There are few films that I’ve seen that epitomize classic Hollywood as well as 1944’s musical hit Cover Girl. Starring an effervescent Rita Hayworth as Rusty Parker, a vaudeville-style dancer, and a typically earnest Gene Kelly as Danny McGuire, her manager/boyfriend, Cover Girl thrives on the pair’s dynamic charisma. In fact, it’s difficult to imagine this film being enjoyable without either of its principal actors.
The main issue with the film is that its plot is rather cliché – a discerning viewer will be able to map out the story within the first ten minutes of the movie. Hayworth gets a bit of a raw deal with Rusty, who is written as a humble but beautiful dancer who is easily swayed by others. Fortunately, her lively presence alone is enough to keep the audience invested in the film. Kelly’s McGuire isn’t an especially original character either, but like Hayworth, he has the talent to transcend the film’s uninspiring writing and gives the audience a treat of a scene near the film’s end. Despite Cover Girl’s flaws, the star power and unforgettable dance numbers make it a must-see film for viewers looking for a classic Hollywood experience.
Cover Girl begins at Danny McGuire’s “honky-tonk place” where Rusty is dancing in a peppy war-themed number, “The Show Must Go On.” She soon hears of a contest from Maurine, a fellow dancer, in which the winner will grace the cover of a popular magazine. Rusty shows up for the contest interviews, and while she initially catches the eye of “Stonewall,” the editor’s assistant (a snarky Eve Arden), she botches her chance by taking Maurine’s ill-intended advice. Nevertheless, Rusty gets a second chance when Stonewall and John Coudair, the magazine’s editor, come to see Maurine, their chosen cover girl, perform. As soon as Coudair sees Rusty, however, he knows she’s the one. Rusty gets the cover, and with it, a deluge of fame and admirers that threaten McGuire, her paramour. Rusty is then forced to decide between her new glamorous life (and a wealthy, successful love interest) and her obscure, but happy, origins.
Hayworth’s demure and earnest portrayal of Rusty leaves viewers with no doubt about what she’ll choose in the end. Unfortunately, it is partly these same two qualities, combined with her beauty, that lead to virtually every other character in the film jerking Rusty around – to the extent that almost nothing Rusty does seems to be of her own choice. Maurine sabotages her during the magazine interview. McGuire’s selfish disapproval and jealousy of Rusty’s success hurts her and drives her away from him. Genius, Rusty and McGuire’s best friend, doesn’t want Rusty’s potential fame to drive a wedge in the trio’s friendship, so he persuades her to let him tear up an important telegram from John Coudair. Coudair sees bigger things for Rusty, so he tries to break up her relationship with McGuire and encourages the flirtation between her and his rich theater friend, Wheaton. It feels as though all of Rusty’s decisions throughout the film are determined by others, which makes it hard to take her seriously as anything but a pretty damsel.
Rusty’s submission to other characters’ wills is foreshadowed in the magazine interview scene. About a dozen decked-out women wait in the magazine’s lobby, and as the camera pans from left to right, we see interspersed among the hopefuls an ancient bust of a woman and a set of lamps whose bases are sculptures of beautiful female faces. The effect is jarring. It’s as if there’s no difference between the living women and the female sculptures – in the magazine’s lobby, both are mere objects of silent beauty. And that, essentially, is what Rusty becomes for the rest of the film despite all her songs and dances.
Ultimately, Cover Girl implies that Rusty’s return to her humble Brooklyn home at the end of the film signifies her rejection of this superficial culture (never mind that she is prompted to do so by Coudair, once again succumbing to someone else’s influence). Yet, to a modern viewer, this pleasant moral is somewhat spoiled by its contrast to Rita Hayworth’s own life, which played out more like a nightmarish “what-if” path Rusty could have chosen. Rita Hayworth, born Margarita Carmen Cansino, was convinced to Anglicize her name, dye her naturally black hair red, and undergo painful electrolysis to push her hairline back in order to conform to Hollywood’s standards of stardom. Hayworth was also emotionally and financially exploited by a series of husbands who proved poor marriage material. Watching Rusty leave Wheaton at the altar in Cover Girl makes one wish Hayworth had the foresight to do the same in her personal life. In the end, though, Rusty got her happy ending and Hayworth got a series of heartbreaks.
Lest this heavy reading of Cover Girl bog down potential viewers, let me reiterate that this film is full of silly, joyous, and creative moments. Though it comes at a time when Rusty and McGuire’s relationship is tenuous, the dance number “Put Me to the Test” is an explosive release of Hayworth’s and Kelly’s talent as performers. Hayworth is a great match for Kelly’s athletic dancing – there is an undeniable energy in the way she moves her body, like a supernova bursting onto the stage. Kelly is, as always, a delight to watch, and this number is a particular joy to a contemporary audience that may have been expecting a dazzling display of his talent sooner.
And it is Kelly, really, who steals the film with his street-wide dance “solo,” despite all the beauty and dynamism Rita Hayworth has to offer. McGuire is arguing with his reflection in a storefront window late at night, when he gets frustrated and turns to go. As he’s walking away, his reflection yells at him to wait and then jumps from the glass out onto the street. It is a moment of pure movie magic. McGuire and his reflection then perform a dancing duet that rivals “Put Me to the Test” as the film’s greatest number. If you need a reason to see Cover Girl, this scene is worth the price of admission alone.
Thanks to Kelly’s choreography and Hayworth’s vibrancy, Cover Girl manages to keep viewers engaged, even while the predictable plot unfolds. If the movie seems to slap a happy-go-lucky attitude on questionable, or at the least, conflicting, morals, well, hey, that’s pretty typical of Hollywood. Best to take heart from Genius’ number “No Complaining” – no matter one’s gripes with Cover Girl, any fan of musicals will be glad they saw it.