There are a number of ways to read this Technicolor cloud of sound, image, and unbridled romance, but let’s start with its first role as pure escapism for wartime audiences at home and abroad - the latter deep in the fight to rid Europe of fascist influence and terror.
Cover Girl is pure eye candy, and features a feeble & familiar powder-puff story of singer-dancer Rusty Parker (Rita Hayworth) wanting to hit the big time, and her change of luck after she’s chosen to be the cover girl for Vanity’s 50th anniversary issue. Her initial decision to enter the contest, her winning, and the resulting attention from media and an unsubtle aging suitor / Vanity’s publisher John Coudair (Otto Kruger) create tension between Rusty’s boyfriend & club owner Danny McGuire (Gene Kelly) and club comedian / big mouth best buddy Genius (Phil Silvers, with hair!).
There’s also a mounting sense of déjà vu for impresario Coudair: Rusty is in fact the grand-daughter of one Maribelle Hicks, a cheeky, sultry vaudeville singer-dancer with whom he was once betrothed until her love for the house pianist proved too resilient against Coudair’s money and sterling determination. Due to the wonderment of great DNA and Hollywood magic, Rusty’s a carbon copy of her grandma, and her eventual romantic choice will echo the historical precedent of gradma.
The design of Cover Girl as escapism extends beyond the wafer thin plot: there’s a persistent airiness to the entire production where the film completely junks any sense of realism and makes sure any brief snippet of conflict is followed by a sudden right turn to a fantasy sequence that’s fantastic in design & execution. The production design for sets and musical numbers spans the modernism of the era – streamlined furniture, and some unique décor, including Coudair’s office intercom that’s nestled in an L-shaped plexiglass stand – and intricate Victorian décor of the Maribelle flashback sequences, notably the stage number where cutout sets glide up & down from the stage during an elaborate dance number; and the “Poor John” sequence featuring ornate costumes.
Every frame was clearly supervised to exploit the glowing dynamics of Technicolor, and it’s worth comparing the sanctioned color palette by Allen M. Davey and the great Rudolph Rudolph Maté with Jack Cardiff’s rule-breaking cinematography of The Red Shoes (1948): both are superb examples of dreamy colour cinematography, yet the latter deeply upset the color schemes mandated by Technicolor. Where Cardiff pushed the saturation and bent the palette to create extraordinary layers of colour and shadow for that film’s cautionary tale of a dancer who dreamt too hard, the cinematographers of Cover Girl went for a commercial look that was the gold standard for Hollywood studios and the Technicolor corporation.
Every costume – from the poor-rent Mexican outfits of the McGuire dancers to the upscale Broadway numbers starring Rusty – showcases the precise colours preferred by Technicolor and its fascistic quality control Tsarina Nathalie Kamlus, and the film’s standout colour sequences include Rusty’s descent from ‘the cloudy Heavens’ down a snaking turquoise mountain to adoring male shutterbugs; and the blatant product placement sequence where the camera tracks into a giant glamour camera, and we’re treated to a montage of cheesecake models posing over their own superimposed images before a quick flip to their respective magazine cover girl shots on then-contemporary magazines (many of which are still, amazingly, in publication).
Worked into the fantasy are little wartime references that begin with quick in & out lyrics about boys in blue doing good overseas, and brief shots of sailors as extras in McGuire’s club, lured to the Brooklyn joint after Rusty’s cover girl status makes McGuire’s the in-place to be. Once the screenwriters break up the film’s idyllic couple, McGuire shuts down his joint and donates his time, along with buddy Genius, to entertaining the troops before they’re shipped overseas, and while the finale reunites the inseparable trio, the film ends with a recap of “Make Way for Tomorrow,” with its unveiled wartime references.
That’s the escapism. Cover Girl’s other layers are a bit more grey because the messages are most discretely inferred. When Rusty gets Coudair’s telegram to show up for a meeting after initially being rejected by assistant Stonewall (acerbic Eve Arden), Genius dissuades her from considering the chance to escape the doldrums and proletariat environs of Brooklyn, but after he tears up the telegram, she soon gathers all the parts and heads down the next morning.
It’s a strange plot twist because Genius initially denies and literally destroys her big break, and continues to selfishly bemoan his own position within the trio when he sees her gathering up the bits & pieces of Western Union’s message from the tenement floor. Genius is frankly being a selfish shit, and gets none of our sympathy, but the screenwriters manage to present extreme arguments to guarantee the final resolution is a clear-cut choice between fame and love. In reality, the film’s message is a bit more insidious: Rusty gives up a career as an independent woman for the benefit of stabilizing her friend & romantic relationships with Genius & McGuire.
Her options are also very severe: fame, money, and a career can only happen if she marries Noel Wheaton (Lee Bowman). It’s a strangely forced option because it presumes a successful career hinges on marriage, rather than a mutually respectful friendship, which could’ve happened, since Bowman plays Wheaton as a likeable girl-getter, and almost tips his hat to Rusty when she effectively dumps him at the alter because of a lumpy oyster pearl given to her by Genius through Coudair.
The device of the pearl – a dreamy icon the trio strangely aspire to acquire each Friday at their local hangout – is just an object the screenwriters use to quickly wrap up the story. There’s no meaning to the need to find the pearl nor the pearl itself; its use is to briskly get Rusty back into McGuire’s arms by providing an easy out for her suitors: Coudair realizes he’s a loser for trying to woo the granddaughter of his ex-flame from 40 years prior, and a double-loser for letting another guy (Wheaton) live out his dream in full so Coudair can enjoy the life he hoped to have lived from the sidelines.
The third & final reading of Cover Girl lies in its portrayal of beauty, which is less ideal than the film’s ‘cover art’ would suggest. Rusty / Hayworth is the central stunner, but she’s among many pretty leggy dancers at McGuire’s – it’s just Hayworth’s personality that stands out, and later manifests itself in increasingly elaborate dance numbers that reveal her skills as a trained entertainer. The role of Rusty gives her far less dramatic meat to play with, so Hayworth’s worth as a dramatic actress was still very rough even though she had started to take on contrasting roles, like the temptress in Blood and Sand (1941), and later as the luscious yet affecting Gilda (1946).
Perhaps the only time Rusty is presented as the feminine ideal is in one of the Maribelle flashback sequences where the long-legged Hayworth strides past a column of dancers whose legs are unusually muscular: in all prior dance numbers, Rusty is surrounded by physically similar colleagues, but in the flashbacks, the femininity of ancestor Maribelle is heightened by surrounding her with clothed women, or masculine / athletic dancers so Maribelle’s own leggy exposure is the most pleasing to the scene’s audiences and cinemagoers. It sounds like an extreme observation, but watch the film more closely, because the filmmakers use more than colour to create contrasts between Hayworth and her myriad female costars.
As a dramatic film, Cover Girl can’t touch Hayworth’s later work, Pal Joey [M] (1957), where more time was invested in developing the tight conflicts of central heel Joey and two lovers from differing financial backgrounds and career junctures: one’s an up & comer, whereas the richer alternative’s a has-been who wants to own & control Joey’s life. The only stark similarity between the two films is the finale, where the dumped party – aging burlesque queen Vera (this time played by Hayworth) - is a blend of Coudair and Wheaton (who collective free Rusty from all obligations, and permit a reunion with her one true love). Vera similarly enables Joey and mousy newcomer Linda (Kim Novak) to continue their own romance and establish their own careers in the low-rent, proletariat realm to which Vera, like Coudair & Wheaton, doesn’t belong.
Charles Vidor’s direction is very assured, and he manages to extract just enough straight performances from the cast in the film’s few dramatic bits, including genial Otto Kruger, soon to become a more regular character actor of clichéd villains in need of a crack to the head. The wan dramatic scenes are deliberately augured by superb dance numbers, and each is designed to show off in increasing detail the dancing skills of Hayworth and Kelly, with the former spinning around the screen in elegant dresses, and the latter doing one striking duet with his teasing Id on a deserted street.
For all its fluffery, Cover Girl is still a treat, boasting a few classic tunes and radiant Technicolor cinematography. Twilight Time’s Blu-ray features a sharp transfer that retains both grain and stable colour, and a punchy mono mix. Julie Kirgo’s liner notes cover the film’s background and position as a unique musical where songs related to the story & characters rather than a contrived, best-selling songbook; and as the pivotal film that launched Hayworth as Columbia’s red-headed star, and Kelly as one of cinema’s most inventive and cinematic dance choreographers. (The technicalities and flawless of Kelly’s double-exposure duet with his Id is still a marvel 60 years later.)
Charles Vidor directed Hayworth in a quartet of films, including The Lady in Question (1940) with Glenn Ford, Cover Girl (1944), Gilda [M] (1946), and The Loves of Carmen (1948) with Ford again.
© 2012 Mark R. Hasan