When I was a kid, one of the most popular movie actresses was the glamorous Rita Hayworth. She was the epitome of the beautiful stars coming out of Hollywood plus she had red hair. The first time I ever saw her was in a black and white movie, so I had no idea she was red-headed. But when I later saw a movie called “Down to Earth” there she was with her gorgeous red-gold locks. I didn’t know they weren’t natural and it wouldn’t have made any difference if I had. To me, she was all the things a movie star should be. I love every movie she made, but my favorites are the two mentioned on this page, “Down to Earth,” and “Miss Sadie Thompson.”
A Goddess Came “Down To Earth”
Rita Hayworth was the goddess and the movie co-starred Larry Parks. Rita played the Goddess Terpsichore (Goddess of Dance) in this musical comedy and mysteriously appeared onstage in a dance lineup at rehearsal for a play. She immediately attracts the attention of Danny Miller (Larry Parks,) the producer/director, who is entranced with her beauty and her dancing. He puts her in the starring role, even though it meant taking another girl out of the spot. I can understand that perfectly because Rita was vibrant and compelling as she danced as no one else I’ve ever watched. In her career she danced with such notable and renowned male dancers as Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly. Astaire himself later cited Hayworth as his favorite dance partner of all the wonderful dancers in his films.
Here’s a piece of Hollywood trivia for you: In 1980, a movie called “Xanadu” starring Olivia Newton-John, Gene Kelly and Michael Beck was inspired by and based on the 1947 movie “Down to Earth.”
The Breadwinner at Age 13
Margarita Carmen Cansino, born October 17, 1918 into a Spanish family, performed as a dancer publicly since the age of 6. She danced onstage as her father’s partner as early as the age of 12. By the age of 13 she was the family’s breadwinner. She was adept in ballet, ballroom, tap and Spanish dancing and projected a magnetic presence onstage, prompting people to come back again and again and to bring their friends and family. The head of Fox Studios, Winfield Sheehan, happened to catch one of her performances and sent her for a screen test. She was then signed to a short six-month contract, billed as Rita Cansino, and the contract was not renewed when it ended. When her fame spread, it was almost inevitable that she would become a movie star. She did that when she landed a movie contract with Columbia Pictures. Studio boss Harry Cohn re-made her into a screen goddess, but it was not without trauma for her. Cohn was a tyrant who thought all his actresses should sleep with him out of gratitude for his help; she refused vehemently, currying his disfavor. In remaking her image, he put her through painful electrolysis of her hairline moving it back almost an inch, to make her more “Americanized.” This was when her naturally black hair was given the red-gold finish she would wear throughout her stardom, with only one exception in a movie produced and directed by her then husband Orson Welles. The strain between Cohn and Hayworth became more tense and thinking to punish her, Cohn loaned her out to other studios for any film that came along. Her contract prevented her from objecting and she did what she had to do. But surprisingly, the other studios recognized her acting talent and promoted her, building her acting reputation and career in the process. Through years of fighting with the studio and Cohn, she made the break from Columbia for good in 1957.
A Battle Between Sin and Piety
When Rita’s film “Miss Sadie Thompson,” came out in 1953, the audience couldn’t take its eyes off her. She played a “bad girl” role in ‘Sadie,’ in a storyline of the battle between sin and piety. She had a screen presence that rivaled the old Hollywood stars like Jean Harlow, Gloria Swanson and others. She was a beautiful talented actress and dancer, but one thing she didn’t do in “Sadie” was sing her own songs. Maybe she could have, but movie moguls wouldn’t take the chance and dubbed her singing.
Blue Pacific Blues
In “Sadie” she performs the song “Blue Pacific Blues” while reclining on a bed. In actuality, the singer’s voice is that of Jo Ann Greer, who never received the credit she should have for her career of over 50 years using her elegant voice for other actresses. The song was nominated for an Oscar but lost to “Once I Had A Secret Love,” by Doris Day from the film Calamity Jane. The harmonica is actually played by famed harmonicist Lou Diamond and dubbed into the scene. Rita could have done the song, she had the ability, but the studio decided not to take a chance. Still, her ability as an actress allows her to be accepted by the audience as the performer of the song. Even today, many don’t know it was dubbed in.
The movie was based on Somerset Maugham’s story “Miss Thompson,” (eventually known as “Rain.”) Due to the movie censors of the time, Rita’s character could not be portrayed as a prostitute, and instead her past was merely alluded to as being “shady.” Since she played a “bad girl,” of course there were those smitten with her and those who condemned her. But the movie is now a classic, appealing to everyone who loves Rita Hayworth.
Glamor Girl of the 1940s
Rita Hayworth was a glamor girl pinup girl for the servicemen in the 1940s. No Hollywood star was more popular with the GI’s than she was. One of her photos showing her in a nightgown on a bed, shown below, ran in Life Magazine in 1941 before America entered the war. It was likely the most famous and reproduced pinup image ever. She said once in a 1980s interview,
“Everybody else does nude scenes, but I don’t. I never made nude movies. I didn’t have to do that. I danced. I was provocative, I guess, in some things. But I was not completely exposed.”
The Heat Is On – A Steamy Song
“The Heat Is On,” is a song from “Miss Sadie Thompson” that was especially met with dismay and condemnation by the censors of the day. They considered the dance ‘Sadie’ did to be filthy, immoral and indecent. But the public took it to in droves! Rita Hayworth was a dancer before she became an actress and a star. Her performance in that scene proved that her skill had never waned. Unfortunately this trailer from Miss Sadie Thompson doesn’t show the entire dance sequence but it really was “steamy.”
In later years Rita seemed to her family and friends to have symptoms of being an alcoholic. Her daughter Yasmin Aga Khan said,
“It was the outbursts. She’d fly into a rage. I can’t tell you. I thought it was alcoholism — alcohol dementia.”
But in 1980 she was diagnosed as having Alzheimer’s and they finally had a name for what was wrong with her. Yasmin said after that, it was a relief to have a diagnosis, but “There were two decades of hell before that.” In February 1987, Rita Hayworth, glamorous movie star, lapsed into a semi-coma. On May 14, 1987 this glorious, glamorous Hollywood star died at the age of 68 from complications of Alzheimer’s Disease.
On May 15th, 1987, in an ironic and prophetic statement, President Ronald Reagan said of Rita Hayworth’s passing:
“Rita Hayworth was one of our country’s most beloved stars. Glamorous and talented, she gave us many wonderful moments on stage and screen and delighted audiences from the time she was a young girl. In her later years, Rita became known for her struggle with Alzheimer’s disease. Her courage and candor, and that of her family, were a great public service in bringing worldwide attention to a disease which we all hope will soon be cured. Nancy and I are saddened by Rita’s death. She was a friend who we will miss. We extend our deep sympathy to her family.”
Books About Rita Hayworth, Her Life and Her loves:
Rita Hayworth: A Memoir
DVDs of Rita Hayworth’s movies that will never grow old.