My Gal Sal
Sunday June, 23 2013 at 10:00 AM
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In the early 1940s Columbia Pictures contract player Rita Hayworth, after a long and grueling apprenticeship in small parts and "B" movies, blossomed as an A-list actress during a three-picture loan-out to another studio, 20th Century Fox. The first of these Fox films, Blood and Sand (1941), revealed third-billed Hayworth as a femme fatale to be reckoned with. The second, My Gal Sal (1942), along with You Were Never Lovelier at her home studio the same year, established her as a musical star and the movies' leading "Love Goddess." The third, an "omnibus" film called Tales of Manhattan (1942), confirmed Hayworth's newly achieved status in Hollywood by casting her as an equal among such major players as Charles Boyer, Ginger Rogers and Henry Fonda.
My Gal Sal is a highly fictionalized biopic of Gay-Nineties-era songwriter Paul Dresser (1857-1906), the brother of celebrated novelist Theodore Dreiser (An American Tragedy, Sister Carrie). Dreiser gets screen credit for the movie's story, and Fox publicists claimed it was adapted from the writer's biographical essay, My Brother Paul, part of his 1919 collection Twelve Men. Truth is the screenplay was created with considerable dramatic license by Seton I. Miller, Darrell Ware and Karl Tunberg from an unpublished manuscript by Dreiser and his wife, Helen Richardson. Theodore is played briefly in the film by child actor Barry Downing.
Victor Mature, then one of Fox's most popular leading men, plays Dresser, a corpulent fellow who weighed almost 300 pounds and whose bulky shape bore little resemblance to Mature's athletic image as the movies' first "hunk." My Gal Sal takes Dresser from his Indiana home to New York, where he becomes the toast of Tin Pan Alley and enters into a tumultuous love-hate relationship with the fictional Sally Elliott (Hayworth), supposedly a leading musical star of the day.
In reality the "Sal" of the title was likely based on Annie Brace, proprietor of a leading brothel in Evansville, Indiana, who was known professionally as Sallie Walker. According to some historians, she and the colorful Dresser - whose appetites reportedly were as large as his frame - had a love affair that lasted for many years until she became resentful of his relationships with other women, usually prostitutes.
Dresser songs included in the film, in addition to the title tune, include another of his big hits, "On the Banks of the Wabash," as well as "I'se Your Honey If You Wants Me, Liza Jane," "Come Tell Me What's Your Answer" and "Mr. Volunteer." Studio songwriters Leo Robin and Ralph Rainger contribute "Me and My Fella," "Oh, the Pity of It All," "Here You Are," "Me and My Fella and a Big Umbrella" and "On the Gay White Way." An extended dance sequence in the latter number marked the only time that celebrated choreographer Hermes Pan (who staged the film's dances) partnered Hayworth onscreen.
Trained to be a dancer from childhood, Hayworth moves through her movie musicals with dazzling confidence (Fred Astaire named her as his favorite dancing partner). But her singing was always dubbed - in this instance, by Nan Wynn, who also sang for the beautiful redhead in The Strawberry Blonde (1941) and You Were Never Lovelier. Mature was routinely dubbed in musicals, including this one, by Ben Gage, then the husband of Esther Williams.
Hayworth's role was originally intended for leading Fox musical star Alice Faye, who had to turn it down because she was pregnant. Betty Grable was next in line but was feeling overworked (and perhaps tired of taking Faye's leftovers), so she refused the part.
Carole Landis, who plays the second female lead in My Gal Sal, had also been considered for the role of Sal. Ironically, Landis also had been the original choice to play Hayworth's attention-getting role in Blood and Sand. Some reports had Landis dropping out of that role because she didn't want to dye her blonde hair red; others blamed the breakup of an affair with Fox studio head Darryl F. Zanuck.
Hayworth biographers Joe Morella and Edward Z. Epstein quote an unidentified makeup person at Fox at the time as saying, "Carole was ready to pull Rita's hair out, even though Hayworth had had nothing to do with Landis's ill-advised move not to do Blood and Sand. But Rita was not a bitch, and that defused Landis. There were no further problems between them."
Also in the supporting cast are James Sutton as Sal's would-be suitor and James Gleason as Dresser's agent. Phil Silvers, who has a small role here, became a close personal friend of Hayworth and would later costar with her and Gene Kelly in Cover Girl (1944). Silvers adored Hayworth, and they shared a ribald sense of humor. He remembered later that "She'd wait for me to come onto the set...and I'd tell her the spiciest stories I knew. She loved it."
Shot in the typically lush 20th Century Fox Technicolor by Ernest Palmer, the candy-colored My Gal Sal is a treat for the eyes, with Hayworth looking gorgeous in Gwen Wakeling's elaborate Gay Nineties costumes. Irving Cummings, a versatile director whose other Fox musicals would include Sweet Rosie O'Grady (1943) and The Dolly Sisters (1945), keeps the thin plot moving between the elaborate musical numbers. The movie won an Oscar® for its Art Direction/Interior Decoration by Richard Day, Joseph C. Wright and Thomas Little; and was nominated for another for Alfred Newman's Scoring of a Musical Picture.
Hayworth and Mature, who had met when she had reported to Fox for work on Blood and Sand a year earlier, began a love affair while filming My Gal Sal. Both were married but separated from their spouses, and Hollywood's new "dream team" was expected to wed once their divorces came through. Mature, however, was called into service by the Coast Guard and, while he was serving, Hayworth surprised everyone by marrying Orson Welles (in 1943). Mature said later that he had fully expected to marry the beautiful star and was "shocked, surprised and grieved" when he learned that she had become Welles' bride.
by Roger Fristoe
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