Columbia Pictures was one of the major studios during Hollywood’s Golden Era of the 1930s and 40s, but unlike the others it never developed its own stars. With one exception. Rita Hayworth.
And what a star she was.
Hello Everybody. Joe Morella and Frank Segers, your classic movie guys, here to recall the career and impact of one of Hollywood’s brightest luminaries.
Margarita Cansino came from a show business family. Her father Eduardo Cansino was from a long line of professional dancers from Seville, Spain. He and his sister had great success on Broadway and in nightclubs. He’d married a beautiful showgirl of Irish American background (Volga Haworth), and they had three children, Margarita, and two sons.
Margarita was given dance lessons from the moment she could walk. Eduardo pressed his daughter into service early and by 14 Margarita was her demanding dad’s dancing partner, working hard to meet his professional expectations. It wasn’t Columbia Pictures that discovered her, it was rival studio Fox in the form of production head, Winfield Sheehan, who found her dancing at a casino-resort in Baja California.
By 1935, Margarita was dancing in a gambling-ship scene in Dante’s Inferno, and was subsequently offered a Fox contract paying her the tidy sum (at the time) of $200 per week demanded by her father. But then the star-to-be, Rita Cansino, then all of 17, learned a hard lesson in Hollywood politics. Her mentor Sheehan was fired, and all his projects were cancelled when a new production chief, one Darryl F. Zanuck, took over after the merger of Fox and Twentieth Century.
The connection with Columbia was secured by Margarita’s first of five husbands, Edward Judson, whom she married in 1937 when she was 18 and he 40 (her father was furious). Like most of her spouses, Judson managed and controlled her career. Columbia changed her name to Hayworth.
A new authority figure (and frequent adversary) in Rita’s life was the most notorious of the old studio bosses, Columbia’s Harry Cohn. He took little notice of his future star early on, even after she had her hair dyed from her natural black to auburn, and endured a painful uplifting of her hairline through electrolysis.
It wasn’t until Rita made the most of her small, wifely role in Howard Hawks’ 1939 Only Angels Have Wings that it began to dawn on the studio brass what they had in Hayworth.
Credit Hawks for his advice at the time to the Columbia supremo: If you’re smart, the director told Cohn, you won’t do anything with her until the picture comes out. No other movies, no publicity, nothing. Just wait until the public sees her. Then you’ll know what you’ve got…. Cohn quickly found out.
The ascending stardom of Rita Hayworth provided a new and stimulating experience for Harry Cohn, wrote wrote Bob Thomas in his 1967 biography King Cohn: The Life and Times of Hollywood Mogul Harry Cohn.
Rita was a bonanza…She was perfect material for stardom, as malleable as gold…Every time Cohn lent her to another studio, she not only returned several times her normal salary; she also came back a bigger star. And the pictures she made for Columbia did not even have to be good in order to make money.
Shy in private, Rita sizzled onscreen. Next week we’ll take a look at some of her signature movies. Hayworth made her share of duds but she also starred in some very good pictures. Stay tuned.