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Bikini by Rita, Voice by Anita

Still from “Lady From Shanghai.”

The “R” isn’t working. As the letters blink to life one after the other from top to bottom there’s a pause between the “T” lighting up and then, at last, the “O”: CAST O. Even with the gap, the pink-red neon letters seared against the cloudless blue of a perfect San Francisco afternoon make a certain sense: Cast O’ … Thousands; Cast O’ … Characters. Indeed, a vibrant, ever-changing ensemble of life LARPers is working the sidewalk below the marquee on Castro Street: saving the earth or just wasting time in the most colorful way possible. Two of Santa’s seventy-year-old elves walk impishly by wearing red furry Christmas caps, running shoes, a tiny piece of mistletoe and nothing else. A campaigner collects signatures to protect the oceans: “Do you love your mother?” she demands. Not enough to miss the opening credits.

Amidst the ongoing street theatre, the queue of movie-goers sifts into the Castro theatre for a Rita Hayworth double bill:  The Lady from Shanghai and Gilda.

The program marks the Hayworth centenary. She would have turned a hundred on October 17th.  Just few years younger than Hayworth, the Castro turns 100 in 2022. The magnificent movie house is now seemingly safe from the wrecking ball thanks to the protocols of historic protection. I’m somewhat surprised not to see at least a few Hayworth drag queens out for Gilda, long since its premiere in 1946 repurposed as a camp classic. Maybe these impersonating admirers will appear for the late show.

Hayworth dances in both pictures. She appears to sing in both, too, but doesn’t actually do it herself.  The ultra-eroticized voice heard in the films—and many others rolled out by Hollywood’s studio system—is that of Anita Kert Ellis, an unseen, but not unsung specialist in dubbed seduction. A Canadienne whose family moved Hollywood when she was a kid, Ellis never achieved visual stardom. But her voice, apparently emanating from the likes of Hayworth, had millions of unwitting admirers.

Ellis was most famously invisible in Gilda. Hayworth does the dancing, Kert the singing in two lavish production numbers that come in the last twenty minutes of the movie. The narrative delay in Hayworth’s stuff-struttin’ is either a canny exercise in delayed gratification on the part of the director, Charles Vidor—a classy European who knew the value of such things—or an intervention on the part of the infamous head of Columbia Pictures, Harry Cohn, insisting that his studio’s biggest draw be given requisite screen time for Salome-style set pieces. (Inevitably, Hayworth would go on to play the title role in Columbia’s Salome in 1953.)

It was Cohn who, after signing one Rita Cansino (her Spanish father’s surname) to a seven-year contract in 1936 rebranded her Rita Hayworth (her mother’s maiden name), so she would have broader, less ethnic appeal. The image-remaker had electrolysis done literally on her Spanish roots, bringing her hairline back into what was thought to be a less “Mediterranean” contour. The hair that remained was lightened from Iberian black to lustrous Anglo-Irish auburn—lighter, anyway, on the silver screen.  The transformation made millions for Columbia and turned Hayworth into a star.

A big believer in the power of film music to help even a hopelessly bad movie come to life, Cohn likely commanded Vidor to devote more screen time to letting Hayworth dance—and having Kert sing for her. Predictably, there was tension between the director and his boss. The year Gilda was released Vidor sued Cohn—unsuccessfully it turned out—for various forms of abuse. Cohn claimed that cursing was the way he expressed himself.

The first of Gilda’s numbers takes place in a fancy night club in Montevideo, the city to which she has fled from luxury imprisonment in Buenos Aires at the hands of cruel husband number two (played by Glenn Ford, with whom she was often matched on screen) after the apparent death of really cruel husband number one (scarred and sinister George Macready).  The tune Hayworth appears to sing is Amado Mio—a sultry rumba. Grace Jones turned it into a gothic dance hit in the 1980s. Jones did it in black with a bolero hat in answer to Hayworth’s sumptuous tresses and costume of white with gold brocade framing a bare midriff, a hip-hugging skirt slit up almost to her navel. Hayworth slunk and twisted and twirled, her movements just behind the beat, as if reluctant to believe the words leaving her mouth: “love me forever / and let forever begin tonight.”

The voice, Ellis’s voice, was smoky yet pure, lilting yet ardent—the aural equivalent of the alluring soft focus of Hayworth close-ups: you can see and hear well enough, but all comes to you through a scrim of mystery.

The fashionable diners in the Montevideo club seated all around her go wild at the end of the three-minute interlude. These talents as a performer are barely set up earlier in the movie when a suave Argentine complements her dancing, saying she could be a professional. “I was once,” she admits. In Montevideo Hayworth descends from the stage to the table where prospective husband number three is seated: in fact, he’s an operative of husband number two. There is no reason for the spectacle other than to put Hayworth on display. Cohn always got his way.

Hayworth speaks a line of Spanish in the movie, and Glen Ford’s character reprimands her for saying something that her husband (number one at thathard-of-hearing gettingpoint) can’t understand. Ford’s line almost ventriloquizes Cohn’s own offscreen desires, demands, refashionings.

The more famous Hayworth number—a second show-stopper when by rights there should only be one—comes a few minutes later after Gilda’s kidnapping back to Buenos Aires and her old life. Drunk and depressed she appears bright, bubbly, her movements unbalanced yet poised. She has stolen the limelight in the lounge of her second husband’s (actually both husbands’) casino. Her gown is strapless and she does a striptease with one of her long black gloves. The tune, also by the brilliant songwriting pair of Doris Fisher and Allan Roberts, is “Put the Blame on Mame.” The composer’s style is not one eager for harmonic adventure: they give the Cohn what he wants: a vehicle for Hayworth’s stagey seductions. The lyrics inform us that her “shims and shakes” started the “Frisco quake”; this Mame does the coochy-coo, too. Once when pressed, Fred Astaire named Hayworth as his favorite dance partner.  Gilda goes a long way to explaining the accolade.

The voice is smoky and satin, yet luminous, too: somehow embodying the light of Hayworth’s skin and the shimmer dark of her dress, the spectacle enveloped by the smoke-filled atmosphere of the club. The music, too, is a paradox—a minor shuffle of both mischief and submission, an unsettling mix of the vampish and cooky.

Hayworth peels back her glove then flings it away to expose all the flesh stretching from her painted fingernails to a point well south of her clavicle. The music done, she leans over and points to her left hip, and confides to the leering, drooling crowd that she isn’t good with zippers. Men rush the stage, before a bouncer manhandles Gilda out of the lounge. The beleaguered wife and starlet strains at the end of her invisible shackles, then collapses. It should be a difficult scene to watch from this side of the Me Too movement.

Another film about entrapment on and off screen, The Lady from Shanghai was released a year after Gilda, in December of 1947, just a few months before Hayworth ended her four-year marriage to Orson Welles, who stars alongside his wife.  It was the pair’s only cinematic collaboration. Welles had signed on to write and direct the movie in order to get money from Cohn in order to keep his musical production of Around the World in Eighty Days’ afloat. In twisted emulation of the hated Cohn, Welles’ inflicted his own screen make-over on his wife, having her cut her hair short and bleach it blond. Cohn detested the result.

Hayworth dances once along the on-location maritime travelogue of the Lady from Shanghai, but it is a slow Latin tune heard while in Welles’s embrace, the illicit couple apparently alone in a shabby cantina in Acapulco. It’s as if the words and music of her own ethnic past and of Gilda’s song Amado mio are echoing in her ears: wanting, as those lyrics implore, to hold her lover tight forever. One thinks ahead, too, to the still shabbier whorehouse in Welles’s Touch of Evil of 1960, the broken down pianola’s plaintive melody lamenting with the sad eyes of long-ago Mexican lover (Marlene Dietrich) of Welles’ corrupt, doomed sheriff.

There is a song, too, in The Lady from Shanghai and it is Ellis who’s once again heard through Hayworth. It’s a sort of weird visual synthesis of the two numbers from Gilda, the femme fatale in a black bikini and shining blonde hair. A fuming cigarette perched between fingers draped across her bare skin, Hayworth sings her siren song while basking on the deck of the yacht archly named Circe. The chanson is another Fisher and Roberts study in urgent understatement. Against Welles’ objection, Cohn had the scene inserted into the movie, and you can feel the studio head’s perverse presence as the camera descend lecherously for the close up on prone starlet.

Welles hated the song, but Cohn, in a scheme of aural marketing that Welles’ complained bitterly of, had reworked snatches of the tune appear in almost every scene of the movie. The ruthless re-editing and radical shortening of the movie done at Cohn’s insistence was accompanied by the mogul’s junking of George Antheil’s original soundtrack—like the film itself a lost modernist classic—in favor of the incessantly cajoling, Cohnesque replacement score by Heinz Roemheld.

Hayworth’s bikini summons thoughts of the Bikini Atoll test of 1946 in which the bomb dropped carried her stenciled bombshell image below the cursive name of “Gilda.” The outraged Hayworth suspected a publicity stunt by Cohn. The nuclear topic gnaws at Welles’s film. One of the lawyer villains in The Lady from Shanghai raves about faking his own death and escaping the bombs of imminent Armageddon. Moored off another tropical island in the Caribbean, half a world away from the South Pacific, Ellis’s voice floats up from Hayworth’s lips like that the smoke from her cigarette.

We watch the magnificent wreckage of Welles’ film—the broken-down and bored; film aficionados and escapists. The smartly-dressed senior Spanish-speaking couple to our left (she hard-of-hearing and getting continual audio help from him) seems to have stepped out of the movie itself and the post-war San Francisco streets it so bleakly captures. Scattered through the seats, lone middle-aged men wrap their arms not around beautiful women but tubs of popcorn. All gaze at Hayward, following her artful moves, our eyes searching her on the sundeck, her body frozen in almost mournful stillness. But it is Ellis’s voice what comes to us, touches us, enters us, haunts us long after the curtain falls.

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DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Sex, Death, and Minuets: Anna Magdalena Bach and Her Musical NotebooksHe can be reached at  dgyearsley@gmail.com

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