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Carnett: Silver screen of old reminds us we are mortal

I enjoy classic cinema, particularly Hollywood and British fare of the 1930s, ‘40s and ‘50s.

The other night my wife, Hedy, and I settled down on the couch to watch the 1946 film “Gilda,” starring one of the most iconic people of the silver screen: Rita Hayworth. Miss Hayworth has to rank as one of the most elegant and beautiful ladies ever to walk the face of the planet.

Oh yeah, actor Glenn Ford and some other notables were also in the film.

As the opening credits dissolved into the movie’s first scene, Hedy turned to me.


“Do you realize that every person in this film is dead?”

Well, uh, yeah, now that you mention it. The black-and-white motion picture is 66 years old!

That bit of profundity cast a pall on things. Suddenly, my popcorn — drenched in sodium and fat — seemed less appealing than it had 30 seconds earlier.

Her observation prompted within my consciousness a recitation of that famous tombstone admonition: “Remember me as you pass by, as you are now so once was I. As I am now, so you must be. Prepare for death and follow me.”


It was as though Rita, Glenn and the other cast members were now calling out from the Great Beyond: “Take heed. You’ll join us anon!”

What “Gilda” has become to me today, I’ve decided — besides great theater — is analogous to Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town": existential musings in a graveyard.

Quite literally, however, the film is a compilation of routine workdays from 67 years ago (it was shot in 1945 and released in ’46), preserved as a thematic “whole” for cinema buffs like me. Those workdays were not unlike workdays we’ve all put in throughout recent weeks, months and years.

One scene depicts Hayworth, Ford and actor George Macready drinking champagne in a glamorous Buenos Aries casino. That setup actually took place on a Hollywood soundstage on a particular day — or perhaps days — in 1945.

Rita, Glenn and George had lines to memorize and deliver, and screen business to attend to. The tightly scripted episode required that every cast and crew member carry out necessary and specialized tasks.

It was, quite simply, labor.

The screenplay called for the actors to toast one another and sip champagne. Actual carbon dioxide bubbles rose from nucleation points on the walls of those fluted glasses in real time, reached the liquid’s surface and burst into the 1945 ether.

It was recorded for posterity on film mere weeks after the close of a ghastly world war. The scene, at once festive and malevolent, communicated to a weary world: “See? Life moves on.”


I watched it all unfold again — for a zillionth time digitally — a couple of weeks ago in my family room. My context was different, however. It’s 2012 for me, not 1945.

But, those glamorous people seemed very much alive in my den. As they opened their mouths, words issued forth.

Yet, I know that Rita, Glenn and George have been pushing up daisies for a very long time. They’ve gone to their reward and are unable any longer to savor the corporeal pleasures of fluted glasses and champagne bubbles.

Macready died of emphysema 29 years after that scene was shot. The images on film of him blowing elegant cigarette smoke curls have added poignancy considering the nature of his demise. He was 73.

Hayworth died 43 years after director Charles Vidor shouted “cut” for the scene. She passed on at age 68 of Alzheimer’s, a jarring affront to her devastating beauty. Anyone see that coming?

Ford died 62 years after the film was shot of complications from multiple strokes. No longer a chiseled visage with pomaded hair, he was 90.

On celluloid, the three remain forever youthful and able to savor champagne’s giddy luminescence. Yet their actual mortal remains have long since decayed.

Laughter, romance and play-acting give way to physical obliteration. Guaranteed. An expiration date awaits each of us. Inexorably.


“As I am now, so you must be.”

JIM CARNETT lives in Costa Mesa. His column runs Tuesdays.