When Sister Celluloid announced her “…And Scene!” Blogathon, to tempt us film lovers/bloggers to discuss our favorite scene from any classic film, I knew immediately what I had to write about. She describes the content she seeks as addressing the scene “you replay over and over […and] catch yourself mouthing the words to”; the one that drives loved ones out of the room “because they know you’re going to get all weepy or crazy or giddy again.” Challenge accepted!

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Crazy is definitely what I get whenever I watch Rita Hayworth in the “Put the Blame on Mame” scene in Gilda. First and foremost, Hayworth is absolutely, stunningly magnetic. Her hair, her mouth, the way she moves, her gaze: we can’t look away if we try.

Irresistible Gilda
Irresistible Gilda

Sexual orientation be damned: I don’t know anyone whose jaw doesn’t drop when Gilda takes the stage. That the number is a striptease only magnifies its taboo power. Hayworth isn’t kittenish or coy; this is film noir, not a Hollywood musical.

Gilda goes for it
Gilda goes for it

Beauty and sex appeal, however, only begin to address what is so mesmerizing about this scene. Content is vital. With vengeful aplomb because he loved her and left her before the film begins, Gilda effectively convinces her ex-lover Johnny (Glenn Ford) that she is the femme fatale he (mis)takes her for.

He’s stuck, loving and loathing her, just as she loves and loathes him. He marries her just to shun her and then thwarts her every effort to escape his control. Desperate and hopeless, Gilda gives Johnny what he’s asked for: she enacts the whore image he’s painted.

“Put the Blame on Mame” is a song about an infamous woman who can be blamed for all the world’s ills. I find its implications feminist, particularly in the context in which Gilda sings it. Like Eve in the Bible, Mame stands for all women, demonized for their sexuality in patriarchal culture. Gilda is a heartless temptress, Johnny decides, and so Gilda gives him what he asks for.

Here are the lyrics:

When they had the earthquake in San Francisco
Back in nineteen-six
They said that Mother Nature
Was up to her old tricks
That’s the story that went around
But here’s the real low-down
Put the blame on Mame, boys
Put the blame on Mame
One night she started to shim and shake
That brought on the Frisco quake
So you can put the blame on Mame, boys
Put the blame on Mame

They once had a shootin’ up in the Klondike
When they got Dan McGrew
Folks were putting the blame on
The lady known as Lou
That’s the story that went around
But here’s the real low-down
Put the blame on Mame, boys
Put the blame on Mame
Mame did a dance called the hoochy-coo
That’s the thing that slew McGrew
So you can put the blame on Mame, boys
Put the blame on Mame

The music and lyrics were written by Allan Roberts and Doris Fisher, specifically for the film, but not, ultimately, for Hayworth, whose voice was dubbed over by Anita Kert Ellis. That Hayworth’s voice was deemed inadequate for Gilda’s singing is certainly a common issue for actresses in Hollywood musicals (Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady being one of the most famous examples). But here, the lack of voice is particularly poignant. Gilda’s self-destructive love for Johnny has robbed her of her voice, which she demonstrates in the song, the striptease, and after. When Johnny drags her off stage before an eager audience member can unzip her dress, Gilda angrily refers to herself as a whore–or nearly does, for Johnny slaps her face just before she can say the word. The physical abuse shows women’s double-bind: we are called whores, but when we point that out by using the term ourselves, we must be punished.

And this is where context is as important as content in my pleasure and pain over watching this scene. The film offers, on its own problematic terms, a happy ending. Johnny explains that neither he nor Gilda has anything to apologize for because at last they’re “even,” both having hurt each other badly (and both, arguably, having slept with Gilda’s husband Ballin, but that’s another post for another time). Both equally deserve happiness, together forever at last.

The goddess deserves worship
The goddess deserves worship

I disagree, vehemently, with Johnny’s–and the film’s–conclusion. Gilda has been far more sinned against than sinning. If she has tormented Johnny, he has used his power to do her far greater wrong.

Finally, I find it difficult not to look at Hayworth’s own life as an echo of the Johnny/Gilda relationship. As a child, Rita Hayworth (originally Margarita Carmen Cansino) was sexually abused by her father. Biographers attribute her lifetime of disastrous relationships with men to this abuse, and I can’t help but think about that, every time I watch Gilda sing “Put the Blame on Mame,” in all her Hollywood-transformed vivaciousness.

Margarita Carmen Cansino, soon to become Rita Hayworth
Margarita Carmen Cansino, soon to become Rita Hayworth

Let me conclude by noting that Hayworth actually sings “Put the Blame on Mame” twice in Gilda. The first time she sings an excerpt, accompanying herself on guitar, offering a taunting serenade to a sleeping Johnny. In this scene, she makes a statement about self-destructiveness of which we can hear echoes throughout the film, the genre of film noir, Hollywood femininity, and Hayworth’s own life: “I hate you so much that I would destroy myself to take you down with me.”

rita-gilda-1946-gif hate

Maybe it’s time to take the blame off Mame.

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This post is a contribution to:

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