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A lavish Technicolor musical with a theatrical background, Cover Girl (1944) was a showcase for Columbia's top star, Rita Hayworth. That it became much more than that is due to the chemistry between Hayworth and co-star Gene Kelly, the innovative choreography of Kelly and Stanley Donen, and the musical score by Jerome Kern and Ira Gershwin, which yielded at least one standard, and several other very good songs. As Tony Thomas writes in The Films of Gene Kelly, "In the history of the Hollywood musical Cover Girl marks a major turning point, a transitional point at which the long-familiar concept of the movie musical as a string of songs strung together by a skimpy plot gave way to a broader concept in which the musical sequences would form a part of the plot."
Kelly plays Danny McGuire, who owns a Brooklyn nightclub. He's in love with Rusty Parker, one of the club's dancers. Rusty wins a contest to be the cover girl for a fashion magazine, partly because the editor was once in love with her grandmother, whom Rusty resembles. The attention the contest generates also gives her an opportunity to star in a Broadway show. But it also threatens her relationship with Danny. The showbiz background provides plenty of excuses for performance, from hilariously shabby in Danny's Brooklyn dive, to an extravagant Broadway production number to rival Busby Berkeley's. But it's Kelly and Donen's inventiveness in the non-stage musical numbers that give the film excitement.
The first thing Columbia head Harry Cohn did was assign Virginia Van Upp to write another draft of the script that had already been through seven or eight writers. She tailored it for Hayworth and did such a good job that she was promoted to Hayworth's producer, eventually producing Gilda (1946). Then Cohn hired songwriter Howard Schwartz to produce Cover Girl, even though Schwartz had never produced before. This was Hayworth's third musical, and the first one in color. Her first two had been with Fred Astaire, a hard act to follow.
Cohn at first resisted Schwartz's suggestion of Gene Kelly. "That tough Irish face! He can't be in the same frame as Rita, my Rita," Schwartz recalls Cohn saying. Schwartz nevertheless followed his instincts and borrowed Kelly from MGM, promising him that he could choreograph, which he hadn't been allowed to do at MGM. Kelly brought with him Stanley Donen, a young dancer who had appeared with him on Broadway in Pal Joey. It was their first collaboration, and the first chance Kelly had to try out his ideas about dance on film. The most spectacular result is what came to be known as the "Alter Ego" number, a psychological drama in dance, with Kelly arguing and dancing with his inner self. The number was shot twice, with a fixed-head camera, and Donen standing next to it, calling out the timings for the cameraman. "It was the most difficult thing I've ever done, a technical torture," Kelly later recalled.
Most of the musical numbers in Cover Girl were used to advance the plot. In "Make Way for Tomorrow," Kelly, Hayworth, and Phil Silvers express cheery optimism about the future as they cavort through a late-night Brooklyn street. "Long Ago and Far Away," set in the club after hours, expresses the couple's romantic longing through Kern and Gershwin's gorgeous song. The title song is a splashy production number featuring more than a dozen real-life cover girls. Jinx Falkenburg, the supermodel of the era, also has a small role in the film, as does model/actress/beauty consultant Anita Colby.
Another of the pleasures of Cover Girl is Eve Arden, in one of her best performances as a fashion magazine executive. Her acid wit and perfect timing keep the over-the-top glamour in perspective. Arden would have a long and successful career playing similar sidekick characters, most notably in Mildred Pierce (1945).
Hayworth remembered the making of Cover Girl as a bright spot in her sometimes tumultuous life and career. "We had a sensational time with Gene and Phil. I knew we had a rapport - they were both so great to work with. It was a happy time. I didn't know we were doing anything special, but you knew it was going to be good because it felt good making it." Hayworth had another reason to be happy. She married Orson Welles during the making of the film.
Cover Girl was one of the biggest hits of the year, and made both Hayworth and Kelly into top stars. MGM, which hadn't quite known what to do with Kelly in the two years he'd been under contract, suddenly paid attention. They next teamed him with Frank Sinatra in Anchors Aweigh (1945), and gave him a free hand in creating his dance numbers. Columbia bought the film rights to Kelly's stage hit, Pal Joey, hoping to team Kelly and Hayworth once more. But MGM refused to loan Kelly again, now that he'd become one of their most valuable properties. Columbia eventually made Pal Joey in 1957, with Frank Sinatra in the lead. Hayworth played not the ingénue, but the rich older woman who has an affair with Joey.
Cover Girl was nominated for five Academy Awards, but won only one, for the musical scoring, which went to Carmen Dragon and Morris Stoloff. "Long Ago & Far Away" was nominated for Best Song, but lost to "Swinging on a Star," a novelty number from Going My Way (1944). Cover Girl was also nominated for Best Sound Recording, Best Color Cinematography, and Best Art Direction. Awards for the latter two categories went to Wilson (1944), leading a disgruntled Harry Cohn to say, "Well, at least it took two priests and a U.S. President to beat us!" "Long Ago and Far Away," however, became an instant standard that is still beloved today, while that year's Oscar® winner is remembered mostly as a quirky novelty song.
Director: Charles Vidor
Producer: Arthur Schwartz
Screenplay: Virginia Van Upp, Marion Parsonnet, Paul Gangelin, based on a story by Erwin Gelsey
Cinematography: Rudolph Mate, Allen M. Davey
Editor: Viola Lawrence
Costume Design: Travis Banton, Gwen Wakeling, Muriel King, Kenneth Hopkins
Art Direction: Lionel Banks, Cary Odell
Music: Carmen Dragon, Morris Stoloff
Principal Cast: Rita Hayworth (Rusty Parker), Gene Kelly (Danny McGuire), Lee Bowman (Noel Wheaton), Phil Silvers (Genius), Leslie Brooks (Maurine), Eve Arden (Cornelia Jackson), Otto Kruger (John Coudair).
by Margarita Landazuri