set.

She began her career in and gained notoriety in musicals, including some with Fred Astaire, but it wasn’t until 1944’s Cover Girl that she had a starring role that was a true vehicle for her varied talents. She sings, she dances, she acts and, of course, looks ravishing in vibrant Technicolor for this fluff piece about a chorus girl who becomes a star in the fashion world because of her resemblance to her grandmother, with whom the publisher of a magazine was once smitten. Gene Kelley, who plays the owner of the club where she works and her love interest, was the top-billed star of Cover Girl, but it’s Hayworth that we’re here for from the moment she appears.

Tonight and Every Night (1945) is another musical, this time based on the true story of a London theatre that never missed a performance during the blitz. Available for the first time on DVD, it’s not the greatest of narratives, but the musical numbers and Hayworth’s performance of “You Excite Me”, in particular, are well worth watching.

In 1946, at the age of 27, Hayworth made the film that would become her most iconic, cementing her stardom and the perception of her as a femme fatale, something she railed against as false for much of her life. Gilda is classic noir, and arguably, a hallmark of the genre. The dialogue is smart, witty and full of subtext, which makes the verbal volleys crackle all the more. Hayworth’s portrayal is riveting and complex, at once brazenly dangerous and believably sympathetic. You understand why Johnny (Glenn Ford) mistrusts her so, but you find yourself siding with her the whole way through. Then there’s the electricity of her striptease performance of “Put the Blame on Mame” and her signature dance to “Amado Mio”, which never fail to thrill.

Salome (1953) , also available on DVD for the first time in this set, is a typical Hollywood Biblical epic. Meaning it’s not very good. The dialogue seems to be an afterthought, and most of the actors recite it sounding exactly as bored as they must have been. It’s rather excruciating to sit through, and Hayworth is its only redeeming feature. She looks stunning, of course, and if you’re able to make it through the first hour and a half of mawkish morality you will be rewarded with Hayworth’s famous “Dance of the Seven Veils”.

If you want risque dancing from Rita Hayworth with a bit less obvious moralizing, try Miss Sadie Thompson. Also released in 1953, and also on DVD for the first time, it is a remake of Sadie Thompson starring Gloria Swanson, which was itself based on the short story Rain by W. Somerset Maugham. Sadie, a “free spirit”, who worked at “dance halls” and “night clubs”–all of which is 1950s censor-speak for whore—arrives in Samoa and excites the Marines stationed there while inciting the ire of a preacher. Hayworth is lush and lovely, though the script itself doesn’t do justice to the source material, which is probably just as well since the reason to watch is Sadie’s sexy shimmying for the boys in the bar. Miss Sadie Thompson was banned in several places for the “lewdness” of that dance, but perhaps that’s just because the original was shown in 3-D!

The Films of Rita Hayworth offers special features in the form of conversations and introductions with Baz Luhrman, Martin Scorsese and Patricia Clarkson. Luhrman discusses Cover Girl and Gilda, Scorsese rhapsodizes about Gilda and Clarkson talks about Tonight and Every Night and Miss Sadie Thompson. Luhrman’s comments are probably the most interesting given that Moulin Rouge owes a great debt to Hayworth and her work. Scorsese always provides fascinating insight, of course, but Clarkson’s segments seem stiff and strange, and as if they were taken from other sources. Other features include a commentary for Gilda by critic Richard Schickel and the original trailers for each film.

Another thing included in this set is an insert with a letter encouraging fans to donate to the Alzheimer’s Association in Hayworth’s memory. Rita Hayworth was a victim of early onset Alzheimer’s Disease, and suffered with it for years before it was diagnosed. In 1984, Hayworth’s daughter founded the annual Alzheimer’s Association Rita Hayworth Gala, which has since raised millions. The insert comes with a pre-addressed, postage-paid envelope, and is a lovely, if unusual, extra for a DVD package.

The Films of Rita Hayworth is a beautiful set, and it might be a must if your film collection could use and upgrade, or if through some inexplicable oversight, it doesn’t already include Gilda.

RATING 6 / 10