There are many types of female beauty, and in the 1940s Rita Hayworth epitomised vivacious beauty.
In “You Were Never Lovelier” Rita makes her entrance by striding into a room energetically. Yet she is exuberantly feminine. Later, when flirting with Fred Astaire, her face is full of life, and when they dance, she personifies high spirits. Indeed Rita was one of the few dancers to pass the Astaire test. (When Fred Astaire dances with someone, whom do you watch? Fred Astaire or the girl?) There was an energy about Rita, in her face and in her movements, that set her apart from contemporaries like Betty Grable and Lana Turner. In “Affectionately Yours”, a deservedly forgotten comedy, Rita wipes Merle Oberon off the screen. Oberon, the female lead, comes across as cold and self-loving; Hayworth radiates warmth and humour.
Yet Rita was never ‘pushy’ on screen, her personality was never assertive, her sex appeal was never blatant. Those apparent contradictions – her temperament being lively while her personality was modest, her beauty being conspicuous while her sex appeal was subtle – made Rita Hayworth not only more glamorous than other stars, but also more interesting.
Rita had started as Margarita Cansino, the dancing daughter of Eduardo Cansino. Fred Astaire was later to say that Eduardo was a brilliant dancer and a friend he had known for years. Eduardo trained his daughter, and in 1936 Eduardo and Rita worked on the Hollywood movie “Dante’s Inferno“. Rita stayed in Hollywood, working for three years under a minor Columbia contract in a variety of B features. She got her big break opposite Cary Grant in “Only Angels Have Wings“, directed by Howard Hawks. Her impact was so strong that all Hollywood took notice, including Columbia boss Harry Cohn who decided he would make Rita a star.
A star Rita certainly became. She appeared in several films including musicals with both Astaire and Gene Kelly, and by 1943 was one of the biggest stars in Hollywood and universally labeled ‘The Love Goddess‘.
As Columbia’s biggest star, Rita was constantly photographed for publicity purposes, but while the movie camera adored her, the stills camera did not. Very few stills of Rita encapsulate her cinematic appeal. At the time it did not seem to matter. Her movies were doing record business, and the press was happily printing stories about Rita, in particular about her marriage to Orson Welles. One aspect of Rita was not publicised. Her singing voice in movies was dubbed, and Columbia kept the public unaware of the fact.
In 1942 Harry Cohn made one of the most eccentric decisions in movie history. He stipulated that Rita would make only one film a year. His reasoning was, that if a Rita Hayworth movie was a rarity, the public would flock to it in larger numbers while Columbia would save money by making fewer movies. In consequence, movies of Rita at her youthful peak are few in number. Supplementing this was a further problem. In those days, cinematographers and make-up artists had not yet come to terms with colour, and no actress suffered more in this regard than Rita. In her black and white films of the period, she is ravishingly beautiful, but in colour movies like “My Gal Sal” and “Cover Girl“, Rita’s make-up is a severe handicap.
In 1946 Rita was directed by her husband in “The Lady From Shanghai“. By this time Orson Welles had established that he was his own worst enemy, and quite unable to resist antagonising people who could damage his career. Certainly Welles seems to have set out to infuriate Harry Cohn. (The marriage to Rita was already crumbling, and this may have influenced Welles.) First, Welles wrote a screenplay that is incomprehensible. Then he cast Rita as a murderous villainess. Not yet content, he demanded that Rita’s hair be cut short and bleached white. Finally, Welles instructed Rita to act, not with her usual vivaciousness, but with reptilian lifelessness. The film was a commercial flop. Today it has cult status among those who value virtuosity more highly than intelligibility. Rita and Welles were divorced soon after.
In 1948 Rita went on holiday to the south of France where she was introduced to Prince Aly Khan, international playboy, enormously rich, connoisseur of horses and women, multi-lingual, and son of the Aga Khan IV, the imam of Isma’ilite Muslims.
By 1948, the press had become less co-operative with the big studios, less willing to abandon a juicy story that conflicted with the public image of a star. When Frank Sinatra no longer made any attempt to hide his infatuation with Ava Gardner, the press had a field day. When Ingrid Bergman left her husband to work with Roberto Rossellini, the press did not pull its punches. And when Rita Hayworth had an affair with Prince Aly Khan, the world’s press did not restrain itself at all.
Rita and Aly Khan were followed wherever they went. For months on end, they were never out of the headlines. Pictures of the couple appeared throughout the world. The demand by newspapers for material about them created a feverish market, and journalists and photographers went to ever greater lengths to obtain gossip and pictures. Bribes were offered, blackmail was tried, even impersonations were attempted. It was the world’s first show-biz media feeding frenzy. Nöel Coward, setting new lyrics to Cole Porter’s “Let’s Fly Away”, wrote for the middle eight: “We’ll find a cozy spot / Taking care to choose / Somewhere Rita Hayworth’s not / Always in the news.”
Rita and Aly Khan married in May 1949. The marriage did not last, but while it did, Rita made no movies. This, combined with Harry Cohn’s insane policy, meant that after completing “You Were Never Lovelier” in 1942, Rita Hayworth, one of the most popular film stars in the world, made only six movies until the beginning of 1952.
In 1951 Rita walked out of her marriage and returned to Columbia Studios.
Rita went back to work but there was no longer the liveliness in her face that had made her more vivacious than any other star. Her face was still beautiful, indeed her make-up artists and cinematographers were more skilled and showed better judgement than previously, but the youthful glow was missing. On the other hand no actress aged more gracefully than Rita, and being visibly older gave greater force to her performances in films like “They Came To Cordura” and “Fire Down Below“, where she played women with a past, women who had lived fully.
After her marriage to Aly Khan, the American press changed its attitude towards Rita. Previously they had been generous, but now the gossip columnists were eager to invade her privacy and quick to criticise. On one occasion they even accused Rita of being an irresponsible mother. This sustained scrutiny kept Rita in the public eye, but attention was diverted from her work to her private life, and little notice was taken of how Rita was becoming an accomplished character actress.
In the 1950s Rita made some good films that stand the test of time. Her work in “Pal Joey” is much admired. Photographed advantageously by the under-rated Harold Lipstein, she was a match for Sinatra at his scintillating best, and showed in her two musical numbers that she was still one of the most charismatic women in movies.
Rita continued working until the beginning of the 1970s when she developed Alzheimer’s Disease. Claudia Cardinale said that Rita was already unwell in 1964 when they co-starred together in “Circus World” (a.k.a. “The Magnificent Showman”). At first it was not recognised what Rita was suffering from, and lazy, incompetent journalists wrote that she was drinking heavily. As Rita’s condition deteriorated, it became clear what the problem was, and eventually her daughter Yasmin (Princess Yasmin Aga Khan) gained power of attorney to handle her affairs. Rita’s death in 1978 hugely increased public awareness of Alzheimer’s Disease, and today Yasmin heads Alzheimer’s Disease International.
Rita Hayworth remains to this day a legitimate legend. As a ‘Love Goddess’, as a dancer, as a film star, as an actress, her reputation is undiminished. It is regrettable that she made so few films, but those she did make confirm that her status is deserved.