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"Rita and Rex Steal the Picture!" and "We confess! They did it! But it's how they did it that makes it so delightful!" were some of the taglines for The Happy Thieves (1961). The "Rita" was Rita Hayworth and the "Rex" was Rex Harrison, playing two art thieves who are blackmailed into stealing a Goya painting from the Museum de Prado in Madrid.
The film was based on the novel The Oldest Confession by Richard Condon, who also wrote the screenplay with John Gay. George Marshall directed the film, which was produced by Hayworth's production company, Hillworth Productions, formed with producer James Hill (formerly of Hecht-Hill-Lancaster), who was married to Hayworth at the time. The Happy Thieves would be released through United Artists.
In the 1950s and 60s, many Hollywood stars were fed up with the studio system that they felt cheated them out of profits. And, like many Hollywood stars, Rita Hayworth believed that she could produce her own films abroad. The idea had merit - by forming her own production company, she would walk away with a much larger percent of the box office take, and by shooting abroad, she would be subject to a much lower tax rate, so the decision was made to shoot The Happy Thieves in Madrid and Paris.
Rex Harrison was very honest about the reason for his participation in the film: he did the film strictly for the money, as he later wrote in his autobiography. "A further instance of sloppy professional judgment came when I weakly agreed with my agent to go to Madrid to make a film called The Happy Thieves, with Rita Hayworth. My agent said something about 'getting the money while I could,' and instead of sacking him, as I would have done in other years, I fell in with his suggestion. Rita was an old-time friend whom I had got to know when she was married to James Hill. She was desperately shy and uncertain of herself, although she had worked for Columbia [Studios] for many years...Rita was absolutely beautiful, the film was absolute rubbish, so bad that the press was asked to stay away and not to review it - as you can imagine, a fairly unusual request. I don't think anyone did see it, luckily."
Harrison predicted that The Happy Thieves would be a disaster, and unfortunately for all involved, the critics did review it. The reviewer from The New York Times wondered "how the diabolical brilliance of the Condon book could have trickled down the film drain [...] This laboriously arch Hillworth Production holds a good middle portion (thanks to the Condon plot) and has some colorful photography and a few stretches of gleaming dialogue, which scenarist John Gay had the good sense to retain. And that, believe us, is it. The marvelous zip, zing and sophistication of the original--gone, all of it."
The Happy Thieves was the only film produced by Hillworth Productions, although another film I Want My Mother! had been heavily publicized by the company. It was mysteriously abandoned one day with no explanation. When Hill and Hayworth divorced after only three years of marriage, the financial and critical failure of The Happy Thieves was rumored to be one of the reasons for the split.
Producer: Rita Hayworth
Director: George Marshall
Screenplay: John Gay; Richard Condon (novel)
Cinematography: Paul Beeson
Art Direction: Ramiro Gomez
Music: Mario Nascimbene
Film Editing: Oswald Hafenrichter
Cast: Rita Hayworth (Eve Lewis), Rex Harrison (Jimmy Bourne), Joseph Wiseman (Jean Marie Calbert), Alida Valli (Duchess Blanca), Grgoire Aslan (Dr. Victor Munoz), Virgilio Teixeira (Cayetano the Bullfighter), Peter Illing (Mr. Pickett the Art Expert), Britta Ekman (Mrs. Pickett), George Rigaud (Spanish Police Inspector), Gerard Tichy (Antonio, Prado Museum Guard).
by Lorraine LoBianco
Balio, Tino. United Artists: The Company That Changed the Film Industry
Harrison, Rex. Rex: An Autobiography
Ringgold, Gene. The Films of Rita Hayworth: The Legend and Career of a Love Goddess
"Screen: 'Happy Thieves'" The New York Times 5 Feb 62.