Lovely RITA

Two important films featuring Rita Hayworth are now out on video. The original “Love Goddess” is shown at two distinctly different periods in her life and career. Both have received the premier treatment, Only Angels Have Wings getting Criterion Collection’s usual deluxe restoration and extras; Twilight Time has restored Miss Sadie Thompson (1953) to its original 3-D format, which few viewers have been able to see, even when the film was released.

Miss Sadie Thompson was the third film in which Hayworth starred upon her return to Hollywood after her marriage to Prince Aly Khan took precedence for a few years. Her life had been tabloid fodder even before a failed marriage to Orson Welles earlier, and the quick divorce from Khan didn’t help.

Needing a hit, she restarted her career with Affair in Trinidad (1952), a tepid but popular rehash of Gilda (1946) which reunited her with Glenn Ford, her Gilda co-star. The next year, she did the famous Dance of the Seven Veils in Salome, again to audience, if not critical, approval. Later in ’53, she took on one of her most challenging dramatic roles, that of singer Sadie Thompson, in the third film version of Somerset Maugham’s Rain.

Though the film stirred considerable controversy upon its release, Miss Sadie Thompson is a product of its time and a classic example of how the ’50s Production Code dealt with sex and other “disagreeable” subjects. Maugham’s story (and the 1932 film Rain with Joan Crawford and Walter Huston) is about a prostitute on a South Seas Island and her dealings with a hypocritical missionary, driving him to suicide.

The general outline is the same in Miss Sadie Thompson but considerably whitewashed. The first third of the film shows Marines on an island base after WWII, whose lives take a sudden upswing when a singer (Hayworth) stops on her way to Hawaii. Sadie’s a live wire, a red-headed fireball in a red dress who can knock back drinks with the boys and belt out a song on a whim.

In perhaps the film’s most famous scene, Rita dances to “The Heat is On” while the jarheads clap and leer. The sequence is sexy but chaste, particularly by today’s standards, but at the time was reviled as an example of Hollywood’s moral decay. Wrote the 85-year-old head of the Memphis Board of Censors, the whole film was “rotten, lewd, immoral, just a plain raw dirty picture” and “The Heat is On” especially just a “filthy dance scene.”

Aldo Ray plays Phil, the Marine who falls in love with Sadie, a gal with a complicated past. José Ferrer is religious bigot Alfred, determined to condemn her. Sadie eventually gets the upper hand and a happy ending. After all, it was the ’50s, the Ozzie & Harriet era.

Rita Hayworth is really terrific in what’s an otherwise middling picture, mostly because of the sanitized script. For the first part, she seems to be trying too hard to be a good-time girl but, as the plot develops, we realize it’s the character, as well as the actress, who’s playing a role. The last half turns fully dramatic, with Sadie (and Hayworth) growing more and more complex and credible.

Jumping back 14 years to 1939, Hollywood’s Golden Year, it was director Howard Hawks who needed a big hit, particularly after the failure of the now-classic screwball comedy Bringing Up Baby the previous year. Hawks got his winner with Only Angels Have Wings, a dramatic action/thriller with Cary Grant and Jean Arthur in a story about the derring-do of mail pilots, flying by the seat of their pants in a South American country.

Up to this point in her career, Hayworth had been in minor roles in B pictures, but Hawks gave her fourth billing and a juicy part in Angels, causing producers and audiences to take a much longer look at the strikingly beautiful actress. After that, no one could miss her or forget her, even though she doesn’t show up till halfway through Angels playing Grant’s former girlfriend and the wife of a disgraced pilot (Richard Barthelmess) trying to restart his career.

The movie was a big success for all concerned, particularly Rita Hayworth; in the next five years, she starred opposite Tyrone Power, James Cagney, Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire — twice — before becoming Gilda.

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october, 2021

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