“If I’d been a ranch, they would have called me the Bar Nothing.”
In 1946, Columbia Pictures released two of the most commercially successful pictures of the year — The Jolson Story and Gilda. The former was certainly a surprise, for few people expected a film biography of Al Jolson, the then somewhat forgotten former stage and screen star of the 1920s and ’30s, to be a big seller with post-war audiences. Gilda was something else. Many film critics of the time were not favourably disposed to the film, so its great appeal to the film-going public came as a pleasant surprise to Columbia. In retrospect, this shouldn’t have been so unexpected. The star was Rita Hayworth who had proved to be one of the favourite pin-up girls of the American armed forces in World War 2. With the war over, returning soldiers with their wives or girlfriends apparently flocked to the film on the basis of Hayworth’s presence in it, and repeat business was brisk.
Gilda has recently undergone restoration courtesy of the UCLA Film and Television Archive, Sony Pictures Entertainment, The Library of Congress, and the UK National Film and Television Archive. Columbia has now released the film on DVD as part of its Columbia Classics series.
A young American gambler, Johnny Farrell, is in danger of being robbed of his winnings at dice in Buenos Aires when the suave Ballin Mundson rescues him. Mundson is impressed by Johnny and soon hires him to manage his casino and nightclub. The two men become close friends until Mundson returns from a trip with a new wife, Gilda. This relationship immediately puts a strain on Mundson and Johnny’s friendship, as apparently Johnny and Gilda were once lovers. Mundson discovers their past romance and tries to use one against the other in order to ensure his control of them both.
Meanwhile, Mundson is also working on behalf of a postwar international Nazi-controlled organization. At one stage, he has to leave the country suddenly, but his plane crashes into the ocean. Believing Mundson to be dead, Gilda reveals to Johnny that she had never cared for Mundson and had cheated on him. Johnny agrees to renew their own love affair and he and Gilda are soon married. But Johnny’s only intention in doing so is to punish Gilda for her infidelity to Mundson. Gilda soon runs away from the horrible situation, but Johnny contrives her return for a final confrontation.
Gilda is one of the most famous films of film noir. This reputation comes from the film being one of the most sensual of the genre as well as having one of the more interesting femme fatales. As Gilda, Rita Hayworth just oozes sexuality. Gilda clearly recognizes that she is but an object to be used and abused by both Mundson and Johnny. Once she realizes that no relationship of equals seems possible with either of them, she resorts to revenge and sexual humiliation. Her song and dance of “Put the Blame on Mame” which she performs in order to humiliate Mundson is about as close to a strip tease as one can get without taking off any clothes. (One marvels at how the strapless dress manages to stay up during her contortions.) But Hayworth’s Gilda also conveys an innocent side that keeps the viewer off-balance and creates ambiguity so that you’re never sure whether you should be jeering or cheering. Eventually that side leads to Johnny’s redemption.
The entire production design from sets to lighting to costume contributes to the ambiguity. The story itself is based on corruption that is masked by a locale of classy nightclub and casino that is basically a playground of the rich. So the sets look glamorous and glossy, yet the lighting creates startling contrasts between light and shadow. Perhaps most striking of these is a confrontation between Johnny and Mundson in the latter’s apartment. While Johnny is lit naturally, Munson is backlit in such a way that he appears as a black silhouette whose detail is only briefly revealed when Munson lights a cigarette. Hayworth’s costuming focuses on tight-fitting outfits that emphasize her figure while at the same time, in contrast, a full, loose hairstyle sometimes conveys demureness. In the film’s final scenes, soft lighting and a conservative pinstriped suit with a high neck blouse emphasize the innocent Gilda that is finally in control.
The script for Gilda was one of those “Casablanca-like” situations where filming began without a final version and pages were being delivered to the set day-by-day, often just before they were scheduled to be shot. In the end, the script was quite literate, if requiring close attention to be able to follow exactly what was going on — a little like another good film of 1946 The Big Sleep (WB). Filming also started without a leading man, although that was shortly resolved when Columbia contract player Glenn Ford was finally chosen. Ford was very dynamic as Johnny and he and Hayworth made for a very attractive and seductive couple on screen. George Macready was ideal playing the elegant but decadent and corrupt Ballin Munson, a character quite familiar to film noir. Finally, Charles Vidor crisply handled direction. He had already worked with Hayworth and Ford in 1940s The Lady in Question (Columbia) and with Hayworth and Gene Kelly in Cover Girl (1944, Columbia), but Gilda would be the film for which he would be best remembered.
The restoration of Gilda really shows on Columbia’s DVD. The presentation is full-frame, as originally shot, with 28 scene selections and is luminous looking. Blacks are inky; whites are clean and bright. Shadow detail where intended is very good. There are a few speckles from time to time, but they are not at all distracting. For a 54-year old film, Gilda looks virtually as good as new. High marks for another fine-looking job by usually-reliable Columbia. Sound is the original mono and delivers dialogue clearly and distortion- and hiss-free.
Columbia adds the usual supplementary features that it has in all its Columbia Classics series. There is vintage advertising which shows images of eight posters and lobby cards from the film, including an interesting one of a re-release double bill of Gilda and Platinum Blonde (1931, Columbia) featuring Jean Harlow. Talent files include ones on Charles Vidor, Rita Hayworth, Glenn Ford and George Macready and there are trailers for Gilda as well as three other Columbia releases. The Gilda trailer is a re-release version and is pretty beat-up looking.
My main bone to pick is with the featurette that Columbia has chosen to include on the disc. It’s called “Rita Hayworth: The Columbia Lady.” The strange thing about it is that there are no title and credits either at the beginning or end. It just starts right in with a few clips from Hayworth’s first film appearances (she was billed as Rita Cansino then) and then over the next 9 minutes or so touches briefly on a few of her more important films including a couple with Fred Astaire and Cover Girl (1944) with Gene Kelly. It eventually gets to a sweaty-looking song and dance number from Miss Sadie Thompson (1953, Columbia — a musical remake of the Somerset Maugham story “Rain”) and then just stops with no warning and the screen reverts to the menu. The first time this happened, I thought I’d hit my remote accidentally, so I repeated the featurette, with the same result. Either there’s been a problem with mastering of the disc with respect to the featurette or that’s all that remains of the featurette, in which case Columbia should have placed some warning on their packaging. It’s no thriller of a featurette anyway, but that’s beside the point.
Finally, I repeat my usual objection to incomplete cast and crew notes. Either do them right (i.e. comprehensively) or don’t do them at all!
Gilda is excellent entertainment as a film, with a great performance by Rita Hayworth — probably her definitive one. Columbia has come through with a first-rate job on the film’s image and sound. The film looks far and away the best I have ever seen it, including at the rep cinemas. Top marks and highly recommended. There is apparently a problem with the accompanying featurette, which is incomplete. Either that’s due to a mastering problem or what we see is all that remains, in which case, Columbia should have provided some warning to that effect on their packaging. It is also, of course, possible that I may have received a defective disc. I’ll be monitoring other websites to see if others notice this problem.