The day that so many of us have been waiting for is finally here! One hundred years ago, screen goddess Rita Hayworth was born, and she’s captivated the world ever since. I’ve been mentally preparing for this incredible milestone ever since I first learned that it was coming just over two years ago. When a new year begins, I always love looking ahead and finding out which classic movie stars will be celebrating landmark birthdays, and I could hardly believe my eyes when I saw that Rita was born on October 17, 1918. I don’t know what year I expected her to be born in exactly, but it was mindboggling to me that this legendary actress who starred in films since the 1930s could conceivably still be with us today under the right circumstances. She perfectly embodied a completely different and special era, the likes of which will never be seen again. I’m well aware that I throw the “favorite actress” label around quite a bit on my blog as I feel that there have been so many gorgeous and talented women to idolize, but I submit as proof of my admiration for Rita Hayworth my ranking of my Top Five Favorite Classic Film Stars that I penned last May. In all her loveliness, Rita is perched at the number two spot on my list, second only to my all-time favorite actor Tyrone Power. I love Rita more than words can describe, and I couldn’t be happier that Michaela of Love Letters to Old Hollywood is hosting this flawless tribute to Rita on such a momentous occasion. There isn’t a shred of doubt that I would have honored Rita on this of all days, but I feel so fortunate to be among so many other fans who still cherish and remember such a remarkable person.
Considering the fact that there are so many pictures starring Rita that I admire, like Cover Girl (1944), You Were Never Lovelier (1942), Gilda (1946), Down to Earth (1947), Tonight and Every Night (1945), and dozens more, it was quite the task figuring out exactly which of Rita’s fantastic films I would highlight today. I finally settled on Angels Over Broadway (1940), one of her earlier and lesser-known pictures, not only because it’s one of her most accessible due to its presence in full on YouTube, but also because I had only seen it once years ago and I recall being stupefied that she appeared and sounded so differently in it compared to all of the other movies of hers that I had previously seen. Was she really so unlike the iconic Gilda in this feature made six years prior, or was my memory playing tricks on me? I had to find out by giving it another viewing. If you haven’t seen Angels Over Broadway (1940) or heard its premise before, the film follows Bill O’Brien (Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.), a lowlife who’s down to his last dime and is looking for a new sucker to swindle in the night in New York City. His main source of income is leading rich men to notorious gangster Dutch Enright (Ralph Theodore), who then cheats them out of a fortune through poker and gives Bill a cut of the profts for luring them in. He soon spots Charles Engle (John Qualen), a meek and downtrodden-looking man who seems to be throwing cash around, and chooses him as his next victim, but he can’t hook him alone.
To assist him in taking Charles for at least a few grand he enlists the help of Nina Barone (Rita Hayworth), an out of work ballet dancer who, despite her innocent and wholesome appearance, is desperate for a job and willing to do nearly anything to meet the sort of influential person who can give her one. Little does the pair know, however, that Charles is actually completely broke. He’s been caught embezzling $3,000 from his company, and knowing that he won’t be able to cough up the necessary dough to replace what he stole, he intends to kill himself that very night. Through a case of mistaken coat identity, famous drunkard and recently failed playwright Cedric Gibbons (Thomas Mitchell) finds Charles’ suicide note in the man’s pocket, and despite his own sorry state decides to do what he can to help the stranger. Soon Bill and Nina find out about Charles’ situation and become equally involved. Since Charles was so convincing to them as a wealthy businessman, they devise a sting operation where he keeps up the act and is “lured” by Bill to Dutch. They figure that the mobster will let Charles win at first, more than enough to pay off his debt, and once he’s done so he’ll quietly escape with his winnings, paying Bill everything that they allow him to win over $3,000 and saving his own life with the rest. Will the group of misfits succeed? Will Charles survive the night?
In a move that was rare at the time in Hollywood, star Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. co-produced Angels Over Broadway (1940) and convinced Harry Cohn, head of Columbia Pictures, to finance the rest. After Jean Arthur, who is also celebrating her birthday today, turned down the role of Nina, Cohn supplied his recent discovery Rita Hayworth in what became her first starring performance in a major motion picture. “Cohn couldn’t figure out what the picture was about but neither could we,” said Fairbanks of the film, but the plot and theme are clear to audiences today, as the screenplay, which earned iconic screenwriter Ben Hecht an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Screenplay for 1940, has since been regarded as far ahead of its time by critics. I find it difficult to understand why this film isn’t universally recognized that way that I see it: as a strong and riveting drama that blends the realism of New York City life, with a touch of fantasy and the idealism that maybe good guys can sometimes win in the end. To answer my own question, Rita Hayworth is miles apart from the calculated femme fatale image that she would later be known for, with a mousey voice and a doe-eyed look that would make even diehard fans of hers puzzled. Each performance in Angels Over Broadway (1940) is spot on and impeccably cast, made up of wildly underappreciated actors like Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. and Thomas Mitchell, both of whom rank highly in my book. Jean Arthur could never have portrayed a role like Nina Barona, but I also doubt that even Rita herself could have pulled this part off after being transformed by the Hollywood machine after this film’s release. Still, while it’s completely set apart from the sizzling love goddess that we all know and adore onscreen, Rita is magnificent in Angels Over Broadway (1940), and I wholeheartedly encourage fans of hers who are curious of her acting talents outside of Gilda (1946) to watch this film and hopefully appreciate it as I do on the 100th anniversary of her birth.