Last night, I had the sublime experience of visiting the famous cine-paradise, the George Eastman House in Rochester, New York—a place I’d heard about for years and always wanted to visit. Invited up there by Head of Cataloging and Access at the Eastman’s Motion Picture Department Jared Case, I got a sneak peek at many of the facility’s wonders, including more gorgeous Hollywood studio stills, posters, press books and other archival items.
A distinct highlight was a glorious and haunting painted plaster mask made of Marlene Dietrich’s face, so delicate and exquisite I could barely look at it. I had always believed those cheek bones of hers were mostly Hurrell-lit fantasies. As it turns out, those planar majesties were god-given.
The occasion of my visit was to introduce a screening of Gilda (1946), and it became the first time I ever saw it on a big screen—a gleaming print that swathed us as if beneath Gilda’s gloved fingers.
I first saw it as a young girl, age nine or ten, on television, and I remember being so enraptured. It seemed so glamorous—the glittering casino, the evening gowns and tuxedos, the exotic Buenos Aires locale. Beautiful Rita Hayworth, handsome Glenn Ford, their grand romance.
And, like everyone else I was transfixed during the famous scene of Gilda, in that iconic black dress, doing her the famous gloved strip tease to that lowdown tune, “Put the Blame on Mame.”
I remember watching her in that strapless dress, tight as a second skin, and wondering how she could keep it up—the aerodynamics of it—it seemed to signify to me the magical properties of womanhood.
I remember distinctly thinking, This is what life is.
Later, I saw the film again in college—and it was a revelatory experience, but of a different kind.
I sat there, waiting for that childhood rapture—waiting to slip into the sumptuous, romantic movie again. What unfurled instead was this dark, tortured world.
And I had this realization that Gilda isn’t the center of the film at all, but is this glistening object. Much like the openly symbolic cane Ballin Mundson (George Macready) carries (which he calls “his little friend), she is something to be passed between the two men, Ballin and Johnny whose deepest feelings are, of course, for each other.
I saw for the first time the dark, nihilistic thread (or zipper) through the satin center of the movie.
In this way the movie became even more fascinating, richer….I felt like I had grown into it. And it had showed me about adulthood, just not the adulthood I’d imagined. It presents a world of complexity, where feelings are never simple and every happy-ever-after has a price and none of us precisely know ourselves or what we’re capable of.
Love, in Gilda—or, perhaps more correctly, desire—is about power, powerlessness, control and lack of control. We see this through the movie’s obsessive, self-conscious voyeurism—everyone seems always to be watching each other, spying through windows and blinds, peering around corners, through masks. Rarely every touching.
So much of the movie seems summed up in Johnny’s breathless voiceover in our ear, confessing, as he leaves Gilda, his old flame, with husband Ballin, his new one:
“I wanted to go back up in that room and hit her. What scared me was, I-I wanted to hit him too. I wanted to go back and see them together with me not watching.
I wanted to know.”
As slick and big-studio a noir it is, it’s noir to the rotten core. Because love here is a curse, a burden, and a weapon (cane, whip, glove). Love is about pain.
Love and hate, desire and contempt are not opposites at all but are in fact utterly inseparable. Or one and the same. As Ballin famously tells Gilda,
Hate can be a very exciting emotion….There’s a heat in it that one can feel. Hate is the only thing that has ever warmed me.
It’s chilling when he says this line. Later, when Hayworth’s Gilda echoes that line, in a desperate whisper, it may be the sexiest and saddest moment I’ve ever seen in film….
The postscript here: Watching it a few weeks ago in preparation for the intro at Eastman House, a whole new shimmering layer peeked through for me, though. One that never loomed so large for me.
Yes, I admit enjoying an added appreciation for actors I’ve come to love, such as the delicious Joseph Calleia as the understanding cop, Obregon. But most of all I saw in Hayworth’s performance what I’d missed before, its pathos, her awareness that she matters less as a person than as a totem these men wield to show their power, their loyalty, their complicated feelings towards each other
Even the famous “Put the Blame on Mame” striptease scene now seems so different to me. Preceded by a musical number where she is precise, formal, ebullient, and quite feminine, in this number she is ballsy-burlesque, skittering, raggedly, by the end into something quite like desperation. Until it is that.
“Put the Blame on Mame” is, after all, a song about how a woman is to blame for the great Chicago Fire, the San Francisco earthquake, everything—just as Gilda’s beauty becomes the excuse for every act of depravity and control in the movie…a fantasy projection, not a real woman.
It’s all the more poignant given Hayworth’s tortured personal life, exploited by her father, her husbands, Harry Cohn, head of Columbia. I hesitate even to quote the much-overquoted Hayworth line, reflecting on her own sad romantic history, “Men go to bed with Gilda, but they wake up with me.” But this time it seemed so clear that Gilda herself might say the same thing.
So in the end, watching it at age nine or ten, I think I was in fact getting a peek into the adult world, its beauty and its dark seams too.
Spoiler-alert: people, especially noir aficionados, always talk about the ending as being the one blemish on the movie, that the production code demanded we learn that Gilda wasn’t the promiscuous adulteress that Johnny—and we—are led to believe.
But, “happy ending” aside (who, after having watched them tear at each other for 110 minutes, really believes these two will go onto a happy life together?), I love that Johnny is wrong. That we learn Gilda is innocent of the charges. Trapped between two men who cannot reckon with their own desires, she is the great beating heart of the movie. Guilty of nothing, of everything.
Big thanks to the whole gang at Eastman House, especially Jared Case.