The TCM Classic Film Festival, going on its sixth consecutive year later this month, is known for its devoted following and a large, dedicated staff that keeps a monumental event running seamlessly from start to finish. Classic Hollywood guests, behind-the-scenes film programmers and prominent on-air talent bring life to the festival, giving it the vitality that has come to define this event over these past six years. This year, a major component of past festivals will be missing. The legendary Robert Osborne, the face of TCM and a tour-de-force within the film industry, is undergoing surgery the week of the festival and will be unable to appear at the event.
Osborne, approaching his 83rd birthday, still plays an essential and active role in turning the wheels that keep TCM operating. Though he has increasingly delegated hosting duties to Ben Mankiewicz in recent months, he remains a veritable powerhouse on the channel and has achieved the status of a near-deity within the community of classic film aficionados. He will be greatly missed at the festival this year, and Backlots certainly wishes him a speedy recovery.
I have met Robert Osborne a number of times, but I must say that my favorite moment with him was when he asked about my favorite film at the festival. This was a year when they had shown Cover Girl, a movie that I knew was a mutual favorite. We discussed Cover Girl and Rita Hayworth for several minutes, and I walked away thinking “I just talked to Robert Osborne about Rita Hayworth. What a story I have!” So Robert, here’s to your successful surgery–and make way for tomorrow!
In the above scene, we are presented with a dichotomy that may not be immediately apparent if one is not familiar with Rita Hayworth’s unique position in Hollywood. In The Loves of Carmen, Rita plays the legendary Carmen, made famous by the popular opera and Prosper Merimee’s book on which it was based. Carmen is a Spanish gypsy, in love with soldier Don Jose, and their love combined with Carmen’s wild nature turns tragic for them both. For Rita, playing Carmen should have been the role of a lifetime. She was fiercely proud of her Spanish blood, and her own grandmother had, like Carmen, been a Spanish woman working in a cigarette factory. But professionally, Rita was in constant limbo in regard to her identity as a Hispanic in Hollywood. The character of Carmen presents a particular irony, as Rita had been all but stripped of her Hispanic heritage within the Hollywood system.
Rita Hayworth was born Margarita Carmen Cansino in New York City to a Spanish father and an Irish-American mother. Her father had been a professional dancer in his hometown of Sevilla, Spain, and Margarita showed the same aptitude as a child. The family moved to California and she became her father’s dance partner at the age of 12. She spent her childhood performing traditional flamenco and Spanish folk dances with her father, up and down the coast between San Diego and Tijuana, Mexico. Steeped in the mixture of her father’s Spanish Roma traditions and the Mexican culture of the dance halls in which she performed, Margarita easily saw herself as Hispanic and identified with the Spanish-speaking locals of Tijuana as much as (or more than) she identified with her American peers.
Dancing with her father.
At the age of 16, Margarita garnered her first film role, a bit part in Cruz Diablo which was billed as a “Spanish Robin Hood.” From there, her career slowly grew, with small, stereotypically ethnic roles in Under the Pampas Moon, Charlie Chan in Egypt, and Paddy O’Day with Jane Withers. With her long, jet-black hair and low hairline, it was difficult for Hollywood to know where to place her in an industry dominated by white, non-Hispanic standards of beauty. In order for her potential to be realized in this milieu, shortly following her signing with Columbia in 1936, studio chief Harry Cohn began altering her image.
She underwent painful electrolysis to shorten her “ethnic” hairline, and dyed her deep black hair a light shade of red. When they were finished, she was a no longer Margarita Cansino–in addition to whitewashing her physical image, Columbia changed Margarita’s name to Rita Hayworth (a variation on her mother’s maiden name, Haworth).
For the rest of her career, Rita played either non-Hispanic characters, or Hispanic characters with an American overtone.
In Blondie on a Budget, one of her first movies after the transformation, she plays Dagwood’s old girlfriend, an all-American girl named Joan Forrester.
In You Were Never Lovelier, she plays an Argentinian, but an extremely Americanized one.
In Gilda, she plays an American living in Argentina.
In 1948, in The Loves of Carmen, Rita finally got the chance to play a character close to her own heart. But instead of Margarita Cansino in the role, we see Rita Hayworth, the product of a Hollywood that could not promote the career of a young woman with jet-black hair and a low hairline. The Loves of Carmen is a tragic double standard that is difficult to get past, but as much as the studio tried to whitewash her image, they couldn’t take away her identity. In Rita’s dance sequence in the village, Margarita Cansino is still there, dancing the way she did as a child.
This is an entry for the Hollywood’s Hispanic Heritage Blogathon. Many thanks to Kay and Aurora!
The final day of the TCM Classic Film Festival was by far the lightest in terms of screenings, but I also found it to be among the most enjoyable. One of the wonderful things about this festival, speaking for those of us who write about classic film, is that there is never any shortage of community here. The classic film writers’ world is quite a tight-knit one, and I found myself constantly surrounded with fellow bloggers and friends comparing schedules and trying to coordinate screenings, chatting in line about Barbara Stanwyck and Irene Dunne, and updating each other on what’s new on our blogs. The TCM Classic Film Festival is known for valuing bloggers, so many of us in the online classic film community received credentials this year and it was nice to put faces to names, and reunite with those I saw last year.
The first showing today was a repeat, a movie that had sold out in a previous time slot and they scheduled it in another to get more people in. It was a Ginger Rogers movie called 5th Ave Girl, directed by Gregory La Cava (of My Man Godfrey fame) and co-starring Walter Connolly, telling a story about a young woman who is hired by a lonely man to live in his house with his wife and children, and make his life a little less boring. It was not, in my opinion, a hugely successful effort, but it is a feel-good movie and it showcases Ginger’s ability to do some pretty top-notch deadpan comedy.
Interestingly, it was made in 1939, the year known as “the best year for movies,” alongside Gone With the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and Stagecoach. But in those days, studios were an essential factory line for movies, and it’s sobering to think that even in a year like 1939, the sheer amount of movies coming out of Hollywood ensures some troublesome ones. Though it was not a bad movie, it was rather slow with a bit of a loose plot that I found tedious. It is one of the few films I’ve seen at festival that I haven’t particularly liked.
Loretta Young and Walter William in EMPLOYEES’ ENTRANCE.
Next up was Employees’ Entrance, a 1933 film about a corrupt and evil boss that uses people and then throws them out. It stars Warren William as the evil boss and a young Loretta Young as the wife of his next-in-command. The boss is such a tyrant that he won’t let his employees get married, so the two have to keep their marriage secret, and the movie is about their lives and those of everybody else who is privy to the antics of this deranged person.
One of the highlights of the Employees’ Entrance screening was an informative and entertaining lecture about the pre-Code era from the president of the Film Forum in New York City, Bruce Goldstein. Goldstein gave a witty and fun overview on what the pre-Code era meant for Hollywood, and referenced several strong pre-Code films and the strong women characters that are indicative of that era.
As my readers know, I have a real fascination with the pre-Code era and I have just learned that TCM will soon be having a tribute to the women of pre-Code Hollywood, who make up some of the most exciting characters ever to be seen onscreen. Stay tuned for more details as they become available, as I will be doing a series on Backlots related to this.
Rita Hayworth and Orson Welles in THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI (1947).
My final screening of the festival was a movie that I have had the privilege of seeing before on the big screen, but this was a world premiere presentation of a new digital restoration that I was anxious to see. It was The Lady From Shanghai, a movie that presenter Eddie Muller called “noir poetry,” directed by Orson Welles and starring his recently separated wife Rita Hayworth opposite himself. The movie is notable for the brilliant “hall of mirrors” scene, and for the surprise of seeing the beautiful Rita Hayworth with short blonde hair–as well as the magnificent directing of Welles and his innovations in cinematic technique. The plot is a bit muddy, but in this case it doesn’t much matter because the focus is primarily on the visuals and Welles’ beautiful manipulation of the camera.
The restoration was gorgeous. There are some mixed feelings within the classic film community about digital restorations, and in my opinion it’s possible for a film to be “over-restored.” A few years ago I had the privilege of seeing a new digitally restored print of Pabst’s Pandora’s Box, one that was hailed as being such a superb restoration that it was near flawless. And it was a flawless restoration. To my mind, too much so. It looked computerized in how perfect it was, and it didn’t look like it came from film stock. It turned me off a little. But this one was simply a pristine clean-up–it was still clear that this was a movie that had been shot on film, and it was just the restoration that was done digitally. I enjoyed it quite a lot.
And that was the end of the TCM Classic Film Festival. I spent the rest of the evening at the closing night party, talking to friends and preparing to miss them until next year. But the good news is that we all know each other online, so it’s only goodbye to faces–not goodbye to people. Thank goodness for the internet, keeping us all connected though miles away.
A huge thank you to TCM for allowing me to attend this festival, to Chelsea Barredo for all her help with the red carpet credential, and to all the wonderful people I met and reconnected with this year. Here’s to the next one!
Today marks what would have been the 95th birthday of Rita Hayworth, the legendary screen goddess best known today for her seductive portrayal of Gilda in the 1946 film of the same name. Beautiful, long-legged, and mysterious, she was Columbia’s biggest star of the 1940’s and became a pin-up girl during the war years with a popularity rivaling that of Betty Grable. Her popularity as a sex symbol became so overwhelming that many lost sight of exactly who she was, and from whence she had come. As with the vast majority of sex symbols, she became objectified, and her career prior to her 1946 portrayal of Gilda was almost completely forgotten and her background washed away. The sex symbol image bothered her. “I’ve never really thought of myself as a sex symbol,” Hayworth once said, “more as a comedienne who could dance.” Today, on her birthday, I would like to go back to Rita Hayworth’s origins and focus on what was important to her in her life and career–dance.
Rita Hayworth’s background was almost exclusively in dance. Born Margarita Carmen Cansino into a well-known Spanish dancing family (her father was Spanish flamenco dancer Eduardo Cansino, and her mother was an American former Ziegfeld girl of Irish and English descent), she began dancing under the tutelage of her father when she was 4 years old. Eduardo soon realized that his daughter had an exceptional talent, and he eventually took her south from their home in Chula Vista, CA to the Mexican city of Tijuana where they performed as a dancing duo. Shy, quiet and self-conscious offstage, Margarita came alive when she danced and audience members often noticed the dichotomy between the fiery creature dancing onstage and the silent girl they witnessed offstage. The experience dancing with her father in Tijuana certainly honed Margarita’s dancing abilities, and it was there that she learned the ins and outs of show business, something that would help her when she soon went to Hollywood.
During her years working in Tijuana with her father.
Rita’s Hollywood career began in a small role in a movie entitled Under the Pampas Moon, and from there her roles increased in frequency if not in quality, until Hollywood finally noticed her in the late 1930s. After some Hollywood grooming which included painful electrolysis to raise her “ethnic” hairline, she was paired with dancing great Fred Astaire with whom she starred in 2 movies, You’ll Never Get Rich and You Were Never Lovelier.
In You Were Never Lovelier, Rita and Fred danced what I consider to be one of the most phenomenal and challenging technical routines in movie history. The “Shorty George” number from this film truly demonstrates how skilled Rita was as a dancer, and how easy it was to watch her, still a relative novice at this point, in lieu of Fred Astaire. All eyes draw toward her, and she is the star of this complex routine. In spite of his legendary partnership with Ginger Rogers, Fred Astaire always called Rita his favorite dancing partner. He recalled how gifted and quick she was in learning the most advanced routines–often learning the steps in the morning, mulling over them during lunch, and after lunch performing the dance without a single mistake.
Rita also seemed to have a propensity to use dance when life became difficult for her. She was always an intensely insecure person, and this caused problems in her relationships. Orson Welles recalled that, when they married in 1943, he would often set her up with a record of Spanish music in a private room, and just let her dance out her anxiety. Her experiences with her father in Tijuana seemed to be the catalyst for both her affinity for dance and her anxiety. According to Barbara Leaming in her biography If This Was Happiness, the situation brought out the worst in Eduardo in regard to his relationship with his talented pre-teen daughter. Leaming conducted interviews with Orson Welles in which he revealed years of physical and sexual abuse Rita endured at the hands of her father. As can be expected from these early traumas, Rita’s relationship with her father was severely damaged and it is almost certain that her many destructive relationships with men were results of these cruel experiences. Yet this seemed to only solidify her tendency to use dance as an outlet and means of expression during hard times, one upon which she relied for her whole life.
At the end of her life, when Rita was unable to communicate due to the ravages of Alzheimer’s Disease, her daughter Yasmin often put music on and watched as Rita’s feet began to move rhythmically, as if she were remembering her life as a dancer. Her ability to dance was one of the last things to go–a glimmer of solace in the terrible world of Alzheimer’s Disease.
Well readers, the 2013 TCM Classic Film Festival has come to a close. It has been a busy and very exciting 4 days, and your author is at once exhilarated, exhausted, and ready for next year!
In my humble opinion, this 4th day held the best lineup of the festival. Gilda was first on the agenda at the Egyptian Theatre, and though I had seen it on the big screen once before I was all too eager to see it again. The movie tells a story that is complex and hard to follow,but in all truth, the movie is not about the story. The audience is too busy watching Rita Hayworth to have any time for following a plot anyway. It is the ultimate noir, almost a caricature of the genre, and it really seems as though everything that happens when Rita Hayworth is offscreen is just filler. Rita is the heart and soul of the movie, and because of her, the film is considered to be one of the great noir films of all time. Instead of trying to describe Rita in this movie with words, I will give you some clips so that if you haven’t seen this film, you will see what Gilda is all about.
Hayworth’s performance is rendered even more stunning when one examines who she was offscreen. By all accounts sweet, quiet, and timid, Rita Hayworth was the antithesis of the character of Gilda. She only gave a handful of interviews in her life due to paralyzing shyness, and Louella Parsons (who had met Rita as a teenager just starting her career) noted that she could barely look strangers in the eye. Here she is sultry, sexy, steamy, and an all-around tiger with every man she meets. Suffice it to say, I am of the opinion that Rita Hayworth was robbed of an Oscar nomination for this role.
Our next event happened in Club TCM, a discussion with Cari Beauchamp about women writers in early Hollywood, focusing specifically on Frances Marion. Beauchamp has produced a documentary on Frances Marion, and offered fascinating insight into who she was as a woman, as a writer, and as a member of a fledgling industry. Marion was extremely prolific–one surprising trivia bit Beauchamp related was that out of the 9 pictures nominated for Best Picture at the 1st Academy Awards, Frances Marion had written 7 of them. She eventually left the industry as it became increasingly production- and output-oriented, and she decided to pursue other tasks in which she did not have to compete. She became an accomplished sculptor and painter in her later years.
I must say that I find Cari Beauchamp to be one of the most fun, enthusiastic, and accessible film historians I have ever come across. She is a renowned scholar, and has written highly respected biographies and documentaries, yet her presentations are always down-to-earth and casual, with plenty of humor and no shortage of one-liners. As an example of a classic Cari Beauchamp utterance, she referred to the papers of Fred Thomson (Frances Marion’s husband), noting: “His stuff on de Mille is freaking hilarious.” She is very popular among us young classic film bloggers, enthusiasts, and devotees!
Next up was It Happened One Night, introduced by Cari Beauchamp once again. She pointed out a number of the continuity errors in the movie, ones which I had never noticed in my literally dozens of times seeing this movie. For example, in the famous “Man on the Flying Trapeze” number, the inside of the bus is rocking back and forth while the outside stays still. At one point, Claudette Colbert’s handkerchief disappears and reappears a number of times. The road Clark Gable drives on sometimes has a line, sometimes does not. Regardless of these errors, this movie remains the cream of the screwball comedy crop–one of the very first, and one of the very best.
The next movie was one I was very excited to see–not only is The General (1926) Buster Keaton’s best known film and arguably (or not arguably) his best, but the movie was to be shown at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, giving it the majestic treatment it deserves. The movie is about a young engineer in Georgia during the Civil War who wants to enlist in the army but is rejected because he would be more use to the South as an engineer. However, when he sits on the wheel of a train to think, the train starts and he is carried to an army base. Buster Keaton antics ensue, and he ends up foiling deserters, hearing enemy plots, and derailing trains from the North. It is Buster Keaton on a grand scale, and his antics are more polished and refined in this movie than they are in his shorts or even his other feature films. I am used to a Buster Keaton whose comedy is mostly slapstick, but this film highlights his ability to create subtle humor through facial expressions. One scene in particular stands out for me–when Buster sees yet another obstacle in his path, he expresses his incredulity through blinks of his eyes. It gives the audience a clear view of what he is feeling, yet Buster never for a minute lets go of his famous deadpan face.
Keaton was also known for dangerous stunts that he performed himself. Here are some stunts from the movie that demonstrate what he was capable of.
The General marked the final event of the TCM Classic Film Festival. A closing night party tied off the festivities, during which we said goodbye to friends and acquaintances that we met here, and even made plans to meet up again before the next festival. I always have fun at the TCM Classic Film Festival, and I can’t wait for next year!
Thank you, dear readers, for following along during these 4 days that seem to have gone by so quickly. I hope you enjoyed this coverage, and I will be resuming regular blogging duties upon arrival back home, including catching up on the Carole Lombard Filmography Project.
Backlots is devoted to honoring and celebrating all aspects of classic film and is written by Lara Gabrielle, a California-based classic film writer and historian. Lara is the author of CAPTAIN OF HER SOUL: The Life of Marion Davies (UC Press, 2022).
Here you will find pieces on frequently seen classics and some lesser-known gems, as well as book reviews, festival coverage, and pieces on the history, theory and culture of film as it relates to the study of classic cinema.
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AFFILIATIONS & AWARDS
2019 CMBA Award for Best Profile of Classic Movie Performer or Filmmaker--"The Activism of Myrna Loy"
Winner of the 2018 CiMBA Award for Best Classic Movie Series, BACKLOTS AT THE COURTHOUSE: OLIVIA DE HAVILLAND VS. FX
Winner of the 2014 CiMBA Award for Best Profile of a Classic Movie Performer or Filmmaker: A Q&A WITH JOAN FONTAINE IN HONOR OF HER 96TH BIRTHDAY
Winner of the 2011 CiMBA Award for Best Classic Movie Discussion, THE FINAL SCENE OF THE HEIRESS
I am honored to be a judge of the Animal Film Festival in Grass Valley, CA.
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Walter Pidgeon and Greer Garson in "Mrs. Miniver."