Gilda -1946

Nobody asked for it, but I told @thebookofmaev I’d do it so here are some thoughts about Gilda.

I’ve long been fascinated by the way the movie Gilda has I pop culture, especially because it’s such a weird movie that it’s kind of amazing that it has any hold on the pop culture imagination decades after its release. I first heard of the movie because of its use in The Shawshank Redemption. Since then I’ve seen the poster become the inspiration for the amnesiac in Mulholland Drive to take her new name, Rita. (On the Criterion Election edition of the movie film noir historian Eddie Muller ponders if audience reactions to Gilda in 1946 might have been like the reactions to Mulholland Drive in 2001.)  In iZombie’s second season the protagonist Liv’s duplicitous roommate was known as Gilda to her but Rita in her work life at Max Rager.  Part of why it continues to be used as a reference is related to Rita Hayworth’s famous comment that every man who she loved fell for Gilda but woke up with her. And the difficulty in distinguishing an actor from their best known role is kind of fascinating. But why is Gilda Hayworth’s best known role? And why is there such a difference between what people think of the Rita/Gilda and the actual Gilda of the movie?

When I was a kid and looking for an entrance point to be better rounded in film appreciation I got this book, Chick Flicks.  (I don’t have it anymore, I through it out during some purge phase where I wanted to replace these kinds of books with more serious film criticism.) It listed Gilda in its section on “Bad Girls”, and one thing I remember it saying that the ending attempt to say that she was never really bad is total bullshit. I’ve never found anyone who thinks that the ending makes sense or is satisfying. (But I’m building an appreciation unsatisfactory endings for stories that I don’t think can have them.)  Also now, about twenty years after that book was written and over seventy since the movie came out, I don’t thing Gilda does much that’s bad, other than not give-up on Johnny sooner. I watched the movie once around 1999 and didn’t get the appeal.

The other thing I remember Chick Flicks discussing was the overt homoeroticism between Johnny and Ballin. Why did people like it back then? Why doeIt was while commenting on this to my father who insisted that it was something later audiences read into the film, not part of the text that I realized that he had never seen it. For years when the movie came on TV I’d make a comment about how I didn’t get the movie, and my parents would basically shrug and not watch it. Realizing Dad hadn’t actually seen it made me want to revisit it with him just so I could prove that the Johnny/Ballin thing is really overt, not just something later audiences tack onto it. Before watching it I told my sister about the plan and why I wanted Dad to see it and she decided to join us and commented on it through the whole movie. When I later asked Dad what he thought of it he said something like “I didn’t know they made movies like that back then.”  As for how much of this was understood while making the movie, Glenn Ford allegedly said late in life that they knew about the gay subtext making the film. In the same interview with Muller I mentioned earlier he discusses watching the film with director Charles Vidor’s ex-wife, Evelyn Keyes, and that during the movie she pointed out that one movie was Vidor’s regular code for fellatio and that it appears in many of his movies. Even though the scene was between Gilda and Johnny, this convicted Muller that all erotic subtext in the film was very intentional. So let’s just go with it was intentional.

Anyway taking this excuse to rewatch the film allowed me to find a way to enjoy the film. I’ve sometimes heard it compared to other movies of the era like Notorious (American’s in South America with escaped Nazis) and Casablanca (a surprise reunion between ex lovers in a time of political intrigue, also battling Nazis.) But those movies are about people with purpose, or the potential to find purpose. Which is to say, the plot matters to them, the plot in Gilda might best be understood as something to escape.  Those are war time movies, this is a post war one, and it is filled with the not-quite-knowing-what-to-do-now-malaise. It’s definitely noir and like another film from the same year and genre as The Big Sleep it really doesn’t care about the plot. (I was so relieved to realize that no one really follows the plot of The Big Sleep. Raymond Chandler wrote the novel on which it was based didn’t care who the killer was, couldn’t remember when asked. Maybe you have to approach these movies with the expectation that it won’t make sense.)

The post war aspect is probably really important in understanding the films reception. Hayworth was one of, If not the most popular pin-ups among the US troops. Also this was the first movie she made after giving birth to her and Orson Welles’s daughter, Rebecca. So it came after a period where her still image was at its most prolific, but there hadn’t been new movies for a while, creating an extra potency.

I have read that in someways the film is a deconstruction of the whole Rita Hayworth persona, as it existed at the point. Unfortunately I can’t remember where I read that interpretation, but as part of the Hayworth mystique is how she had her Extreme Hollywood Makeover to make her look less Spanish, and only then could she actually get cast in frequently Hispanic roles it’s notable that this movie takes place in Latin America, she speaks Spanish and he doesn’t. It’s a big part of why Johnny doesn’t trust her. Johnny may read her language skills as proof that she can keep secrets. But because he’s paranoid and jealous he’s missing the other truth about this, which is that she’s got a much fuller picture of what’s going on around them. She realizes just how bad Ballin is while Johnny is too jealous and besotted to do so. Some of her infidelity could just be she knows she needs to get away from Ballin and needs someone to facilitate that. She does have something of a blind spot for Johnny, or she’s so good at baiting him she doesn’t realize that he really doesn’t want to listen to her. 

(She actually tells her dance partner that it was a pleasure to have danced with him.)

(Another film noir of the period, Laura, also has a plot  driven by how the men in her life obsesses over Laura, but also refuse to take an interest in what she’s like as a person. Maybe this knowledge is driving most femme fatales.)

I was kind of surprised to realize that this was one of FIVE movies that Hayworth and Ford made together. (Gilda is the second one of these.) For a little perspective Fred Astaire and Ginger Rodgers mad ten movies together, Clark Gabel and Jean Harlow made six, Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn made nine, but outside of certain circles I don’t think anyone considers them one of the great screen pairings. And part of the reason why has to be that while this may be the ultimate Rita Hayworth film, it’s kind of a curious road not taken direction for Ford’s on screen persona. For most of his career he played an upstanding good guy. Last summer I watched a movie he made in 1962, Experiment in Terror, and the TCM host talked about how he had such a reliable good guy persona, the type of guy you’d look to for help moving. You wouldn’t get that at all from Gilda! Even the classic noir The Big Heat his decent guy persona is so in place that he almost doesn’t fit with all the seediness and corruption around him. (Though if you look at the promo photos of Ford and Hayworth from Gilda and the ones of Ford and Gloria Grahame in The Big Heat, there are some similarities.) But he’s so willing to be completely unlikable, and an ass here that I kind of wonder what it would have been like if he had more roles like it? Could potentially through a real wrinkle in what we think of as film noir.

The film is so totally uninterested in its own supposed plot, that I found it strangely entertaining – you could almost feel the writers scribbling “because reasons” and figuring they’d work out something that made sense later on. I think it ultimately lets the film down, in that Ballin has very little MENACE – he’s threatening to Gilda and Johnny (maybe), but not in any wider sense. I described as Notorious-but-dumb, and I think one of the ways that really shows is in the sense – or rather the lack thereof – of the nefarious Nazi schemers posing a legitimate threat.

I do think Johnny is interesting as a character in being so completely unlikeable – he’s not helpless enough to be the kind of schmuck you can root for, and his behaviour with Gilda escalated into genuinely disturbing territory. I wouldn’t say though that he had noticeably sizzling chemistry with Rita Hayworth – I may never have warmed much to Spencer Tracy, but I can see why he was cast with Katharine Hepburn so often – which may factor into that pairing not making a bigger impact.

The turn at the end, where they decide to go back to the good, pure United States, far away from all the evil sex and violence and crime associated with FOREIGN parts is as neat an allegory for American isolationism as I can think of – particularly because Johnny and Gilda are so blind to the fact that their problem isn’t where they are, but WHO they are.