You may not know it, but you’ve seen Gilda.
In the 1994 film The Shawshank Redemption, Morgan Freeman and Tim Robbins play inmates in the Shawshank State Penitentiary. In a famous scene, Andy Dufresne (Robbins) slides into the seat behind Red (Freeman) in the prison’s crowded movie theater.
“Wait, wait, wait, wait,” Red insists, holding up a hand. His eyes are transfixed on the giant movie screen before him. “Here she comes. This is the part I really like. This is when she does that shit with her hair.”
“Oh yeah, I know,” Andy says with a smile. “I’ve seen it three times this month.”
We then see what has Red and Andy transfixed. A black and white film, two men in suits walking into a room.
“Gilda, are you decent?” one asks.
The camera closes in on a woman who throws her head back and Rita Hayworth’s face fills the frame.
“Me?” she asks with a mile-wide smile and anything-but-decent voice.
The prisoners hoot and holler, Red laughs, and Andy smiles.
The Shawshank Redemption is based on the Stephen King novella with the lengthier title Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption. As anyone familiar with the film or novella knows, Andy escapes by spending years digging a tunnel out of his cell, which he covers with a poster of Rita Hayworth.
When it came to having a poster of Rita Hayworth hanging on his wall, Andy Dufresne was in good company. The poster in the film was made from a famous shot of Hayworth taken by Bob Landry for the August 11, 1941 issue of Life magazine. It became one of the most popular pin-ups of American troops during World War II.
If you watch Gilda—or even just the few seconds of her that show up in The Shawshank Redemption, you know why Stephen King, Andy Dufresne, and millions of G.I.’s picked Rita Hayworth as their preferred pin-up girl.
Rita Hayworth looks good on a poster. But looking good on a poster is modeling, not acting.
Gilda is a film mostly remembered for two scenes, both showcasing Hayworth’s innate sex appeal. The first is her opening scene in the film as showcased in Shawshank. In the second, Gilda dons a black strapless gown and long black gloves and sings “Put the Blame on Mame” to an appreciative crowd. During the song, she yet again “does that shit with her hair” before slowly rolling down one glove and discarding it. This one glove striptease—the director didn’t dare risk having Hayworth remove both gloves—shocked and titillated audiences of 1946 as much as anything on the screen today.
Rita Hayworth’s Gilda is seductive and mysterious, equalling loving and hating her one-time lover and eventual husband Johnny Farrell. She drives Farrell mad by playing the part of a femme fatale, though in truth she only has eyes for him.
Yet outside those two scenes, Gilda drags. Johnny Farrell and Gilda sparring mostly falls flat, and it’s hard to understand why they love and hate one another so deeply. The twist that Gilda is not a femme fatale but has been faithful to both her husbands is obvious to the audience and only makes Johnny look like a fool for suspecing her of serial infidelity.
Rita Hayworth’s femme fatale lacks the chilling calculation of Stanwyck in Double Indemnity or the confident sex appeal of Lauren Bacall’s Slim Browing in To Have and Have Not.
Part of the problem is that Hayworth’s true talent was dancing, and she doesn’t get to do much of that here. She was as good a dancer as Ginger Rogers and made two well-danced but mostly forgotten films with Fred Astaire.
But the best stars of the golden age have what the French call je ne sais quoi, an indefinable charisma that you can’t look away from, no matter how bad the film.
Whatever it is that makes audiences want to watch films that are seventy-five years old, Rita Hayworth doesn’t have it.
There’s no shame in it. Most people don’t.