After seeing Patricia Ward Kelly’s show, “Gene Kelly: A Legacy,” I was dismayed to find that there were still a handful of performances that his widow considered to be among his best that I had still not yet seen. For (my) reference, those were: The Three Musketeers, Thousands Cheer, Words and Music, Cover Girl, Living in a Big Way, and Brigadoon. I covered Words and Music a few weeks back—it happily doubled as a That’s Entertainment entry, which is always a plus for me—but today I decided to set my sights on a film containing Kelly working alongside one of my favorite classic actresses, Rita Hayworth.
The film, of course, is Cover Girl, and it follows Rusty Parker (Hayworth), a talented and gorgeous chorus girl who works at a nightclub owned by Danny McGuire (Kelly), who is also her boyfriend. Backstage, one of the other girls brags about entering a contest put on by Vanity, in which the winning girl will be put onto a magazine cover and, presumably, immediately catapulted into fame and glory. Rusty promptly spoils the other girl’s hopes and dreams by entering the contest herself and—despite some intentionally catty attempts at false advice—wins the honor of the magazine cover. This is in part because, in addition to her beauty, she also closely resembles her grandmother, who was a lost love of the magazine’s publisher (Otto Kruger) many years ago. At first, Rusty’s win doesn’t seem to phase her, or really, anyone else, aside from Danny, who worries that this increase in visibility will draw her away from him. Ultimately, he’s half-right—the offers do begin to pour in from Broadway theaters and eligible bachelors alike, but Rusty remains loyal to the club and rejects them all. That is, until Danny, who is focused on the idea of getting her to that next perceived level of success and not being seen as standing in her away, shuts her out emotionally and professionally, leaving her little where else to go. She begins work on an elaborately staged show on Broadway—a far cry from the dinky little nightclub in Brooklyn—put on by producer Noel Wheaton (Lee Bowman), who also becomes her fiancee.
Thanks to the dual nature of Hayworth’s role (Rusty is a ringer for her grandmother because, of course, they are both played by Hayworth), the film allows for an opulent EIGHT dance numbers for her. Overall, the musical numbers in the film range from classic chorus girl fare to playful on-the-street trios to dramatic expositionary songs to solo technical marvels. Kelly’s “Alter Ego” dance is perhaps the most impressive here, as it involves Danny dancing a “duet” with his alter ego (also Kelly) in double exposure. Sometimes the two Dannys are interacting with each other, and sometimes they’re dancing in perfect synchronization, so the scene required not only extensive innovation in the camera and the editing room, but also exact precision in the choreography and actual dancing. Kelly choreographed the number alongside fellow Pal Joey dancer Stanley Donen, which would mark the first of their many fine cinematic collaborations.
The success of this film led MGM to reassess Kelly’s value to them, and they would keep him on a slightly shorter leash in the future—which produced both good and bad results for the filmgoing public at large. On the positive side, they allowed him to do bigger and better projects in-house, such as letting him choreograph his own numbers for the classic Anchors Aweigh. Conversely, they also refused to loan Kelly out for films like Guys and Dolls (where the role went to Marlon Brando—not known as a song-and-dance man at the time, though he was considered a huge box-office draw), or Pal Joey (a role Kelly had played on Broadway, which went to his Anchors Aweigh costar, Frank Sinatra). Overall, I think we, as audience, ended up doing pretty well, but I fear I can never fully forgive any situation that deprives me of additional Kelly/Sinatra or Kelly/Hayworth collaborations.
Cover Girl is a great example of the changing tendency in musicals around this time to focus more on the plot, rather than stringing along a minuscule story between dance numbers. Some people cite Cover Girl as the first, in fact (I’m sure I’ve heard that claim in terms of other films, but this is certainly one of the early entries). It’s definitely a very fun musical, with able performances by Kelly and Hayworth, and a wonderfully silly supporting role played by Phil Silvers. It contains perhaps the most detailed exposition sequence I’ve ever seen contained within a single walk down the wedding aisle, along with many memorable songs and dances. Hayworth is in top form, surely buoyed by an upswing in her personal life at this time—she married Orson Welles during the filming of this movie, and he would routinely meet her outside the stage door with a bottle of champagne, according to Patricia Kelly’s show.
Following Cover Girl, I was intrigued enough to finally watch Xanadu, which bears a tenuous connection to the 1944 film: Gene Kelly plays, apparently, the same character in both films, 36 years apart. There wasn’t a lot to tie together the two films other than the fact that the character’s name is Danny McGuire, though; it’s mentioned in Xanadu that he did own a club in Brooklyn, but that he was a clarinet player, not a dancer. I’m also not entirely sure I believe that Danny would carry a torch for the ethereal Olivia Newton-John character, rather than Rusty Parker, if, as we’re to believe, they did indeed separate at some point after this movie. Xanadu is a profoundly silly and dated movie, and I was hoping for a more solid connection between the Danny McGuires, but it was certainly an amusing enough film. But I’d recommend watching Cover Girl, of course, if it was down to the two…