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19 March 2015

Incandescent Rita Hayworth in an Oddball Musical: "Down to Earth"

A very believable giddess

This rather odd -- well, very odd -- fantasy musical meant a great deal to me when I was about eight years old. I saw it on TV, in black and white, of course, and for months I was inspired to draw and dream about its singular view of Ancient Greek gods -- or goddesses.

Yes, Rita Hayworth plays the actual goddess -- or muse, Terpsichore. Above she is pictured with her sisters, the other eight muses

The film opens with a flustered  James Gleason trying to explain something to the police, to little effect. Finally he gets them to listen, and begins at the beginning. His name is Max Corkle -- yes, Max Corkle, former boxing promoter, last seen working for prizefighter Joe Pendleton (in the person of Robert Montgomery), in another film fantasy, Here Comes Mr Jordan.

This is the story Max tells: it all began when Terpsichore discovers that an ambitious producer portrays her and the other muses in an unflattering light in a new musical he is rehearsing. Outraged, she decides to visit earth to investigate. But first she has to obtain the permission of Mr. Jordan.

The muses hang out in misty pavilions

Yes! Mr. Jordan, whose role as heavenly arbiter is apparently more wide-ranging than we realized in his last movie appearance. (He is also played by another actor, Roland Culver, who is excellent, as always, but can't quite replace Claude Rains.) He agrees to let Terpsichore disguise herself as a human and visit Earth, in exchange for her promise to return. He assigns a Messenger, again played by Edward Everett Horton, to watch over her. 

Now, this is a perfectly acceptable musical plot; but I have to say that when I was eight, I  had no interest at all in the producer's problems or the romance or even the peculiar rules of this particular fantasy world. I just loved those muses! They seemed to live in the clouds, strolling amongst white-pillared pavilions. They wore, as you can see, lovely silk chiffon gowns, with floating panels over the shoulder, in beautiful jewel colors, designed by Jean Louis. (Of course, I didn't know that; it was years until I saw it in color.) These characters, though hardly accurate or reflective of anything about ancient Greece, occupied my imagination for months.

I also loved Rita -- I loved her beautifully modulated speaking voice, and her big hair, and her air of slight confusion (perfectly appropriate for this role). And she danced like she loved it more than anything else, which I believe she did. 

In her element
Terpsichore decides to take part in the offending musical, so she  can show the producer how the Muses really act. She blasts everyone off the stage (figuratively, that is) with a killer dance at her audition; naturally, the writer/composer/director Danny Miller, played by Larry Parks, asks her to play the lead -- and falls in love with her. She sets about changing the show, which goes about as well as it does when Geoffrey Cordoba transforms a simple little musical into Faust  in The Band Wagon. Terpsichore's "authentic" show, too, lays an egg.

But by this time, of course, she has fallen in love with Danny, too, and agrees to restore the show to what it was originally meant to be. But a goddess, or a muse, is not allowed by the rules of movie mythology to live as a human on earth; and Mr. Jordan insists that she go back. But he shows her that a happy day will finally come when Danny will join her. The last thing you see is her lovely, ecstatic form, dancing away through the clouds, spinning as lightly as a sunbeam. 

Waiting for her favorite mortal to arrive

Even though this a weird and rather disconcerting movie, this is how I think of Rita Hayworth. She was just about at her peak in 1947,  glowing , vigorous,  with a smile of pure happiness. She was famous, and sought after, and beautiful, and the terrible disease that was to come had not begun to affect her.

Off she  goes, full of joy:

 The whole film is on youtube: Down to Earth

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