A fiery film noir starring America's Love Goddess, which exposes the fine line between love and hate
What looks like pure melodrama at first glance is actually a complicated, coded, and dark story of a love triangle between two men and a woman. “Gilda” is a smoldering film packed with subtext and tantalizing sexual tension between its three protagonists. Many plot points are clear, some remain murky, and others are thinly veiled - none of which matter, as this noir-tinged drama manages to hypnotize from beginning to end. It is a film of emotions, as passion, desire, revenge, love, and hate, permeate the screen in telling the story of “Gilda”. In the title role is the mesmerizing bombshell Rita Hayworth. Her luminous performance is the apex of Hollywood glamour and sexuality, and two of her scenes in this film have become among the most famous in cinema history. This highly entertaining and popular classic is bursting with that elusive quality called movie magic.
Made immediately after WWII, "Gilda" involves a plan for world domination through a tungsten cartel, involving some Nazis that have fled to Argentina after the war. While this complicated storyline becomes essential to the action, it doesn’t drive the film. At its heart, it is about the intertwining, blurry, sexually charged relationships of its three main characters - “Gilda”, “Johnny”, and “Ballin”. Their complicated relationships are filled with first rate double talk, double entendres, codes, and sarcastic jabs at one another - all making for an exhilarating mystery waiting to be solved. It is a riveting look at revenge and the fine line between love and hate. The highly sensual, sexual "Gilda" is gorgeous, adventurous, confident, and as we soon learn, deeply in love with “Johnny”. He was the love of her life who broke her heart. She and “Johnny” unknowingly both escaped to Argentina to forget their past relationship, only to both end up with the same man (“Ballin”). The film becomes “Gilda’s” struggle to win back “Johnny”, while “Johnny” continually pushes her away trying desperately to protect “Ballin” from trouble, heartbreak, and “Gilda”. It is essentially about a woman coming between two men.
While watching “Gilda”, one must keep in mind it was made during the reign of the Motion Picture Production Code (which I explain in the “Red Dust” entry). The Code contained strict guidelines as to what could and could not be shown in American films, and subjects like sex outside of marriage, sexual fetishes, bisexuality, and homosexuality were strictly taboo. “Johnny” and “Ballin’s” relationship is made abundantly clear once you look under the surface, and in Vito Russo’s book, “The Celluloid Closet”, Glenn Ford (who plays “Johnny”) is quoted as saying that he and Macready (who plays “Ballin”) “knew we were supposed to be playing homosexuals”. Because of the Production Code, their relationship is shown through innuendo, looks, and gestures. In their very first scene together, watch how “Johnny” lights “Ballin’s” cigarette while looking deep in his eyes, and then how “Ballin” holds his cane like an erect phallus (which he does several times in the film) while describing it to “Johnny” as his “faithful and obedient friend”. “Johnny” later suggests he become “Ballin’s” other “little friend”, telling him (while “Ballin’s" cane once again becomes “erect”) “this way you’ll have two friends You’ve no idea how faithful and obedient I can be. For a nice salary”. It seems evident that “Gilda” knows of “Johnny’s” fluid sexuality, which doesn’t seem to phase her at all. Even the jokes in the film give tiny clues, as when “Johnny” interrupts “Gilda’s” acoustic version of “Put the Blame on Mame” while in his bathrobe, and she quips, “Oh. Good morning. How very pretty you look in your nightgown”. “Gilda’s” blatant sexuality in the film seems to have more impact on the filmgoer and a couple of supporting characters than on “Johnny” or “Ballin”. On top of it all, there are many hints that “Ballin” is some sort of sadist whom “Gilda” fears and “Johnny” finds exciting. This whole sexual mishmash makes the various cat-and-mouse games within the film that much more intriguing. In order to comply with the Code, a Hollywood ending was tacked on, which adds to the strangeness. But never fear - this is one cryptically fun film!
At the time of “Gilda”, Columbia Pictures was one of the three lesser studios of the big five. Unlike MGM who had “more stars than in the heavens” or Warner Brothers who had their own roster of larger-than-life bankable names, Columbia had Rita Hayworth. By the time of “Gilda” she had become their number one moneymaker and by far, their biggest star. Harry Cohn, the tyrannical head of Columbia, was always looking for vehicles in which to showcase and cash in on his prized asset, and “Gilda” was one of those vehicles. Being a musical star, the two songs “Amado Mio” and “Put the Blame on Mame” were written into the script to feature Hayworth's dance skills. Her singing voice was dubbed, though Hayworth claimed that her voice was used in the acoustic version of “Put the Blame on Mame” - which was later said to be untrue (I have yet to find out definitively). Cohn hired Virginia Van Upp to produce - one of three female producers in Hollywood at the time. An accomplished screenwriter since 1934, Van Upp had just come off rewriting 1944’s “Cover Girl”, a hit musical starring Hayworth and Gene Kelly which made stars out of both. Because of her success, Van Upp was promoted to Associate Producer and then Executive Producer at Columbia, supervising filming on over a dozen A-List films per year (mostly uncredited). Though credited only as producer on “Gilda”, she was in charge of the production. “Gilda” was filmed without a finished script, and Van Upp would retire after each day’s shooting to rework the script (adapted by Jo Eisinger from a story by E.A. Ellington, and written by Marion Parsonnet). In addition to “Cover Girl” and “Gilda”, Van Upp worked on two other Hayworth films - producing (uncredited) “The Lady from Shanghai”, and producing (uncredited) and getting a story credit for 1952’s "Affair in Trinidad” (a film that reunited Hayworth and Ford). She was married twice. Virginia Van Upp died in 1970 at the age of 68. “Gilda” was directed by Hungarian director, Charles Vidor. His fascinating choice of shots, interesting lighting and framing, give the film its edge. He often cuts “Ballin” partially out of the frame (part of his face or even his entire head), and the way he puts one character in shadow or out of focus transforms a simple conversation into a provocative encounter. In his directing career Vidor worked for nearly every studio, and among his notable films are "Love Me or Leave Me", "A Song to Remember", "A Farewell to Arms", "The Swan", and "Hans Christian Andersen". He directed Hayworth in a total of four films (”The Lady in Question”, “Gilda”, and "The Loves of Carmen”, all with Glenn Ford, as well as “Cover Girl”), and became her favorite director. He was married four times (including his marriages to actresses Evelyn Keyes and Karen Morley). Charles Vidor died in 1959 at the age of 58.
There are famous screen entrances and then there is Rita Hayworth in “Gilda”. About seventeen minutes into the film, she explodes onto onto the screen, throwing back her long lush hair, while dripping with sexual allure. It is a moment as exciting as cinema can get. Already a major star, this transcendent moment created a new Hayworth - sexually dangerous but with a sweet innocence. Hayworth became a superstar, film icon, and legend, and was voted #19 of the women on the AFIs list of the 50 Greatest American Screen Legends. A second or two after her hair settles in her immortal entrance, “Gilda” sees “Johnny” and her demeanor quickly changes to one of vulnerability as she pulls up her dress to cover her exposed shoulder. Hayworth makes “Gilda” flesh and blood inside and out. She’s a woman of mystery and confidence, and overwrought with conflicted emotions. Hayworth’s natural magnetism abounds in this film to the point where she lights up the screen every time she appears. "Gilda" is such a rarity in that it contains not one transcendent moment, but two - both due to Hayworth's magical screen presence. Her second iconic moment is towards the end of the film when she performs a pseudo striptease to the song "Put the Blame on Mame", essentially removing only a glove, in one of the sexiest scenes in film history. While wriggling in her shiny black satin dress with its slit down the side and using her luscious hair to entice, Hayworth emits a free and confident female sexuality rarely seen in a film. Perhaps it's because she was a first-rate dancer that she summons and evokes a thousand emotions when she moves. The role of “Gilda” became one with which Hayworth would forever be identified for better and for worse, and she has been quoted as saying "Men fell in love with ‘Gilda’, but they wake up with me”. Her radiant appearance in the film is a definitive example of the fruits the Hollywood studio system could cultivate and grow. It shows how a team of skilled professionals (including hair, make-up, costumes, lighting, camera angles, and so on) can turn people into gods and goddesses. And like all major stars, Hayworth herself was the result of a team effort of transformation.
Rita Hayworth was born Margarita Carmen Cansino, in New York City to two dancers (a father from a family of dancers just outside Seville, Spain, and an American mother of Irish and English descent) who met while performing in the famous Ziegfeld Follies. Her father taught her how to dance by the age of four, and by five years old she’d already performed on Broadway. Her early years were spent rehearsing and performing dance, which replaced friends, playtime, and any type of normal childhood. She never finished high school. Her father recognized her talent and pushed her to become a dancer, while her mother wanted her to become an actress. By the time she was thirteen, her hair was dyed from brown to black to make her look older and more Latin and she became her father’s professional dance partner. According to Barbara Leaming’s book "If This Was Happiness: A Biography of Rita Hayworth”, Orson Welles (one of Hayworth's husbands) said her father also physically and sexually abused her. Sadly, a pattern of exploitation and abuse followed Hayworth throughout her life and into each of her five marriages. While dancing in Mexico, she was spotted and signed to a six-month contract at the Fox Film Corporation. Her name was changed to Rita Cansino, and she was given voice and acting lessons and taught how to pose for the camera. She began getting small roles in B-movies as an ethnic Latina type, and her first film was as a dancer in "Dante's Inferno” in 1935 (although two subsequent films she made that year were released first). She was being groomed to become a leading lady, but when Darryl Zanuck took over in late 1935, he dropped her contract and she was out.
She soon met Edward C. Judson, a former car salesman, and wheeler-dealer more than double her age who saw potential in her (years later she said he saw her as an investment). Through his persistence and persuasiveness, he managed to get her some small parts at other studios. The two married and he took over her life, managing and dictating her career. He made her look less Latin by dying her hair auburn, had her undergo hair removal to give her a larger forehead, and her name was changed to Rita Hayworth. He encouraged her to sleep with whomever could forward her career, though she refused to sleep with Harry Cohn (which put her and Cohn at odds for decades - Cohn would disrespect her, treat her as a slave, and even bug her dressing rooms). After steady work in B-movies, she was given a supporting part in the classic A-list 1939 film, “Only Angels Have Wings”. She continued in mostly B-films until she was loaned to other studios (Warner Brothers and Fox) for the films “The Strawberry Blond” and “Blood and Sand”, both in 1941. “Blood and Sand” was in Technicolor, and in it she was finally able to uses her sensuality and ravishing beauty as a temptress. It turned her into an A-list star. With an official movie star suddenly on their roster, Columbia did everything to capitalize on Hayworth’s appeal. She appeared opposite Fred Astaire in the musicals "You'll Never Get Rich" and "You Were Never Lovelier” (years later Astaire named Hayworth as his favorite dance partner). These led to “Cover Girl”, and ultimately “Gilda”. In 1942 she divorced Judson and married actor, producer, director, Orson Welles in 1943. The two had a daughter who was born a few months before filming “Gilda”. Hayworth was also a top pin-up girl for GIs during World War II, and Life magazine named her "The Great American Love Goddess” - a name which stuck.
Now considered a bombshell beauty, when the US was doing nuclear testing on the Bikini Atoll in 1946, they put her picture and the name “Gilda” on the first atomic bomb to be detonated. When she found out she was furious. As Welles was losing favor with Hollywood, some suggest he tried to capitalized on her fame. As their marriage was disintegrating, he cast her in his 1947 film, "The Lady from Shanghai”. For it, Welles cut her trademark hair, and dyed it platinum blonde. Though she got great reviews, the film did not score well at the box office and some believed it was due to her new look. Cohn wasn’t told about the change in her image and was enraged at the tampering of his biggest asset. After three more films and at the height of her fame, Hayworth took a break from Hollywood to marry Prince Aly Khan in 1949, making her the first Hollywood actress to become a real-life princess. Their highly publicized marriage was turbulent and short lived, though they did produce a daughter. Her comeback film was “Affair in Trinidad” in 1952, which was a big money maker. After several more successful films, she took time off again while marrying for the fourth time, this time to singer Dick Haymes who many believe used her fame to try and make a name for himself. It was another tempestuous marriage, ending with him striking her in the face in public in 1955. She divorced, and returned to the screen in 1957’s "Fire Down Below” only to find she had been replaced by Kim Novak as Columbia’s top star. Hayworth married for the fifth and final time in 1958, this time to film producer James Hill, who cast her in the 1958 Best Picture Oscar nominated film, “Separate Tables”. Their marriage ended in 1961, with reports of him being mentally abusive. No longer at Columbia, she worked at different studios through 1972. Included among Hayworth’s not mentioned classics are "Pal Joey", "Miss Sadie Thompson", "Down to Earth", "Tales of Manhattan", and “Salome”. She smoked, drank (although some say not in excess), and would have violent episodes, all of which began to take a toll on her on-screen looks. Her memory began to fail, and people thought it was due to her drinking. In 1976 she was removed from a flight at Heathrow Airport after an outburst, and an infamous photo of her looking disheveled made headlines. In 1980 she was diagnosed as having Alzheimer's disease. I remember my mother being in shock, telling me that everyone thought for years that Rita Hayworth was a drunk but it turns out she has a disease called Alzheimer’s. Hayworth was the first public face of the disease, and for many it was the first time hearing of it. It was believed she was suffering to some degree from Alzheimer's for the previous twenty years. In 1981, Hayworth was placed in the care of her daughter, Princess Yasmin Aga Khan. Rita Hayworth died in 1987 at the age of 68.
Glenn Ford portrays “Johnny Farrell”, the man everyone seems to want. Ford does an outstanding job making “Johnny” believable as someone who would pair up with both “Gilda” and “Ballin”. Ford exhibits a freedom and boyishness he never again captures to this degree, and I feel this is the best performance in his career. At the very least, a bisexual character is a pretty bold role to take on as an actor in the 1940s, and he doesn’t hold back. Just watch the way “Johnny’s” face lights up when around “Ballin”, or the zeal with which he surrenders in obedience. Ford had an everyman type quality which fit nicely for a character who used to shoot craps with sketchy sailors. Because Ford is so truthful in this performance, it seems like “Johnny” sincerely wants nothing more than for “Gilda” to go away and leave “Ballin” to him. Not an easy role to navigate and Ford is perfect.
Canadian born Glenn Ford moved to Santa Monica, California when he was a young boy. He began his interest in acting while in high school and started appearing in theater after graduating. Trying to break into film, he landed a major role in the 1939 film "Heaven with a Barbed Wire Fence”, from which he was spotted by Cohn. Ford was offered a contract at Columbia, and began appearing in smaller roles in B-movies, including “The Lady in Question” in 1940 (co-starring Hayworth and directed by Vidor). He began to gain recognition from his role in 1941's “So Ends Our Night” , which lead to some leading parts in B-movies. He left Hollywood to serve in the Marines in 1943 (never seeing combat), and received a medical discharge in 1944. His first film after the war was “Gilda”, which made him a star and opened the door to A-list films. His next film was “A Stolen Life” opposite Bette Davis, and he continued his career in a variety of films and genres, and became one of the top box office stars through the 1960s. Two more of his best performances were in the 1953 Fritz Lang noir classic, “The Big Heat”, and the groundbreaking "Blackboard Jungle" in 1955. Ford moved easily between drama, westerns, noir, and comedy, and his other classics include "3:10 to Yuma", "The Teahouse of the August Moon", "Experiment in Terror”, “Midway”, "Pocketful of Miracles", "The Courtship of Eddie's Father", "Superman" and "Superman II”. In the 1970s he worked extensively on television, including starring in the two TV series, “Cade's County” and “The Family Holvak”, and the Mini-Series “Once an Eagle”. His final appearance was in the 1991 TV movie, “Final Verdict”, after which he retired from acting. He was married and divorced four times, including marriages to actresses Eleanor Powell, Kathryn Hays, and Cynthia Ford. He was a notorious womanizer, and in the book “Glenn Ford: A Life” written by his son Peter Ford, Ford’s diaries claim he had affairs with 146 actresses, just some of whom include Hope Lange, Joan Crawford, Stella Stevens, Gloria Grahame, Gene Tierney, Judy Garland, Connie Stevens, Angie Dickinson, Debbie Reynolds, Brigitte Bardot, Rita Hayworth, and a one nighter with Marilyn Monroe. Glenn Ford died in 2006 at the age of 90.
George Macready gives an appropriately disturbing performance as the enigmatic and power-hungry “Ballin Mundson”. The curiously dark and calculating “Ballin” is one of the reasons the film is so fascinating. This is a character we have to glean information about through subtext to understand. “Ballin” is a man with one true love - power. Power over men, women, the casino he owns, and his greatest desire - the world. Incapable of real love, he will use anything or anyone to feel more powerful. It’s no accident we first see this aristocratic man cruising around the docks where hungry young sailors and men like “Johnny” frequent. “Johnny” happily becomes his property, and because of his money, so does “Gilda”. As incapable of actual love as “Ballin” may be, there is an undeniable bond between the two men visible throughout the entire film, with lines like telling “Johnny”, “Wait for me at home. I may need both of my little friends tonight”, or "This I must be sure of, that there’s no woman anywhere”. There's even a brief moment when they walk arm in arm going to see “Gilda” at the casino. He confides in “Johnny” rather than his wife, giving him the combination to his safe and access to all his papers. Outside of that, “Ballin” remains mysterious. George Macready began in theater, working on Broadway from the 1920s into the late 1950s, including in many productions of Shakespeare’s plays. His film career began in 1942 with the film “Commandos Strike at Dawn”. Two years later he officially began his prolific film career (and later television). Because of his cultured demeanor and the scar on his cheek (from an auto accident), Macready was often cast as some variation of a well-bred villain. Just some notable films from his 150 film and TV credits include "Detective Story ", "Julius Caesar", "Seven Days in May", "Tora! Tora! Tora!”, "The Great Race“, and as "General Paul Mireau” in one of his best roles in the classic “Paths of Glory”. In the 1950s he began to work more extensively in television, which included playing “Martin Peyton” on what is regarded as the original soap opera, “Peyton Place”. He was married and divorced once. George Macready died in 1973 at the age of 73.
A quick mention of the very likable Steven Geray who plays “Uncle Pio”. In this somewhat surreal world, “Uncle Pio” stands as the cynical, truth telling voice of reason. He and “Detective Maurice Obregon” seem to be the only ones who can see what’s really going on in the coded world of “Gilda”. Knowing about "Johnny's" affair with “Ballin” as soon as he sees “Johnny”, he immediately calls “Johnny” a peasant. When he later lets “Johnny” know “Ballin” and “Gilda” are each in trouble and “Johnny” heads straight to “Ballin”, “Uncle Pio” says, "Now we know. You are what I said”, making it obvious “peasant” is his code for homosexual. As he tells it like it is and gives clues as to what’s really going on, “Uncle Pio” adds humor to the film. And his relationship with “Gilda” is sweetly sensitive. Steven Geray, born in what is now the Ukraine, began on stage and in Hungarian films. He worked his way to London in 1934, both in theater and English speaking films, and moved to Hollywood in 1941 where he became a character actor often appearing in very small roles as waiters, doctors, or kindhearted, meek types. Of the 201 films and TV shows in which he appears, some classics include "In a Lonely Place ", "All About Eve", "To Catch a Thief ", "Spellbound", "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes”, and as the lead in the low-budget noir, “So Dark the Night” in 1946. He was married twice. Steven Geray died in 1973 at the age of 69.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Jean Louis, who designed Hayworth’s gowns. While he’s designed some of the most famous dresses in history (including Marilyn Monroe’s “nude” dress worn while singing “Happy Birthday” to President John. F. Kennedy), the black satin dress worn by Hayworth during her “Put the Blame on Mame” striptease is his most famous, and has become a fashion icon. The dress was inspired by the celebrated portrait, "Portrait of Madame X", by painter John Singer Sargent. Because Hayworth had just had a baby she wore a corset, and there was a type of harness underneath as well to keep it on. Evidently the dress was so stiff it felt like plastic. Who knew plastic could move like that?! When asked what held up her dress, Hayworth was quoted as answering, “Two things”. You can read more about Jean Louis in my post on the film "Pillow Talk".
No matter how you look at this film you are in for a delectably entertaining treat, along with a look at one of the most beautiful and sensuous women ever put on celluloid. This arrestingly fascinating film warrants repeated viewings, as it becomes more and more intriguing each time. Enjoy “Gilda”!
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