Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Classics: A Review of Gilda by Lauren Ennis

Jessica Rabbit, eat your heart out!
“Sure, I’m decent” Rita Hayworth purred when she first appeared on screen as flame haired femme fatale Gilda. With that one line, Hayworth set screens across the nation on fire and set the standard for sex symbols for generations. Hayworth’s performance as the tempestuous vixen was perfectly matched by the intensity of co-star Glenn Ford’s turn as revenge bent gambler Johnny Farrell. Through its combination of dizzying plot twists, razor sharp dialogue and star-making turns from Hayworth and Ford, Gilda went on to become a noir classic. It's little wonder that this film continues to make movie goers nostalgic for the days when a tale of standard pulp could become something far more than decent.
The film is framed by American gambler Johnny Farrell’s narration of his life in Argentina in the mid-1940’s. Johnny starts his story as he wins a significant amount from a crooked card game with a group of American sailors. When the sailors realize that they have been cheated, Johnny is quickly rescued by the intervention of a mysterious man with a spear hidden in his cane. The man recommends that Johnny start gambling in more respectable card games, and suggests that he visit one of the more popular casinos in Buenos Aires. Johnny takes the man’s advice and cheats his way to another winning streak until the casino’s security guards catch on to his scheme. The security guards proceed to rough Johnny up and bring him to office of the establishment’s owner. Johnny is shocked when he realizes that the casino’s owner is businessman Ballin Mundson (George Macready); the same man who had saved his life earlier that night. He manages to talk his way into Mundson’s good graces and obtains a position in the casino, where he quickly works his way up to becoming Mundson’s right hand man.
Just he seems to finally be in control of his life, Johnny finds his world thrown into chaos when Ballin arrives home from a trip with his new wife; Johnny’s ex-girlfriend, Gilda. Although the details are never fully explained, it is clear that Johnny and Gilda’s relationship ended less than amicably and left both of them bitter. Gilda embarks upon a crusade to exploit Johnny’s interest in her by making him jealous through constant taunts and openly flirting with other men. Although she succeeds in making Johnny jealous, she also exacerbates her troubled marriage to possessive Ballin. In order to curb Gilda’s seeming indiscretions, Ballin orders Johnny to act as her personal bodyguard. His plan only leads Gilda to strike back and rebel against both men. Eventually,  Johnny and Gilda renew their relationship in spite of their better judgment, only to be discovered by Ballin.
You know he's sexy if Rita's begging
The combination of his failing marriage and a police investigation into his casino leads Ballin to commit suicide, leaving Gilda and Johnny free to be married. Soon after their marriage, however, Johnny demonstrates maliciousness almost equal to that of his former employer. While Gilda married him out of love, Johnny reveals that he only married her in order to obtain access to her former husband’s assets and keep her from pursuing a relationship with anyone else. The most chilling aspect of Johnny’s behavior is the self-righteous way in which he uses their marriage to put himself in the role of Gilda’s personal judge and jury. The toxic nature of the relationship leads Gilda to run away, only to be tricked into returning for a final showdown in which it is revealed that not all in Buenos Aires is as it seems.
The film marked the second of four pairings between Hayworth and Ford, and is arguably the best of their collaborations. After several stage successes, Ford was just beginning to gain notice in Hollywood as a leading man in the late 1930’s and early 1940’s when he answered the call of duty to fight in World War II. Gilda proved to be the ideal comeback vehicle for Ford, who not only resumed his career, but also achieved full-fledged star status with the film’s release. The film also became a turning point in Rita Hayworth’s career. Although Hayworth had enjoyed success as a star of various musicals and comedies, she had yet to be taken seriously as a dramatic actress. Following Gilda, however, she went on to become a top leading lady and star in a series of noirs and dramas. Hayworth became synonymous with the role of Gilda, which cemented her place as America’s favorite pin-up.
Gilda was just as crucial to its stars' personal lives as it was to their professional lives. While working together on the set, Hayworth and Ford developed a close working relationship that evolved into a warm friendship. At the time of filming, Hayworth was separated from then husband, Orson Welles, following her discovery of his numerous affairs. Members of the cast and crew at the studio reportedly hoped that Hayworth’s relationship with Ford would take a romantic turn and lead her to obtain a divorce from Welles. The studio apparently supported the possible romance and began releasing various publicity stills of Ford and Hayworth together and fan magazine articles which implied that they were romantically involved. Before the film was released,  however, Hayworth reconciled with Welles, forcing the studio to alter its publicity and maintain that she and Ford were strictly friends. Despite the fact that Hayworth returned to her marriage with Welles before ultimately divorcing him in 1948, Ford reportedly kept a picture of her for the rest of his life. Hayworth later lamented the effect that Gilda had on her personal life, saying that “Every man that I’ve known has fallen in love with Gilda and awakened with me. No one can be Gilda twenty-four hours a day”.

With friends like these...
Gilda has maintained a lasting influence in film history that still resonates today. Rita Hayworth’s infamous strip tease in her “Put the Blame on Mame” number went on to inspire numerous imitations, most notably Jessica Rabbit’s nightclub performance in Who Framed Roger Rabbit. The film also inspired numerous covers of its two songs “Put the Blame on Mame” and “Amado Mio” including a recent cover of “Amado Mio” by Pink Martini. In the 1994 film The Shawshank Redemption, the hero’s escape is inspired by and executed through the use of a poster of Hayworth as Gilda. In hindsight, it is shocking that the Hay’s Code allowed the film to be released with all of its innuendos and sexual tension intact; a fact which only adds to its sensual atmosphere. The film managed to portray the complexity and contradictions of romantic relationships with a realism that few other films of its day dared to. As a result, Gilda and Johnny’s love-hate story remains as relevant in today’s age of changing mores as it was the day of its release.

Through its intriguing plot, witty dialogue, and star making performances, Gilda truly is a noir classic.  It’s exploration of average people whose emotions lead them on the path to self-destruction is both realistic and timeless. The film’s mixture of the exotic and sensual creates an atmosphere that defines Old Hollywood glamour. As the posters said, “there was never a woman like Gilda”, and there will never be a film quite like it either.

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