December 29, 2015
Affair in Trinidad (1952) marked Rita Hayworth’s return to the screen after a three-year absence. She had been suspended by Columbia Pictures following her marriage to Iraqi prince Aly Khan and relocation to Europe, which violated her seven-year contract. Her reunion with Columbia was an uneasy one, and Affair in Trinidad was made with a half-finished script and a truculent star. The resulting film was widely regarded as a sloppy rehash of Gilda, but it was a hit at the box office anyway, as audiences were still devoted to their “Love Goddess” Hayworth. Director Vincent Sherman performed an admirable reclamation job on the nonsensical script, but the artistic successes lie elsewhere on the billing block. The film has two superb dance sequences choreographed by Valerie Bettis, who worked closely with Hayworth, and DP Joseph Walker (in his final film) conjures illicit atmospheres through his inky B&W cinematography. The film recently aired on TCM, and is available on DVD from the Sony Pictures Choice Collection.
Columbia exec Harry Cohn was eager to get Hayworth back on screen and squeeze the remaining value out of her contract. Gilda was her most successful feature, so Cohn hired that film’s co-star Glenn Ford as well as its screenwriter Virginia Van Upp, who was to prepare a script to recapture the old magic. She turned out 15 pages, and off of that Cohn hired Vincent Sherman to direct the picture. According to Sherman, a meeting was held with producer Burt Granet and Van Upp, during which the whole story was to be planned out. Van Upp had only written 25 or 30 pages with no idea how to finish, and was bottoming out on an alcoholic bender. Rita Hayworth was in town earning $3,500 a week with no script to shoot, and Cohn was putting pressure on Sherman to figure something out. Granet dropped out of the project but Sherman stuck around and hired James Gunn to rush the completion of the script (with some revisions by Oscar Saul). Sherman on working with Gunn:
He had a bright mind, not always very focused, he was drinking and very unhappy, but he was talented. The next day I sent for a copy of Notorious…. I stole a little from that film, a little from this, a little from that, and I put together a melodrama that took place in Trinidad.
Rita Hayworth plays Chris Emory, the featured act at a Trinidadian nightclub. Her husband Neal turns up dead in the bay, and she is under investigation for the murder, along with her decadent and rich friend Max Fabien (Alexander Scourby). Then Neal’s brother Steve (Glenn Ford) shows up, and starts to unravel the mysteries coursing through the town, as well as falling madly in love with Chris, who may or may not be guilty of the murder.
Hayworth was displeased by the delays, and refused to report to work until she received a script she could approve. Columbia suspended her from December of 1951 until January 1952, when she relented and agreed to work on the Sherman and Gunn script. By this point it was a production to endure, not to savor. Both Ford and Sherman remember Hayworth as being unhappy and distant on the set. Ford wrote in his journal that, “She had changed. She was still beautiful, still a marvelous girl, but the flame did not burn as bright. There was a tiredness about her now, a sadness in her eyes. She was unhappy a lot of the time. Those of us who loved her tried to bring her out of it but without a lot of success.” Sherman said that Hayworth was the “saddest girl I’ve ever known. She had been used by every man that ever worked with her.”
The one person Hayworth seemed to open up to was choreographer Valerie Bettis, who put together the two showstopping dance numbers that are the film’s sole reasons for existing,”Trinidad Lady” and “I’ve Been Kissed Before” (she also acts in a small supporting role as a loudmouthed alcoholic, Veronica, who hilariously slurs that she wishes she could dance like Chris). Theirs seemed to be a true collaboration, and while the film around them was stilted and familiar, the dance numbers are confrontational and strikingly modern. Bettis called Hayworth, “the most cooperative artist with whom I have ever been associated” (quoted in Adrienne L. McLean’s Being Rita Hayworth). Bettis was a product of the second wave of modern dance, having studied under German choreographer Hanya Holm, and was interested in folding all forms of media into dance. Her breakthrough solo was choreographed to a poem by John Malcolm Brinnin, while she later adapted Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying and Tennessee Williams’ Streetcar Named Desire into ballets. She became a success in Broadway in her “Tigerlily” number in the revue Inside USA in 1948, and spent the rest of her career oscillating between the stage, film and television.
On Affair in Trinidad, Bettis said that “every day there was a major crisis, but Rita and I won all our battles and and of course that gave us great satisfaction, no matter what the studio officials felt.” Cohn objected to Hayworth dancing “Trinidad Lady” barefoot feeling, Bettis said, that “it didn’t make [Hayworth] look attractive.” Perhaps not wanting to delay the production any longer, Hayworth and Bettis would get their way, and the “Trinidad Lady” number is a provocative, modern number in the middle of a retrograde drama. Hayworth’s character is doing her nightly show, unaware that the police have arrived to inform her of her husband’s apparent suicide. The routine, set to a light calypso rhythm (with vocals dubbed by Jo Ann Greer), is not your usual hip-swaying seduction, but a forceful knifing through space. I am not a dance critic, but The New York Herald Tribune’s Walter Terry was suitably impressed, writing:
Here, there is no sense that a dance seems sensual simply because Miss Hayworth is decorating its measures with her sensual presence. Rather do these dances exploit and disclose new aspects of a very vibrant personality. …if you look closely you will see that the legs are but infrequently used to make steps for carrying the body from one geographical location to another but that the legs move because violent actions of the torso propel them forwards and backward and sideways.
She is not moving to get from one place to another but from a hidden force inside her core. This interiority is emphasized in extreme close-ups in which Hayworth stares with a sly grin into the camera. It is not a come hither stare, but more an aggressive announcement of her own sexual power.
The “I’ve Been Kissed Before Number” is set at a party, and is gliding and playful where “Trinidad Lady” is aggressive and confrontational. It is almost all sinuous arms and hands, faux-flirting with the gathered guests. It makes less of a visceral impact but serves its purpose to fire Glenn Ford’s jealousy.
Affair in Trinidad was a problem that had to be solved, and what could have been a disaster was molded into passable entertainment thanks to the two standout dance sequences. Valerie Bettis would speak highly of her collaboration with Hayworth years later, and they seemed to be the only two on the set who didn’t wish they were somewhere else. With Sherman and Ford Hayworth seemed distant and sad, seemingly defeated by the business. But for Bettis it was a cherished, joyous collaboration. Hayworth seemed to light back up around her (and they would collaborate again for the “Dance of the Seven Veils” sequence in Salome). When the New York Times asked Bettis if Hayworth was a “truly good dancer by a reputable choreographer’s standards”, she responded: “She fed me…she was an Open Sesame. There she was, under a double-edged sword, so to speak, facing ‘the monster’ — the camera — for the first time in more than three years. I wanted her to loathe it. I wanted her to be so familiarized with the routines she would be contemptuous of it. And she was — like an angel.”