Although MGM pioneered the Hollywood musical, it was a rival studio which effectively pushed the genre to its next level. Mark Fraser revisits an old song and dance classic that helped revolutionise the form.
Regardless of whether you are a fan of musicals or not, there are at least three good reasons to check out Charles Vidor’s Cover Girl (1944).
First of all, it shows why the late American actor Phil Silvers (1911-85) was given his own television series – The Phil Silvers Show, in which he played the repulsively likeable army huckster Sergeant Ernest Bilko – the following decade.
Secondly, had it not been for Cover Girl, Hollywood may never have seen the Stanley Donen–Gene Kelly classic 1952 dance extravaganza Singin’ in the Rain or its 1949 precursor On the Town come to fruition.
Third, while the film is well and truly a product of a seemingly innocent by-gone era, it could – if so desired – be brutally deconstructed by contemporary feminists, thus showing how times really have changed.
Although the second point is arguably the more important one when it comes to looking at the movie as a significant historic cinematic event, this review will start with Silvers given the author has had a soft spot for the man for over 40 years.
For those who are unaware (or only partly aware) of his work, Silvers was a New York-born entertainer who started his screen career in 1940 with Hit Parade of 1941 (directed by John H Auer) before becoming a supporting character actor, a Tony Award-winning Broadway performer (for the play Top Banana during the early 1950s and, some 20 years later, in recognition of his part in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum) as well as, albeit briefly, one of Frank Sinatra’s song writing collaborators.
Aside from the Bilko TV series, these days many film buffs may remember him as the sleazy Otto Meyer in Stanley Kramer’s 1963 king of misunderstood comedies It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, a role that was briefly lampooned in a season five episode of The Simpsons.
In Cover Girl Silvers plays Genius, the good natured, fast talking, genial pal of red headed nightclub singer-dancer Rusty Parker (Rita Hayworth) and her manager-boyfriend Danny McGuire (Kelly), who get caught up in a domestic dispute after Rusty is asked to pose as a “golden wedding girl” for the cover of glamour magazine Vanity as part of its 50th anniversary number edition.
As a foil for the couple during some of the dialogue scenes, Silvers comes across as a little contrived – a development for which some of the blame must be placed squarely at the feet of writer Virginia van Upp, who’s mostly cornball script (based on Marion Parsonnet and Paul Gangelin’s adaptation of an original Erwin S Gelsey story) delivers its fair share of lead balloon one liners.
When it comes to pulling off a solo song and dance routine with a touch of Groucho Marx (“Who’s Complaining?”) – or fulfilling the role of dance partner for both the duo (“Make way for Tomorrow”) and Kelly on his own (as seen in the nifty little “Put Me to the Test” which is awkwardly staged on the back of an army truck) – however, his performance is quite outstanding, helping make Cover Girl far more than just a run-of-the-mill musical.
Indeed, Silver’s timing is sometimes so perfect and his dancing neatly fluid that it’s strange his contribution to this genre was not as prolific as perhaps it could have been. Although he’s not in Kelly’s league, he comes reasonably close – and that’s saying something.
The second point – which relates directly to Donen’s uncredited contribution to Cover Girl’s choreography (according to the movie’s opening credits the dance numbers were staged by Val Raset and Seymour Felix) – is worth highlighting given his collaboration with Kelly pretty much revolutionalised the American musical when it looked like it was starting to reach its expiry date.
Both men shared a background in modern dance on Broadway going back to 1940 before they were employed by Hollywood musical pioneer Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer – Kelly as the screen talent and Donen as an assistant choreographer.
By 1943 the latter had already been working for rival studio Columbia Pictures Corporation (which wasn’t really interested in making musicals during the 1930s) when MGM decided to allow its leading male dancer to play opposite Columbia’s biggest star – Hayworth – in Cover Girl.
Although, up until this time at least, Kelly had not enjoyed artistic control of his routines, Columbia head (and acknowledged Mob friend) Harry Cohn obviously saw things differently, giving the star more freedom and allowing Donen to help choreograph his numbers – including the famous “Alter-Ego” act, in which McGuire angrily dances against himself in an empty street near the Brooklyn Bridge after wrongly concluding that Rusty is going to ditch him for rich suitor Noel Wheaton (Lee Bowman).
This segment, with its clever use of double exposure to create the sparring McGuires, is one of the true high points of Cover Girl and, to this day, remains testament to the calibre of the combined talent behind its creation.
After returning to MGM, the pair worked on a number of projects together, including George Sidney’s Anchors Aweigh (1945) during which, for the first time, a real actor/dancer (Kelly again) performed with a cartoon character (Jerry the Mouse) – a trick that was revisited some 45 years later when Paula Abdul did the same thing in the video clip for her 1989 hit song “Opposites Attract”.
Following this came On the Town, Singin’ in the Rain and the less popular It’s Always Fair Weather (1955).
Regarding these latter three movies – which were all directed by the pair – film writer William Bayer said together they constituted “an oeuvre of such lightness and dazzle that they must be considered the ultimate works of a certain kind of film, the apotheosis of the organic, unified, smooth-flowing musical developed and nurtured at MGM” (Bayer, 1973). Needless to say, all of this stems directly back to the ground breaking work Kelly and Donen achieved with Cover Girl.
In terms of the third point regarding a possible feminist backlash against the movie, one needn’t look past the thoughts of American writer Naomi Wolf who, in the last part of her 1990 best seller The Beauty Myth, states that, despite some patriarchal perceptions, “women are not actually dangerous to one another” (Wolf, 1990).
“Outside the myth, other women look a lot like natural allies,” she wrote.
“In order for women to learn to fear one another, we had to be convinced that our sisters possess some kind of mysterious, potent secret weapon to be used against us – the imaginary weapon being ‘beauty’.”
Although Cover Girl doesn’t go out of its way to consciously offend anyone, the movie’s plot is basically predicated on the idea that women are not really allies, but in fact are in stiff competition with each other.
This is never more obvious than at the start of the film when Parker and fellow chorus girl dancer Maurine Martin (Lesley Brookes) both turn up to audition for the Vanity magazine cover picture gig.
As Maurine is called to the office of Cloudair Publishing Company’s acerbic Cornelia “Stonewall” Jackson (Eve Arden), another contestant gripes: “That girl really has a lovely figure – if she knew how to walk!”
Later, after her interview falls flat, Maurine gives her “friend” contrary advice, telling Rusty to “keep talking, move around a lot and be animated” knowing full well that the magazine really wants someone a little quieter, more relaxed and demure.
As a result, Rusty puts on a performance which is really quite embarrassing.
“I suppose you’ve noticed that I’m just so full of animation and everything that it’s just impossible for me to sit still a minute,” she blurts out after entering the room.
“My grandmother used to say it was because my glands weren’t right.”
Jackson quickly leads her to the door, telling her that she should look into finding out what she should take.
“Take? For what?” Rusty demands.
“Those glands – they are going to turn on you one of these days,” Jackson curtly replies as she literally shoves the redhead out of the office.
This rivalry recurs later in the film when Maurine tries to usurp Rusty as the lead performer of McGuire’s act after the latter spends an evening being wooed by the rich Wheaton.
Although one could go on and on about Cover Girl’s objectivation of the female body, its emphasis on physical beauty (which, according to Wolf, is used as a “political weapon against women’s advancement”) and the submissive role the stronger sex collectively play in the story’s male-dominated discourse, perhaps the strangest piece of sexism in the movie occurs when a reporter asks Genius who Rusty was romantically linked with before the arrival of her new beau.
“It was I, but I used to beat her,” he mischievously responds.
Domestic violence being played for laughs? There’s one for the books. Surely this flippant remark would have raised a few feminist heckles had it been uttered in a modern musical.
Words by Mark Fraser
Top 10 Films reviewed Cover Girl on Blu-ray courtesy of Eureka Entertainment. Cover Girl was released on dual format DVD/Blu-ray Feb 13, 2016.
John Russell Taylor: “Teamwork”, The Movie, Volume 3, Chapter 32, Orbis Publishing Ltd, London, 1980 pp 625-27
William Bayer: “Singin’ in the Rain”, The Great Movies, The Ridge Press Inc, New York, 1973 pp 92
Naomi Wolf: The Beauty Myth, Vintage, London, 1990 pp 10, 284-85
Discover more writing on film by Mark Fraser
“Man With A Movie Camera” Transcends Propaganda | “The Deer Hunter” Remains An Adult Fairy Tale | “The Train” Still One Hell Of A Ride | “Barry McKenzie Holds His Own” Maintains Its Irreverent Grip | Umberto Lenzi’s “Eaten Alive” Is A Hard Act To Swallow | William Friedkin’s “Sorcerer” Is A Curiously Mistreated Masterpiece | “To Catch A Thief” Shows Hitchcock Dabbling In Blandness