It was at the age of eight that Rita Hayworth made her professional screen debut as a background dancer in the Warner Bros short, La Fiesta (1926). She kept her birth name of Rita Cansino in her first 10 films, winning her first studio contract with Fox aged 16. Crowned the ‘greatest love goddess’ by Life magazine, she became the face of Columbia Pictures under studio head Harry Cohn, starring in a total of 61 films across a 37-year period as an actor, singer and dancer, before retiring in 1972.
In her centenary year, here are 10 of her greatest performances.
Only Angels Have Wings (1939)
Director Howard Hawks
In Howard Hawks’ flying melodrama, Hayworth landed her breakthrough role as Judy MacPherson, the young wife of disgraced aviator Bat ‘Kilgallen’ MacPherson (Richard Barthelmess) and former flame of daredevil pilot Geoff Carter (Cary Grant).
Introduced descending a staircase, Hayworth excels as the quivering, misty-eyed Judy, competing for Carter’s attention with entertainer Bonnie Lee (Jean Arthur). The camera lingers on her curvaceous form, just as it transfixes the crowd of awestruck pilots. Her role instantly transformed her from a bit-part studio starlet into a Hollywood A-lister.
The Strawberry Blonde (1941)
Director Raoul Walsh
Set in 1890s New York, Raoul Walsh’s romantic drama sees dentist Biff Grimes (James Cagney) recount the betrayal of his former friend, aspiring politician Hugo Barnstead (Jack Carson), and ‘strawberry blonde’ Virginia Brush (Hayworth), his unattainable crush. Originally intended for Anne Sheridan, Rita’s New York socialite appears demur underneath lace veils, feathered hats and boned corsets. But Rita reveals Virginia’s harder edge as an ambitious social climber, valuing money over love.
Blood and Sand (1941)
Director Rouben Mamoulian
Rouben Mamoulian’s bullfighting drama features Rita as the vampish Doña Sol, the cruel Spanish temptress who steals married matador Juan Gallardo (Tyrone Power) from Gallardo’s childhood sweetheart, Carmen Espinosa (Linda Darnell). She seduces Gallardo only to discard him when he loses everything through his decadent lifestyle, turning her attention to Manolo de Palma (Anthony Quinn). Hayworth and Quinn demonstrate sizzling chemistry as the co-stars, performing a sensual paso doble to a spellbound audience.
You’ll Never Get Rich (1941)
Director Sidney Lanfield
In the first of her two films co-starring Fred Astaire, Hayworth is Sheila Winthrop, the chorus girl who catches the eye of married theatre producer Martin Cortland (Robert Benchley). Astaire is Robert Curtis, Sheila’s dance partner and Martin’s decoy, who joins the army to distance himself from their love affair. You’ll Never Get Rich captures Hayworth’s graceful poise and precision, with ‘So Near And Yet So Far’ featuring her and Astaire performing the rumba in perfect synchronicity to Cole Porter’s sumptuous score. Astaire proclaimed Hayworth to be his favourite dancing partner, who “learnt steps faster than anyone I’ve ever known”.
You Were Never Lovelier (1942)
Director William A. Seiter
Set in Argentina, this comedy of manners sees meddling patriarch Eduardo Acuña (Adolphe Menjou) anonymously sending love letters and orchids to his disillusioned daughter Maria (Hayworth), who doesn’t believe in marriage. Meanwhile, Robert ‘Bob’ Davis (Astaire) is the out-of-work dancer wrongly identified as Maria’s mysterious admirer. You Were Never Lovelier is set to the Latin rhythms of Xavier Cugat and his orchestra, with musical highlights including ‘The Shorty George’, a tap dance fused with American swing and jive. Hayworth and Astaire also glide magnificently to ‘I’m Old Fashioned’, a garden waltz under the stars.
Cover Girl (1944)
Director Charles Vidor
In Cover Girl, Columbia’s first Technicolor musical, Hayworth plays both Brooklyn chorus girl Rusty Parker and her grandmother, Victorian music hall star Maribelle Hicks. Selected by Maribelle’s former love, editor John Coudair (Otto Kruger), to be the cover girl of Vanity magazine, Rusty finds herself alienated from her friends and boyfriend Danny McGuire (Gene Kelly) when she wins a starring role on Broadway. By now the number one pin-up for American GIs, Hayworth capitalises on her sex appeal in nearly every scene, and she’s splendid in ‘Long Ago (and Far Away)’, a romantic ballad with Kelly.
Director Charles Vidor
In this classic film noir set in Buenos Aires, Gilda is the sultry femme fatale with a hidden past who ensnares former lover and small-time crook Johnny Farrell (Glenn Ford) in her toxic web of sexual jealousy, betrayal and murder. In the title role, the smouldering Hayworth burns up the screen, tantalising and teasing the male clientele with double entendres – “If I’d been a ranch, they would have named me The Bar Nothing” – and expertly performing a glove striptease to the number ‘Put the Blame on Mame’.
The Lady from Shanghai (1947)
Director Orson Welles
Hayworth is back in femme fatale mode in this film noir set on the high seas, directed by and co-starring her estranged husband, Orson Welles. Rescued from muggers in Central Park by Irish sailor Michael O’Hara (Welles), Elsa (Hayworth) offers him a job on the luxury yacht of her disabled husband, defence attorney Arthur Bannister (Everett Sloane), which is setting sail to San Francisco via the Panama Canal. Hayworth shed her flame-haired locks for a ‘topaz blonde’ crop to play the enigmatic beauty dangerously plotting her escape from a loveless marriage.
Pal Joey (1957)
Director George Sidney
In Pal Joey, womanising cabaret artist Joey Evans (Frank Sinatra) sets his sights on launching his own establishment, ‘Chez Joey’, in San Francisco. To make his dreams a reality, he courts wealthy widow, patron and former stripper Vera Prentice-Simpson (Hayworth). But Vera delivers an ultimatum: he must fire statuesque showgirl Linda ‘The Mouse’ English (Kim Novak) or there will be no investment. Asserting her authority against the wisecracking Joey, Hayworth conveys steely determination as the glamorous self-made entrepreneur. Highlights include Rita’s jazzy rendition of ‘Zip’ and her interpretation of ‘Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered’ by the legendary Rodgers and Hart.
Separate Tables (1958)
Director Delbert Mann
This Oscar-winning adaptation of two one-act plays by Terence Rattigan focuses on lonely residents harbouring dark secrets across separate tables at The Beauregard seaside hotel in Bournemouth. Hayworth plays former model Anne Shankland, who attempts a reconciliation with her embittered ex-husband, author John Malcolm (Burt Lancaster). Yet, previously incarcerated for Anne’s attempted murder, he’s secretly engaged to hotelier Miss Cooper (Wendy Hiller). It was David Niven and Wendy Hiller who won the Oscars, but nonetheless Separate Tables provided one of Hayworth’s last great roles. She provides aching vulnerability as the ageing American divorcée in her twilight years, cruelly pulled apart by past transgressions.