One of Gene Kelly’s best dances was captured in a 1944 film with which not many people are familiar: the effervescent Cover Girl, co-starring Rita Hayworth in one of her better roles.
I first caught this film several years ago on TCM and instantly warmed to it. True, the songs are not the most memorable–with the exception of the lovely duet “Long Ago (and Far Away)” by Jerome Kern and Ira Gershwin–but they add sparkle to the film, and the performances have their charms. Hayworth stars as Rusty Parker, a talented dancer in love with her boss, Brooklyn nightclub owner Danny McGuire (Kelly). When Rusty wins a cover girl contest and becomes one of the most famous women in New York, Danny reluctantly steps aside to allow her to become the star he knows her to be. Yet fame and newfound fortune do not bring all of the happiness Rusty desires, and she must decide between Broadway success with a new man and Brooklyn love with Danny.
This being a musical of the 1940s, it’s not difficult to guess which one Rusty ultimately chooses. Yes, the story is a bit treacly, but Hayworth and Kelly’s smoldering chemistry, plus the comic relief of go-to character actors Phil Silvers (as a comedian somewhat ironically named “Genius”) and Eve Arden (in a typically balls-to-the-wall performance as an acerbic magazine executive nicknamed “Stonewall”), help the material transcend mere cliche.
Hayworth does a wonderful job of balancing the demands of dancing under notorious taskmaster Kelly while delivering a moving, yet unsentimental performance (of which singing did not play a part; her voice was dubbed by singer Martha Mears). Though today she is remembered more as a sexy screen siren–due in large part to her performance as the sizzling title character in 1946’s film noir Gilda–Hayworth is actually quite a brilliant dancer; Fred Astaire once referred to her as his favorite dancing partner of all time for their two films together (1941’s You’ll Never Get Rich and the following year’s You Were Never Lovelier). The actress herself would later recall the making of Cover Girl as one of the happiest moments of her career, not only because of her liking for co-stars Kelly and Silvers, but because she married actor/director Orson Welles while making the film (sadly, as in all five of Hayworth’s marriages, her union with Welles would end in divorce less than five years later. As the unlucky-in-love actress would later wryly reflect, “[Men] go to bed with Gilda, they wake up with me”).
As I previously mentioned, one of the biggest draws of this film is Kelly’s excellent solo about halfway through the film. As Danny conducts an inner monologue, arguing with himself about Rusty’s future, his reflection in a store window comes to life and leads him through an intense pas de deux on the darkened streets of the town.
Watching this sequence, you can see Kelly’s choreography skills blossoming in their first real test on the silver screen. You can especially see traces of his forthcoming dancing duet with Jerry Mouse in 1945’s Anchors Aweigh; in fact, it was the success of Cover Girl, and the praise garnered by this sequence in particular, that inspired producers of Anchors to again give Kelly free reign in choreographing the numbers in that film (with the assistance of longtime partner Stanley Donen). You can also see hints of his later performances (especially in films like Singing in the Rain and An American in Paris) in the combination of athleticism and artistic grace that mark this streetside cavorting.
The only thing that evens slightly mars this charming little film for me is its connection to one of the most notorious musical flops in movie history, 1980’s roller-disco tribute Xanadu, in which Kelly again appears as Danny McGuire. The deplorable Xanadu is considered an “unofficial” sequel to Cover Girl, though it shares none of its charms and grace. Avoid at all costs.
Ignoring that egregious lapse in judgment by the Hollywood Powers That Be, Cover Girl is a lovely film, a pleasant escape into the world of 1940s theater. It’s also an interesting, albeit light, comment on the often-damaging influence of celebrity on those not fully prepared for its onslaught (though if you’re looking for a more powerful comment on that theme, you will find it more sinisterly addressed in Elia Kazan’s excellent, unsettling 1957 drama A Face in the Crowd).