Welcome to the second post in the Historic Style Crush series. The first post in the series can be found here.
Rita Hayworth was one of Hollywood’s top glamour girls of the 1940s – the pinup all the GIs had on their lockers, the “love goddess” of the silver screen. She was the star of the film Gilda (yup, the one for whom the Pinup Girl Clothing Gilda gown is named) and stared in an additional 60 films over a 37 year period: she was no flash in the pan star, that’s for sure.
But she started out in a very different sort of role – that of the exotic Spanish dancer, Magarita Cansino. Pushed by her father, who believed his daughter could be a featured dancer in movies, and with a strong family background in professional dance, young Magarita performed her first dancing film role at age eight in 1926’s short film “La Fiesta”.
As the dance partner to her father, Rita spent much of her childhood and early teenage years working in the tourist towns of Mexico. It was as a teenager that she was spotted by the head of Fox Film Corporation while working as a dancer at the Caliente Club. Following a successful screen test, she was signed for a six month contract, taking the shortened name Rita Cansino.
The roles that followed were nothing remarkable – playing the exotic foreigner, Rita made a number of dancing film appearances as Argentinian, Egyptian and Russian characters, but was never more than a pretty, vaguely exotic extra, and her contract was not renewed.
With the assistance of her future husband, she got some freelance work in a number of films. After appearing in a Columbia Pictures feature film in 1936, she was signed to a seven year contract with that company and given a number of small roles.
The change to the Rita Hayworth we know of today came when the studio boss declared that Rita’s opportunities were limited to the small number of “exotic” roles available due to her Mediterrranean appearance. Against her father’s wishes, Rita took on her Irish-English mother’s maiden name of Hayworth in order to better appeal to American audiences, and changed her Mediterranean hairline using electrolysis and hair dye (iconic as a redhead, she changed her hair colour many times for movies). Exotic dancer Magarita Cansino was gone and American dancer and actress Rita Hayworth had taken her place.
A large number of roles in minor films followed in 1937 and 1938, but it wasn’t until her important role as a “man trap” in the 1939 box office success”Only Angels Have Wings”, opposite Cary Grant and Jean Arthur, that Rita’s popularity with the public began to take off and she became Columbia Pictures’ first official “star”.
By 1940, Rita was starring in a number of feature films and was even loaned to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer to appear opposite Joan Crawford, and loaned to Warner Brothers to appear with James Cagney. Warner Brothers were so impressed with her that they wanted to buy Rita from Columbia Pictures, but the deal was turned down.
No longer just the exotic extra, Rita was now playing screen sirens in her leading roles, such as in 1941’s “Blood and Sand”. That’s not to say she didn’t make use of her dancing skills – in one of Columbia Pictures’ biggest budget films, “You’ll Never Get Rich”, she danced opposite Fred Astaire, who later admitted she was his favourite dancing partner. They partnered again the next year in musical “You Were Never Lovelier”. My own interest in Rita Hayworth as a style crush and favourite actress comes from seeing the sheer exuberance and joy she brought to her dancing roles.
One of the top stars of the 1940s, Rita continued to star in such well known films as “Cover Girl”, where she danced with Gene Kelly. Her skills in ballet, tap, ballroom and Spanish dance continued to stand her in good stead throughout the mid to late 40s, as she successfully transitioned in Technicolour films. Roles as a femme fatale such as in 1946 film noir “Gilda” showed her at her glamorous, provocative but classy best. She was proud, in later life, to have been sexy without ever having done nude scenes.
Leaving second husband Orson Welles, Rita was the first Hollywood star to become a princess when she briefly married Prince Aly Khan. The marriage was unhappy, and after the birth of a daughter, her second, she returned to America despite having wanted a life away from Hollywood.
Through the 1950s, she continued to star in successful films and win critical acclaim, but another unhappy marriage lessened her public appeal, and by the time she returned to the silver screen after a four year break, Kim Novak had become Columbia’s top star.
She continued to act and receive good reviews throughout the late 50s, the 60s, and into the early 70s, with her last film being “The Wrath of God” in 1972.
Throughout her successful film years, Rita was a beauty icon that ladies aspired to look like. Through modelling contracts with Max Factor, she promoted the concept of attainable glamour. It has been claimed by her biographer, however, that the stress and alcoholism that plagued Rita were responsible for premature aging beneath the heavy film makeup and luxurious mane of hair.