COVER GIRL: The Pearl of Columbia, 1944

December 12, 2017 - 8:57am
Posted by Jim Healy


These notes on Cover Girl (1944) were written by Amanda McQueen, faculty assistant in UW Madison’s Department of Communication Arts. A newly restored 4K DCP of Cover Girl will screen in our regular venue, 4070 Vilas Hall, on Friday, December 15 at 7 p.m.

By Amanda McQueen

In 1942, Bob Taplinger, publicity chief at Columbia Pictures, hit upon an idea for a film and magazine tie-up, in which real-life models would be featured in a musical, appropriately titled Cover Girl. Fifteen publications, including Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, Cosmopolitan, Ladies Home Journal, and Look, agreed to participate. These publicity stunt origins are belied, however, by the ingenuity and skill that Gene Kelly brought to the finished picture. Though not as well-known as the musicals he would subsequently make with MGM’s famous Freed Unit, Cover Girl first showed the world what Kelly was capable of and launched him to stardom.

From the start, Cover Girl was intended for Rita Hayworth, Columbia’s biggest star and the favorite pin-up girl for millions of GIs, but the studio struggled to transform Taplinger’s concept into a suitable screenplay. Ultimately, Columbia chief Harry Cohn brought in Virginia Van Upp, an established screenwriter and script doctor at Paramount. Van Upp’s screenplay for Cover Girl is conventional, but perfectly suited to Hayworth’s talents and star image. Hayworth (singing voice dubbed by Martha Mears) plays Rusty Parker, a dancer at a small Brooklyn night club. Magazine publisher John Coudair (Otto Kruger), spurred by memories of his lost love Maribelle (also Hayworth), selects Rusty to be his new cover girl, whisking her into the world of high society—much to the dismay of her boss and fiancé, Danny McGuire (Kelly). Ultimately, Rusty must decide between a life of honest, hard work with Danny, or a life of glamour and ease with Broadway impresario Noel Wheaton (Lee Bowman). Of course, there’s little doubt who Rusty will choose.

Columbia spared no expense shaping Cover Girl into a prestige production worthy of its top leading lady. As one of Hollywood’s smaller studios, Columbia had fewer resources at its disposal, but the prosperity of the early-1940s had led the company to increase its budgets, particularly for top-tier productions. Cover Girl was thus Columbia’s second ever Technicolor film, and for a while, held the studio record for longest shooting schedule. The production grew so large, in fact, that Columbia had to rent shooting space at outside facilities. Further adding to its prestige, the musical marked the first collaboration between legendary songsmiths Jerome Kern and Ira Gershwin. Given the film’s importance, Cohn actually considered producing it himself, but instead hired Broadway songwriter and producer Arthur Schwartz to make his Hollywood debut. It is thanks to Schwartz that Cover Girl evolved from standard big-budget musical into something truly special.

Cover Girl had been in production for several weeks without a leading man when Gene Kelly was finally cast in July 1943. Kelly had jumped from Broadway to Hollywood in 1941, but his home studio of MGM didn’t know what to do with him and gave him little creative involvement in his projects. Cohn objected to Kelly’s looks, but Schwartz borrowed him from MGM anyway, even agreeing to let him choreograph his own numbers. Kelly, working for the first time with his future co-director Stanley Donen, took full advantage of this creative freedom, exploring the cinematic possibilities of the musical genre. Even today, scenes like the “Alter-Ego Dance,” in which Danny dance-battles with his own superimposed reflection, make it clear why contemporary critics hailed Cover Girl as “a milestone in screen musical history.”

Upon its release in March 1944, Cover Girl was an instant hit. It broke box office records at Radio City Music Hall, and its signature tune, “Long Ago (And Far Away),” was the year’s #2 song on the Hit Parade. Audiences loved it, and so it’s no surprise—particularly given its optimistic depiction of the war—that Cover Girl was the first film screened for GIs in France following the D-Day victory. Though some critics thought the plot cliche, others praised Van Upp’s “inspired” script, with its compact balance of drama, romance, comedy, and music. Cohn rewarded Van Upp by promoting her to producer; as one of only three women producing in Hollywood, she would go on to co-write and produce Hayworth’s most famous film, Gilda (1946). Most critics concurred, moreover, that Hayworth and Kelly were perfect. They have excellent chemistry—especially when dancing—and it’s a shame they never worked together again. Hayworth gives one of her best performances, and the film’s success cemented her as one of the biggest box office attractions in the world.

But Cover Girl also made it clear that Gene Kelly was more than a capable contract player: he was a star. And not only that—Kelly’s work in Cover Girl was said to be on par with “Fred Astaire’s greatest triumphs,” proof that he was capable of challenging Astaire for the dancing crown. In fact, in 1949, when Columbia re-issued Cover Girl with You Were Never Lovelier (1942) starring Hayworth and Astaire, enterprising exhibitors promoted the double feature as “Astaire vs. Kelly: The Dance Battle of the Century.” Back at MGM, Kelly was now permitted to choreograph his own musical numbers, beginning with Anchors Aweigh (1945). The rest is film musical history.

In 1952, Picturegoer magazine looked back on Cover Girl as “a shrewd combination of screen art and entertainment and a forerunner of On the Town and An American in Paris.” The musical certainly presages the pinnacle of Kelly’s career and what many consider the Golden Age of the Hollywood musical; this is perhaps why Kelly returned to the character of Danny McGuire forty years later in Xanadu (1980). But Cover Girl is charming on its own merits. Its Oscar win for Best Musical Score is well deserved, as are its nominations for Best Color Cinematography and Best Art Direction. Charles Vidor’s direction is brisk, and the supporting cast is strong, particularly Phil Silvers, who provides just the right amount of corn, and Eve Arden, who injects a much-needed dose of cynical wit. The nearly perfect way in which Cover Girl’s elements come together make it much like the pearl at the heart of its plot: a rare and magical thing.