Cover Girl is a 1944 movie in which Hollywood embraces the business of fashion. It offers an opportunity to take a look at the modeling businesps, then burgeoning but still in its infancy. And it provides a showcase for the fashions of the day and the talents of Rita Hayworth and a bevy of models.
It’s a bright spectacle with songs by Jerome Kern and Ira Gershwin, costumes by Travis Banton, Muriel King and Gwen Wakeling, choreography by Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen, and that special early-Technicolor lushness. Donen would go on to direct Funny Face, another musical about the world of fashion, with Fred Astaire and Audrey Hepburn as its stars. Funny Face would help to cement the reputation of Paris after World War II as the world capital of fashion.
The plot of Cover Girl is both pure fantasy and pretty banal. A Brooklyn nightclub owner loves his principal dancing girl. The dancing girl loves the nightclub owner. But the dancing girl has a driving ambition to become a famous cover girl… Bear in mind that while the world of Cover Girl might feel like it has nothing to do with reality, former Vogue editor Rosamond Bernier would recall:
Vogue was something in those days. I came in my first morning and saw all the editors at the typewriters wearing hats with veils and big rhinestone chokers and earrings. I looked with absolute wonder!
To give you a flavour, here are three extracts from the movie.
Cover Girl – the business of modeling
In 1944, the modeling business in the US is dominated by two agencies.
John Robert Powers has blazed the trail. In the 1920s as an out-of-work actor he finds himself using his network to help photographers find models. He spots a business opportunity and sets up shop. As he later recalls, he:
…had their pictures taken, made up a catalogue containing their descriptions and measurements, and sent it to anyone in New York who might be a prospective client – commercial photographers, advertisers, department stores, artists.
The depression that follows the 1929 stock market crash enables him to broaden his talent pool by attracting debutantes whose families are on their uppers. At the same time he works hard to make the business respectable. His success changes the social status of models. Society hostess extaordinaire Elsa Maxwell says that she might give a party without debutantes but she wouldn’t dream of doing so without inviting a few Powers Girls.
The 1940s see Powers basking in the light of success and publicity and expanding his business portfolio. He has a radio show and writes a regular syndicated newspaper column, Secrets of Charm. Warner Bros release The Powers Girl (1943), a movie about two sisters living in New York and aspiring to become high-profile models. And Powers Girls are hired by the Hollywood studios and go out with and marry the rich and famous.
In 1941 Powers publishes the first of many books, The Powers Girls. Promising “The story of models and modeling and the natural steps by which attractive girls are created,” it’s partly a behind-the-scenes look at the agency, partly a beauty and grooming guide, and partly a marketing piece. In 1943 he launches a correspondence course, including “practical hints about what men really do and don’t like.” Meanwhile, his wife begins teaching charm courses covering grooming, diction and coiffure, the first step along the road to a nationwide chain of John Robert Powers Schools. But Powers has taken his eye off his core modeling business and this provides an opening for a new competitor.
Harry Conover begins his career in the modeling business as a model and works for John Robert Powers before deciding to set up in competition. He’s handsome, suave and unscrupulous, taking with him models Anita Colby, Phyllis Brown and her boyfriend, who agrees to invest in the start-up. The boyfriend is Gerald Ford and in 1974 he will become President of the US.
Harry differentiates his agency from that of his erstwhile employer by promoting a different kind of model. He mocks the Powers Girls as “Adenoid Annies, rattling bundles of skin and bones.” Focusing on preppies and campus queens, he pioneers a new type of model – “the windblown outdoor girl”, in the words of Bob Fertig his head of promotion. Conover calls these recruits Conover Coeds, then Cover Girls – and that’s where Columbia’s Cover Girl gets it inspiration and title. While, taking his cue from Hollywood, Conover develops a habit of rechristening his models – including his future wife.
In 1941, the winner of a Miss Atlantic City contest turns up at the agency. She introduces herself to Conover: “I’m Jessica Wilcox.” “You’re Candy Johnson,” he replies. “And your rate is $5 an hour.” He later shortens her name from Johnson to Jones because she has trouble remembering the longer version. By 1943, thanks to her looks and his promotion – including candy-striped outfits and calling cards – she is a top model. And in 1946 Conover marries her.
But the marriage is fated from the start. Conover is always chasing skirt – seemingly out with a different model night after night. He is also less concerned than Powers about respectability – he has a much more laissez-faire attitude when playboys approach him for dates with his models. “Right in my own office we have the very thing that every man looks for, works for, fights for and dies for,” Conover says, just before being excommunicated by the Catholic Church.
In 1952, having dropped out of the agency business and franchised his schools, Powers will move to Beverly Hills, where he will settle until he dies, age 84. Conover, by contrast, will die age 53, having succumbed to a classic combo of booze, lechery and profligacy. The modeling business, like the movie business, is unforgiving. It has a habit of chewing up its practitioners and spitting them out.
Cover Girl – behind the scenes
Cover Girl has more in common with Gilda than their very different plots and styles might lead you to expect. Both are Columbia productions commissioned by Harry Cohn. Both are directed by Charles Vidor with cinematography by Rudolph Maté. And both have scripts by Virginia Van Upp.
Cohn is known to be tightfisted but he makes an exception for Cover Girl. He sets aside no less than a million dollars for the production and accepts it going US $600,000 over budget, with the lavish dance numbers devised by Kelly in no small part to blame for the overspend.
The movie is quite a coup for the Conover agency – a massive riposte to (and possibly inspired by) The Powers Girl, released the previous year. Harry Conover and Anita Colby are both employed by the studio as “technical consultants”. The latter is in charge of a troupe of Conover models who travel west from New York in a special railway carriage – a great publicity stunt that’s lapped up by the press.
The girls are all excited about what lies in store for them in Tinseltown but they’re in for a nasty surprise. Harry Cohn has made arrangements to ensure that they stay out of trouble. Francine Counihan, one of the models and also Anita Colby’s sister remembers:
Cover Girl was produced by Harry Cohn. Oh, he was a monster. He decided to put us all in one house together where he could see that nobody could get out. So we stayed in Marion Davies’ home in California. He only let us out to go shopping.
And there they stay for months while Harry Cohn apparently searches for an actress to play the lead role. Surely he’s known all along that this is to be a vehicle for his studio’s leading star, Rita Hayworth? Perhaps he just likes the feeling of power over the girls.
Anyway, whatever the reason, there’s a great story about how all the girls sneak out one night to go to a party. They have to return at intervals, one by one, to get past the security guards. To the guards’ growing consternation, each in turn announces herself as Anita Colby, who is the only member of the troupe allowed out. Inevitably, the last one back is the real Anita Colby.
Meanwhile, Anita Colby, who also acts as the girls’ agent, makes the most of the stay by managing to book three magazine covers each for the girls. Her success with the press doesn’t go unnoticed and she’s appointed “Feminine Director” of the David O Selznick studio.
One of those most closely involved with the way Rita looks in Cover Girl is Robert Coburn, head of Columbia’s Photo Gallery. In John Kobal’s biography of Rita Hayworth, Coburn talks about photographing Columbia’s biggest star:
The contract I signed put me in complete charge of the studio’s stills department. Mind you, if I ever relaxed and let a bad picture of Hayworth or any other star out, Cohn would call me on the carpet immediately.
In those days we had the Johnson Office, and if we had any cleavage showing the pictures would be sent back. The Code was very strict. Any sign of breasts, even the shadow between, had to disappear. A woman wasn’t supposed to have any. We spent all our time touching photos up.
Hayworth didn’t need touching up. She didn’t treat herself badly, she wasn’t an all-night carouser, although naturally we had to watch for wrinkles under the eyes and around the neck. Of course, any skin marks, small pimples, we would take them out. I don’t remember Hayworth ever looking at a picture, I don’t think she ever cared how she looked in a picture. She’d come in once in a while and ask how they looked but she didn’t bother checking or approving them. That’s rare for women. Whereas Cohn was interested in her every minute of the day. He’d call whenever he knew from the call sheet that I was shooting her. They fought a lot. I told Cohn a million times that if he stopped picking on her I’d get what I wanted but he kept needling her and fitting in more hours.
I’d usually talk to her all the time when I was photographing her, getting her in the mood. Then, I’d catch her at her peak. She had the famous Hayworth look, looking over the shoulder, and after doing three of those she’d had it. She’d say, “What do you want that for? Get something else.” She didn’t realize that she didn’t have that come-and-get-me look except in that one pose.
Cover Girl – Rita learns new role
“Cover Girl” – Rita learns new role is the title of an article that appears in the 18 January 1943 issue of LIFE magazine.
Rita Hayworth is just a little bit bigger in the bust and in the hips than the average top-notch photographer’s model. The movie star is 35 in. around bust and hips whereas the average model is, at best. only 34.
These extra inches, which look fine on Rita Hayworth, did not worry Columbia Pictures at all when they cast her for the lead part in their forthcoming movie, The Cover Girl. The movie, which goes into production soon, will tell about photographers’ models who appear on the covers of national magazines. In it Miss Hayworth will combine her looks, figure and talents with Technicolor, some songs and a complicated story about two cover girls, one of 30 years ago and the other of today. The second cover girl will be the first one’s daughter. Miss Hayworth will play both of them.
When Miss Hayworth was in New York City recently, it occurred to Columbia Pictures that she ought to go through a model’s routine to see how a photographer’s model really worked. Miss Hayworth, who is a game girl, spent a full day working out of Harry Conover’s model agency, making believe she was a real cover girl. She learned that beauty is not enough.
For $3 an hour – $10 an hour if in great demand – models work exhausting hours in front of hot lights and fussy photographers, always trying to be charming and intelligent. To get work they have to be on time for appointments, be well-groomed and sweet-tempered. They spend days tramping around from client to client just to keep up their contacts. They are on their feet so much, in fact, that after being a model for a few months a girl’s feet invariably grow a whole shoe-size bigger.
The girls with Rita are Conover models, each chosen by a national magazine to play its cover girl in The Cover Girl. Being the star, Miss Hayworth will not represent any single magazine. This week, however, she is LIFE’s own cover girl.
In fact during the shooting of Cover Girl it turns out that Rita has two new roles. The second is as the wife of Orson Welles. It’s no secret that the couple have been dating. Even so, when it happens on 7 September 1943 their marriage takes everyone by surprise. According to Lee Bowman, the day the teams are shooting the film’s wedding scene, Rita arrives on the set.
She looked very lovely sitting there in her wedding dress [for the movie] while the crew were setting up. Rita sat there with her hands in her lap, her eyes very big and a lovely big pussy smile on her face. When any of us asked, “What is it, Rita?” she’d just shake her head and say, “Mmm, I’ve got a secret.” Wouldn’t say anything else. The first we knew what it was came during the lunch break when somebody brought us the papers with the headlines.”
While Rita is on cloud nine, director Charles Vidor is anything but. According to the film’s producer, Arthur Schwartz:
And you know who was terribly jealous and unhappy? The director. He had fallen in love with her. He came and cried on my shoulder and didn’t want to go on. He had to continue shooting every day and she was now married and looking more radiant all the time. She had a tremendous empathy, tremendous sex appeal. All those fifteen or so Cover Girls together didn’t have what she had.
Cover Girl – just a piece of fluff?
Cover Girl wins the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ annual award for Scoring of a Musical Picture. It is also nominated for Color Cinematography, Color Art Direction, Sound Recording and Best Song.
Bosley Crowther, the influential film critic of The New York Times from 1940 to 1967, says in his review:
The script is so frankly familiar that it must have come from the public domain. And the characters are as sleekly mechanical as only musical comedy characters dare to be. But it rainbows the screen with dazzling décor. It has Gene Kelly and Rita Hayworth to sing and dance. And virtually every nook and corner is draped with beautiful girls. Further, this gaudy obeisance to divine femininity has some rather nice music in it from the tune-shop of Jerome Kern.
Later on, Arthur Schwartz, whom Harry Cohn brought in to produce Cover Girl, recalls:
In spite of everything people have said about Harry Cohn, his vulgarity, his lack of education, neither of which was a unique characteristic among the men in his position – he had an instinct for quality. Cover Girl, as I made it, couldn’t have been made at WB: Jack Warner wouldn’t have had the taste somehow, while at Metro they would have overproduced it – too many girls and too many of everything.
In his programme notes for the BFI, director Karel Reisz observes:
In Cover Girl we can see the transition from the old to the new taking place. Though its story has the usual backstage background, many of its numbers are staged in the open air and characters dance in it for the joy of dancing and as an expression of mood, not simply as professional performers. The design of costumes and sets moreover, is notably above the usual standard of the routine product. Cover Girl also saw the emergence of Gene Kelly as a choreographer playing the role which he has since played many times: he dances pieces of the ‘plot’ instead of interpolating numbers, and his style is that of a ballet dancer, not a ‘hoofer’.
Cover Girl – want to know more?
Apart from the LIFE article, key sources are Michael Gross’ book, Model – the ugly business of beautiful women, and John Kobal’s biography of Rita Hayworth. You can find my favourite online article at Blonde at the Film. Other articles worth reading are at The Vintage Cameo and moviediva. And there’s also Caren Roberts-Frenzel’s beautifully illustrated Rita Hayworth: A Photographic Retrospective. For biographies of some of the cover girls, take a look at Those obscure objects of desire.