Rusty Parker (Rita Hayworth) works as a showgirl in the theatre of her boyfriend Danny McGuire (Gene Kelly), a choreographer and performer who also acts as her mentor. Tonight she and her fellow cast are going through a routine on stage as Danny stands in the wings, visibly unsatisfied with their work, but Rusty is doing her best and once they all get back to the dressing room talk turns to how they can do better for themselves. One girl, Maurine (Leslie Brooks) tells them all she is going to make a name for herself as a cover girl on a magazine if she wins this competition, which gives Rusty an idea...
Cover Girl has a very good reputation among those who enjoy classic musicals, and it is often considered a fun comedy with bright songs, yet those who approach it that way may find it something of a letdown, for really it's a more bitter film than many care to recognise. Much of this is down to Kelly's Danny McGuire, who is very much in love with Rusty and she with him, but cannot bear the thought of her actually doing better professionally than he is; she isn't exactly under his thumb, but you get the impression it is he who wanted to wear the trousers in their relationship. It is this tension which develops into a surprisingly downbeat tone for what was supposed to be light entertainment.
Another aspect that Cover Girl is lacking to go along with a sense of fun is a load of killer dance routines. Kelly and Hayworth dance very well, but there is only one setpiece that sticks in the minds of most of those who see it and that the Alter Ego Dance, where a frustrated Danny gets out his bad feelings by giving in to the muse Terpsichore - that is to say, he does a duet with himself. It's a sequence that you can tell Kelly put a lot of work into, with the help of his collaborator Stanley Donen, and the timing is immaculate with Danny's mirror image jumping down from the reflection in a shop window to show him what he's got, musical style. It is highlights such as this which have raised the film's standing.
Another part that stays with you after the grand finale is the song Long Ago and Far Away, a joint effort between Ira Gershwin and Jerome Kern that emerges as a soulful and touching ballad, offering the right kind of depth to contast with the grumpiness that too often threatens to overtake the rest of the movie. The plot believes in the romance between Rusty and Danny as much as it does in the jeopardy they head towards if they cannot reach a compromise in their love lives, but as much of this is down to the point that she is doing so much better than he is, you don't have to be a raging feminist to see a lack of balance in that. As it is, this is acknowledged to some extent, and when a producer, Noel Wheaton (Lee Bowman) is introduced, the couple go their separate ways.
Ah, but it cannot end like that and after Rusty's competition-winning streak of luck sends her popularity skyrocketing, she senses something is missing in her life, and suspects it might be Danny. Though quite why she'd want to get involved with his passive aggressive moods once again is something that is never wholly explained to our satisfaction, and it's only the fact that Wheaton is such a colourless character that we feel she was better off with her old beau. I don't wish to paint a picture of Cover Girl being nonstop resentment, because it has its bright patches too, such as the inclusion of Phil Silvers (with hair!) as the comic relief, though not as smart as we'd like to see him and certainly overbearing in his cheerfulness, or the montage of cover girl models that we see on their magazines, leading us to feel sorry for the one who ended up on Farm Journal. So it's not all doom and gloom, but this is darker than is often given credit for.
[Eureka have released a Blu-ray of this title, and here are the special features:
Gorgeous high-definition presentation from a new 4K restoration
Optional English subtitles
Baz Luhrmann on Cover Girl
Masters of Cinema exclusive trailer
28-page booklet featuring a new essay on the film by Farran Smith Nehme.]