Gilda (1946): Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption

Rita Hayworth in Gilda (1946)
Gilda (1946) Opening Banner

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.  

Red-

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.  

Andy Dufresne and the Rita Hayworth poster in The Shawshank Redemption
Andy Dufresne and Rita Hayworth in The Shawshank Redemption

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.

Rita Hayworth glove striptease in Gilda (1946)

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 Browning 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.

Gilda (1946) Verdict:  Had Its Day, But That Day is Done

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Rita Hayworth in Gilda (1946)

Mildred Pierce (1945): Crawford at a Crossroads

Joan Crawford in fur coat as Mildred Pierce (1945)
Mildred Pierce (1945) Opening Banner

The career of every actress—then and now—approaches a hairpin turn at around age forty.  It begins with the slap in the face the first time a star loses a coveted role to a younger woman.  The box office draw slips and no longer justifies the huge salary earned from your prior successes, leading to the potentially fatal “box office poison” designation.

The actress cannot continue doing what had previously brought her monumental success—if she tries too hard for too long, she will drive her career off a cliff.  But if she finds a way to survive this icy, harrowing turn, forty becomes the end only of her first act.  

And presents the chance to become a legend.

In 1945, Joan Crawford was going over the cliff and everybody knew it.

After eighteen years as MGM’s glamour girl, she asked to be let out of her contract because she wasn’t getting any good parts.  If it was a bluff, Louis B. Mayer called it.  He was happy to have her bloated salary and fading looks off MGM’s books.  

It looked like she’d landed on her feet when she signed a lucrative contract with Warner Brothers—she was still Joan Crawford, after all—that included control over the roles she played.

This control was nearly her undoing.

Despite the new contract, she didn’t work for two years.  Warners sent her scripts, but she kept turning them down.  It was true that many of the parts weren’t very good, but what rankled was that they were age-appropriate. 

She could not—would not—accept that she was no longer an ingenue.  

The flow of scripts slowed to a drizzle and eventually dried up.  She was gaining the reputation of being difficult to work with.  She was no longer worth the trouble.

No one was waiting for Joan Crawford’s comeback.

The realization that she may never work again ignited her fighting spirit.

She would not go gently into that good night like Garbo or Norma Shearer.

She needed a part—a good part, certainly, but she had to get off the sidelines.  She had to convince the world—and perhaps herself—that she had worth as an actress beyond youth and beauty.

She set her sights on Mildred Pierce.  Producer Jerry Wald and director Michael Curtiz were adapting James M. Cain’s novel about a woman whose tireless and unselfish efforts to provide for her daughter ultimately turn that daughter into a treacherous monster.

The producer and director had Barbara Stanwyck in mind for the title role, and it’s easy to see why.  Stanwyck—famously less vain than other stars of her caliber—had relatively little trouble adapting herself to more mature roles.  

Many times when I hear that someone else was slated to play an ultimately iconic role, it’s hard to imagine anyone else in the part.  But I can see Stanwyck as Mildred Pierce—she would’ve brought her natural style, and highlighted Mildred’s tough exterior that coated a core of vulnerability.  

But although I’d like to see the alternative universe version, I think Joan Crawford was still the right choice.  The plot of Mildred Pierce rhymes with that of Stella Dallas, and while it would’ve been interesting to watch Stanwyck play another self-sacrificing mother, Crawford had never played anyone like Mildred and thus brought a freshness to the role.

The wardrobe for a Stanwyck Mildred Pierce would likely have been entirely different—more housewife and waitress, less successful restaurateur and fading glamour girl trying to hold a younger man.

And I am just not willing to sign up for a world in which we are denied the sight of Joan Crawford as Mildred rocking those mountain high shoulder pads.

Joan Crawford as Mildred Pierce (1945)
Nobody, but nobody rocks shoulder pads like Joan Crawford

In any case, Crawford had set her sights on Mildred Pierce as her comeback vehicle and wasn’t going to let anyone—not the director’s dislike, the producer’s wavering, or her friend Stanwyck’s desire to play the part—stop her.

She fought for the part, insisting she understood Mildred better than anyone.  She even did a screen test—a humiliating comedown for an actress of her statue—to convince the skeptical director that she could bring the required gravitas to the part.

She got the role.

Mildred Pierce is a first class melodrama.  When she divorces her husband, Mildred—who had seemingly never worked outside the home before—humbles herself (much as Crawford did to get the role) by taking a job as a waitress and baking pies.  Mildred finds she has a head for business and eventually buys the restaurant.  She has more success, turning her single restaurant into a chain.  

Like Crawford, she is less successful in her personal life.  Her practical business sense does not carry over into the men she picks for romance.

The fuel that drives Mildred’s ambition is providing for her daughters, especially Veda, who has expensive taste and social climbing ambitions.  In indulging her, Mildred creates an ungrateful beast who brings them all down.

Mildred Pierce was the triumph Crawford needed.

She received the first Academy Award nomination in her long career.  Much has been made of the fact that she did not attend the Oscars due to illness.

Uncharitable readings are that she faked the illness for attention.

A more sympathetic interpretation—and the one I choose to believe—is that Joan feigned illness because she was too afraid to lose that Oscar in public.  Her career was riding on the success of Mildred Pierce and her career was her life.  Losing the Oscar didn’t mean her career was over—the movie was a success—but winning the Oscar would cement her comeback.

She won.

There is a dramatic photograph of her receiving the Oscar in bed in her hotel room, the most glamorous sick woman you ever saw.

Joan Crawford holding her Oscar for Mildred Pierce (1945) in her hotel bed

She was still Joan Crawford, after all.

She’d made the hairpin turn.

And the second—and in some ways more successful—half of her career began.

Mildred Pierce (1945) Verdict:  Give It A Shot

Want more? Click here for an index of all posts in this series, as well as source notes and suggested reading.

Joan Crawford as Mildred Pierce (1945)