Gilda is a landmark 1940s movie. It was one of the first to capture the angst that would infuse post-World War II film noir, and it gave Rita Hayworth her most famous role, transforming her image overnight from dancing queen to femme fatale.
In the movie’s most celebrated scene, she does an impossibly seductive striptease that involves the removal of just two long, black-satin gloves. It’s a performance charged with eroticism, desperation and tragedy and it cemented Rita’s status as Hollywood’s reigning love goddess of the 1940s. Movie posters screamed “There NEVER was a woman like Gilda!”, and Rita is reported to have said, “Every man I knew had fallen in love with Gilda and wakened with me.”
If you’ve never seen the movie, now’s the time to find out what you’ve been missing. If you have a blu-ray player, make sure you get the Criterion transfer.
Spoiler Alert!!! Stop reading now if you want to watch Gilda without knowing the plot in advance.
Gilda – the story in a nutshell
Johnny Farrell (Glenn Ford) is a down-at-heel, card-sharp and gambling cheat whom we meet taking advantage of a group of sailors in Buenos Aires. Threatened by one of them as he leaves the docks, he is rescued by Ballin Mundson (George Macready), who invites him to his casino, where he becomes manager.
The arrangement is disrupted by the arrival of Gilda (Rita Hayworth), Johnny’s old flame but now Ballin’s wife. And, like Johnny, she jumps from opportunity to opportunity, looking for the next path to fortune. Gilda and Johnny are two of a kind and take every opportunity to wind each other up. A bad situation is made worse by Ballin ordering Johnny to look after Gilda. Their secret festers and the erotic tension escalates. The pair seem to delight in hurting and humiliating each other.
Meanwhile, we discover that the casino is merely a front for a cartel run by Ballin and a group of ex-Nazis to control the international tungsten market. As the police close in, Ballin fakes his death, and Johnny marries Gilda – not, as it turns out, because he loves her but in order to punish her for being unfaithful to Ballin.
Ballin returns to exact revenge but gets his come-uppance, leaving Johnny and Gilda to walk out into the sunset.
Gilda – just-in-time production
The making of Gilda turns out to be a pretty haphazard affair. There’s friction behind the scenes (more of that later) between studio boss, Harry Cohn, director, Charles Vidor and various members of the cast and crew. What’s more, the producer, Virginia Van Upp, whom Cohn has assigned to fashion a sexy new film for Rita Hayworth, has too much on her plate (she almost certainly has a hand in the screenplay by Marion Parsonnet). An article in the July 1946 issue of Screenland reports that:
Even today, when perhaps she should be resting on her laurels, she is still doing a double job. For one thing, her pictures are too close together to allow time to write them in advance. Instead, she stays on the set all day to see that each scene is photographed as she intended and then goes home and writes all night. She writes the script as she goes along, about five days in advance of the shooting schedule.
Charles Vidor recalls:
We didn’t have a finished script, we never knew what was coming next and we even started the picture without a leading man. Every night as we quit we got the next day’s scenes. Rita had to study at night, so did I, so did Jean Louis the dress designer, but somehow he kept one leap ahead of us all. So that particular ‘Mame’ morning, none of us knew how Rita was going to look. She sauntered on the stage holding her head up high, in that magnificent way she does, stepping along like a sleek young tiger cub and the whistles that sounded would have shamed a canary’s convention. She enjoyed every second of it. Then she did that elaborate difficult ‘Mame’ number in two takes.
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Gilda – the two songs
An article in Modern Screen (May 1946, page 8), announces that:
Rita Hayworth turns dramatic in “Gilda.” The studio’s announcement that the glamor girl was saying goodbye to musicals brought a storm of protest from GIs all over the world. In answer to the flood of requests that Rita continue showing her legs and swinging her hips, the studio wrote two songs into the script. “Put the Blame on Mame, Boys” is a torchy lament, and “Amado Mio” comes out in the middle of a samba sequence.
And it’s true – the songs are in fact retrofitted, not integral to the movie from the outset. It’s another example of the apparently chaotic way in which the film is put together. Both songs are written by Doris Fisher and Allan Roberts, whose work will be recorded by a string of stars including Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday and Marilyn Monroe. According to Doris Fisher:
Though we weren’t supposed to work yet, they gave us a script the next day, told us they wanted a couple of songs and where they wanted them to come. At about 3 a.m. we went into a publisher’s office on Vine Street since we had no office of our own, sat down by a piano and, I don’t know, it just happened. Al came up with that title Put the Blame on Mame because of the script. We’d already been playing around with that feeling for a song so it just worked. We wrote that in a couple of hours. A day or two later we wrote Amado Mio because we had to have something with a South American flavour there. We had no idea where it was going to be, how it was going to be done or what it would look like. We only wrote those two songs. Then they had to shoot those scenes after the film was finished and inject them into the story.
Gilda – Rita’s wardrobe
Columbia certainly goes to town on Rita’s wardrobe, designed by Jean Louis, Columbia’s head of costume. According to the article in Modern Screen:
The star wears twenty-nine different outfits in the picture, including a chinchilla evening wrap worth $65,000 and a sleeveless ermine cloak, valued at S35,000…
However, the pièce de résistance is the iconic strapless satin dress Gilda wears when she sashays with alluring abandon across the casino floor as she performs Put the Blame on Mame. Reputedly inspired by John Singer Sargent’s portrait of Madam X, it is designed to accentuate Rita’s fuller figure – she has recently given birth to her daughter, Rebecca. According to Jean Louis:
It was the most famous dress I ever made. Everybody wonders how that dress can stay on her while she sings and dances… well, inside there was a harness like you put on a horse. We put grosgrain under the bust with darts and three stays, one in the centre, two on the sides. Then we moulded plastic softened over a gas flame and shaped around the top of the dress. No matter how she moved, the dress did not fall down.
Gilda – Rita Hayworth, the making of a bombshell
The first woman to be known as a bombshell was Jean Harlow, who was nicknamed the “blonde bombshell” for her 1931 film Platinum Blonde. With her role as Gilda, and particularly the Put the Blame on Mame sequence, Rita ends up giving the term a whole new meaning.
In 1946, atomic scientists on the Bikini Atoll name the first atomic bomb to be detonated in peacetime “Gilda” and paint Rita’s picture on it. According to her then husband, Orson Welles, she’s furious.
Rita used to fly into terrible rages all the time, but the angriest was when she found out that they’d put her on the atom bomb. Rita almost went insane, she was so angry. She was so shocked by it! Rita was the kind of person that kind of thing would hurt more than anybody. She wanted to go to Washington to hold a press conference, but Harry Cohn wouldn’t let her because it would be unpatriotic.
More likely, Harry is delighted with the publicity for his movie.
Gilda – behind-the-scenes shenanigans
The year of Gilda’s release, some of the main personalities involved in its production are entangled in a nasty lawsuit. Charles Vidor, the movie’s Hungarian-born director who has already worked with Rita on Cover Girl, in attempt to extricate himself from his contract, sues Harry Cohn, president and production director of Columbia Pictures Corporation, on the grounds of, among other things, “abusive language.” According to Bob Thomas’ book King Cohn, he also claims that during the making of Gilda Cohn accused him of using too much film, quitting early, and shooting excessive retakes.
I told Mr. Cohn that the delays were due to the fact that Miss Hayworth got tired at five o’clock in the afternoon and was unable to give her best performances. I also told him that his abuse was upsetting me, that I could not sleep, that I had to have doctors give me injections, and that I was nervous.
Witnesses for the defence then testify that Cohn was not the only person using abusive language – Vidor was just as bad, especially when it came to dealing with “the little people on the set.” Vidor loses his case and remains at Columbia, for whom he will direct Glenn and Rita in The Loves of Carmen (1948).
Harry Cohn is known for his autocratic and intimidating management style (not unusual for Hollywood studio moguls of the 1940s). But he could also be a good wind-up and, according to Glenn Ford:
When I went into Gilda, Rita was finished with Orson, and we gave Harry Cohn a few grey hairs. We were told by the sound department that Harry had had a microphone planted in my dressing room. That was kind of interesting. He was worried about my carrying on with Rita, so we gave him some marvellous things to listen to.”
Cohn is furious, but Rita is amused by his reaction. While she entertains Glenn in her dressing room after the day’s shooting, Cohn phones down every 15 minutes. “What the hell are you doing down there?” he shouts. “Just having a drink,” says Ford. “Why don’t you go home? I can’t keep the studio open all hours of the night. It costs money. Now get the hell out and don’t forget to shut off the lights when you leave.”
Enjoying Cohn’s exasperation, Glenn and Rita settle down for another drink. In fact, they’re great friends, having previously worked together on The Lady in Question (1940). And on the set of Gilda:
Rita and I were very fond of one another, we became very close friends and I guess it all came out on the screen. Honestly speaking, I’m sure we all sensed something going on there, there was an excitement on the set. Mr Vidor was a very strict, demanding director who had a streak of sadistic, Hungarian, love-hate understanding and he sort of nurtured that aspect. His instructions before we did a scene, on how we were to think and do it, were pretty incredible, even in today’s market. I can’t repeat the things he used to tell us to think about. They are marvelous images to hold…
Glenn will later admit to having had an affair with Rita, though as a man of discretion he will never give any details.
Gilda – dark undercurrents and the influence of the Hay’s Code
The themes at the heart of Gilda are uncomfortable and, to a 1940s audience, subversive to boot.
The relationships between Gilda and her two ‘lovers’ are at best perverse, at worst sado-masochistic. Ballin observes: “Hate can be a very exciting emotion. There’s a heat in it you can feel. Hate is the only thing that warms me.” In a later scene, Gilda reprises the theme: “Hate is a very exciting emotion, haven’t you noticed? Very exciting. I hate you too, Johny. I hate you so much I think I’m going to die from it.” There’s a rapture, an intensity about Gilda’s feelings for Johnny: “I have to keep talking, Johnny, as long as I have my arms about you, or else I might forget to dance. Push my hat back, Johnny.”
When Gilda performs Put the Blame on Mame, she is not simply provoking both Johnny and Ballin with her open sexuality, she is also crying out in pain for the love she’s being denied. She is both powerful and vulnerable. For Gilda, love and hate are two sides of the same coin.
But the real love affair is between Ballin and Johnny. Upon hearing of this interpretation, Charles Vidor reportedly said, “Really? I never had any idea those boys were supposed to be like that!” Glenn Ford acknowledged the gay subtext, “But it never occurred to us at the time we were filming.”
But hey… what is Ballin doing late at night down by the docks where he rescues Johnny other than cruising? And the relationship that develops between the two men is much too cosy to be just about business.
Which makes Gilda herself into an especially tragic figure, trapped between two profoundly misogynistic ‘lovers’. It also makes a mockery of the ending – it is inconceivable that Johnny and Gilda will simply forget the bitter nastiness of their relationship, let alone live happily ever after.
A convincing ending would have hatred and tragedy win out but that wasn’t possible because of the Motion Picture Production Code. Coming into force in 1930, the Hays Code (as it came to be known) introduced film censorship to the US by laying down a series of guidelines based on three general principles:
- No picture shall be produced that will lower the moral standards of those who see it. Hence the sympathy of the audience should never be thrown to the side of crime, wrongdoing, evil or sin.
- Correct standards of life, subject only to the requirements of drama and entertainment, shall be presented.
- Law, natural or human, shall not be ridiculed, nor shall sympathy be created for its violation.
No wonder Bosley Crowther in his New York Times review, observes:
This reviewer was utterly baffled by what happened on the screen. To our average register of reasoning, it simply did not make sense. It seems that a fantastic female, the pivotal character in this film, turns up in a Buenos Aires casino as the wife of the dour proprietor. But it also seems that she was previously the sweetie of a caustic young man who is quite a hand at gambling and is employed by this same proprietor. For reasons which are guardedly suggested, she taunts and torments this tough lad until, by a twist of circumstances, her husband is suddenly removed. Then she marries the laddie but continues to fight with him because of some curious disposition which is never properly explained. In the end, after certain vagrant incidents, they are reconciled—but don’t ask us why.
But let’s end on a more positive note with a couple of reviews that recognize different aspects of Gilda’s greatness. The first is by Ruth Waterbury for the Los Angeles Examiner:
When Judy Garland and Alice Faye got the urge for drama, they went the whole way and in their pictures The Clock  and Fallen Angel , respectively, they handed out the acting straight, without so much as a jazz note or a single twinkle of a toe, to highlight in. Rita Hayworth, going heavily dramatic for the first time in Gilda, proves herself a smarter show woman. For how this glorious pinup does emote in this one! What a glittering gamut of drama she reveals, plus much of her beautiful self while also singing and dancing! The result is an exciting, glamorous, rich, ruddy melodrama – and if the plot is most incredible at times, you will be more than willing to ignore it while concentrating on its star.
And this is from Charles Higham’s Hollywood in the Forties:
This is a film with the intense surrealist qualities of a dream. Its Buenos Aires is a creation totally of the imagination, with its winding dark streets, its gambling hell, Mundson’s white glittering house. The ambience is one of heat, decadence, sexual ferocity barely concealed behind civilized gestures and phrases. Maté’s photography has a lacquered finish: the husband smoking a cigarette in silhouette, the first glimpse of Gilda, like every GI’s dream, sitting on a bed and throwing back her head in ecstasy, the wedding scene glimpsed through windows streaming with rain.
Want to know more?
Tim Dirks’ Filmsite is a great place to start, with a great introduction and a detailed synopsis of the plot. A primary source for this article is John Kobal’s biography, Rita Hayworth: The Time the Place and the Woman. Turner Classic Movies has some excellent articles about the movie but these appear to be available only in the US, while the 1946 issues of Screenland are worth looking at for contemporary coverage. The Jean Louis quote about that dress is sourced from Gilda: Rita Hayworth as Gilda Farrell. Conelrad Adjacent’s extensive investigation, Atomic Goddess: Rita Hayworth and the Legend of the Bikini Bombshell is a fascinating read for anyone interested in the topic. And there’s also Caren Roberts-Frenzel’s beautifully illustrated Rita Hayworth: A Photographic Retrospective.