'There never was a woman like Gilda!' screamed the posters in 1946. Nor was there ever a film like Gilda - certainly not one that so precisly expressed the mood and main preoccupations of American society just after World War II. The film caught the public's imagination without anyone at the time being able to explain exactly why. Nor would it be easy to find many films which were produced in the Hollywood studios under such peculiar circumstances.
Columbia made the remarkable decision to begin production on a film featuring their biggest (in a way their only) star, Rita Hayworth, without a finished script or an exact idea of what the completed film would be like. The studio needed a Hayworth vehicle. She had not worked since 1944, happily remaining home with her new daughter. But as things began to go wrong with her marriage to Orson Welles, Hayworth was willing to begin filming again. Marion Parsonnet had written a first script for Gilda, but this was then reworked by producer Virginia Van Upp, who had been responsible for the script of Cover Girl (1944), Hayworth's biggest hit to date. New plot twists, new scenes and new dialogue continued to be written long after shooting had started. Even the two dance numbers ('Put the Blame on Mame' and 'Amado Mia') - which audiences still remember even when everything else about the film has become, through time, rather vague - were planned and executed after most of the film had been done. In addition, some of the most memorable dialogue was first spoken in re-takes, shot after the film was supposedly finished.
Search as one will through the names of all those who participated in the creaton of Gilda, it is impossible to assign credit to a single auteur. Gilda owed its creation to a unique blend of studio craftsmanship. When, six years later, Gilda was more-or-less remade as Affair in Trinidad (1952), that same vital 'chemistry' was missing and the result was a flat bore, with only Hayworth's dance numbers and the debut of Valerie Bettis of interest; even with an almost doubled budget - only partially due to inflation - Affair in Trinidad did not even come near the glittering surface of Gilda's sumptuous black-and-white images.
For the USA, the end of the war had brought with it a loss of faith in traditional institutions and ideas and an uncertainty about the future - it being bitterly clear that nothing would ever be quite the same again. All of this is captured in Gilda, either explicitly or implicitly. The film showed that women were no longer innocent sweethearts or contented housewives. They had won a new sexual independence. Old notions of romance had faded, but there was still nostalgia for them, tinged with cynicism. The fundamental American-Puritan ideal of bettering oneself through hard work had dissolved into a drifting desire for a fast buck. Respectability had become a dirty word. America was haunted by a past which seemed to be a false and empty basis for an uncertain future. The past appeared to have been an illusion, if not a fabric of lies, woven to hold an increasingly corrupt society together.
Thus Gilda - the woman making sexual choices like a man - is at once a degraded slut and a goddess of romance. The film consistently implies that romantic love is founded on lies, but Johnny still clings to its illusions. When he is told at the end that 'Gilda didn't do any of those things', not only is this an obvious sop for the censor, it is also another lie that he must swallow in order to maintain his essentially bourgeois notions of morality. Even the basis of movie romance - heterosexual love - is called into question as Gilda breaks up the happy home of Johnny and Mundson. Nothing is what it seems; it is far worse. This is one of the basic elements of film noir, of which Gilda, if not the first, was the most important. That America was more than ready for such a message, fully understood or not, was evidenced by the film's huge success - a $3 million gross on its first release, with two subsequent profitable revivals.