Rita Hayworth (October 17, 1918 – May 14, 1987) was an American film actress and dancer who attained fame during the 1940s not only as one of the era’s top stars, but also as the era’s greatest sex symbol, most notably in Gilda (1946). She appeared in 61 films over 37 years and is listed as one of the American Film Institute‘s Greatest Stars of All Time.
Born Margarita Carmen Cansino in Brooklyn, New York City, she was the daughter of flamenco dancer Eduardo Cansino, Sr., who was himself a Spaniard from Seville, and Ziegfeld girl Volga Hayworth who was of Irish and English descent. She was raised as a Roman Catholic. Her father wanted her to become a dancer while her mother hoped she would become an actress. Her grandfather, Antonio Cansino, was the most renowned exponent in his day of Spain’s classical dances; he made the bolero famous. His dancing school in Madrid was world famous. He gave Hayworth her first instruction in dancing.
“I didn’t like it very much,” revealed Hayworth, “but I didn’t have the courage to tell my father, so I began taking the lessons. Rehearse, rehearse, rehearse, that was my girlhood.”
“From the time I was three and a half,” Hayworth said, “. . . as soon as I could stand on my own feet, I was given dance lessons.” She attended dance classes every day for a few years in a Carnegie Hall complex under the instruction of her uncle Angel Cansino.
By the age of eight, Cansino and his family had moved west to Hollywood, where he established his own dance studio. Famous Hollywood luminaries received specialized training from Cansino himself, including James Cagney and Jean Harlow.
“Put The Blame On Mame” Rita’s voice was dubbed by Anita Ellis
Rita Hayworth’s rise to fame was a silver lining of the Great Depression. The family’s investments were wiped out instantly. Musicals were no longer in vogue. Interest in her father’s work collapsed as dancing classes were no longer foremost on anybody’s mind during difficult economic times. But, when his nephew’s dancing partner in a theater play broke a leg, her mother suggested her daughter could replace him: “Margarita can do it!”[attribution needed]
Her mother’s idea led to her father having an epiphany. He saw his daughter could be his partner in a dancing team called “The Dancing Cansinos”. Since Hayworth was not of legal age to work in nightclubs and bars according to California state law, she and her father traveled across the border to the city of Tijuana in Mexico, a popular tourist spot for Los Angeles citizens in the early 1930s. Hayworth performed in such spots as the Foreign Club and the Caliente Club.
Rita with Fred Astaire in “You’ll Never Get Rich” The song is, “So Near And Yet So Far.”
It was at the Caliente Club where Hayworth was first discovered by the head of the Fox FilmCorporation, Winfield Sheehan. A week later, Hayworth was brought to Hollywood to make a screen test for Fox. Impressed by her screen persona, Sheehan signed Hayworth (who was now being referred to as Rita Cansino) to a short-term six-month contract.
During her time at Fox, Hayworth appeared in five pictures, in which her roles were neither important nor memorable. By the end of her six-month contract, Fox had now merged into Twentieth Century-Fox, with Darryl F. Zanuck serving as the executive producer. Taking little concern for Sheehan’s interest in her, Zanuck decided not to renew her contract.
By this time, Hayworth was eighteen years old and she married businessman Edward C. Judson, who was twice her age. Feeling that Hayworth still had screen potential, despite just being dropped by Fox, Judson managed to get her the lead roles in several independent films and finally managed to arrange a screen test for her with Columbia Pictures. Studio head Harry Cohn soon signed her to a long-term contract, slowly casting Hayworth in small roles in Columbia features.
Without a doubt, my favorite clip of Rita and Fred Astaire from the motion picture, You Were Never Lovelier” singing and dancing to the Jerome Kern-Johnny Mercer tune, “I’m Old Fashioned” Rita’s voice is dubbed by Nan Wynn.
Cohn argued that Hayworth’s image was too much of a Latin style, which caused Hayworth to be cast into stereotypical Hispanic roles. She began to undergo a painful electrolysis to broaden her forehead and accentuate her widow’s peak. When Hayworth returned to Columbia, she had transformed into a redhead and changed her name to Rita Hayworth (Hayworth from her mother’s maiden name).
Hayworth had an awkward transition from teen nightclub dancer to major movie star. She was a dancer first and foremost; acting was an afterthought seen as a way to earn a living.
Gossip columnist Louella Parsons did not think Hayworth would be successful. She met Hayworth just when she was starting out, and saw her as a “painfully shy” girl who “couldn’t look strangers in the eye” and whose voice was so low it could hardly be heard.
In 1935, when Hayworth was 17, she was dropped from the movie Ramona and replaced by Loretta Young. “It was the worst disappointment of my life,” Hayworth said. She was devastated but did not give up. In 1937, she appeared in five minor Columbia pictures and three minor independent movies. In 1938, Hayworth appeared in five more Columbia B films.
In 1939, Cohn pressured director Howard Hawks to use Hayworth for a small but important role as a man-trap in the aviation drama, Only Angels Have Wings, in which she played opposite Cary Grant and Jean Arthur. A large box-office success, fan mail for Hayworth began pouring into Columbia’s publicity department and Cohn began to see Hayworth as his first and official new star (the studio had never officially had large stars under contract, except for Jean Arthur, who was trying to break out of her Columbia contract).
Cohn began to build Hayworth up the following year, in features such as Music in My Heart, The Lady in Question, and Angels Over Broadway. He even loaned Hayworth out to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer to appear in Susan and God, opposite Joan Crawford.
On loan to Warner Brothers, Hayworth appeared as the second female lead in The Strawberry Blonde (1941), opposite James Cagney and Olivia de Havilland. A large box-office success, Hayworth’s popularity rose and she immediately became one of Hollywood’s hottest properties. So impressed was Warner Brothers that they tried to buy Hayworth’s contract from Columbia, but Harry Cohn refused to release her.
“Poor John” from the 1944 film, Cover Girl. Rita’s voice is dubbed by Martha Mears
Her success in that film led to an even more important supporting role in Blood and Sand (1941), opposite Tyrone Power and Linda Darnell, ironically by Fox, the studio that had dropped her six years before. In one of her most notable screen roles, Hayworth played the first of many screen sirens as the temptress Dona Sol des Muire. This was another box-office smash, Hayworth receiving strong critical acclaim.
Hayworth returned in triumph to Columbia Pictures and was cast in the musical, You’ll Never Get Rich (1941), opposite Fred Astaire in one of the highest-budgeted films Columbia had ever made. So successful was the picture that the following year, another Astaire-Hayworth picture was released You Were Never Lovelier. In 1942, Hayworth also appeared in two other pictures, Tales of Manhattan and My Gal Sal.
It was during this period that Hayworth posed for a famous pin-up in Life Magazine, which showed her in a negligee perched seductively over her bed. When the U.S. joined World War II in December 1941, Hayworth’s image was admired by millions of servicemen, making her one of the top two pin-up girls of the war years, the other being creamy blonde Betty Grable. In 2002, the satin nightgown she wore for the picture sold for $26,888.
Rita Hayworth was called the “Love Goddess.” (One biopic and one biography used the moniker in reference to her.) Despite being a sex symbol, due to her Spanish heritage of female decency she showed discretion. “Everybody else does nude scenes,” Hayworth said, “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.”
For three consecutive years, starting in 1944, Rita Hayworth was named one of the top movie box office attractions in the world. In 1944, she made one of her best-known films, the Technicolor musical Cover Girl (1944), with Gene Kelly. The film established her as Columbia’s top star of the 1940s. Although her singing voice was dubbed in her films, Hayworth’s exuberant and powerful dancing set her apart from the other top musical stars of the day, as she was equally adept in ballet, tap, ballroom, and Spanish routines. Cohn continued to effectively showcase Hayworth’s talents in Technicolor films: Tonight and Every Night (1945), with Lee Bowman, and Down to Earth (1947), with Larry Parks.
Her erotic appeal was most notable in Charles Vidor‘s black-and-white film noir Gilda (1946), with Glenn Ford, which encountered some difficulty with censors. This role–in which Hayworth in black satin performed a legendary one-glove striptease–made her into a cultural icon as the ultimate femme fatale. Alluding to her bombshell status, in 1946 her likeness was placed on the first nuclear bomb to be tested after World War II (at Bikini Atoll in the Pacific Ocean‘s Marshall Islands) as part of Operation Crossroads.
Hayworth performed one of her best-remembered dance routines, the samba from Tonight and Every Night (1945), while pregnant with her first child, Rebecca Welles (daughter with Orson Welles). Hayworth was also the first dancer to partner with both Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly on film–the others being Judy Garland, Cyd Charisse, Vera-Ellen, and Leslie Caron.
Hayworth delivered one of her most acclaimed performances in Welles’s The Lady from Shanghai (1948). Its failure at the box office was attributed in part to director/co-star Welles having had Hayworth’s famous red locks cut off and the remainder of her hair dyed blonde for her role. This was done without Cohn’s knowledge or approval and he was furious over the change. Her next film, The Loves of Carmen (1948), again with Glenn Ford, was the first film co-produced by Columbia and Hayworth’s own production company, The Beckworth Corporation (named for her daughter Rebecca); it was Columbia’s biggest moneymaker for that year. She received a percentage of the profits from this and all her subsequent films until 1955 when she dissolved Beckworth to pay off debts she owed to Columbia.
Hayworth had a strained relationship with Columbia Pictures for many years. In 1943, she was suspended without pay for nine weeks because she refused to appear in My Client Curley. (During this period in Hollywood actors did not get to choose their films as they do today; they also had salaries instead of a fixed amount per picture.) In 1945, Hayworth received notice of her suspension by her employers, Columbia Pictures, “on the day she entered the maternity hospital in Hollywood.”
In 1947, Rita Hayworth’s new contract with Columbia provided a salary of US$250,000 plus 50% of film profits. In 1951 Columbia alleged it had $800,000 invested in properties for her, including the film she walked out on when she left Hollywood and married Aly Khan. She was suspended again for failing to report for work, this time for Affair in Trinidad. In 1952 she refused to report for work because “she objected to the script.” In 1955, she sued to get out of a contract with the studio, asking for her $150,000 salary, alleging filming failed to start work when agreed.
“I was in Switzerland when they sent me the script for Affair in Trinidad and I threw it across the room. But I did the picture, and Pal Joey too. I came back to Columbia because I wanted to work and first, see, I had to finish that goddamn contract, which is how Harry Cohn owned me!”
“Harry Cohn thought of me as one of the people he could exploit,” alleged Hayworth, “and make a lot of money. And I did make a lot of money for him, but not much for me.”
Hayworth was still upset with Columbia and its head Harry Cohn many years after her film career had ended and he was dead. “I used to have to punch a time clock at Columbia,” lamented Hayworth. “Every day of my life. That’s what it was like. I was under exclusive contract — like they owned me… He felt that he owned me… I think he had my dressing room bugged… He was very possessive of me as a person — he didn’t want me to go out with anybody, have any friends. No one can live that way. So I fought him … You want to know what I think of Harry Cohn? He was a monster.”
Another source of “gnawing resentment” for Hayworth was her studio’s failure to train her to sing or even encourage her to learn how to sing. She was dubbed. The public didn’t know this closely guarded secret, and she ended up embarrassed because she was constantly asked by the troops to sing.
“I wanted to study singing,” Hayworth complained, “but Harry Cohn kept saying, ‘Who needs it?’ and the studio wouldn’t pay for it. They had me so intimidated that I couldn’t have done it anyway. They always said, ‘Oh, no, we can’t let you do it. There’s no time for that; it has to be done right now!’ I was under contract, and that was it.”
Although Cohn had a reputation as a hard taskmaster, he also had legitimate criticisms of Hayworth. He had invested heavily in her before she began a reckless affair with a married man (Aly Khan) even though it could have caused a backlash against her career and Columbia’s success. Indeed a British newspaper called for a boycott of Hayworth’s films. “Hollywood must be told,” said The People, “its already tarnished reputation will sink to rock bottom if it restores this reckless woman to a place among its stars.”
Cohn himself expressed his frustration with Hayworth’s relationships in an interview with Time magazine. “Hayworth might be worth ten million dollars today easily! She owned 25% of the profits with her own company and had hit after hit and she had to get married and had to get out of the business and took a suspension because she fell in love again! In five years, at two pictures a year, at 25%! Think of what she could have made! But she didn’t make pictures! She took two or three suspensions! She got mixed up with different characters! Unpredictable!”
After her marriage to Aly Khan collapsed in 1951, Hayworth returned to America with great fanfare to star in a string of hit films: Affair in Trinidad (1952) with favorite co-star Glenn Ford, Salome (1953) with Charles Laughton and Stewart Granger, and Miss Sadie Thompson (1953) with José Ferrer and Aldo Ray, for which her performance won critical acclaim. Then she was off the big screen for another four years, due mainly to a tumultuous marriage to singer Dick Haymes.
After making Fire Down Below (1957) with Robert Mitchum and Jack Lemmon, and her last musical Pal Joey (1957) with Frank Sinatra and Kim Novak, Hayworth finally left Columbia. She received good reviews for her acting in such films as Separate Tables (1958) with Burt Lancaster and David Niven, and The Story on Page One (1960) with Anthony Franciosa, and continued working throughout the 1960s. In 1962, her planned Broadway debut in Step on a Crack was cancelled for health reasons.
Rita Hayworth was a top glamour girl in the 1940s. She was a pin-up girl for military servicemen and a beauty icon for women. At 5’6″ (168 cm) and 120-lb (55 kgs) she was tall for women of her time and her height was a concern to her movie star dancing partners like Fred Astaire.
Hayworth got her big motion picture break because she was willing to change her hair color whereas another actress was unwilling. She changed her hair color eight times in eight movies.
Although she was never a fashion icon, Hayworth had a unique beauty style. From the time she became a celebrity until she died she had natural long nails. “I take care of my nails myself,” she said. “I find my cuticle never tears and my nails don’t break if I rub cream into them every night.” She was once the cover girl of Nails magazine. In 1940 she started a manicure trend. Hers were longer than previously worn, more oval than pointed, and fully covered with shocking pink polish. (Previously there was no polish covering the moon of the nail or the tip.)
Barbara Leaming writes in her biography of Hayworth If This Was Happiness: A Biography of Rita Hayworth (1989), that due to her fondness for alcohol and stressful lifestyle, Hayworth aged before her time. Re-appearing in New York to begin work on her first film in three years in 1956 “despite the artfully applied make-up and shoulder-length red hair, there was no concealing the ravages of drink and stress. Deep lines had crept around her eyes and mouth, and she appeared worn, exhausted — older than her thirty-eight years.” Leaming goes on to report that on the filming of Fire Down Below she overheard a remark apparently unintended for her ears that she should hurry up as ‘no amount of time was going to make her look any younger.’ Additionally, while in San Francisco the following year filming Pal Joey she was signing autographs when one fan blurted out ‘She looks so old’. In the first case Hayworth is reported to have cried and in the second, although she blanked it at the time, it was clear that her premature aging was a sensitive subject to her. It was also one which meant she had to be carefully lit in films for the rest of her career.
Naturally shy and reclusive, Hayworth was the antithesis of the characters she played. “I naturally am very shy,” she said, “and I suffer from an inferiority complex.” She once complained, “Men fell in love with Gilda, but they wake up with me.” With typical modesty she later remarked that the only films she could watch without laughing were the dance musicals she made with Fred Astaire. “I guess the only jewels of my life,” Hayworth said, “were the pictures I made with Fred Astaire.”
Hayworth had two younger brothers: Vernon Cansino and Eduardo Cansino, Jr. They were both soldiers in World War II. Vernon left the United States Army in 1946 with several medals, including the Purple Heart. He married Susan Vail, a dancer. Eduardo Cansino Jr. followed Hayworth into acting; he was also under contract with Columbia Pictures. In 1950 he made his screen debut in Magic Carpet.
Elisa Cansino, her aunt, ran a dancing school in San Francisco. Her nephew Richard Cansino, is a voice actor in anime and video games; he has done most of his work under the name “Richard Hayworth.”
Barbara Leaming claims in her bio book, If This Was Happiness: A Biography of Rita Hayworth (1989), that as a child and teenager, Hayworth was a victim of physical and sexual abuse by her father. Leaming also claims that through her life, Hayworth was never without a boyfriend for long, with her choice of partners becoming increasingly poor.
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