The final Rita Hayworth movie of the week sends her off on a high note after two lackluster B-movies. Down to Earth is a quasi continuation/sequel to 1941’s Here Comes Mr. Jordan (both directed by Alexander Hall), and in the same universe as Cover Girl (1944). It’s also got to be the inspiration for one of my favorite 1980s cheesefests, the Greek musical Xanadu (1980). Suffice it to say, Down to Earth has a lot to live up to, and it does in a way only a supernatural/Greek myth musical romance can. Filmed in glorious Technicolor with Rita Hayworth at her loveliest, it’s worth watching to see the Love Goddess go Greek.
Greek goddess Terpsichore (Hayworth) visits Earth when stage producer Danny Miller (Larry Parks) creates a show that, according to Terpsichore, makes a mockery of the muses. Living on Earth as Kitty Pendleton, Terpsichore gets the lead of the show – playing herself! – and does what she can to change the show in her favor.
The silly premise aside, Down to Earth explores the antagonism between historical authenticity and narrative benefit. You’ve probably watched countless movies based on historical events, books, or myth with people (maybe yourself) crying “According to this, that’s not true.” Well, in this case we have the truth coming straight from the horse’s mouth.
Precipitating her trip “down to Earth” as the title suggests, Terpsichore, the goddess of music and dance learns that Miller is portraying her negatively. “According to him, I’m not but a man chasing trollop,” and there’s no way Terpsichore will let that stand! However, through Terpsichore’s wooing, she convinces Danny to defer to her in terms of story and production, turning a fun, if bubble-headed, musical about Greek goddesses into a seriously boring affair that, while containing artistic value, lacks mass appeal. It’s the oldest debate in the film book: the distinction and benefits of art vs. entertainment. Hayworth, who thought this her worst film, probably sided with Terpsichore in her desire to make serious films as opposed to romantic dreck (although I would never say that’s what Down to Earth is).
Down to Earth is no better or worse than most 1940s era musicals, probably more so considering its pedigree and production design. The former is especially interesting. A quasi-sequel to Mr. Jordan, we start on the top of Mt. Parnassus – was Mt. Olympus copy-righted? – meeting Terpsichore and the other Muses. (Point one to Xanadu, we got a sweet ELO song accompanying their introduction to the muses.) She wants Miller to change the play and remembers a man who could help her, Mr. Jordan (Roland Culver substitutes for original Mr. Jordan, Claude Rains). It’s a fantasy, but it’s interesting how inclusive the nature of the afterlife is portrayed here. Greek mythology inhabits the same plane as a secular afterlife; in fact, the Greek myth is the only type of “religion” with a deep-rooted origin since there aren’t any religious denominations associated with where Mr. Jordan is.
In many ways, Mr. Jordan’s afterlife is just as thankless and filled with drudgery as ours. I mean, Messenger 7013 (Edward Everett Horton) can’t even get a vacation! Some things never change! And there are several droll jokes about humanity itself that are funny. Messenger 7013 tells Terpsichore everyone is rushing to “see Mr. Jordan.” “The more they hurry, the sooner they’ll get there,” she says. Later on, when agent Max Corkle (lovably played by James Gleason) arrives, Messenger opines “we never get them [agents].”
Who better to play a muse than a woman more than capable of inspiring men with a kiss? Rita Hayworth has fun as the slightly selfish goddess. When she declares herself the “most talented of all the goddesses,” she believes it, but you’re never assuming she’s vicious or petty. Even when she smuggles herself into the chorus and steals the lead from another woman, the audience laughs at the rival rearing up a fist, “Sister, you’re about to lose some teeth!” Often placed in the role of a clotheshorse, logical since she is in a play, Hayworth wears the diaphanous Grecian gowns well, blending seamlessly with the exquisite Technicolor that gives everything a pop of sumptuous color.
Despite Hayworth’s star power, which was an obvious factor, there are moments where the script never seems interested in Hayward’s story, or at least wants to find a way to seamlessly integrate the drab male lead. Hayworth starred alongside serious leading men like Orson Welles and Gene Kelly, so it’s doubtful anyone would recall Larry Parks starring opposite her. Parks’ claim to fame was starring as Al Jolson in The Jolson Story the year before, and he’s a very watered down version of Glenn Ford or Gene Kelly. His presence should be irrelevant because this Hayworth’s picture, but the two lack chemistry and it’s doubtful that Hayworth, muse or otherwise, would give him the time of day outside of a movie plot.
Down to Earth’s a routine musical about the nature of pretension in musicals and entertainment. It’s slightly more complex than given credit for and it inspired a wealth of 1980s nostalgia later down the road. Rita Hayworth holds the film in her capable hands, and side characters Culver, Horton, and Gleason are wonderful alongside.
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