In a story that can only be described as fit for a fairy-tale, a Fox executive spotted Margarita Carmen Cansino dancing onstage at a Caliente club. A screen test and six month contract quickly followed, with Cansino scoring parts in five movies. The contract, however, wasn’t renewed, and Cansino freelanced, appearing in a string of B-movies, before eventually being snapped up by Columbia on a long term basis. On the hunt for a new star, and believing that her looks (apparently “too Mediterranean”) restricted the roles she could be cast in, Columbia executives persuaded Cansino to reform her image: cue a lasered-back hairline, dyed auburn tresses and the name Rita Hayworth.
By the ‘40s, Hayworth was to become one of Hollywood’s most in-demand actresses. She appeared opposite Joan Crawford in Susan and God, but it was box office smash The Strawberry Blonde that set her up as one of Hollywood’s biggest names. Her popularity continued: photographed in Life magazine in a white satin nightgown with a black lace bodice, she became one of the biggest wartime pinups, with sales from her photos beaten only by Betty Grable. 1946 saw Hayworth perform as the ultimate femme fatale in film noir Gilda, a role that caused controversy amongst film censors. Dressed in a black satin gown with a thigh-high slit, she performed a one-glove striptease-tease while miming ‘Put the Blame on Mame’. The role became one of her most famous, and the image of Gilda stuck to Hayworth- she was to later remark, ‘men fall in love with Gilda, but they wake up with me.’
Three years after Gilda, Hayworth left Columbia and met her third husband Aly Khan, only to return a few years later when the marriage collapsed. She sashayed effortlessly through the opening sequence of her comeback, Affair in Trinidad, while her dance in brightly coloured veils in Salome was easily the film’s most notable feature. She took another off-screen break for her marriage to Dick Haymes, walking out on him after two years. By the time she returned to Columbia, Kim Novak had replaced Hayworth as its biggest star, and she left the studio for good in 1957. She followed up with projects such as Separate Tables, The Story on Page One and The Wrath of God. Hayworth passed away in May 1987.
With a place in the American Film Institute’s top 25 female film stars of all time, Hayworth was undoubtedly also a talented dancer. She fought back against a studio that was determined to manipulate her, could more than hold her own against the top stars she was billed against, and her vibrant personality brought to life films with otherwise exhausted plot lines.
Words by Anam Rahim