Bright Lights Film Journal

Mish-Mash Planet: The Cult of Rita Hayworth in You Were Never Lovelier

“Speaking of impurity: what was Rita Hayworth’s image supposed to be in the ’40s?”

What did we use to think of other countries? The question occurred to me while watching Madeline (1998), the exceptionally charming live version of Ludwig Bemelmans’ books. It’s a film that draws passionately from our ideas of other lands — characters appear as colorful incarnations of their countries, and for a moment, we remember the personal conceptions we had of them. The action takes place in a beautifully etched, storybook Paris: a mix of supersize icons and location shoots. Day-glo sets appear next to the Seine; a lit-up Eiffel Tower stands over a small school-house. Then comes the rest of the world, trotting in two by two: the Spanish ambassador’s wife, in red bolero and black neck-ribbon; the distinguished compact figure of the Liberian diplomat; the stately head-dress of his wife; and finally, the envoy from Uzbekistan, with her tilted fur hat and round blonde bun. All of these are mere figureheads, in the best possible way: gracious emissaries of their nations, in a world where each city comes with its own suggested movement, design, and tradition of being filmed. The movie gives us gorgeous and acceptable notions of how other countries live, yet it isn’t merely a parade of stereotypes; from the drama and coloring of the Spanish episode (which suggests an Almodovar pastiche), to the restful “Fin” at the credits, Daisy von Scherler Mayer seems acutely aware that she is drawing from an archive of world cinema, adding to the store of images on a particular culture.

A film as imaginative as Madeline brings to mind the way Hollywood used to feel about, say, Arabia and India — the persistent search for glamour and novelty, as well as a generous way with history, which generally no longer exists. The only other instance of this kind of excitement is the recent Around the World in 80 Days (2004): a film packed with semi-authentic, delightful versions of other countries. The casting of the multilingual, part-European Karen Mok (or Karen Joy Morris) as a glamorous warlord is typical of this film’s approach: an ahistorical invention, which nevertheless has its roots in a nation’s own culture — in this case, a cosmopolitan Hong Kong cinema. From the start, the globe crossed by Jackie Chan and Steve Coogan is a hybrid world of fantasy, in which we see both mild travesties and respectable recreations of places. Its “India” aims to be no more than a corner of that country (the sequence was actually filmed in Thailand); it’s a very partial illustration, in which edges of structures and fragments of castled walls stand in for the whole. Sometimes continents are linked by deliberately artificial means; instead of dwelling on the journey by land and sea, the camera often zooms in on a digitized map, taking in the glittering aura of the city’s name, before swooping in. It’s the combination of technical detail and huge movement which is so exhilarating: the computerized connections between countries that expand into life. The world is an available planet, which we dive into piece by piece: a jeweled ceramic Constantinople, a semi-abstract Paris with sketched-in parts, and best of all, the village of Lanzhou, where Chan’s character grew up. The loving attention given to this fragment of “China” by Chan and the production team is unique, and almost subversive, for a Hollywood film: it doesn’t strain to be “authentic” in the technical sense, yet the whole section looks like it was lifted from a Hong Kong TV series of the ‘80s. With its full entourage of studio regulars, Chan’s choreography, and in particular, the limpid tone characteristic of Hong Kong dramas, this China isn’t true to life, but instead true to its imaginative depiction: the creative set of images inspired, long-term, by its landscape. The intrusion of Coogan and Cécile de France into this serene and precise atmosphere is as alarming — and freeing — as Uma Thurman’s presence in the Kill Bill films. The placid, consistent setting was never made to contain Coogan’s blustery humor, yet the script — which concerns the return of a colonial artifact — manages to naturalize his manners as those of a wayward guest.

Around the World may be a globalized film, designed to please all audiences, but it activates the myths and legends which surround each country, borrowing liberally from other sources, and making new connections with the past. History is effectively re-routed when we see Chan teaching a group of Indian children the story of Wong Fei Hung (still alive at the time, in a parallel series of adventures), before they spread their excitement elsewhere. Borders can be traversed and time-lines leapt over (despite the title) without fuss. It’s a film big enough to take on the whole planet, yet there’s always space for local knowledge, and a “time out” — even one as small and seemingly unrehearsed as when the gap-toothed Cécile de France teaches the others the correct phrasing of “Frère Jacques” (“Ding, Dang, Dong”), while Chan looks on listlessly. The sound effects during “China” are the plaintive, clear tones — straight for the heart — familiar from Hong Kong epics, rather than the tastefully stylized version of gongs Hollywood usually puts out. The most idiosyncratic plays of Coogan’s wit, not to mention the high-fashion statements of Karen Mok’s General Fang, all have a place in legend.

Yet Hollywood has had a history of doing certain countries well — not “capturing” them, exactly, but evoking them, through a mix of sophisticated detail and pasteboard settings, which encourages us (especially as children) to fill in the gaps. While the Road To…pictures were a classic blend of cardboard and travelogue in the ‘40s and ‘50s, at this time the studios (particularly Fox) were also known for good black-and-white Indias (the sweltering Ranchipur of The Rains Came, 1939, created on the backlot), as well as an excellent line in East Asian cities. The grave setting of Anna and the King of Siam (1946) imagines the country as a series of gray stone kingdoms, blurred by photography and limited understanding, while von Sternberg’s Macao(1952) is a city of docks and flickering shadows, kept low by moonlight. And in the early ‘50s, Universal was a hub of gorgeous Arabias: the blazing blue and purple sets of The Prince Who Was a Thief (1951) and Son of Ali Baba (1952), where even a freckled, homegrown scamp like Piper Laurie could be found — which may be the point. While producers may have felt too respectful to play around with Greek and Roman settings, they often did better with more “fabulous” locales — “Arabia” and “Latin America” were places where writers felt free to insert even the most localized of American accents and figures, resulting in a home-made mash of ideas.

William A Seiter’s You Were Never Lovelier (1942) shows us the kind of familiarity with which foreignness was depicted at the time. Set in Argentina, the film may feature bits of exotica and “our customs,” but what surprises us is how colloquial everything is: the producers confidently mix obvious burlesque “types” with floridly international actors (Adolphe Menjou) — yet both are given the same treatment, playing little vaudeville routines as well as more formal dialogue. In this hothouse atmosphere, we can find the most specific of US sorts — for instance, the family secretary “Fernando” (Gus Schilling), whose twangy voice and urban neuroses seem shipped straight from California. There is also a fairy-tale series of sisters, as well as a blonde Evita figure (Isobel Elsom), who is the namesake and role model of the female lead (Rita Hayworth). And Hayworth brings us back to a time when a Latin actress didn’t always sizzle — her Maria tends to be cool and slightly remote, her body set back rather than jutting forward. It’s a mish-mash of Tropicana, which is nevertheless a livable and coherent world: the film presents an ideal of the distinguished South American family, whose daughters happily sample the latest New York trends (“your North American music and dances”), and are completely familiar with what Harlem sounds and feels like, despite never having traveled. This acquired sophistication shows us how easily cultural appropriation takes place — and how it leads to exciting new forms, as when Hayworth and Astaire do a Harlem-style dance on a checkered floor (which temporarily doubles as a diner). Buenos Aires is a city which seems to import anything it likes — New York transplants breathe freely, and bandleaders from the Waldorf are hired to decorate the prestigious Sky Room. As a result, Bob, the boy from Omaha (Astaire) feels like a “duck out of water” as much as anyone. Part of the answer might come from the casual revelation at the end that this is a Celtic Latin family — the father’s parents came from Brittany — but this only confirms we are dealing with a hotch-potch world. The upshot of all this mixing is that when a character speaks to us in familiar tones, we don’t know what they’re supposed to be. Are they talking this way merely as a wink to the audience — or is it because they’re from a blended family? At any rate, there’s a comfort with impure types — ethnic and emotional — that I find remarkable.

Speaking of impurity: what was Rita Hayworth’s image supposed to be in the ’40s? How was she intended to come across? I have always found looking at Hayworth strange — she’s stranger to take in than almost any other female star. Gloria Grahame might be elusive, but one can envision her in terms of the play of light on her profile; Katharine Hepburn is so structural, in voice and appearance, that we can recall her presence, without re-examining the image. And Ida Lupino I can conjure in a single, wary glance — again, no extra scanning is needed. But trying to define Hayworth involves a lot of intense looking — we need to keep looking back, to make sure the features were as static as we thought, and then work out how that expression came to life. Viewing a star often involves trying to find out how something so particular came to be central: in Hayworth’s case, the image is a sum of parts that are odd and dissimilar. She is not a highly structural beauty compared to, say, Ava Gardner. Her face is bursting with large features that might seem lewd, if not illuminated by the look: that expression of restfulness and amusement in the eyes above. Like Jane Greer, Hayworth has wide, deep eyes set in a small hard casing — her look is a blend of hard and soft elements, which are nevertheless internalized as a single image. The nose and chin are extruded to a little tip — perfect for expressing indolence or knowingness — and the eyes match them, with their light, darting expressions of interest. Her outline is undeniably fine but often rigid and consistent, because of the iconic hairstyle: waves of hair falling back from a stiff small crown, or a set peak at the front. Sometimes this is used to give her a lavish lopsided look, emphasized by a hat, but more often it makes her seem poised: her head is set beatifically above the waves, and her appearance suggests that she is fully braced — ready to be wooed by Astaire or Gene Kelly. The mouth can take a number of shapes: sometimes it’s turned up primly (though invitingly), but it can also have a sneering, heavy, lipsticked look (Gilda, 1946). The eyebrows are drawn so high they look permanently impressed; the eyes are almost too wide-open for reflection, although their expectant gaze shows an actress whose intelligence is engaged.

So the brows are pre-set in an expression of surprise, and the painted lip conveys disdain in itself — yet it is a real, animated woman who steps out of these forms, as if they are only the first steps to a fascinating personality. Rita Hayworth is a combination of artificial and flowing elements: she has the heavy accoutrements of glamour (the waxy lip and lacquered hair) yet she is a totally absorbed dancer, and capable of real lightness in her movements. The brows may be painted high, but she is ready to give them that extra lift, into an amused and diverted expression: casting an indulgent eye on an admirer. Only the heavy make-up which shows up in color causes her mystique to dissolve — she looks like a pink-iced cake in Salome (1953) andCover Girl (1944). Unusually for a redhead, Hayworth comes across better in black-and-white: try switching off the color for a moment in Salome, and the image is instantly deepened — she becomes less wholesome and truly disturbing. Without the painted flush, her face looks mysterious and gains instant definition — and the entire performance seems more nuanced and shaded. Despite having her hair dyed (supposedly to disguise her Latin roots, although they were often alluded to), she was photographed with the kind of depth normally reserved for brunettes. Even when her hair is propped up like a curtain — which should make a woman self-conscious — it never seems to affect the flow of her movements, or her exuberance in dancing. In You Were Never Lovelier, other characters stand back to admire her long passage; there are scenes with Astaire in which she walks by him, or a little in front — radiantly calm, and seeming to linger slightly. The rigid style and hairline are all forgotten; her fragrance is unmatched, and we are only partly conscious of the way her luxuriance is fixed into place. Rita is most interesting when she seems half-alive, half-stylized: bursting out of someone else’s conception of glamour. While not a perfectly assured performer — though more intriguing for it — her conscious “acting” can lead to histrionics (the head-shaking scenes in Gilda, the only time she falters in that film). In later years, she would appear even more drawn-in and sophisticated; in Miss Sadie Thompson (1953), she looks almost like a sketch of the young Lucille Ball, or Wilma Flintstone, with eyes like inverted commas, permanently surprised or aroused. In the “Heat Is On” sequence, she is virtually a cartoon woman, with pupils dilated at the thought of her own raciness. The tension between animation and flesh is what makes her presence in the early films: that uniquely cool young woman, luscious yet light-spirited. Her smile may be a ready-made bloom, but whether the mouth is drawn up or down, it maintains its humor.

However, why does that smile not seem frozen? When Hayworth serenely deflects the advances of a suitor, or glides into a dance with her expression untouched, that perfectly held smile has only a touch of Stepford about it. In 1940s Hollywood, a woman smiling seemed to convey different things: it could be neither a weapon nor a concession, but rather a kind of gallantry — a generous response to an attempt at her affections. In You’ll Never Get Rich (1941), she woos the guy too shy to approach (Astaire), but remains politely impervious to males expressing their “natural inclination.” And while she shrewdly appraises the next man to come around, the eye is not cold but alert and primed for fun. In both of her films with Astaire, she’s ridiculously sensual and attentive towards him, yet we don’t feel that behavior is purely designed to please. At such times, she resembles the ideal of Camille Paglia: the woman free of feminist anger, yet unshakeable in conviction, and adept at handling all kinds of men. No other smiling woman appears as mysterious, because the attitude is so flexible, and even hints at contentment; rather than the inner-directed expression of Sharon Stone, Hayworth suggests a femme fatale whose charms have actually made her happy. (Perhaps the Rebecca Romijn of X-Men (2000) and Femme Fatale (2002) comes closest today, although her look is much more of a sneer.)

In a strange way, Hayworth’s ambiguity enabled her to take on archetypes — such as the Latin sex goddess — and somehow loosen them, expand them. As Cynthia Claudia de la Hoz has pointed out, Hayworth’s Latin-ness was far from a secret (given the highly publicized shots of her with her father in The Dancing Cansinos),1 and she was certainly portrayed as less of a spicy side dish than today’s group of “Hispanic” stars: Salma Hayek, Eva Mendes, Jessica Alba, Eva Longoria, Jennifer Lopez. Therefore the issue isn’t whether Hayworth was perceived as being Spanish, but rather what the public’s idea of “Spanish” was. During Hayworth’s time, Latin-ness was often used as a kind of “flounce” — a decorative feature — yet it was also a central notion for the culture. In the ‘30s and ‘40s, the US was in the grip of a Spanish beauty cult: society daughters were named Dolores and Consuelo, and a sloe-eyed look was the ultimate ideal. Hayworth’s early look was modeled on the Mexican superstar Dolores del Rio (who was in turn was breathlessly compared by fan magazines to the works of Velazquez), and later on, she was able to play mythical roles — goddesses and muses — that more staunchly American actors could not. If anything, the argument can be made that “ethnicity” was withdrawn — and then re-infused on terms acceptable or attractive to the audience. There was the sense of Hayworth’s look having been tapered back, to create just enough luxuriance — not too much. (It’s similar to the way that, early on, Jennifer Lopez’s image was subtly retouched, to remove the contrast between her hair and skin tone. However, in the end, her skin was actually darkened — tanned and made “hotter” to fit a concept.) The same process arguably occurs when we look at how blondeness can be recast — or made less staid — if it is attached to a name like, say, Portia de Rossi.2 Again the question is not whether ethnicity is desirable, but how much is “tolerable” (a bit being better than either too much, or none at all.) While the fluctuations in Hayworth’s image may have had political implications, the end result was that, to US audiences, she seemed just foreign enough — the way Claudette Colbert was, or Audrey Hepburn,3 or the American-born Tyrone Power, for that matter.

Hayworth’s ability to shift within her given image — especially Paramount’s depiction of her as a love siren — can be seen in Affair in Trinidad (1952). In her opening number, her hair is styled to exactly frame her face: in fact, her hair is the film’s frame, and as she rises and stretches, its movements create the “drama” in each turn. Make-up sets the pattern of expression on her face, yet her response expands on the design; her brows are set in an enquiring look, as if she too is curious to solve the mystery of her impulses. Her eyes widen slightly during the generalized declaration of love, and she seems lost in sensuality — even the occasional indulgent, “only teasing” gesture doesn’t break the mood, but prevents it from becoming overly serious. In this case the term “love goddess” is no euphemism, for she seems truly thoughtful and settled against her hair. Her raised brow turns to reflection before innuendo, and the feeling is one of dreamy contemplation. In so many films, Hayworth appears as a miraculously unified, centered woman, despite having a look that seems built around the creation of a frame.

This isn’t even taking into account the heavenly dancer, whose lifted arms always created a moment of exaltation, especially around Astaire. Hayworth may not have been as “correct” a dancer as Charisse or Rogers, but in my opinion she was more responsive and enthralled by him: her bloom doesn’t contrast with his rigor — it seems amused by it, and prepared to take its lead. Above all, You Were Never Lovelier is memorable for its two paradisiacal dances. The first is by Astaire himself, and it builds the mood for the second. He sets the pace with a spectacular table-corner routine: this is the Astaire solo I have rewound most frequently — often mid-scene, in disbelief. Bob needs to impress an Argentine club-owner, and he decides to pull out all the stops — showcase his greatest hits, along with some new moves, the snazzy likes of which we haven’t seen — but in a thoroughly unstudied way, of course. The whole dance starts and ends from a table corner — it projects outwards and then inwards, as if taking its dimensions from the structure of everyday objects. He does a few curls and flourishes, almost as a concession to exotica (as if to say, “If you want that, here’s a gesture towards it”), then proceeds to be as forward and virile as he’s ever been — striking bold star shapes, and slapping his large palms down on the table, heartily. Later, when he’s ready to turn down the speed, he references his own glide by drifting (and seeming to nod off) in a chair which sails across the room, in a tribute to the exertion of looking effortless. And he extends his arm affectionately into the open air, as though dancing in a couple — but holding that parcel of air fondly and snugly near him, in a close embrace. When the performance is finished, the dance is not over — since after being rejected, Astaire continues dancing his disdain out the door. He walks as if hampered by an invisible string which pulls him forward, and does a gorgeous circling exit just as the door falls shut.

This is what Astaire does at his most amazing: he pretends that he isn’t dancing — and then is. He does it in Central Park — in The Band Wagon (1952), when during a stroll, he “innocently” placed one leg in front of the other, and the whole enchanted routine began. And so, at the beginning of “I’m Old-Fashioned” with Hayworth, Astaire pretends to be innocent of dancing intentions — any intentions towards rhythm at all — and his feet act as if they have no knowledge of steps. His face has almost a whistler’s expression of focus and high-mindedness. But somewhere in the subtle sway back and forth, we can tell it’s about to happen, and before we know it, they are in the midst, and Hayworth has been swept away. However, their hands are still not touching — they are standing in the classical waltz pose, yet their hands are kept apart by just a few millimeters of air, so that this intimate garden scene has the quiet magical suspension of a dream. Next, an ecstatic moment occurs when Astaire, holding Hayworth, folds her in on herself, like a napkin edge — he introduces one of her arms to the other, as if giving her to herself, introducing her to her own talent. Later, in case things are getting too sedately romantic, Astaire — seemingly on a whim — whisks her into performing the same moves at double speed, and she gets there for the most part, although after a sudden stop, we can see that her arms are still lifted and waving, in thrall to the movement. We also see them urbanely stepping out together — perhaps a reference to Ginger, although Hayworth has no suggestion of the hoofer. When Astaire performs a very correct whirl — spinning himself off to the side — she responds by sensually extending her arm, in an echo of his movement, while waiting for his return. Then comes the radiantly joyful ending, in which Astaire’s light foot closes around the pair of doors, after they go through several attempts to make courtly bows to each other. It’s a very novelettish, funny and pretty ending which shows the woman’s gallantry as well as the man’s.

Hayworth is remarkably unfussy throughout — though heavily styled, her hair darts a simple clean line, or is thrown back in a gesture of luxuriance, like the flounce of her skirts. Because of her flowering under Astaire’s guidance, we soon discover the secret of her smile — which, like the rest of her face, is extremely responsive to the moment. Hayworth’s expression for dancing tends to be indulgent and knowing — but only with Astaire comes the deliciously succumbing look, and the smile as flexible as her outstretched arm. When he leads, we can feel her giddily giving way to voluptuousness, or the delight in a fastidious little turn — we sense her excitement in the extension of her arm. And she is best with Astaire because of both her amusement and her respect for him — we can see her loftily supervising the rest of her body, holding it in check while giving in to the sway. There she is, keeping up with him, glancing to him for structure: the voluptuous presence monitoring itself for correctness, and at the same time answering him, her movements a mischievous echo of his own. Playing the part of avid beginner, Hayworth is above all a happy and funny dancer: her raised arms seem to reach for the heavens, showing her pleasure in meeting a force that moves in tandem with her.

In You’ll Never Get Rich, we have a greater sense of her youthful flexibility taking control: her neat little ellipses of the head suggest a loss of the conscious mind and a lapse into pure body, with the hair flowing behind. Her shoulders seem to shrug into movement — a conspiratorial little shrug that suggests a chronic and helpless susceptibility to dance. Every step is emotionally meaningful, in terms of her relationship with Astaire: especially her jubilant solo jumps, and her independence in adopting a cavalier pose, to which he gladly responds, with a little tripping step. As the title suggests, You’ll Never Get Rich promises that love and happiness ride over every other form of success, and this is borne out by Rita’s dancing, and the way she thanks Astaire for the work-out afterwards: the balanced and disinterested woman who makes conciliatory gestures towards the man, and teases only for the sake of humor.

In You Were Never Lovelier, dance appropriates everything in sight. From the “patty-cake” moves and homely gestures of affection in the “Shorty George” number, to the little gestures towards Latin-ness in “I’m Old-Fashioned,” dance and music are a humorous appropriation of all styles of expression: movements can be exoticized in ways that are either mocking or “authentic.” And most of all, dance gives us a sense of Hayworth being a professional entertainer, beneath it all — someone who performs within the script, but is always attuned to external formation. Most of Hayworth’s films refer to her intense training; in Tonight and Every Night (1945), she confesses, “I’ve been a dancer all my life,” while in Gilda, the crux comes when a suitor identifies her moves as those of a professional dancer. It’s then that we realize the underlying arch and form to her movements, and how expressive her body is even in routine scenes. With Astaire, she is caught up in the music but still focused on maintenance. The waving and sinuous arm is always carefully balanced, and even at her most buoyant, we can sense the calibration of movement. So many of Hayworth’s films show her in the downtime after a dance: the segue into sassy and relaxed conversation, dealing with the audience’s advances, or dissolving into laughter. Movement is the secret of her personality: it’s the structure that overrides every contradiction in her character. It’s what links the actress with stenciled-on features to the one who is alive and spontaneous; it permits the woman who’s heard every line (and dismisses it as “bracelet” talk) to remain amused and flexible. Dance allows each of her traits to remain individual, yet all of a piece: a fully integrated woman, in the hybrid world she inhabits.

  1. Cynthia Claudia de la Hoz’s comments on the different aspects of Hayworth’s mystique can be found in Nicholas Stix’s article, “The Rape of Rita Hayworth: The WB Network, Hispanic Racism and ‘Authentic Learning’,” and also at de la Hoz’s own site, Rita Hayworth: The Love Goddess. []
  2. Maybe the most interesting thing about this TV actress is the genius of her name change. Instantly, her blondeness seemed spiced. As “Mandy Rogers,” her features might have seemed flattened, but as “Portia de Rossi” her looks need no enhancement: what better way to spruce up a big, pale face and a yellow bun? []
  3. David Thomson, A Biographical Dictionary of Film. London: Andre Deutsch, 1994, 142, 331. Thomson has remarked that both Colbert and Hepburn seemed English — which is generous to England, and suggests that he perceives it as a kind of sweet, “neutral” territory: clean without being antiseptic. So that’s where his default perception lies. Personally, I’d set it somewhere closer to … Holland? []