Cover Girl January 16, 2023
1 Hr., 47 Mins.
over Girl (1944) is only ever good in the scenes where Gene Kelly and Rita Hayworth are dancing together. There’s never any self-conscious deference to the other; you feel like you’re watching two masters in harmony — creative soulmates at long last united with their other half. But those moments of almost magical lockstep appear surprisingly infrequently. (The movie tends to separate them
for its musical sequences.) So Cover Girl, also saddled with an autopilot romantic plot, for the most part unfolds before us like a feature-length letdown. It only gives a few tastes of what we want.
Hayworth, at peak radiance, plays Rusty, a chorus girl working at a Brooklyn nightclub run by her boyfriend, Danny (Kelly). Galvanized both by a coworker (Leslie Brooks) and the temptations of her own curiosity, Rusty decides early on in Cover Girl to enter into a contest whose winner will cover the front page of Vanity for its upcoming bridal issue. (Disappointingly, the film ignores the behind-the-scenes details of magazine-making; only the process of shooting the cover means anything to the filmmakers.) Rusty’s a washout during her tryout with one of the pub’s editors (a scene-stealing, likably brassy Eve Arden) — she’s described as “a red-headed nervous breakdown” — because of some bad advice from a jealous rival (Leslie Brooks). Then, unexpectedly, Rusty is given a leg up. Her grandmother, who looked uncannily like Rusty in her youth, is actually the lost love of the Vanity editor-in-chief’s (Otto Kruger) life.
Cover Girl becomes a fairy tale with an odd generational twist. With the investment of a limp handwave, the movie creates a will-she-or-won’t-she dilemma after Rusty — newly a cover girl and also fast rising on the theater scene because of a producer who takes a liking to her (Lee Bowman) — gets caught between her old life and the spoils of notoriety. Does she get swept up in fame and potential fortune? (She becomes an object of romantic affection for both that editor and that theater producer.) Or does she put the cap on new career ambitions and stay with the comparatively ordinary guy she really loves?
Cover Girl, among the most profitable musicals of the World War II era, proves an apt title for the movie. It describes, obviously, the honor Rusty seeks and that which will give her the lift she needs to transcend the thankless life of the overworked, underpaid artist. But it also reminds us how the character herself is conferred all the dimension of a cover girl, never allowed to come alive beyond how she is seen and desired by others, especially by the men in her life. In Cover Girl, Rusty proves more a collection of projections than a character. The film isn’t moved to critique what the various kinds of objectification from these men reveals. It would rather side with them, even when they have overstepped a bound, than substantially explore Rusty’s own desires.
Cover Girl is most interested in the toll Rusty’s potential ascendence takes on Danny, a character whose insecurities and jealousies are more grating than very easy to sympathize with. Still, one musical sequence where, through optical illusion, Kelly dances with a visual double of himself is an early stroke of this dancer-actor’s intuitive genius. It’s an evocative, athletic representation of the battle between his character’s head and heart the screenplay otherwise doesn’t so elegantly develop. Kelly is the kind of dancer who can imbue the shimmy of a hip or the twist of a leg with more emotional honesty than much dialogue ever could.
The uninvolving narrative isn’t helped by how seldom good the songs or dance sequences are. (Charles Vidor directs too statically for a musical.) Aside from that latter Kelly dance; a proto-“Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” sequence; or a hot-footed number where Kelly, Hayworth, and the otherwise impishly annoying “comedian” Phil Silvers (he plays a friend of the nightclub) galavant down a city sidewalk like they own it, they feel more interrupting than indispensable. They’re mostly stagebound; they’re usually not related to anything happening in the plot besides how these characters are working performers who sometimes do these numbers for happy audiences.
Hayworth and Kelly are incandescent as ever here. But the sense you get, watching Cover Girl, is that Vidor doesn’t quite know how to consistently elevate their almost overwhelming talent and appeal. When they stop dancing, the film is so sluggishly going through the motions that it might as well be coming to a halt too. C