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SPECIAL SCREENING

Now This Is a Movie With Legs

October 20, 1994|MARK CHALON SMITH | Mark Chalon Smith is a free-lancer who regularly writes about film for the Times Orange County Edition

Mention Rita Hayworth to my dad, and there was always a good chance he'd growl, something like this: "Oh yes, nobody was quite like that Rita . . . Grrrr. "

I'm not sure he had one of Hayworth's famous 1940s pinup posters, but he did confess that he thought of her more than a few times while flying over China as a fighter pilot during the war. There were dozens of knockout starlets in Hollywood during that time, but listening to my father, she was the best.

Though Hayworth became known as a sex-tress, a beauty with a jungle of red hair and longer-than-life legs, she began as a dancer. There were a handful of mediocre-to-good musicals (many for Columbia studio) with Fred Astaire, and a few with Astaire's main competition for king of the steppers, Gene Kelly.

One of those Hayworth-Kelly vehicles, "Cover Girl," will screen Friday afternoon in a free presentation at the Cypress Senior Citizens Center. The 1944 movie, made at the height of Hayworth's popularity, isn't in the same league with recognized musical classics such as "Singin' in the Rain" or "Top Hat," but it does show why Hayworth was a big deal.

Besides being camera-friendly, she was a spirited, surprisingly athletic dancer who could keep up with the men, including the ever-spry Kelly.

The choreography by Val Rasat and Seymour Felix is better than average, and so are the tunes by Jerome Kern and Ira Gershwin. That's fortunate, because the plot, based on a short story by Erwin Gelsey, is pretty pooped out. Like most musicals, we don't enjoy "Cover Girl" for its great drama or insightful character development.

Hayworth plays Rusty Parker, a nice girl performing in a chorus-line revue at a small-potatoes nightclub in Brooklyn. Danny McGuire (Kelly) owns it, and he happens to be in love with the shy Rusty.

She has grand ideas percolating behind those big eyes, though, and enters a beauty contest promising fame and fortune. Rusty wins, of course, and is soon being seduced by a hotshot producer (Lee Bowman) and his offer of a Broadway role. This drives Danny crazy.

Tucked among all the cliches and predictability are the many song-and-dance sequences, illuminated like lights on a Christmas tree, thanks to the electric hues of Technicolor. Phil Silvers plays Genius, Danny's sidekick (think of him as a Kmart version of Donald O'Connor in "Singin' in the Rain") and, despite minor vocal and hoofing ability, provides the requisite shenanigans.

Actually, the kickiest performance comes from Eve Arden as a magazine editor who unwittingly puts Rusty on her path to celebrity. Arden, with her huskily superior voice and pinpoint comic timing, snags our attention, even in most of the scenes with Hayworth.

Kelly is also dependable throughout, especially in his one solo, in which he dances with a mirror image of himself up and down a dark Brooklyn street. It's the picture's most inventive sequence.

But it's really Hayworth's movie. She was never an exceptional actress, but, as they say, the camera loved her. She had screen presence, the kind good enough to growl over.

What: "Cover Girl."

When: Friday, Oct. 21, at 12:45 p.m.

Where: The Cypress Senior Citizen Center, 9031 Grindlay St.

Whereabouts: Take the San Gabriel River (605) Freeway to Lincoln Avenue and head east to Grindlay Street, then go right.

Wherewithal: Free.

Where to call: (714) 229-6776.

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