The TCM Classic Film Festival presentation of Cover Girl (1944) was special because, as festival godhead Robert Osborne declared in his typically informed and engaging introduction, it was the one screening for which he had allowed time in his busy schedule to watch in its entirety (it was some pressing matter, no doubt, that demanded his departure three quarters of the way through).
As Osborne reminded us, Cover Girl is special for a number of other reasons: the package put together by talent producer Arthur Schwartz included the first teaming of Jerome Kern and Ira Gershwin; Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly producing choreography that would convince MGM to give them a freer rein; and a fantastic costume team headed by Travis Banton. Rudolph Maté handles the cinematography with the expected elegance, and presumably not making much of an impact on the finished product, but a tidbit for the geek, assistant direction was provided by one Oscar (“Budd”) Boetticher.
It was also the studio’s first major effort to present Rita Hayworth as a top-flight star. She does indeed glow with enthusiasm, as the Brooklyn chorus girl who wins a magazine cover competition, but the “product” nature of the film is such that today’s equivalent would undoubtedly be viewed as soulless box office pandering. The conflict between Hayworth’s cheerful but impoverished existence, and the future suddenly opened up for her, is drawn in near-insultingly simplistic terms. Apparently a point in favor of the status quo, that former existence also includes Phil Silvers as the piano-player painfully named “Genius”. I have a feeling one must either love Silvers or hate him, but either way his constant intrusions are obnoxious, and it is he who espouses the most retarded and self-centered views about the choice that Hayworth’s Rusty Parker faces.
Club owner and Rusty’s paramour Gene Kelly, on the other hand, is firmly in the no-success-without-hard-work camp and wears a long face throughout, save when he is dancing. He’s all for letting Rusty make up her own mind, but is certainly not above self-righteously judging her decision, or taking a stubborn, hard-done-by stance when she does what everyone expects. This is easy for Kelly, as the powers of magazine publishing and Broadway are drawn in such out-of-touch, God-playing rich-folk strokes as to make them easy villains.
The film’s showcase package design also finds room for several flashbacks, which allow Hayworth to appear as her own grandmother, in stage numbers rather broader than those of the film’s present (a Cockney turn – “Poor John” – is particularly lamentable). There’s even time for a flashback, by way of warning, on the way to the altar, before Rusty executes the most charming, genteel jilting in cinema, to which everyone reacts with complete understanding and sympathy.
So psychological realism and interest of character are by the by, as perfectly suitable to such a production. Also eminently appropriate are the fantastic creations of Travis Barton (along with Muriel King and Gwen Wakeling), both onstage and off, which include lots of really good headgear, and plenty of those funny little hats. Rita gets to wear the best dresses of course, and the best are terrific. That the Broadway fashion-show number is a damp squib is hardly the fault of the costumes. In fact the songs in general do not fizz, save “Long Ago and Far Away”, despite Hayworth and Kelly’s failure to lift it to the transcendence it deserves. As a bonus, however, the incomparable Eve Arden cuts a super-snazzy figure and gets plenty of chance to exercise her world-weary wit to boot, and the best thing about the movie is the wonderful, astonishing “Alter Ego” number: in an episode of self-doubt, Kelly dances with himself in double exposure, the film’s one hint of inner life to any of the characters, innovative and perfectly executed, and a delicious hint of greatness yet to come.