Ginger Rogers -- Appreciations
By Many Authors
This page presents thoughtful appreciations of the full range of talents, qualities and achievements of the great actress, Ginger Rogers (1911-1995). They have been written (or spoken) by her peers, by scholars, journalists, and fans. These appreciations first were posted at the Ginger Rogers board at Internet Movie Database, by a variety of different posters who discovered worthwhile appraisals of Ginger Rogers in many different sources. We are always looking for more, and welcome new appreciations for possible posting here. Email the site at firstname.lastname@example.org.
“Ginger was brilliantly effective. She made everything work for her. Actually she made things very fine for both of us and she deserves most of the credit for our success.” -- Fred Astaire, in 1966, quoted in Ginger: Salute to a Star (1969), by Dick Richards, p. 163
"Ginger is the most effective performer I've ever worked with. Ginger's a salesman. She can sell it. She's a showman and an actress. She's quite unique. She's amazing." – Fred Astaire (1952, interviewed by Hedda Hopper), quoted in Colin Jarman, ed., Dancing on Astaire, p. 108
"When I was working with Ginger, it was like heaven on earth. She had all the talent anybody could have." – Fred Astaire (at The Film Society of Lincoln Center Award Gala, 1973), quoted in Colin Jarman, ed., Dancing on Astaire, p. 108
"All the girls I ever danced with thought they couldn't do it, but of course they could. So they always cried. All except Ginger. No, no, Ginger never cried." – Fred Astaire, quoted in Colin Jarman, ed., Dancing on Astaire, p. 108
"Ginger had never danced with a partner before ['Flying Down to Rio']. In the beginning she faked it an awful lot. She couldn't tap and she couldn't do this and that ... but Ginger had style and talent and improved as she went along. She got so that after a while everyone else who danced with me looked wrong." -- Fred Astaire, quoted in Colin Jarman, ed., Dancing on Astaire, p. 108
"By the time we got Ginger into this thing she just sold it beautifully. That's all I can say. She knew how to sell it." – Fred Astaire, on “Night and Day” from “The Gay Divorcee”, quoted in Colin Jarman, ed., Dancing on Astaire, p. 137
“There was a certain magic between Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers … there’s never been the same electricity that has happened as when Fred and Ginger danced together.” -- Hermes Pan, interviewed in “Fred Astaire: Puttin’ on his Top Hat”, quoted in Hannah Hyam, Fred and Ginger: the Astaire-Rogers Partnership 1934-1938 (2007), p. 147
"People have always asked me about Fred's best partner, and I always say Ginger Rogers ...Ginger had a quality that made Fred seem like the most romantic hero since Gable." -- Hermes Pan (from the documentary "It Just Happens", 1988)
"He got along with Ginger perfectly, and I get so mad hearing the same old baloney, because I never heard the two of them having one cross word. I do not think that Eleanor Powell was Fred's greatest dancing partner. I think Ginger Rogers was. There was something when Fred and Ginger danced which was magic. They seemed to go together." -- Hermes Pan, quoted in Sarah Giles, ed., Fred Astaire: His Friends Talk (1988)
“Believe me, Ginger was great. She contributed her full fifty per cent in making them such a great team. She could follow Fred as if one brain was thinking. She blended with his every step and mood immaculately. He was able to do dances on the screen that would have been impossible to risk if he hadn’t had a partner like Ginger -- as skilful as she was attractive.” -- Edward Everett Horton, interviewed by Dick Richards, Ginger: Salute to a Star (1967), p. 162
"You would be surprised how much [Ginger Rogers] adds to the numbers. Fred arranges them, and then, when they get to rehearsing, Ginger puts in her own suggestions. And they're sensible ones. Fred discusses every one with her at length, and a good many of them are used." – Mark Sandrich, director of five Astaire-Rogers films, quoted in Fred Astaire: A Wonderful Life, by Bill Adler (1987)
[Pandro Berman, the producer of all the RKO Rogers/Astaire films, said] "Fred unquestionably was the best dancer of his type in the world – yet he might never have been recognized as anything more important than a ballroom dancer if we hadn’t teamed him with Ginger."
-- quoted by George Eels, in Ginger, Loretta and Irene Who?, 1976, p. 29
"If Fred Astaire made a great dancer out of Ginger Rogers, it is equally true that Ginger made a successful romantic lead out of Astaire." -- Lincoln Barnett, Life Magazine, 1941 (quoted in Colin Jarman, ed., Dancing on Astaire, p. 111)
"I don't think there's ever been anyone like Ginger, never. She was heaven." - Stanley Donen, quoted in Sarah Giles, ed., Fred Astaire: His Friends Talk (1988)
“Ginger owes much of her professional longevity to her singular versatility. There are few who can act comedy and drama, as well as sing and dance. Ginger continues to conceive fresh activity and new fields. She is still stagestruck and screenstruck. Further, she retains the nerve of a newcomer, and the courage of a champion. What is a movie star, anyway? Is it magnetism? Well then, what’s magnetism? Or personality, for that matter. The mysterious quality is more than talent. The indefinable has been defined as ‘human warmth’, ‘mass appeal’ and ‘identification’, among other things. Whatever it is, Ginger Rogers had it and has it.” Garson Kanin, “Ginger: She Wanted to Be a Moooooovie Star”, New York Times, January 29, 1967
“She is a wonderful dancer, of course, humorous rather than grand. But her most winning quality is her ability to be softened, won over, lit up, set aflame – all in that order – by her … partner, with her dancing becoming freer at each stage.” -- Richard Eder, “New Luster for an Old Team,” New York Times, September 3, 1976
"I wasn't that excited about Fred Astaire or the dancing. But, boy, her performance in Kitty Foyle just knocked me out." – Walter Cronkite, 1992, quoted in Colin Jarman, ed., Dancing on Astaire, p. 121
"Ginger Rogers ... was [Astaire's] greatest partner. Have we seen the complexity of romantic ecstasy, joy, bravery, or disappointment and desperation better rendered than in "Cheek to Cheek", "They All Laughed," "Let's Face the Music and Dance," and "Never Gonna Dance"? No actress has ever been better at communicating the mood to be wooed and the levels of sheer amazement felt when observing a man become magnetic." -- Stanley Crouch, 2006, at Slate.com
“Rogers was outstanding among Astaire’s film partners not because she was superior to the others as a dancer but because, as a skilled, intuitive actress, she was cagey enough to realize that acting did not stop when dancing began. She seemed uniquely to understand the dramatic import of the dance, and, without resorting to style-shattering emoting, she cunningly contributed her share to the choreographic impact of their numbers together.” – John Mueller, Astaire Dancing (1985), p. 8
“For nearly every moviegoer the [other partners of Astaire] are mere substitutes for the true partner, Ginger Rogers. The distinctiveness of Rogers is that she brings together a number of characteristics thought desirable in the female, but difficult to mix in ideal proportions. She combines skill with grace, verve with tenacity and verbal wit. There is something in her of the tomboy, not afraid either, when necessary, to use fisticuffs playfully … and in this combination of wit and toughness one can see not only something of the gold digger she played in ‘Gold Diggers of 1933’, and on a greater scale in … ‘Roxie Hart’ (1942), but also of the managing executive she was to become in ‘Lady in the Dark’ (1944), and the independent wife of ‘Monkey Business’ (1952). [Rogers] is never merely Astaire’s shadow … but a humorous, trenchant partner. There is too an almost mythic dimension in the exuberance and tension of their screen relationship, as if they themselves were conscious … of representing unseen deities, like some modern Oberon and Titania, or … the divinities of night and day.” – Bruce Babington and Peter William Evans, Blue Skies and Silver Linings: Aspects of the Hollywood Musical (1985), pp. 95-98
"Usually it’s ladies first, but for all of Ginger’s genius, somehow we always put Fred in front. It’s always “Fred & Ginger,” not “Ginger & Fred” …, or “Astaire & Rogers,” [not “Rogers & Astaire”]. Astaire is considered the defining presence of the series of films he and Rogers made together. But … Ginger was good for a lot more than providing something to follow the ampersand.
If the ten Astaire-Rogers films could be summed up in a single moment, it wouldn’t be a dance step but merely the look that she gives him at the close of the “Night and Day” number in The Gay Divorcee. A similar look occurs halfway through the intricate plot and music interweavings of “Pick Yourself Up” in Swing Time, wherein Astaire, who had hitherto shown himself to be “as awkward as a camel,” demonstrates a few fancy steps. She gives him a look that says not only can this guy dance, but he’s also more than an ordinary mortal – he’s her dream man. Even when gazing into the distance, as when he’s singing “They Can’t Take That Away From Me” and she’s staring off into the fog, those eyes express volumes.
Rogers communicates so much in those looks that the rest of the picture is almost unnecessary. We know that they’ll be together come the “End” title. (Even death at the somber conclusion of their final RKO effort, 1939’s The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle, isn’t enough to keep them apart.) In a sense, Rogers is extending the function of the audience as her discovery of her costar’s magic allows both her and us to participate in it. The highlight of their first kiss (which didn’t occur until Swing Time, their sixth appearance together [not counting the surprise smacker she plants on him in Top Hat] isn’t the clinch itself (which actually occurs offscreen, behind a door to be precise). It’s the goony look they give each other, highlighted by lipstick smeared all over his face, that says so much.
Yet the brilliant way Ginger manages to reflect and extend her partner’s magnetism is only the beginning of her accomplishments. What he gives her, she magnifies and enhances before transmitting it back to him and us. They exemplify the great American ideal known as collaboration, like Louis Armstrong and Earl Hines or the Marx Brothers, wherein by submerging their egos in each other, their own individual identities come out stronger than ever.
Great as Astaire’s later partners were, there was no one who combined that mixture of “tap, ballroom and aesthetic” like Rogers, nor anyone for whom singing, dancing, and acting were all part of the same expression. Graceful, supple, and beautiful as she was, it’s her acting ability that animates her dancing far more than traditional terpsichorean technique. No dancer other than the Great Man himself made drama such an essential element of movement. For example, when Rogers dances the role of the suicidal socialite in “Let’s Face the Music and Dance” in Follow the Fleet, she’s not just Ginger dancing or even her character, Sherry Martin. Rogers has simply become someone else, and as she embodies that person without even a single word of dialogue, there’s drama in every movement of her body, every glance from her eyes. Rogers does as much of her dancing with her face as with her feet.
Astaire later attempted several full-fledged pantomime scenarios in Ziegfield Follies (1940), but without Rogers he could never duplicate the success of “Face the Music”. It’s impossible to imagine anyone else who could be so funny and so serious, so dramatic and so musical, and so sexy and so lovable as Rogers. She was Astaire’s equal in every way, and perhaps the greatest female talent the Hollywood musical ever produced. And she and Astaire were, without question, its greatest team.” -- Will Friedwald, “An Appreciation”, notes to “Fred Astaire & Ginger Rogers at RKO”, Motion Picture Soundtrack Anthology, Turner Classic Movies/Rhino Movie Music (1998; 2-CD set)
“She was the dance queen of Hollywood … and George Balanchine once remarked that he only came to America because it was a land of girls like Ginger Rogers. Some of the others may have been better dancers; Ginger Rogers was a better star. Only with her did dance in the movie musical become a medium of serious emotion, only with her did Fred Astaire do his very best work, only with her did sophistication suddenly become accessible to all." – Sheridan Morley, Shall We Dance: The Life of Ginger Rogers, (1995) p. 88
“Balanchine came to America in search of girls like Ginger Rogers. Fred, alone, is a known quantity. Adding him to anyone else was simple arithmetic. But with Ginger, as Cocteau said of the opium trance, one and one are no longer two, they are eleven. At the core of their professionalism was a concentration upon dance as dance, not as acrobatics or sexy poses or self-expression. Their absorption gave plausible life and seriousness to what remained generically lyric fantasy – the continuing lyric fantasy of which all their numbers were a part. Their confidence was such as to breed an almost mischievous gaiety. Their way of dancing up to a song, rather than down to a plot, is what takes you by surprise; they gave each song all the emotion that belonged to it, and they gave the plot more than the shallowness of scripted characterization could allow for. Out of ... farce rises, somehow, the lyric act. In their dance all is redeemed. Subtract the wreckage and you have subtracted transfiguration and transcendence.” – Arlene Croce, “Notes on La Belle, La Perfectly Swell, Romance” (1965), reprinted in Robert Gottlieb, Reading Dance (2008), pp. 58-60
“Many people regard [the series of Astaire-Rogers musicals that RKO produced in the Thirties] as the greatest musicals in movie history. Certainly no greater dance musicals exist. Oddly enough, the dance emphasis that made them unusual also made them popular. Although Astaire and Rogers did many things in their movies besides dance – the way they looked and read their lines and wore their clothes and sang in their funny voices has become legendary, too, and they could make a song a hit without dancing to it – it was through their dancing that the public grew to love them and to identify their moods, the depth of their involvement, and the exquisite sexual harmony that made them not only the ideal dancing couple but the ideal romantic team. No dancers ever reached a wider public, and the stunning fact is that Astaire and Rogers, whose love scenes were their dances, became the most popular team the movies have ever known. In the three middle years of their partnership, they were listed among the top ten box office attractions. In 1936, their peak year, they were in third place (after Shirley Temple and Clark Gable). It probably isn’t a coincidence that their two films for 1936, ‘Follow the Fleet’ and ‘Swing Time’, contain the best dances they ever did together. One can say of them, as of few performers in any art, that at their greatest they were most loved.
“ ‘Fred and Ginger’ … are the characters created by Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers while they are dancing. In their dance they grow suddenly large and important in a way that isn’t given to Fred alone or to Fred with someone else. When Fred dances alone, he’s perfect. For as long as we have known him he has been simply Astaire, the dancing man, self-defined. He is his own form of theater and we ask nothing more. But when he dances with Ginger we suddenly realize what further revelations that theater can produce: it can encompass the principle of complementarity. That principle has been missing from every Astaire film since his partnership with Rogers ended. He never ceased to dance wonderfully and he has had some good dancing partners. But it is a world of sun without a moon.
“Ginger Rogers was, as a partner, a faithful reflection of everything that Astaire intended. She could even shed her own light. All of their great romantic duets took place, so to speak, in the light of the moon, and one of the pleasures of the RKO series is watching that lunar radiance increase. Rogers could never have won an international tap-dancing contest, but then she never tried. Her technique became exactly what was needed in order to dance with Fred Astaire, and, as no other woman in movies ever did, she created the feeling that stirs us so deeply when we see them together: Fred need not be alone.
“After filming one of the dances in ‘Follow the Fleet,’ Rogers told a reporter that she wanted to take a vacation ‘digging mines.’ Astaire was notably grouchy on the subject of his partnership with Rogers, and Pandro Berman has said that he had repeatedly to force the two of them together. Personal enmity was not the reason, professional pride was. The same pride that kept them locked together in a cycle of hits, their teamwork getting better and better, made each of them ever more eager to succeed without the other. There was something comic in their predicament: Astaire had forged for himself a new romantic style in the movies, a style that made people forget he was Adele’s brother, and in the forging of it had created a new menace to his own survival. Would they ever forget he was Ginger Rogers’ partner? Here was Ginger, who had made Astaire’s transition possible, not really a developed dancer and an only modest singer who had turned from brass to gold under his touch; here was Ginger, still uncertain whether she was a star or not, seeing her career rushing to an end – ‘all washed up at thirty’ – with a smile and a song. The comedy of this was unperceived by the public at large; eighty million people a week saw only success. In later years Astaire and Rogers issued dozens of warm and gracious statements about one another, statements that probably are accurate reflections of their tenderest feelings at the time of the partnership, but none of these has quite offset the public’s belief, formed at the time, that their success was an ordeal of the bitch-goddess kind.
“With nearly everyone in Hollywood under analysis in 1938, you’d think ‘Carefree’ would have hit its target at least some of the time. It’s Ginger Rogers who carries most of the ‘spoof’ material, and … she’s oddly compelling in that double way of hers. Her dancing often had the same fascination on a higher – the highest – plane. She loved to act and she loved to play-act, to sustain both a character and that character’s ego-centered fantasy life. Her best acting was a form of double imposture, masquerade on top of performance, and her best characters were women whose lives were an act: the softies who put up a tough front, the secretaries and salesgirls who saw themselves as rich and glamorous, who were nobody’s fools but their own.
“Almost any Ginger Rogers role is successful to the degree that it reflects the dualism in her personality (tough-vulnerable, ingenuous-calculating) or plays on her curious aptitude for mimicry or fantasy or imposture. She needs guises the way other actresses need closeups, and it’s revealing that, although she never did play the dual roles she seems to have been cut out for, she was the only movie actress of the sound era who appeared regularly as a child. In 1940 she won an Oscar for ‘Kitty Foyle,’ the soapiest of the working-girl fables, but the classic Ginger Rogers character was formed by a marriage of screwball comedy and fairy tales. She was the sleepwalker in the bridal veil, the working-class princess with the millionaire waiting at the church. She didn’t know her own mind, could never choose among her men. In ‘Tom, Dick and Harry,’ bells ring in her head to tell her which of her three suitors … was Mr. Right. The tumbled state of her psyche is the most real thing in ‘Carefree’; and when she goes into one of her trances, it’s like seeing a rehearsal for the classic roles that were to come: the brilliant flight of ‘Tom, Dick and Harry,’ the terrible crash of ‘Lady in the Dark.’
“ ‘Ginger Rogers Dreaming’ might be the title of some essay on the iconography of the Forties, and with more spark and less fluff ‘Tom, Dick and Harry’ might have been the definitive portrait of a certain kind of innocent all-American bitch. It’s halfway to being that already, and Liza Elliot in ‘Lady in the Dark’ is halfway to being that same character ten years later. Liza can’t make her mind up either – she even sings a song about it, ‘The Saga of Jenny’ – and, of course, she’s in analysis. Rogers got bad notices for presuming to take on a role that Gertrude Lawrence had done on the stage, but there’s very little of Gertrude Lawrence in the movie version. Instead there’s a tense and troubled Rogers (a tense Rogers is a contradiction in terms) struggling hopelessly with the most lugubrious conception of her character to date. All the elements were there – the wedding, the dream sequences, the kid act, even the three suitors were there – and most of them had been in the show. The movie didn’t ‘distort’ Moss Hart’s book. But it did distort the Ginger character: the brash sexual egotism that made the heroine of ‘Tom, Dick and Harry’ so awesome and so funny – you felt that no man could possibly love her more than she loved herself – became a kind of chilly narcissism, the screwball became a walking identity crisis in tight hairdos and dun-colored suits, and instead of being alluring and potent in her dreams she was garish and monstrous. Ginger Rogers was the Lady in the Dark, but by the time the character came back to her as Liza Elliot in 1944, the dopey spoof-psychiatry of ‘Carefree’ had been replaced by the pretentious, solicitous, loaded symbolism of popularized Freud. This was the ‘sophisticated’ version of Ginger Rogers and a mess of a movie.
“Although ‘Carefree’ contains more than its share of novelties, it is very much the twilight movie of the Astaire-Rogers series. Astaire for the first time doesn’t play the part of a dancer. He’s strangely convincing as a psychoanalyst. As a hypnotist Astaire is quick and delicate with intelligent hands; the whole improbable idea becomes lyrical. Rogers is his ideal subject. When she cries in the plot of the movie, she’s affecting because it’s unusual for her defenses to be so far relaxed. And when Astaire rules her movements in the trance dance [‘Change Partners’], that little division in her nature interests us all over again, only now it dissolves completely in an unchecked surrender of her will. ‘Change Partners,’ like ‘Let’s Face the Music and Dance,’ is just on the edge of being absurd, and … it may be a greater demonstration of personal force in the projection of a drama – and it hasn’t even a show-within-a-show rationale to protect it. ‘Change Partners’ is Fred and Ginger working without a net.
“At the end they do one of their spiraling lifts with Rogers falling far backward in a tranquil arc, her arms wreathed over her head. The way she holds her poses in the air without ‘posing’ is one of the loveliest things about ‘Carefree.’ Her dancing was always strict in that way and it hasn’t dated, as Jessie Matthews’ and Eleanor Powell’s have, because it’s so refreshingly laconic. It was dancing at its driest and shapeliest; it had none of the excesses, nothing of the sweet tooth of the period. And though half the time in the slow duets we’re contemplating the beauty of her body, we can see that it’s also an expressive body – that the back is strong and whiplike as well as beautifully molded, the waist long and sinuous, the hips free, the chest open. Feet and hands are delicious. The famous T-square shoulders … loosely settled, as they often are, [are] ideal. She can lift her arms high from this broad yoke and create a glorious ‘portrait’ frame for her head.
“In ‘Carefree’ Rogers’ dancing is up to her peak performances in ‘Follow the Fleet’ and ‘Swing Time’. She had returned glowingly to the series, and the movie features the new independent Rogers in the dances as well as in the plot. And yet the partnership seems more solid than ever. Astaire and Rogers never stopped proving themselves. In this film they have even reached a new understanding of each other, a new intimacy and confidence in their dancing and in their scenes together, as if they were at the stage in a relationship when friends feel they’ve just begun to get acquainted.
“They were the two most divinely usual people in the history of movies. Not by accident did they exalt commonplace settings with their poetic tap dances or detonate ceremonious décor with their swing ballets. They were a pair of American folk dancers, glorious ones to be sure, but all their glory flowed from the fact that we could sing their songs and at least imagine ourselves doing their dances. And the reason Rogers still looks triumphantly right with Astaire … isn’t just that she ‘gives him sex.’ The sexiest of his other partners, Rita Hayworth and Cyd Charisse, did very little for him. Sex unshaded by temperament isn’t very interesting, and in relation to Astaire, it’s useless. Rogers was not one of the great sex queens, not a ‘magnificent animal.’ She’s an American classic, just as he is: common clay that we prize above exotic marble.” – Arlene Croce, The Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers Book, pp. 5-6, 130-31, 142-50, 171-72
“Her achievement as Astaire's dancing partner has been undervalued partly because she was not primarily a dancer, favouring straight films over musicals for the greater part of her career, and indeed only coming to prominence as a dancer as a result of their partnership; consequently she has been taken less seriously than Astaire as a performing artist. Rogers refutes the notion that Astaire made her what she was, moulding her to the shape he willed: ‘He was not my Svengali. A lot of people think he was, but he was not. I was my own woman.’ And she imprinted her own unique stamp on their duets, bringing to them qualities that owed nothing to Astaire’s influence, and that are conspicuous by their absence in his duets with other women. Rogers’ contribution on screen is every bit as important as his.
"At the start of her career with Astaire, Rogers was … much less accomplished and technically secure than he (and some of his later partners), but as the series progressed her technique and confidence developed to an outstanding degree. She became capable of ever more complex and dazzling feats, and was fully a match for Astaire in anything she was called on to perform. Indeed, Rogers’ mastery of the increasingly demanding choreography that Astaire created is so complete and apparently effortless that it almost belies the true extent of her skill. Her technical skill as a dancer was … put almost entirely at the service of Astaire’s creations, and it developed as his demands on her grew.
“She was … perfectly suited to his own choreographic style: elegant and graceful, economical of gesture and unaffected; and no other woman would inspire him to create dances so rich in dramatic and emotional expression. She was also an ideal match for Astaire in purely physical terms – he, darkhaired, slender and not too tall; she, blond, slim and just the necessary few inches shorter – and they always looked unquestionably right when dancing together. Of all the beautiful women that he would partner in the course of his long career, none was more appealing in her beauty than the youthful Ginger Rogers of the 1930s, and though Astaire was several years older than she (he was thirty-five to her twenty-three at the start of the series) the disparity in their ages was never apparent.
"Not only did Rogers bring out the best in Astaire (there is nothing in his later films that even comes close to the three brilliantly expressive duets in ‘Swing Time’), she played her part with a unique sensitivity to the emotional, dramatic and choreographic demands of each and every dance they performed together. Whether mischievously playful ('Pick Yourself Up'), ecstatically romantic ('Waltz in Swing Time') or plumbing the depths of despair ('Never Gonna Dance'), Rogers never fell short: both technically and expressively, she triumphed in them all.” – Hannah Hyam, Fred and Ginger: the Astaire-Rogers Partnership 1934-1938 (2007), pp. 145-46, 155
“Hers was a physical quality at heart: svelte, ageless, inviting, plain but fancy. She was the woman with schoolgirl eyes and a vanilla smile. She was the woman who somehow combined an old-fashioned look with a hep-cat style.
“It seems scarcely incidental that her memory, for movie buffs, is sharpest as the able partner of Fred Astaire in those ten lustrous films they danced through together. She contributed equally to their hyphenated achievement. She was self-taught but instinctually balletic, in her gestures, however small, as well as her bounding leaps. There was a glow and definition and ease to her movement that perfectly suited their partnership. A gay, seemingly effortless performer … she brought something loose, ragged and ingenuous to comparison with Astaire’s smooth, cultured control.
“But though it may be fashionable to remember her solely as one-half of the screen’s most famous dancing duo, it is unfair to relegate her name to brief mention in the annals of film history. For she was a solo actress of considerable talent and dimension, underrated in the passage of time.
“Few actresses – perhaps Barbara Stanwyck, or, in a minor vein, Joan Blondell – had her astonishing versatility or, rather, her splendid opportunities to display that range. Rogers flitted easily from the Astaire dance epics to light tragedy (such as ‘Stage Door’) to light comedy (such as ‘Bachelor Mother’), with appropriate interludes for fluffy material, rarely compromising her believability. She starred in few actual blockbusters, true, and few actual ‘classics,’ besides the Astaire films. She acted … in a raft of minor opuses that look better and better with each viewing.
“Among her arsenal of types were the stenographer, the fast-order waitress, the hatcheck girl, the newshound, the office clerk, and repeatedly, the chorine, flapper, actress, or star. So was her tremendous popularity any wonder? In that single, recurrent calling (of chorine to star) was silently expressed the aggregate ambitions of a multitude of women trying to escape or forget the forced conditions of their lives.
“Curiously, fantastically, whatever her humble circumstances, she never seemed the worse for wear: impeccably well-dressed throughout her career, even though she was normally cast as a breadwinner. Audiences swallowed logic wholesale to see, again and again, a struggling chorine garbed in lavish furs or smart, backless dresses or elegant hats. Once named by dress designers as ‘best exemplifying the dress dictates of the typical American girl’ (in ‘Fortune’ magazine of May, 1938), Ginger Rogers was clothes conscious for the term of her public life, and to view her movies is to glimpse a fashion parade of chic American styles over the last decades.
“Her glamour was peculiarly homegrown, and so was her virtue. Despite her worldly-wise air, she expressed a native morality in contemporary fabric, which is why, perhaps, she only graced one ‘period’ film, Frank Borzage’s ‘Magnificent Doll.’ She was rarely the heel (coming nearest in ‘Black Widow’), flirting with the distinctions of the moral code only at the beginning of her career, before the contours had sharpened, and at the lingering conclusion, when fewer and fewer roles drifted her way. She only ‘died’ once, in ‘Upperworld,’ for death would be too loathsome for a player with so much vitality, so much goodness, and so many followers. Tears – and there is, invariably, a heart-tugging moment in many of her movies in which she weeps unashamedly at some outrage – indicated not simply her integrity as an actress but also her vulnerability (her violated innocence) as a character. Except for a few quirky pictures in which Hollywood’s predilection for exploring Freud is given sway, she was a clean soul, an honest jane, a next-door girl, silks and jewelry notwithstanding.
“For, in vehicles which spanned nearly four decades, Rogers always played, in the words of critic Otis Ferguson, ‘the girl.’ She posed the romantic foil in her attractive youth and, even in her middle age, in films like ‘Forever Female’ and ‘Black Widow.’ Invariably, she found her screen existence entangled with the presence of a male. That was her curse (and not hers alone) and, oddly, also her blessing, for she converted those ordinary circumstances into fame, fortune, and a credible sweetheart persona. She gave life to the type: she cracked wise, she talked sense, she worked her own schemes. If she was traditional and old-fashioned … then she was also as honest in her characters’ emotions as could rightfully be expected of any envoy from Hollywood.
“And by her canny resilience, Rogers nearly subverted the clichés of movieland romance. Usually single and often happily so, she invariably resisted the romeo until the final script-contrived clinch; even then, typically, she would flee under mistaken pretenses, only to be retrieved in the last moments by a chastened lover. She wasn’t exactly sexless but neither was she exactly a femme fatale. She never played the siren or the enchantress. There was something safe and platonic and self-effacing about her character that was actually exploited for comedy purposes in two movies about unconsummated love, ‘Fifth Avenue Girl’ and ‘Lucky Partners.’ She was more tomboy than love child. It is hardly surprising, then, that her male co-stars (such as David Niven in ‘Bachelor Mother’ or Dennis Morgan in ‘Kitty Foyle’) often provided a pale and tedious contrast to so free-flying a woman.
“Though marriage (for Ginger Rogers) always seemed an improbable concession to convention, scenarists frequently conspired to pronounce the sacred vows anyway. She was only truly ‘married’ on a few occasions (notably in ‘Tender Comrade’ where she served as faithful surrogate to a generation of war wives) and on those few occasions the union was customarily quarrelsome (‘We’re Not Married’), static (‘Monkey Business’), crumbling (‘Black Widow’), already dissolved (‘Teenage Rebel’), or an excuse for upward mobility (‘Once Upon a Honeymoon’). She was much too strong-willed, really, to be subjected to such ordinary domestic ‘bliss.’ And, in one delightful, eccentric, and unusual film, ‘Tom, Dick, and Harry,’ she savagely lampooned this entire boy-girl business by dangling three misty-eyed romeos at arm’s length for the story’s duration. How interesting, then, that the private Ginger Rogers had a similarly fitful relationship to men: she had five marriages – all torrid, all rather brief.
“Age never seemed to daunt her though, in truth, her career declined, like that of most actresses, when the ingénue and soubrette roles, Hollywood’s regrettable staple, no longer suited her. In the 1950s, she was consigned to playing characters founded on previous type. Usually, she was cast as an aging actress or star, the grown-up version of her youthful chorine roles. Generally, she was discerning enough to choose (and fortunate enough to be offered) vehicles which exploited her past ‘experience’ as a celluloid showgirl in an intelligent manner, so that she neatly capitalized on her bygone allure. Her matronliness became a pun; her past in cinema, whether as Astaire’s partner (‘The Barkleys of Broadway’) or as an imaginary siren of the silent era (‘Dreamboat’), became a wry observation on her present situation. Only in two instances, ‘Monkey Business’ and ‘Teenage Rebel,’ did she depart significantly from stock, playing, in the former, a research chemist’s wife, and in the latter, an emotion-torn divorced mother, and these were among the best movies of her waning decade.
“The irony in this tinsel-town pigeon-hole is that Ginger Rogers never really withered, as the studios expect and demand of their femme players. She aged slowly, imperceptibly, gracefully, staying radiant and beautiful and, yes, youthful well past her supposed prime. The unconscious irony, for example, of a film like ‘Forever Female’ is that Rogers – of whom character after character remarks upon her supposed physical decline – looks ravishing and behaves with her usual juvenile bounce. There was something about this actress, something in the core of her popularity, which suggested the eternal verities of youth.
“That is why, surely, her best-remembered movies capitalize on this childlike quality and, especially, those deft vignettes of kiddie behavior which she performed so well (and parlayed, memorably, into Swedish garble in ‘Bachelor Mother’). It was a trait she had cultivated since vaudeville. Two of her best projects, Billy Wilder’s ‘The Major and the Minor’ and Howard Hawks’ ‘Monkey Business,’ divide evenly between moments of hard-headed maturity and flashes of precocious youth. There was always a hint of giddiness under that spruce composure. She could look childish, even at middle-age, and she could behave like a child dexterously on cue, as if a split personality. It was a silly, shallow quality, but she made it captivating.
“Advised by [her mother] Lela, Ginger Rogers became one of the most willful, motivated, and calculating actresses ever to haggle over subclauses; that is the ready explanation for much of what is exciting, unpredictable, and often contradictory in her screenland career. She showed sharp-minded acumen early on by free-lancing often (in a breadth of roles, with a range of studios) and by signing a long-term contract subsequently with RKO. From all accounts, she wearied of her Astaire partnership at the same time as Astaire, and ventured forth solo. That courage and initiative led to her period of highest creativity in the late thirties and forties.
“It took her success with Astaire, and her commensurate box-office allure, to convince RKO … to open the door to such movies as ‘Stage Door’ and ‘Kitty Foyle.’ Her freelancing in the forties, which also had its element of daring since it occurred at the height of her prowess, may have been part grudge, part revenge, but it was most assuredly well-advised. The dividends of her iron attitude were a career which straddled the modes of comedy, melodrama, and musical, never imprisoned or delimited by one or the other.
“Her image, her memory, is nostalgic, rooted in the past. Fixed in the consciousness of the nation is the recollection of an instinctual, artless actress – an engaging singer-dancer, a light tragedienne and a sprightly comedienne – of redoubtable gifts. She was a strong, resourceful, and enchanting heroine of the ilk which seems nearly and sadly extinct. She somehow transcended prim little categories. She survived her often-dismal filmic environment with miraculous, but still human, agility. The synthetic and the sanguine struggled with the genuine and the restless. One element crashed against another in the person of Ginger Rogers, and in the still-resounding reverberation, filmgoers can discern an artist of insight, talent and honesty. She remains vividly alive for moviegoers. More than four decades have passed since she made her debut, but her image endures: independent, down-to-earth, spunky, and forever glamorous in blue jeans or satin gown. No matter the passage of time. She is a memory that extends beyond the years, beyond the movies, into the collective soul of a nation.” -- Patrick McGilligan, Ginger Rogers, 1975, pp. 10-24, 142
Larry Billman includes McGilligan's book in the annotated bibliography of writings about Fred Astaire in his own Fred Astaire: a Bio-Bibliography, saying,
"the reader cannot help but admire the determination of the actress to constantly challenge herself, diversify and finally end up with a filmography of seventy-three films in multiple genres, unmatched by any other film actress." p. 337
“While never deliberately settling for trash, Ginger has always been mainly concerned with appearing in pictures that will give people enjoyment and relaxation, rather than great ‘message’ epics. Since films and actors in the lighter entertainment bracket rarely get acclaimed or pick up awards … neither Ginger nor her films have ever been scrutinized and analysed like the work of ‘weightier’ directors and actors. Ginger’s contribution to the screen has too often (with the exception, perhaps, of her scintillating song-and-dance saga with Fred Astaire) been simply taken for granted. It is a cross that many ‘light’ actors have had to learn to bear.
“The qualities that this actress has brought to the screen have stood firm. They are strengths that have seen her through over 30 years in a ruthless atmosphere where you are only as good as your last picture. Ginger’s qualities are several. She has an insatiable appetite for work, even though she is sufficiently prosperous not to have to do another stroke for the rest of her life.
“She’s as disciplined as a well-trained shepherd’s dog. This intense discipline means that she takes direction smoothly and keeps to the time- and money-saving habits of being on the set at the right time, knowing her lines and delivering them with the minimum of fuss.
“She will fight a producer, director or an equal star with a tangy tenacity if she believes that her suggestion is in the interests of the picture or the show; but her arguments are based on experience and conviction. She also has a sharp instinct for technique on the screen, based on what she has learned in over 70 forays into the jungle. Add to this a sunny sense of fun and a perky, lively sense of humour on screen which helps to make an indifferent line seem to crackle with pert wit.
“Any one of these qualities is useful for urging an actress to the top. The combination of the lot is as near as is possible an insurance for keeping her there.
“Ginger survived through over 30 years of filming as one of the indestructibles because she has been the complete professional in an industry which has always demanded a devoted dedication from its workers. Ben Lyon … the ‘Hell’s Angels’  star, who later discovered Marilyn Monroe, … remembers an eager youngster who was always alert before the camera [in ‘Hat Check Girl’ (1932), in which they both appeared] ‘and’, says Ben, ‘when she wasn’t actually acting she would be watching intently to see what was going on. She was intensely interested in every aspect from the directing to the cameras and even the work of the gaffers (technicians).’
“Later, Ben and his wife Bebe Daniels, who was a star of ‘42nd Street’, in which Ginger also made an effective appearance, came to know her fairly well, for in those years Hollywood was a far more tightly knit community than now. ‘She had to succeed partly because of her complete dedication,’ Ben told me. ‘Never late on the set and never temperamental. She knew her lines and was responsive to direction. Yes, a real pro,’ said Ben. It was a pro talking and he could not have given the girl a greater reference.
“When, at times, Ginger later found herself contractually trapped and put to work in some poorish picture she never 'coasted.' She always played the part as if it might be the one that could win an Oscar and this was not lost on the powerful magnates who ran Hollywood.
“In comedy, her real forte, she had gaiety and sparkle which lit up the screen. She could be sunny, or she could toss off a well-timed, crisp wisecrack with a caustic tinge which made it sound wittier than the writer may even have visualized.
“Ginger has always admitted freely that she enjoyed working with Fred [Astaire]. She respected him as a super craftsman, helpful and unselfish. ‘We never had quarrels. Of course, we had strong arguments and differences of opinion – that’s common in any artistic marriage. But we never had harsh words. Once we differed bitterly over a matter, but even then we didn’t have a slanging match; we just didn’t speak till we had cooled off!’ That is a fairly remarkable record considering the hours they were flung together in a strained atmosphere when going through the inevitable slog of preparing for a new film. Often it meant an eighteen-hour day and Ginger has admitted that sometimes her feet were bleeding and she was so tired that she could barely eat or drag herself to bed for a few hours.
“For Ginger, Fred, Hermes Pan and all concerned with the productions were perfectionists. They had set themselves such a high standard that they could not afford to relax their efforts. On the whole, it is amazing that the two could share such a long professional association without one or the other blowing their tops irretrievably.
“Ever since they had first met in New York they had had a warm regard for each other. In Francis Wyndham’s story about Ginger in the Sunday Times Magazine he quotes her as saying: 'I loved Fred so, and I mean that in the nicest, warmest way. I had such affection for him artistically. I think that experience with Fred was a divine blessing. It blessed me, I know, and I don’t think blessings are one-sided.' "
and on Ginger’s beauty,
“Sir Charles Cochran, a connoisseur both professionally and privately of magnificent women … described Ginger Rogers as ‘the most beautiful woman I have ever seen.’ "
[“Sir Charles Cochran, one of England’s greatest theatrical producers, knighted in 1948, was in show business for 54 years. He produced most of Noel Coward’s plays and musicals and first discovered Anna Neagle, a leading British film star, and Florence Desmond. He also managed Katina Paxinou, Elisabeth Bergner and other foreign stars.” – Box Office, February 3, 1951]
-- Dick Richards, Ginger: Salute to a Star, 1969, pp. 37-39, 136-37, 158-59, 163-64
“ ‘Being debonaire’ became a rigid pose for Astaire with other partners. But with Rogers, his image armor was in the immaculate, but ultimately removable tuxedo, which the audience knew was only a covering. In his synergy with Rogers, he sometimes meets her with a puckish, elfin pliancy, maneuvering to soften her hard-edged self-protectiveness through play; other times he prods her and coaches her physically … drawing from within her rhythms she is rejecting. There are still other times when he meets her with an Oberon-like force, surprising her like a lightning strike.
“On her part, Rogers, too, had a synergy with Astaire that complicated the standard glamour of her obligatory Hollywood feminine allure accessories. Rogers’s cloud of blond hair, her clingy gowns, her feathers, satins, lames, sparkles, and high heels may be the uniform of Hollywood seduction, but with Astaire, she exuded an energy from within the glamour drag, unreproducible by any starlet or female impersonator; the energy was inimitable. Her shifts in body and emotional tone matched, provoked, and answered Astaire’s in a … surge of life force. Rogers ran the gamut from ice queen implacability to irrepressible effervescent playfulness. But she could also exude a searching energy of earnest intention to pursue her own agenda that excluded him completely, as well as a kind of openness to him that verged on ecstasy. Her permutations existed in immediate, spontaneous response to his.
“The luminous partnership of Astaire and Rogers was comparatively brief, from 1934 to 1939 , followed by a … one-time-only reunion ten years later in 1949, but their work as an onscreen couple has indelibly impressed on the culture its immense erotic power. They were and remain the reference point not only of all onscreen couple dancers, but of the very concept of the pair. Their breathtaking beauty as dancers, the extraordinary fusion of the spontaneous and the crafted in their work, made possible movies that … illuminate the rigidity and … artificiality of social conventions that bedevil human relationships.
“The onscreen chemistry of Astaire and Rogers had some anchor in a brief offscreen romantic reality. They met in New York City when Rogers was working in ‘Girl Crazy’ in 1930, and Astaire, helping out with the choreography, dated her. Rogers’s autobiography, the only documentation of this period in their lives, is provocatively vague. It is hard to determine how often they saw each other and how intense they became, but her own giddy excitement about dating him is clear. That they were sexually attracted and involved is also clear; probably they were lovers. Rogers, oblivious to class and status, believed that had she not left New York to make movies in Hollywood, they could have been ‘a serious item.’ Astaire’s book omits any speculation about romance and any reference to its intermittent appearance in their lives. The brutal probability is that this suppression had its roots in his class consciousness. Rogers was not of the class his family ordained him to marry into. This kind of attitude was betrayed by Astaire when he and Rogers met again in Hollywood. ‘Fred looked the same but acted differently. He was not as open, far more formal. I felt I didn’t even know him. As if to explain his behavior, he said, “I’m a married man now.” ‘ The subtext of a sexual history seems clear here; it’s unlikely that he would have made such a point had they shared nothing more than a kiss.
“Only the fraught stalemate enforced by the collaborative studio structure made possible the continued teamwork of Astaire and Rogers. Had either of them had the final say, they would have gone their separate ways. Astaire/Rogers was always in danger of fragmenting, primarily because Astaire resisted it strenuously, but ultimately also because Rogers got fed up with a constant lack of appreciation. Even on the Astaire/Rogers set, Rogers did not receive the kind of respect given to Astaire. Rogers had to contend with a good deal of humiliation and abuse from Mark Sandrich, who directed five of the ten Astaire/Rogers musicals. Sandrich was in awe of Astaire, but in Rogers’s words, regarded her as a ‘clothes hanger who could dance sometimes, sing upon occasion, and perhaps make the leading man smile at me.’
“[Astaire’s personal] insecurities, as well as the economic and managerial instability of RKO, compounded the complexity of Astaire and Rogers’s personal feelings and threatened the continuity of their partnership during the time they danced together. In his future partnerships he … continually opted for women whom he could control as he could not control Rogers, suggesting the frightening quality of the chemistry he had with Rogers, which he never again dared to engage once he was unconstrained by studio authority.
"Outright warfare did break out between [Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers,] this exuberantly intuitive woman, particularly about her costumes, which [she] supervised to the nth detail. The brilliance that her dresses [have] added to the onscreen image of the pair validates her willingness to realize her ideas in ways that nearly called for her to step over Astaire's (or someone's) dead body. The most famous of these faceoffs was over the feathered dress she wore for 'Cheek to Cheek' in 'Top Hat.' Astaire retells the story as an amusing incident in which he was somewhat inconvenienced by the feathers floating off the dress, linting his tux and, he feared, littering the dance floor. In her book, Rogers comments, 'Instead of Cheek to Cheek,' the song should have been called "Horns to Horns." Yet only four days after the extraordinarily beautiful rushes were screened, perhaps his immaculate professionalism forced him to recognize the texture added to the dance by the contested dress, perhaps simply to regain a modicum of peace on the set, or perhaps for both reasons, he gave her a gold charm in the shape of a feather for her bracelet with a note that read: 'Dear Feathers, I love ya! Fred.' This indeterminate respect-rivalry never really ended." – Martha P. Nochimson, Screen Couple Chemistry: the Power of 2 (2002), pp. 16-18, 135-36, 315-21
“ ‘Flying Down to Rio’ made more money in the winter of 1933-34 than any other RKO movie except Hepburn’s ‘Little Women,’ so the studio could hardly help casting Ginger Rogers as the love interest in Astaire’s next movie. It was to be a remake of ‘The Gay Divorce,’ which had already been tailored to his Broadway persona. When Astaire’s show was put on the screen, however, with the title lightened to ‘The Gay Divorcee,’ Rogers’s presence transformed it. When Rogers took over the part on the screen, her natural sincerity opened up the dynamic between Astaire and the leading lady. The first Astaire-Rogers film, ‘Flying Down to Rio,’ had proved that Rogers could match wisecracks with anybody. This second one, ‘The Gay Divorcee,’ revealed that she had learned, somewhere in her grab-bag movie apprenticeship, a quiet unaffectedness. And such a quality turned this seamy little play … into a poignant story.
“Mark Sandrich, the movie’s director, was not the source of this new dynamic between Astaire and Rogers. Sandrich was not very good at character development. For that aspect of the movie, he depended on the actors’ making something of the stock situations of the Broadway musical. In terms of psychology, Astaire and Rogers directed themselves – or rather, they attempted to reproduce the mischievous struggle between Maurice Chevalier and Jeanette MacDonald in Lubitsch’s 1932 ‘Love Me Tonight.’ Comparing Ginger Rogers with Jeanette MacDonald shows exactly what kind of freshness Rogers brought to [the] musical-comedy conventions. Where MacDonald always played for coy irony, Rogers aimed instinctively at quiet realism. [When] Rogers catches the hem of her dress in a trunk … Astaire plays it predictably flip. Rogers, with no help from Sandrich – no special closeups, no sign in the script that the director viewed Astaire’s behavior as a trifle sadistic – managed to make us feel that her character had a right to be hurt and indignant.
“One wonders where Rogers got the instinct and then the skill to shape a heroine with a defiant emotional core. Rogers was only twenty-three in ‘The Gay Divorcee.’ Rogers never stopped trying to improve herself. Sometime during Rogers’s early-thirties free-lancing … she learned a crucial lesson: how to relax before the camera. In [‘A Shriek in the Night’], as [a] reporter, she focuses the movie into herself. A key scene in ‘Shriek’ – the chaotic discovery of a murder – shows her sitting quietly, holding a lit cigarette, and projecting far more dignity than anyone else on the screen.
“It was more than the rudiments of screen acting that Rogers was acquiring in the early thirties; it was a complete screen persona, which contained more poise than that of most movie ingenues. By the time of ‘The Gay Divorcee,’ [a] slightly edgy self-sufficiency … had distilled itself into Rogers’s movie persona. When Astaire and Rogers came together in ‘The Gay Divorcee,’ Astaire had his persona down pat: he had been playing him onstage for years. But Rogers was no green ingenue: she had survived eight years of stage and movie experience, which she had used to great advantage. She was ready to hold her own.
“[In many of the Astaire-Rogers movies] a dynamic was at work that concerned a trusting, needy, yet fiercely independent Rogers encountering a curiously shifty Astaire. Astaire had the mannerisms of a theatrical juvenile of the twenties – lightweight, ingratiating, a little goofy, a little nasty – except when he danced. That’s when he showed his ‘other’ nature: the passionate lover. Rogers instinctively selected the Astaire she needed. In the course of a movie, she seemed to absorb and glow from the ardor of the dancing Astaire, while she mourned and resisted the flippancies of the nondancing Astaire. What happened in an Astaire-Rogers movie was a sleight-of-hand transformation: Rogers’s longing for Astaire changed him … and elevated him … to his noble dancing self. The deep current of romantic tension in these movies came from Rogers’s expectations about Astaire, and Astaire’s callousness, off the dance floor, about those expectations. But did Sandrich and RKO realize Rogers’s importance to the whole series? Did they see how much depth they got from these fierce but needy young women she planted in their farcical plots and their beautiful dances? Did they understand that it was Rogers who performed the alchemy on Astaire and who connected the dances with the plot? Judging by RKO’s contractual dealings with Rogers, they did not.” – Elizabeth Kendall, The Runaway Bride: Hollywood Romantic Comedy of the 1930s (1990), pp. 95-99
“Harlow and Lombard may each call on their inner children. But only Ginger Rogers actually impersonates a child in ... ‘The Major and the Minor.’ Irene Dunne will be suspected of being an unwed mother … but it is Rogers who will actually live out the fantasy, bestowing comic legitimacy to a new social type for the self-dependent American woman – the Bachelor Mother. Perhaps it is her physical grace that allows her to dance expertly across the border of sanctioned behavior into rarely visited social and psychological territory. One thing is certain: Rogers can survive on her own wherever she happens to land.
“Headline-grabbing Roxie [‘Roxie Hart’ (1942)] was a lark for Rogers. To ‘fill out’ her character, Rogers revealed in her autobiography, she ‘decided this girl had to have dark hair.’ This shading of her character … was effective in part because her ‘initial blonding’ had become such a part of her screen image. As her life as a feisty but morally durable blonde took on definition and dignity, Rogers became, in Murray Kempton’s crisp phrase, ‘staunchly if never sternly pure.’ Perhaps, Kempton speculated, ‘the Legion of Decency compelled her in that direction less forcibly than her own nature.’ If Kempton is right, this is because Rogers's purity is less sexual than existential. It’s her independence, hard-won, more than her chastity, easily defended after all, that she fights so ardently to preserve.
“Her integrity, her sense of who she is, takes precedence over conventional notions of female sexual honor. Rogers’s Jean Maitland in ‘Stage Door’ (1937) [portrays] a Depression heroine who, whatever the libidinal distractions and social diversions offered her, manages to keep herself pointed in the direction of work and self-realization. Rogers’s determination to meet the world head on lends a special piquancy to her relations with men with money and the acquired culture of their class, [as with] Tim Holt’s Timothy Borden, Jr., in ‘5th Avenue Girl’ , David Niven’s David Merlin in ‘Bachelor Mother’ (1939) ... [and Dennis Morgan’s Wyn Strafford in ‘Kitty Foyle’ (1940)]. Rogers also gave rich expression to Ellie May Adams, the poor girl determined to rise above her degraded estate in ‘Primrose Path’ (1940). [Ellie’s observation that] ‘people don’t live like they wanta, but like they gotta” … is comic in the most liberal and humane sense, measuring the distance between one’s ideals and one’s life, a distance Rogers in her womanly prime could cover with more dexterity and grace than any actress of the day.
“She was known, of course, for effortlessly covering great distances with Fred Astaire, a facility commemorated in [‘Pick Yourself Up’ in ‘Swing Time’ (1936):] ‘Nothing is impossible I have found / For when my chin is on the ground / I pick myself up, dust myself off, start all over again.’ Rogers’s faith in the comic but hard work of rebeginning and self-fashioning will stand her in good stead when, in her movies apart from Astaire, her happiness depends as much on her moral stamina as on her physical and mental agility. This was the Rogers whom Murray Kempton, on the occasion of her death, took pains to remember, the Rogers of his youth, ‘who was of the earth pure and who contended with the world all by herself.’
“Of all the comic heroines of the era, Rogers had the most intimate feeling for struggling working women. This sympathy never degenerated into sentimentality about class or feminist ties. Rogers is a working girl who fully appreciates, even expects, that at any moment she might find herself completely on her own. As a proletarian heroine she not only is prepared to contend with the world – solo if need be – but is ready to take on her own sex in defense of working-class values. Among her values, contempt of pretense ranks high. Her class feeling can, in fact, erupt into sexual combat with upper-class bluebloods or with those women on the prowl, like Linda Shaw (Gail Patrick) in ‘Stage Door,’ who pretend to a breeding they don’t actually possess. In the battle to survive, Rogers’s Jean knows she has to mix it up with her kind. Rogers’s combativeness is played down in subsequent films, but there are still victories to be savored. ‘Vivacious Lady’ (1938) gives Rogers a chance to act out the full repertoire of the stinging repartee that is the working girl’s most effective weapon in her skirmishes with derisive damsels of the leisure class.
“Only a woman so sure of her talents and of herself could afford to play as ‘innocently’ as Rogers did with the social and sexual conventions meant to keep female vivacity within bounds. The year 1939, which some regard as the annus mirabilis of Hollywood cinema, marked the stellar appearance of Rogers’s most socially adventurous heroines: Polly Parish, the shopgirl who finds herself forced to take on the role and responsibility of a ‘bachelor mother’; and Mary Grey, the (barely) working girl employed as a ‘5th Ave. girl’ of questionable duties – and morals. Both roles catapult her from a social and an economic state verging on destitution to a life free of economic but not moral worry. Rogers, perhaps unique among her generation in this regard, has the power to transform the world she intrudes or stumbles upon. It isn’t just that she recharts social boundaries, showing them to be more permeable than they initially appear. Rogers explored situations, often quite delicate ones, that tested and finally redefined the very nature of the human bonds that link parents to children, husbands to wives, the working to the leisure or moneyed class.
“Rogers, who incorporated as much of the brunette as the blonde into her screen personality, was existentially receptive to all kinds of experiments with the marriage state. Pioneering as a bachelor mother is her most radical challenge to America’s social imagination, but she comes close to subverting the cornerstone of marriage – monogamy – in the arch but weirdly impertinent ‘Tom, Dick and Harry’ (1941). Rogers plays the hopelessly indecisive Janie, who, having engaged herself to three men … entertains, if only in dream form, the idea of marrying all three of them, a polygamous fantasy that comes to an end only when her dream husbands begin to disrobe in preparation for the wedding night. Understandably alarmed, she calls the fantasy off.” – Maria DiBattista, Fast-Talking Dames (2001), pp. 116-133
“The genius in [the Astaire-Rogers films] is Astaire’s, as both choreographer and performer. But just how much Rogers’ temperament and gifts meant to that genius became more and more apparent in his long career without her. Astaire’s post-Rogers career was still a distinguished one. But none of [his later partners] sparked the fun and transcendent high spirits that he managed with Rogers. And never again were the big romantic dances to seem so dense and rich, so authentic or so deeply realized. Those Astaire-Rogers RKO films may in fact be the greatest movie musicals ever made. And if that is so, it is because of Astaire. But it is also because of the relationship he found with Rogers – a screen miracle that was never to be repeated, not even in his extraordinary career.
“What made them so special together? There are plenty of clues to the answer in ‘Let’s Face the Music and Dance.’ The central imagery of that dance … is moving partly because it is such a marvelously gentle expression of, and such a generous comment upon, Rogers’ characteristic tension of resistance. And there is the climactic moment of turning inward, of turning away together [and] the showy defiant bursting forth and turning out of their exit. It is convincing partly because it is so astonishing. All this is all the more astonishing – and moving – because it engages Rogers: her physical authority, her skeptical temper, her native imperiousness. Her submission in these dances is an interesting and complex event that magnifies both of them.
“There is … something lighter than air about Astaire. Rogers, on the other hand, is not at all ‘weightless.’ And this fact about her reflects not so much her different style nor her inferior skill as a dancer as it does something about her temperament. She has ‘both feet on the ground,’ as they used to say about common-sensible people. And where it’s easy to think of Astaire as leaping and flying, we most easily think of Rogers as strolling. As Arlene Croce observes: ‘Rogers never walks, she always strolls.’ And that stroll is one of the glories of film history. The line of her back and the mold and movement of her hips are surely among the most extraordinary natural gifts that a dancer – or a beautiful woman – could have. Gifts that Astaire knows how to display, of course … as does Rogers herself.
“Like so many of the great women movie stars of this period, Rogers is a figure of overwhelming, almost awesome common sense. Her glamour and her personal authority are connected not only to intelligence but to a tough, astringent and skeptical view of the world. Even in her toniest and most elegant disguises, she carries (to her credit) an air of chorus-girl knowingness, a powerful suggestion of street smarts. The wall around this sleeping-beauty heroine is a kind of no-nonsense radar … which gives her an almost pathological sensitivity to any suggestion of phoniness or pretense. To Astaire, therefore, with his enthusiasm and his romanticism, she is a special challenge. All that might be said against him – and even his romantic obsession about her might be a count in the indictment – is summed up in Rogers’ perfection of the deadpan comment, in her unforgettable sidelong glance from time to time at his slightly skittering presence.
“For the Rogers sidelong glance, and her sardonic deadpan, express just the kind of honesty that not only the Astaire-Rogers films but all the great thirties comedies celebrated: the virtues of skepticism, wariness and tough-mindedness. The liberation of having no illusions. And just because her resistance to Astaire is not otherwise ‘motivated,’ we are encouraged to see one of the final meanings of her intimidating common sense: a fear of the freedom of feeling, of the risk and ambition, that Astaire’s dances with her so transcendently express.
“For when Astaire persuades Rogers to dance – as he must do over and over again – what he is transforming and transcending, in her and in us as we watch, is the quality of ordinary intelligence, carried by Rogers in these films to comically extraordinary extremes. Astaire with Rogers transforms this burden into a source of energy and freedom. That is one reason at least why those moments of Rogers’ capitulation to him are so permanently resonant and moving. For it is only with Rogers in this period that Astaire’s sunny … art fully reveals one of its final and most urgent meanings: the conviction that romance between men and women is not so much a matter of sustaining illusions as of penetrating and even ‘dancing’ over them. That warmth and tenderness and love may also mean humor and intelligence and style.
“It’s not just that she played a chorus girl so often and so well, from ‘42nd Street’ (1933) to ‘Stage Door’ (1937) to ‘Roxie Hart’ (1942), but that the role somehow defined her even when she wasn’t playing it. There’s a fleeting but memorable image of her in ‘Stage Door’, when Adolphe Menjou first spots her in a chorus line at the rehearsal studio. She is in the middle of a line of girls, all in rehearsal clothes, arms linked behind their backs, heads turned to the left, eyes lowered, as they kick their legs out to the tinny piano sound. It’s the basic chorus-girl stance, legs out and heads turned away; but for Rogers it’s almost epiphanic, capturing something so essential about her that it brings a shock of recognition when you see it: it’s that mixture of displayed flesh and averted eye, both presenting and withholding herself at the same time. Just as when Menjou goes backstage at the nightclub to ask her for a date, she seems both agreeable and hostile at the same time, wisecracking herself into a yes. It’s that paradoxical guardedness that gives Ginger Rogers her kind of radiance – and no one had it more.
“She is the movies’ emblematic wise girl – with her glamorous, sardonic deadpan style. In ‘Kitty Foyle’ (1940), she tells the young man who’s come to pick her up for their date that she shares the small apartment with two other girls. ‘In times like these,’ he says fatuously … ‘what could be better?’ Rogers’ response is toneless, but it opens vistas of disaffection and knowingness: ‘Sharing it with one,’ she replies – hardly looking at him or inflecting the line as she says it. Rogers doesn’t need to inflect these common-sense replies. After all, this knowingness isn’t something she asked for. She is afflicted by wryness the way other people are overcome by yawns, or vertigo. It’s the offhandedness of her astringency that makes it seem special, even definitive.
“Like Colbert and Arthur, she was identified with working-girl heroines. But she seemed much closer than they ever did to the real thing. It was this identification – heavily promoted in the ads – that helped make ‘Kitty Foyle’ (‘America’s White Collar Girl’) a runaway hit, winning Rogers an Academy Award. She has a kind of supreme matter-of-factness that always seems to fit and even to dignify these matter-of-fact environments – typewriters and time clocks and steno pads, department stores and dress shops and offices. She is a noncom type – almost never a boss – with a noncom’s lowliness and sense of fellowship. Her wiseacre style and her striking self-possession are ways of affirming that fellowship … with the girls at the Footlights Club or the salesgirls at Merlin’s. We may expect to see other stars with the Una Merkel kind of sidekick or girlfriend, but for Rogers such a companion would be superfluous. She is her own sidekick. In some sense she can’t be alone. She carries the prosaic workaday world with her. It’s both her grace and her burden. The ‘burden’ may help to account for something else about her: her dreaminess. The impression she often gives – standing behind the toy counter or walking the streets looking for a job – of being slightly suspended outside her own predicament.
“ [‘Fifth Avenue Girl,’ directed by Gregory La Cava] is muted and almost somnolent. Can there be another movie comedy where the pressure is as low as it is here? [It] is a comedy that never seems to ask for an outright laugh anywhere. It has neither jokes nor wisecracks. This was La Cava’s calculation, of course. And it couldn’t have been made around anyone else but Ginger Rogers. No other star of the time could have given or submitted to such an impassive central performance. Mary Grey … is the deadest-panned of all Rogers’ deadpan heroines. And the film itself is, even more than ‘Bachelor Mother’ was, an extension of the Rogers temperament and performing style. This was characteristic of the way La Cava worked: designing his films on his performers, like a choreographer.
“ ‘Fifth Avenue Girl’ may be tailored to its star, but it also makes a serious – and immensely interesting – miscalculation about her. In heightening the Rogers deadpan to the degree he does, La Cava has also deadened its expressiveness – or rather, he’s made it express (inadvertently, it would seem) the wrong sort of meaning. Rogers’ wariness has always made her a problematic sort of screwball, or romantic, heroine. But it’s also, as in the Astaire films, what’s made her interesting and complex, what’s given her her special style and attractiveness. But this time La Cava gives us the wariness straight, so to speak, without the other things that make the Ginger Rogers heroine – the wonderful dryness, the humor and incredulity, the energy and physical authority, and so on – giving us the Rogers disaffection without the wit or the dreaminess. La Cava made three films in a row with Rogers – [‘Stage Door,’ ‘Fifth Avenue Girl,’ and ‘Primrose Path’ (1940)] – and each of them offers a different, interesting version of her, each of them authentic. But La Cava never does to her what George Stevens, for example, tries to do in ‘Vivacious Lady’ – to turn her into … a more acceptable, less troubling sort of heroine.” – James Harvey, Romantic Comedy in Hollywood: From Lubitsch to Sturges (1987)
“Rogers has been unfairly treated by commentators. Because Astaire planned the dances, they say he made her look good. Because women’s fashions have changed more than men’s have, they reprove her flamboyant ball gowns. Because Astaire went on singing and dancing and she almost entirely gave musicals up, they suggest that she can’t have been ‘serious’ about style.
“This is scummy putdown. Rogers’ clothes in these films are smashing in any age, from her tomboy slacks to her backless gowns – and the ‘Cheek to Cheek’ feathers, which Rogers wore over virtually everybody’s objection, were a national sensation. As for serious, no one put out harder than Rogers did when working with Astaire; if she hadn’t been willing to work she wouldn’t have made ten films with him. It is a commonplace to call Rogers Astaire’s most effective partner, but I think she was also the best dancer he ever worked with, given his style. Eleanor Powell was technically more proficient, Cyd Charisse more graceful, Rita Hayworth just about the most stunning event in the history of Hollywood’s woman dancers. But not even counting personal chemistry, Rogers still did what an equal partner must do with Astaire better than the others did. The quirky hopping turns, the look of surprise when some cranky maneuver is floated off like a soap bubble, the rigidity bent to suppleness and back again, the hand motions, the jests, the grins, the conviction – Rogers isn’t just capable: she’s of it. That’s why it works so well.
“[In] ‘Swing Time’ … director George Stevens … shows us Rogers washing her hair during a love song, ‘The Way You Look Tonight.’ So we learn that the glamor of Astaire and Rogers inheres not in fancy duds or continental places but in the offhand manner in which they assert the poetry of musical comedy. What else is the dance musical if not a reordering of the priorities in the musical to stress line, rhythm, image, over other elements? This is why there were so few dance musicals in the 1930s – Eleanor Powell had rhythm, but no image, and Berkeley worked almost exclusively in image. Astaire and Rogers pull the whole style together.
“Astaire needed Rogers more than she needed him, for while she was eager to try anything, his character and talent needed the precisely appropriate partner. Sure, Astaire is genius enough. But the public longed to watch him find the ultimate completion in a partnership. He himself set this up in the affecting honesty with which he played the love plots and the sensuality that came out in his duets with Rogers.” – Ethan Mordden, chapter “The Dance Musical” in The Hollywood Musical (1981), pp.115-120
“And then, to the amazement of the audience (in both the night club and the movie theater), two people sprint onto the stage to show the other dancers ‘a thing or three’. It’s Fred Ayres and Honey Hale, otherwise known as Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, and although they only do two brief dance turns before the stage is overrun with extras, their place in film history is assured the moment they take the floor. It is not so much the breathtaking ease with which they perform the ‘Carioca’, it is more the look that passes between them as they dance: the amused, knowing look of complicity between two people who may or may not be lovers but who share a pride and pleasure in the way they move together. Later, in their romantic numbers, the looks they exchange will be tender, infinitely caring, even erotic. Here, in ‘Flying Down to Rio’, there is a sense of discovery … plus a hint of the skill, radiance, and beauty that turned two dancers into a legend.
"Although their role in [Roberta, 1935] is largely incidental, Astaire and Rogers cannot be supressed. By this time they knew what the rest of the world was discovering; on any dance floor, they were a matchless pair. Astaire, with unhandsome features, diffident manner and minimal sex appeal, was beauty in motion and a leading man of the first rank. Rogers complimented him with her straightforward sexiness, tongue-in-cheek humour and lithe dancing style. Astaire's later partners, for all their dancing skill, lacked the delicious air of conspiracy, the sense of amused wonder, that she bought to her films with him.
“Watching their last dance together in ‘The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle’, we know with the hindsight of four decades that they were really spinning away into legend. Despite ‘The Barkleys of Broadway’ a decade later, we remember them in the thirties as the peerless performers who tapped, whirled, and leaped their way into film history with the charm, grace, and inventiveness of their dancing. So many years after the peak of their time together, we can still watch their films with a joy that never diminishes. What they both gave us: the boundless pleasure of their inimitable presence.” – Ted Sennett, chapter “The Peerless Pair: Astaire and Rogers” in Hollywood Musicals (1981), 87, 92, 105
An excerpt from an interview from 1935 (the year she starred in the films "Roberta", "Star of Midnight", "Top Hat", and "In Person), in which Ginger shares her joys and hopes for the future with her appreciative interviewer:
"Yes, I get what I want from life," said Miss Virginia Rogers to me, "except---except for one thing---I want to go to college!"
"College?" I echoed stupidly, "you want to go to college?" I had expected anything but that. Some nostalgic reference, however, reticent, to the recently divided home of young Mr. and Mrs. Lew Ayres. Some faintly spoken regret, perhaps, for the mortality of young love....
But---“Yes," laughed Ginger, laughing at me, not herself, "yes---why not? Lots of professional women do go, you know. Maybe I will, someday. There are so many things I'd like to learn. And I would get so much out of college if I should go now---more than I would have gotten a few years ago. I'd know now what I want to study, what course I want to take. I've learned concentration---dancing teaches you that. I've learned patience, I think. I'd care more about learning than I would have cared a few years ago. I'd be able to choose what I want and to go after it.
"I really think that I only woke up four years ago. Before that I was asleep or numb, or something. Perhaps it's just that I've grown up. My ideas, like my face, are shaping differently, losing baby contours. I seem to see everything in sharper focus. I don't believe that I saw anything at all---not really---four years ago."
I had been watching Ginger and Fred rehearsing. Tirelessly. Almost religiously --- over and over again, perfecting perfection. And watching Ginger, in pale yellow overalls, pale green polo shirt, red-gold hair flying ... I'd thought: She has everything she or any other girl ever wanted from life. Yes, in spite of what may have grieved her and caused her separation from Lew. For she is young and famous and wounds heal swiftly for the young, and the rainbow is still arched and her dancing feet are only beginning the arc ... She has youth and beauty and fame and jewels. She has riches. She has a mother who adores her. She has cars and friends and fine feathers. And she has Fred Astaire for a dancing partner. She is tops at the box office. There is nothing lacking---nothing that can be replaced or achieved. And then we sat down to luncheon in the RKO commissary and Ginger sipped iced tea and nothing else---because she was rehearsing again after luncheon and one can't rehearse on a full tummy. And I told her what I had been thinking, or some of it. I said: "You have got everything you ever wanted from life, haven't you? In spite of---" Ginger broke in, grinning, "But I never wanted very much. I never thought about it … ."
“No, but---" I said, "all your dreams have come true, haven't they? All young girls dream of having fame and riches and---and love. And so you must have dreamed. And even if some dreams never stay true, forever, you've had them all, haven't you?"
And Ginger's pale young face, guiltless of any make-up, framed by that tawny silk hair sobered as she said: "Of course, I haven't got everything. No. Wait---I haven't got everything only because there is no such thing. I mean, there is no such thing as having everything. We are all mortal and being mortal means being limited, and so none of us has capacity for everything. No one can have everything. Because for every dream dreamed there arises another dream. For every hope hoped there emerges another hope." And I found myself thinking "And for every love does there arise another love to take the old love's place?" And Ginger replied: "It is an old saying and a true one---that the more we have the more we want. It's like eating---the more you eat the more you can eat! 'Everything' is limitless, don't you see? There is no end to it.
"No, no, for anyone to make the boast that he or she has everything is like going to school and graduating and then saying: 'Well, now, I know all there is to know. I never need to read another book or hear another lecture or study another subject.' So stupid, that attitude. Because the thrill and the glory and the whole come-on of living is just because there are no limits. There is no saturation point. For every goal is, when you have reached it, only a sign-post pointing the way to the next goal. The end is never reached.
"I certainly never dreamed of being an actress, of all things! I never thought about having a lot of money. Mother earned what would be called a sensible amount of money as a newspaper woman---enough to make us comfortable. The people I knew then all lived nicely, but modestly. I never thought about movie stars and their fabulous lives at all...but, if I had thought about them, I would have put them in the same fantastic category as Alice In Wonderland or something like that.
"I never thought about having a lot of money because I really need so little. If I cared about the things that money can buy I wouldn't go about as you see me now, dressed in cotton overalls and a dollar sweat-shirt. Oh, I like to get all tricked out now and then and go out with a crowd and have fun. But I can live without expensive clothes and still be happy. I don't give a darn for jewels. My first ermine coat didn't make a different girl of me.
"When I was a little girl I only had one ambition that I can remember---I wanted to be a school-teacher. I think that was because I adored my English teacher. She lived at home with us for a term or two and I used to think that anyone so pretty and gentle and wise would be the perfect one to copy. I wanted to be just like her.
"No, honestly, you can't have everything in a world so 'full of a number of things.' I'd like to go to college as I've said. I'd like to try to write. I don't know whether I could write or not, but I'd love to have the time to try. I'd like to compose music, too. I don't say that I could do that, either---though I have written a song or two.---but I would like the time to work at it. I'd like to have the time to be a little bit domestic. I think I really am a housewife at heart. Most girls are, if you strip off the cellophane wrappings of their professional lives, whatever they may be..." (And I found myself wondering whether this may be the Why Of It ... whether the little housewife-at-heart who hasn't time to be a housewife might be the explanation of a little wife who doesn't perhaps, have time to be a wife? For Ginger is, I think, essentially whole-hearted. And where she couldn't give her whole heart and her whole time and her whole devotion she would rather not give at all...)
"You know," Ginger was saying, "I have to live in my own house as I would live in a hotel. I never get the time even to plan a menu. I never have the least idea what I'll have to eat from one meal to the next. I never have time to count the linens, to arrange flowers, to fuss over things---and I'd love to. When the maid tells me that we need three more table-cloths, I phone a shop and tell them to send me three new table-cloths and then I never see them until they are on the table.
"I'd like to be able to go out more---to do silly, on -the-spur-of-the-moment things, like going on picnics and down to Venice to do the shoot-the-chutes and things. But I'm usually too tired when I come home from the studio to do anything except fall into bed and to sleep. When I'm rehearsing I do go out now and then just to keep in step with life. But when we're in production it swallows us whole and we're seen and heard no more---save on the sound stages."
And how would that go, I thought, with marriage ...? Marriage and its multiple demands. The studio and its slavery. Alien bedfellows, I am afraid.
"So you see," said Ginger, "all of the many things I have---this 'everything' you speak of---I can't use. I remind myself of Midas---everything he touched turned to gold but what good did it do him? He couldn't eat gold. He couldn't inhale any fragrance from golden flowers. And when he turned to the one object he loved more than anything or any person in the world, his little daughter, he could get no warmth or affection from her---for she, too, had turned to gold!"
(Perhaps, I thought, perhaps Ginger was saying more than she knew, revealing more than she thought...for may it not be that, here in Hollywood under the greedy grasp of the Great God Studio...young, ardent, hopeful marriages, like Midas's daughter, also turn to gold?)
"I have things," said Ginger, "and more than just things, I know. I have clothes, but I have no chance to wear them. I'd like to do some personal shopping now and then. I'd like to window shop and hunt for bargains and try things on, the way girls like to do. I can't. When I need new clothes I phone again. I call a shop and tell them to send me three or four dresses and then I choose the most likely one and I can't wear them because I haven't been able to shop for the right accessories for them...."
Ginger paused for a moment and looked out the window...spread before her Irish blue eyes were the mammoth sound stages, the machine shops, the offices, the gardens, the whole vast body of the studio where she reigns supreme---a star...and I wondered what she was thinking, what values she was weighing in her mind. She didn't say. I knew that she wouldn't say. For if she talked to one she would have to talk of all---and there are some matters even a star cannot be expected to discuss with all.
She said finally, "I'd love to have a baby. Of course, I would, naturally. I shall adopt one some day. It seems to me," said Ginger, her bright blue eyes wistful, as if asking a question, "that it is just as fine to adopt a baby as it is to have your own. Don't you think? To choose a baby because of all the babies you have see that baby is the one you want most? I sort of agree with Kathleen Norris when she said recently, that the real motherhood is to love every baby born and not only the babies born to you...
"Movie babies certainly cost a lot, too," Ginger laughed, her eyes coming back from Neverland. "I read in a recent article somewhere that a certain very big star's last baby cost her exactly $150,000---because of her having to be out of production so long. Time is very valuable to a movie star.
"You see, I am emphasizing the fact, now, that there is no such thing as having everything that meets the eye. I know that other girls must wonder what there is left for me to want. That's what I'm trying to tell them. And I'm not disparaging the things I have. I'm not making light nor [a] little fun of fame, so-called, of money and success and all that. Not for one minute. I'm happy. I wouldn't change places with little Susie Glutz who works in an office for anything. Even though Susie is probably just as happy as I and with just as good reasons. Even though Susie is certainly normal and I'm not. Because we are not really normal, not when we are 'movie stars.' We can't be. It is very much, I think, like running a temperature all of the time. And, after awhile, we get so keyed up that we couldn't live any other way. We would feel depressed and weak if we didn't live at high pressure every instant. I know that I work better, the harder the pressure. It is literally true that the less time I have, the more I can accomplish.
"I enjoy 'fame.' I really love it. I get a kick out of being recognized and praised and spoiled. There are times when it is tiresome, of course. But there are times when everything is tiresome. There are also times, most times, when it is thrilling and satisfying to find my name in electric lights. I enjoy the fan letters and the compliments and the consideration of being a star. I wouldn't be honest if I didn't admit it.
"But just because I do love it and value it, there is a drawback. I think it must be something like having a very beautiful and successful child for whom you have worked every night and day, whom you have watched grow and for whom you feel a great love, a great pride of possession. And just because you love it so much, that love is shot through with fear. For supposing anything should happen to it? Supposing that you should lose it.
"That's the way I feel about my work. Supposing something should happen---the industry or to my part in it? Of course I'd be hurt. Terribly hurt. I'd hate it. I'd be miserable. So that even when you do have everything, presumably, in the work you are doing, at any rate---even that is marred by the fear of loss, accident, of fate ... ."
In the doorway the assistant director was beckoning. Ginger waved a hand. "Time to go," she said to me. "I can't be five minutes late. I'm always late for everything, except my work. They've got me trained in the studio. So...I guess we can about sum it up like this: I get everything I want from Life except---time. Time to go to college, time to be a housewife, time to shop and play and experiment, time to have a baby, time to be normal ... ."
– interview from Modern Screen magazine, 1935 (posted at http://reflectionsinverse.blogspot.com/2009/08/ginger-and-fred-slideshow.html)
“To say that Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers are well fitted to fill the Castles' dancing slippers is an understatement. Astaire and Rogers symbolize their era quite as completely as the Castles symbolized theirs. With Ginger Rogers [Astaire] has been the top cinema dancer of the 1930s. In popularity, proficiency, appearance and earning capacity, Ginger Rogers is at least the equal of Irene Castle in her best days.
“And Ginger Rogers has one overwhelming advantage over Irene Castle: the cinema. Irene Castle had her thousands of admirers, Ginger Rogers has her millions. Ginger Rogers has glamor, acting ability and a pair of lyric legs. But her outstanding quality as a movie star is a frank and homegrown air which both U. S. and foreign audiences recognize as essentially American. She represents the American Girl, 1939 model—alert, friendly, energetic, elusive. Less eccentric than Carole Lombard, less worldly-wise than Myrna Loy, less impudent than Joan Blondell, she has a careless self-sufficiency which they lack. She now has no screen rivals.
“Ginger Rogers is a model member of Hollywood society. She does not get drunk or make public scenes. [The] salient trait in Ginger Rogers' behavior is competitiveness. Her competitiveness enabled her to make herself almost as good a dancer as [Fred] Astaire. In her private life, this competition is harmlessly projected into all forms of sport. Ginger Rogers bowls, swims, dives and plays tennis as though she were trying to make an Olympic team.
“Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire are generally supposed to hate each other intensely. As a matter of fact, they are old and good friends. They met first when he was in ‘Smiles,’ she in ‘Girl Crazy.’ After Ginger Rogers' first Hollywood screen appearance she got exactly eight fan letters. One was from Astaire. It said: ‘Glad to see you're doing so well. Hurry back.’ Rogers owed her presence in ‘Flying Down to Rio’ to Astaire. When the picture was going badly and he wanted someone to dance with, he said: ‘Where is Ginger Rogers? Isn't she on this lot?’ She had been lent to Paramount for bit parts, but was recalled. Her dance with Astaire turned out so well that the whole picture was re-shot to get her into the story. Since then, relations between herself and Astaire have been as smooth as relations between actors (who are always rivals) can be.” – “Dancing Girl”, cover story, Time Magazine, April 10, 1939 (http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,761011,00.html)
Ginger Rogers: She Adds New Chapter to Her Success Story
At 31 Ginger is regarded as a “terrific property” in Hollywood because she has earned more than $1,000,000 for herself and far more for her employers. So her new contract with RKO is full of special privileges. She can make movies with any company she pleases and choose her own scripts. In broadening her range of parts, Ginger knows she is gambling with success. But throughout her life she has been at her best when she is on her mettle.
Ginger started the hard way. After four years of trouping in vaudeville, with her mother as manager and chaperon, Ginger decided she was ready for Broadway in 1929. There, in the Gershwin musical Girl Crazy, Ginger played 45 weeks and made her first five movies in her spare time. With a weekly income of $1,500, Ginger at 19 was the highest-paid working girl of her age in the U.S..
In Hollywood her career struck the doldrums, relieved by bright moments in Gold Diggers and 42nd Street. Not until she was really on her mettle as Fred Astaire’s dancing partner in Flying Down to Rio (1933) did she begin to blossom. Rehearsing sometimes for 18 hours straight, Ginger often left the studio at night with her feet bleeding. For three years she and Astaire were a top box-office attraction, creating a series of musical movies which for fun and polish are unique in motion-picture history. At this period Ginger was married to Lew Ayres. They were separated and later divorced in 1941, due to a clash of professional temperaments.
Again Ginger was on her mettle when she decided to break away from dancing. Co-starred with Katherine Hepburn in Stage Door, Ginger was firmly determined to excel as a dramatic actress, and she did. She clinched her success in Kitty Foyle, Primrose Path, and by her deft portrait of a moon-struck girl in Tom, Dick and Harry.
But the best guarantee of Ginger’s future is her past. It is a peculiarly American past that lies behind so many tales of achievement. With LIFE’s Cameraman Bob Landry, Ginger recently retraced the scenes of her childhood. She went back to Texas and Kansas City, and discovered the homes of her ancestors in the historic little town of Arrow Rock, Mo.
On her father’s side Ginger’s ancestors in pre-Civil War days were leading citizens of Arrow Rock, Mo., 85 miles east of Kansas City. Here her great-great-great grandfather, Dr. John Sappington, raised five handsome daughters who married Missouri Governors with remarkable regularity.
Lavinia Sappington led off by marrying Governor Meredith Marmaduke. Then her sister Jane married Governor Claiborn Jackson. When Jane died, Jackson married another Sappington daughter, Louise. When Louise also died, Jackson returned to Dr. John and asked for the hand of a third daughter, Eliza. “You can have Eliza,” said Dr. John, “but don’t come back for the old lady. I want her for myself.”
Eliza, by a previous marriage, had four children, one of whom was Ginger’s great-great-grandmother.
For four years Ginger had the school and home life of any average U.S. child, after her family moved to Fort Worth, Texas in 1922. Her mother had married John Rogers, an insurance agent, and helped support her family as a theater reporter on the Fort Worth Record. From this theatrical connection Ginger, who took her stepfather’s name, met many show people who taught her how to sing and dance for fun. As a reward for winning a statewide Charleston contest in 1925, Ginger headed a little troupe called Ginger Rogers and her Redheads, and was booked for six months of one-night stands over the Orpheum Circuit, known in show business as the Death Trail. Though Ginger never completed grade school, today she is better educated than many college graduates.
From the Death Trail, Ginger graduated to the Paramount-Publix circuit on which she appeared in short musical revues in first-class movie houses. While her salary jumped to $350 a week, Ginger sang, danced, gave baby-talk “recaltations about the amunals, including the Mama Nyceroserous and Papa Hippopapamus.” On all her travels Ginger was chaperoned by her mother, who made her clothes, wrote her acts, kept track of every cent. Mrs. Rogers’ cut of Ginger’s salary was about 20%, as it still is today, and no one has ever doubted that she earned it. She is Hollywood’s best business mother.
In 1928 Ginger at 17 married Jack Culpepper, a young vaudeville hoofer whom she knew as a kid in Texas. They were divorced within a year. After two years as a Broadway musical-comedy star, Ginger made the traditional trek to Hollywood in 1931.
There her dreams materialized rapidly enough so that by 1936 she had such standard equipment as a home on a mountain and a swimming pool. While Ginger is proud of her luxuries, she is happiest at work or puttering at her sculpture or painting. Her fondest dream came true last year at the Motion Picture Academy banquet when Actress Lynn Fontanne presented her the gold Oscar for year’s finest feminine performance in Kitty Foyle. This, and her Charleston award were her two most wonderful honors.
Excerpts from the cover story, Life Magazine, March 2, 1942, pp. 61, 64, 66-7. To see the cover, click here.
Highest Paid Movie Actress
Ginger Rogers gives her recipe for success in Hollywood. It is intelligence, adaptability, capacity for hard work.
By S. J. Woolf
[Samuel Johnson Woolf (1880-1948)]
New York Times Magazine, December 5, 1943
It is not often that anyone has a chance to make a portrait of one of the ten highest salaried people in the country. Yet anything can happen in Hollywood, and this very thing happened the other day when I went to see Ginger Rogers. For Miss Rogers, blond-haired, blue-eyed and full of fervor and enthusiasm, was last year the highest paid movie actress in the land.
She posed for me on a bleached-wood sofa in her modernistic dressing room, wearing a soft blouse and dark skirt, legs tucked under her, blond tresses falling about her neck. She looked less like the possessor of one of moviedom's fabulous incomes and more like the personification of what we like to call the typical American girl.
As she speaks there is an exciting joy of living about her which is contagious. There is a freedom of gesture that charms, and a realness that make-up cannot conceal. Miss Rogers reflects the spirit of her time, of the American girl of to-day, as much as the great damosels of the past reflected theirs. In the shapely vivacious screen star, the young woman behind the counter in the five-and-dime store and the society debutante shopping in the smart luxury of Fifth Avenue salons both recognize something of themselves. So do suburban housewives and city office workers. Mothers fondly see something of their youth in her and admire the wholesomeness they look for in their own daughters. Men in the audience find in Ginger Rogers all those charms they seek in the other sex, making her the movie favorite of the whole family, as popular in England's cinemas as in America's neighborhood houses.
Miss Rogers is now working on a picture in which she plays the part of the young wife of a naval cadet. She labors in an airplane factory and lives in a boardinghouse with other girls whose husbands are at war. The part appeals to her, she said, more than any other role she has been called upon to play. Possibly because she herself is a war wife.
"Up to the time that I started working on Jo in 'Tender Comrade,'" she told me, "Kitty Foyle was my pet part. If you saw that screen play, you must have realized that the authors had created a well-rounded character which they developed logically. But as much as I loved Kitty Foyle, for some reason or other Jo gets a little more under my skin. She's a little more real. You can feel her with your fingers and your heart."
As she spoke it was evident that she is a much more serious-minded young woman that one would imagine from seeing her on the screen. I asked her what a girl needs to make good in Hollywood. She looked up and said: "Intelligence, adaptability and talent. And by talent I mean capacity for hard work. Lots of girls come here with little but good looks. Beauty is a valuable asset, but it is not the whole cheese."
Miss Rogers' non-meteoric rise to the top the traditionally hard way, via night club and vaudeville hoofing, certainly qualifies her as an authority on this subject, yet she does not preach. She merely reports Hollywood from her experience with it.
"One of the saddest things here in Hollywood," she continued, "is to see the disappointment of thousands of youngsters who hope to crash the movies. They little realize the tough going that even those who have made good have had to suffer. Comparatively few of the people who have been successful in films got their start here. Still from all over the country youngsters look toward this place and think that if they could only get here everything would be okay. They have never seen hundreds, even thousands, of attractive young girls try out for twenty-five openings as extras. Anyone who has been around when this has happened will never forget the expressions on the faces of those who did not make good.
"This does not mean that opportunity is dead here. I don't like giving advice, but I know for a fact that in many a small town a girl has more chance of getting an opening wedge into pictures that she has here. Then there are school theatricals, dramatic schools, amateur plays, where experience could be gained. A newcomer with some such experience is a step ahead of the crowds that sit around casting offices waiting for a chance to be an extra."
The white telephone on the kidney-shaped desk rang and there was a catch in her voice as she said, "Hello." A cryptic conversation ended with "Hold the wire" and she excused herself to me and went into a rear room. A maid came out in a minute and replaced the receiver. Without her telling me I knew who the caller was-- Corp. Jack Briggs, Miss Rogers' husband whom she met for the first time while appearing at a camp show. He is now stationed not far from Hollywood. It was some time before she came back.
"Now don't write me up," she said, "as if I were a school teacher, even though I wanted to become one when I was a kid. It's hard, though, not to base your ideas on your own experiences. I was lucky. I always had hobbies, and for some reason or other every one of them has helped me along. People say I am flighty, that I like to start things and never finish them. I don't think that's true.
"First of all, when I was about 6 or 7, I started in taking piano lessons and while still a youngster gave a recital. Then came the Charleston craze and it was dancing which led me to give up the idea of becoming a school teacher to go on the stage. Then I took up singing as a hobby and that came in handy when I drifted into vaudeville.
"Later when I got my chance in pictures I became an amateur photographer. Before I knew it I was not only making home movies but also writing and directing scenarios in which my friends acted. I don't have to tell you that this helped me a lot in my professional work. Now I go in for drawing, painting and sculpture. I suppose you are wondering how this applies to acting. Well, it does, because what I have learned about line and design helps me in choosing my costumes."
Intensely serious as Miss Rogers is when she speaks of her acting, she is equally serious when it comes to her painting and sculpture. Mixed up with her life story and the other topics of conversation that arose while I sketched her, was a discussion on the merits of charcoal and the relative difficulties of oil and water-color painting.
"I am not sure," she said, "whether I prefer painting or sculpture. Neither is as different from acting as most people imagine. After all, art-- no matter what form it takes-- is a creative urge, a desire to express one's self. It does not matter whether you do this in line, in paint, in clay, in music, in words or in acting.
"Of course, some are successful at it, some are not. But even those who fail in the eyes of the world, although in some ways they may suffer, nevertheless have a heap of fun trying."
Notwithstanding her hobbies, Miss Rogers encountered many setbacks on her way to Hollywood from Independence, Mo., where she was born Virginia Katherine McMath. Her mother and father were separated and she went to live with her grandparents in Kansas City. By the time the Charleston craze struck the country, her mother had been married to John Rogers and was the society and dramatic editor of a Fort Worth Tex., newspaper. By this time, too, there was a dancing enthusiast known as Ginger Rogers. She won a contest sponsored by a couple of vaudeville actors and vaudeville offers followed.
Had not the newspaper changed hands and Mrs. Rogers lost her job, chances are that Miss Rogers would never have gone on the stage, for at first, Mrs. Rogers opposed her daughter's desires. But with no job of her own she capitulated and became a "stage mother." There were tours and engagements in night clubs and "Leelee" and "Geegee," as they call each other, spent a lot of time sitting in chairs in agents' offices. Old clothes were refashioned in small rooms in theatrical boarding houses, and the price columns on bills of fare in cheap restaurants were of more importance than what was served.
Mrs. Rogers was determined that if her daughter was going to be an actress she was going to be a good one. There were offers which Mrs. Rogers turned down, a musical show was their goal. At last a chance came in Brooklyn, and learning a sixty-page part, the young hoofer and singer, who up to that time had never spoken a word on stage, went ahead in "Top Speed." Since that time Ginger Rogers has not only sung and danced herself to fame but also won the Academy award for straight acting.
Although she has a 1,000-acre ranch in Oregon, where she grows corn, wheat, oats, pears, plums and apples, Miss Rogers spends most of her time in what she calls her "stylized farmhouse" perched high on one of the Beverly hills. Here she has let her ideas on interior decoration run the gamut. She has a swimming pool, a toy theatre and a soda fountain, and a hideaway where she reads and draws, paints and sculpts. Heads of her friends stand on the high brick mantel, and straight portraits and caricatures by her hang on the walls. There is a phonograph and loads of records, ranging from Gershwin to Brahams. The one, however, which bears the most signs of use is "I Can't Give You Anything but Love, Baby."
There is probably no more popular actresses among stage-hands and electricians and others employed on the sets than Miss Rogers. Her fellow-players are keen about her, too. As I walked with her from the dressing room to the scene they were shooting, "Hello, Ginger" greeted her almost continuously. And each greeting was acknowledged by a wave of her hand and a cheery "Hello."
But the thing of which she is most proud is the dance she gave for President Roosevelt. She went to the White House to participate in one of the Birthday Ball broadcasts. While the President and all the radio cast were waiting in the Oval Room for the program to start, someone suggested that she show Mr. Roosevelt some of her steps. She was in evening dress but this did not stand in the way. The radio was tuned to dance music and Ginger went though her paces to the memorable sound of Presidential applause.
“In the Astaire dances, and especially in the Astaire-Rogers duets, great art -- an elusive quality in Hollywood -- is repeatedly achieved. And Ginger Rogers's special contribution to this amazing series of masterpieces derives not from her dancing ability alone, but from the fact that she was a cagey and intuitive actress. In an important sense, then, she may have been Hollywood's greatest actress.
“More than any of Astaire's other partners, some of whom were far better trained dancers, Miss Rogers seems instinctively to have grasped the dramatic point of each dance -- whether joyous or doom-laden, celebratory or seductive, flirtatious or pensive. And she found a way, without shattering Astaire's understated, intricate style, to contribute importantly to the dances -- less in the way of steps than in dramatic effect. The dances continue to glow so radiantly more than a half-century later because of the skill and artistry with which they have been choreographed and staged by Astaire, and also because Ginger Rogers was such a consummate actress. The reason millions of women have yearned to dance with Fred Astaire is that she so convincingly conveyed the illusion that it is the most thrilling and satisfying experience imaginable.
“She married five times, and among the men in her life whom she didn't marry were Rudy Vallee, Harold Ross, Mervyn LeRoy, Fred Astaire (one date in New York in the 1920's, ending with a long and passionate kiss), Howard Hughes, Alfred Vanderbilt, Cary Grant, George Gershwin and James Stewart. Because Miss Rogers is so determined to discuss these relationships with ‘discretion and taste,' it is often difficult to comprehend what was going on and what these men meant to her. She has, she repeatedly tells us, a deep aversion to alcohol, but most of her husbands were given to drinking heavily. She fell in love with Lew Ayres when she saw him on the screen, and their marriage fell apart, she says, because she didn't like the prenuptial agreement he insisted upon, which kept their property separate, and because he liked late-night parties where people drank. There are a few oblique but touching references to what she calls her ‘romance’ with the director George Stevens, which seems to have overlapped her marriage with Ayres. But Stevens was married, she notes wistfully, and ‘it was not to be.’
“For the rest she revels in her many successes, dwells more lightly and without notable bitterness on her professional disappointments and briefly recounts occasional disputes with directors, agents, impresarios and ex-husbands, as well as a few unpleasant encounters with Katharine Hepburn. (For example, Miss Rogers says, Miss Hepburn once doused her new coat with water, saying, "If it's real mink, it won't shrink!")
“What chiefly lingers from [her autobiography] Ginger: My Story, and from the remarkable and productive career it documents, are her films with Astaire. The results of that collaboration enrich us all.” – John Mueller, “She Changed Partners and Danced,” New York Times, October 20, 1991 (http://www.nytimes.com/1991/10/20/books/she-changed-partners-and-danced.html)
“No other movie star’s name carries the resonance of that of Ginger Rogers. It's not just the magnitude of her stardom. Or that she's our best-known female dancer ever -- the New World Lady to Fred Astaire's Gentleman, or that she's the singer who introduced some of Ira Gershwin's, Jerome Kern's and Irving Berlin's most wistful ballads. It's that 50 years ago, this young woman of the svelte walk, the quiet looks, the quick retorts, the (usually) blond pageboy, somehow turned into a personification of America itself. In World War II, soldiers used her name as a password; pilots wrote it on their planes; a tank in Burma proudly carried a life-size cutout of her on its front.
“In fact, Ginger Rogers was so central to American imagery that her audiences often missed noticing just how skilled an actress she was … a quiet actress with an unusually wide range on the screen. There was a primal, childlike energy -- fresh, like a sea breeze -- overlaid with the opposite quality, a grown-up wariness. That meant she could play self-knowing young women, as in ‘Kitty Foyle (1940); she could play bimbos, as in ‘Roxie Hart’ (1942); or she could play both at once, as in ‘The Major and the Minor’ (1942), in which her jaded career girl passes as a child to get half fare on a train. (As she apparently did in real life in her vaudeville days, she once said.) Best of all, she could show her characters navigating back and forth between these two moods, struggling to maintain their trustingness in a world without illusion.
“It must have been that trusting impulse behind the smart facade that made Rogers so beloved. In the Depression years, when America was trying to recapture its lost virtue, there were plenty of world-weary actresses but few who could give you a glimpse of a newborn soul.
“In the ten wonderful movies she made with Astaire, it's Rogers's ardent responsiveness to him, both on the dance floor and off, that keeps the partnership fresh. She somehow made him nobler, as she made Jimmy Stewart more serious (in ‘Vivacious Lady,’ 1938) or Ronald Colman less crusty (in ‘Lucky Partners,’ 1940) or Katharine Hepburn warmer and smoother in the 1937 ‘Stage Door,’ that undersung masterwork about female friendships.
“With her complex levels of self-awareness and courtesy, Rogers in middle age would have made a memorable heroine. But alas, her movie career suffered, as did all her female contemporaries' careers, from Hollywood's failure to see that mature women could be something besides treacly mothers or dominatrixes. Rather than succumb to caricature, Rogers went back to the musical stage and poured her still primal energy into a succession of Dollies and Mames, into television shows and into her own long-running musical revue. She even tried her hand at directing a musical, ‘Babes in Arms,’ in Tarrytown, N.Y., in 1985, a production that was both professional and alive.
“At the height of her stardom, in 1936, Rogers's adopted state Texas (where she mostly grew up) pulled a kind of stunt and made her an honorary admiral in its nonexistent navy. Recalling the incident 50 years later in her autobiography, Rogers half-jokingly chides her present-day readers. ‘So let's see a little respect,’ she reminds us. ‘Salute me -- on the street or anywhere -- but salute me, you'all.’
“She deserves to be saluted now, because she gave us a whole succession of heroines who were smart and cynical, and in spite of it all, ever hopeful.” – Elizabeth Kendall, “Film View: An Actress First and Then a Dancer,” New York Times (May 7, 1995)
“One of the longest successful Hollywood film careers belongs to Ginger Rogers, a fact frequently overlooked. When fans and historians list those women who survived as stars despite age and changing styles and times, the names usually cited include Joan Crawford, Bette Davis, Katharine Hepburn, and Myrna Loy, but Rogers is rarely mentioned. It is perhaps a tribute to her lasting youthfulness that, although there is no question that she is a major star with a lengthy career, she is not thought of as someone who survived or kept her career going after great setbacks. Instead, she is a star who never had to make a comeback because she never left the limelight.
“The best-known aspect of the Rogers career is her membership in the most beloved and celebrated dance team in the history of the American musical cinema--the Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers combination which was paired in ten dance musicals. Together, from 1933 to 1939, they made nine films for RKO, managing to keep the financially unstable studio afloat for several years. Because many film scholars consider the Astaire/Rogers films to be the greatest dance musicals produced by Hollywood, they have been the subject of extensive analysis. Most of the research concerns the revolutionary aesthetic contributions that have been attributed to Fred Astaire; the integration of musical numbers and choreography with plot and story line, sound recording methods, and the use of camera work to maintain the integrity of the dance numbers.
“Historically, the other half of the team, Rogers, has been continually overlooked. As film scholar Robin Wood so aptly states, ‘One habitually thinks of Rogers as Astaire's partner, rather than the other way around.’ Some have argued that Astaire, in fact, needed Rogers more than she him.
“After Astaire's sister broke up the Broadway dance team of Fred and Adele Astaire in 1932, Astaire found his career in musical comedy faltering and embarked on a career in the motion picture industry. It was a risky undertaking. Already 33 and thin, balding, and not-classically handsome, Astaire did not possess the qualities of the typical Hollywood leading man. Rogers, however, was already well-established in the American film industry. Before being matched with Astaire, she appeared in 19 feature films, including [two] of Warner's Busby Berkeley musicals, ‘42nd Street’ and ‘Gold Diggers of 1933.’ During the years in which she and Astaire were a team, Rogers made several films, both dramatic and comedic, without him. According to Croce, ‘By the end of 1939, RKO considered Rogers its No. 1 star and began laying plans for a straight dramatic career, while Astaire ran out his contract.’
“In their filmed musical pairings, Astaire and Rogers seemed wrong for one another, gloriously mismatched physically, intellectually, and stylistically. Rogers was down-to-earth, athletic--very much the ‘all-American’ type. In the exaggerated manner of film stars, she represented the ordinary. Astaire was the elegant, European in grace, and so exceptional that he has never been equaled. Yet together, they personified the idiosyncrasy of romance --two people that friends would never match up, but who have been brought together by an inexplicable attraction. This attraction was physicalized and eloquently expressed through their dances.
“Had Rogers not been so ambitious, she might have settled for lasting fame as Astaire's most popular dance partner. But she wanted more for herself, and knew from her years in films before Astaire that she could play comedy and drama well. She broke off the partnership, a courageous career move for which she is seldom given credit.
“Her first major success as a dramatic actress was ‘Kitty Foyle,’ for which she won the 1940 Oscar for Best Actress. Having thus established herself as a solo performer, Rogers continued to pursue an active career in comedy as well as drama, occasionally returning to the musical format. Her screen image became that of a wise, tough-minded, humorous, hard-working, real-life American woman, an image built to last as it accommodated her advancing age and afforded her the versatility to play in different film genres.
“In later years, Rogers made a successful transition from films to television, and found equal acclaim in big Broadway musicals such as 'Mame' and 'Hello, Dolly!'. Any discussion of the career of Ginger Rogers must give credit to her mother, Lela Rogers, who managed her daughter with determination and intelligence. Together, the two women made the most of all opportunities they had, beginning with young Ginger's first triumph in a Charleston contest.
“Rogers was not considered the most beautiful woman in Hollywood, nor the best actress, singer, comedienne, or even dancer. But she was an attractive woman who could be glamorous or wholesome, depending on what the role required. She could sing and dance well, and she was versatile, with excellent comedic timing, and ability to mimic, and real dramatic skill. Putting it all together gave her the edge she needed which, supplemented by the Rogers family business acumen, and her own professionalism, made her a top star and kept her there.
“Ginger Rogers and her mother represent pioneer career women. Active in politics, shrewd in business, and maintaining control of their careers in the difficult, frequently male-dominated world of Hollywood, they may be thought of as feminists in deed if not by label or self-definition.” -- Jeanine Basinger, "Ginger Rogers", International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers, Volume 3: Actors and Actresses, 4th ed. St. James Press, 2000) (posted at http://www.filmreference.com/Actors-and-Actresses-Ro-Sc/Rogers-Ginger.html)
“ ‘He gives her class and she gives him sex,’ said Katherine Hepburn. Class? Some sheer refinement did rub off on Rogers – along with so much else. Watching her grow as an artist on screen during her films of the 1930s is fascinating. But part of what’s compelling about her in that period is how unclassy she remains. Even in their screen version of ‘Night and Day’ … an element of what makes Rogers so refreshing is the tough … streak in her; it’s even there in her stride. Dancing ‘Let’s Face the Music and Dance’ … she had become sublime. She hadn’t, however, become one of Hollywood’s ladies. Like Barbara Stanwyck, she’s classless.
“If there is one thing that can steal your attention from Astaire’s singing of a classic song, it must be the way Rogers listens. She could put across a song vividly herself. But has anyone ever listened more beautifully than she did in the 1930s? She was the ideal partner not simply because of her beauty as a dancer, but because of her complete responsiveness. Which is present in the way she pays attention, sometimes without moving a muscle, yet always in character. Rogers changed her hairstyles and, more startlingly, her voice from one film the next; but her real acting occurs way beneath the surface: she has a different nervous system in each role. To watch her change from the impulsive deep-voiced heroine of ‘Carefree’ (1938) to the loyal, girlish muse of ‘The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle’ (1939) is unsettling. The most haunting examples of her listening occur in the earlier movies, nowhere more wonderfully than in ‘Let’s Face the Music and Dance.’ Here, though she paces across the stage, her face is almost numb, a mask drained of emotion. Only the eyes move. Her face remains cool when she’s dancing the exalted duet that follows. Like Astaire, she trusts the medium to express everything: in this respect, they’re both modernists in motion.
“Before she joined him at RKO, Rogers had plenty of musical experience. Like him, she had introduced Gershwin songs on stage (‘Embraceable You’, ‘But Not For Me’); and in Hollywood she had already appeared in Busby Berkeley musicals. What the Astaire movies revealed in her, indeed developed, was a body of breathtaking beauty. Ginger’s physique is still gorgeous today: the ravishing slenderness of the legs, the lovely curves of the waist, the lush mobility of the back. And it’s powerfully expressive.
“Astaire went on to dance with other distinguished screen partners. [But] after Rogers, there is never quite a moment when the dance feels suffused by the love that the story at that point is usually about. Only with Rogers or when alone could Astaire unite feeling and form.” Alistair Macaulay, “Nice Work, Darling, Nice Work”, Times Literary Supplement (February 27, 2004), reprinted in Richard Gottlieb, Reading Dance (2008), pp. 69-77
“Watching ‘Night and Day’ … we see the Astaire-Rogers alchemy in full force. Much of it has to do with Rogers’s multifaceted reactions to Astaire. Her face is riveting because it has such restraint. Among the breathtaking aspects of her performance are her sudden stops to address him (as if acknowledging the force field between them); the suggestions that at one point she is helplessly sleepwalking but ... at another, having great fun; the very sweet way she implies that love (and dancing with a partner) is something she is happily learning as she goes along; the ripples that pass at different moments through her spine and pelvis; the huge, determined strides she takes to break away from him at one juncture, and then, when he stops her, the mysteriously fluent near-slap she gives him (and the soft way she watches him as he reels back across the room). Astaire leads throughout and is compelling. But her responses, from face to foot, give this duet its depth.
“Two years after ‘The Gay Divorcee’ Rogers reached her apogee in ‘Swing Time’ (1936). By now she has a dancer’s body as beautiful as any the screen has ever seen. The glimpses of her legs in their ‘Pick Yourself Up’ number (her calf-length skirts fly as they tap) are enough to make you gasp. Her spine can now arch and bend in many ways, all apparently full of feeling; the slenderness of her waist is always ravishing. Yet she never looks rarefied or trained. For that matter, she doesn’t behave like a great beauty and isn’t presented as one. Her ordinariness and spontaneity (just watch her arms and hands) are central to her attractiveness. While she always retains these qualities, there are parts of ‘Swing Time’ (and other Astaire-Rogers movies of their prime) in which she and Astaire become divinities and, together, epitomize glamour, love and dance.” – Alistair Macaulay, “They Seem to Find the Happiness They Seek”, New York Times, August 16, 2009 (http://www.nytimes.com/2009/08/16/arts/dance/16maca.html)
“Not classically trained but an experienced show dancer, Rogers expanded her range in tap and ballroom styles with remarkable quickness and accomplishment during the series of films with Astaire. She would remain his finest partner because she best fulfilled the dual requirements of being a gifted actress and growing as a gifted dancer. Her glowing expressiveness and effortlessness on the dance floor were crucial complements to Astaire’s trademark style, and her unique, enchanting mix of the elegant and the down-to-earth meshed beautifully with his combination of sophistication and modesty. Most of Astaire’s partners simply basked in his glow; as dance critic Arlene Croce wrote, Rogers "could even shed her own light". More confident and skilled than most of his later partners and less awed by his formidable abilities than any of the others, Rogers alone helped create a light yet substantial and sexy romantic tension with Astaire both on and off the dance floor which still resonates today.
“After the series of musicals with Astaire had run their course, Rogers found herself on surer career ground than her partner, for she had enjoyed such solo successes during the 1930s as ‘In Person’ (1935) and Vivacious Lady’ (1938). Most notable here was the superb ‘Stage Door’ (1937), which reaffirmed her skill as a sharp yet playful comedienne and also stands as one of her finest achievements as a straight actress. Rogers subsequently expanded her range, earning an Oscar for her poignant dramatic work in ‘Kitty Foyle’ (1940) and turning in fine comic performances in two films directed by Garson Kanin, ‘Tom, Dick and Harry’ (1941) and especially the delightful ‘Bachelor Mother’ (1939).
“During her peak solo years from 1937-45, Rogers also gave what some consider the performance of a lifetime in Billy Wilder’s first American directorial effort, ‘The Major and the Minor’ (1942). One of the only stars during the sound era often called on to play children or indulge in child-like behavior, Rogers here had to disguise herself, at various times, as an adolescent, a female rival and even her own mother. Expert at mimicry and the pert comeback, the movie star most likely to dream in her films, Rogers had firmly established a screen persona as a likably fierce and feminist ‘American girl next door’, a working class Cinderella trying to choose Mr. Right.
“Easily one of the most versatile and glamorous performers in the history of Hollywood, Rogers made regular film appearances through the late 1950s in such diverse films as ‘I’ll Be Seeing You’ (1944), ‘The Barkleys of Broadway’ (1949, a musical reunion with Astaire), ‘Storm Warning’ (1950), ‘Monkey Business’ (1952), and ‘Teenage Rebel’ (1956). Although many of her films are comedies, some of her best work came in serious drama: the uneven but touching ‘Primrose Path’ (1940), controversial in its day, features splendid work in its tale of a shantytown prostitute’s family, and Rogers bravely explored her own middle age as a posy and affected stage star in ‘Forever Female’ (1953).
“As with most stars at their mid-career stage, Rogers enjoyed fewer roles specifically tailored to her distinctive star persona after the mid-40s, but at her best continued to deliver performances of charm, insight and energy. Although the ‘50s generally represented a period of decline, one can still find credits like ‘Tight Spot’ (1955), a tense film noir elevated by Rogers’ superb work as a hard-bitten prison inmate asked to testify against a crime boss. Few stars fought typecasting quite as much; Rogers even changed her look considerably from film to film. If the resulting strain sometimes showed in her miscasting, she always had the glow of a star athlete. Also, her penchant for playing performers (in over 30 films) added an intriguing, reflexive edge to even routine material unworthy of her.
“After returning to the live theater in the late ‘50s and doing tours, summer stock and TV, Rogers again basked in the spotlight in 1965 when she scored with critics and public alike in the lead role of the hit Broadway musical, ‘Hello Dolly!’, playing for a year and a half of continuously sold-out shows. She later went on the road with ‘Dolly’ and enjoyed another year and a half of success. Rogers followed up by opening the 1969 London production of ‘Mame’, for which she was the highest-paid performer to ever appear on the West End stage up to that time. Starting in 1975, Rogers toured internationally into the ‘80s with a small group of dancers and comics in ‘The Ginger Rogers Show’, a nostalgic retrospective of her career. Always guesting on TV or making personal appearances, she finally enjoyed a chance at directing in 1985 with a stage revival of the musical, ‘Babes in Arms’. Long one of the more underrated of Hollywood’s legendary divas, Rogers, a true ‘domestic goddess’ long before [the] comic Roseanne coined the term, was honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award by the Kennedy Center in 1992.” – Ginger Rogers biography at Turner Classic Movies (http://www.tcm.com/tcmdb/participant.jsp?spid=164119&apid=61650)
“Of all of the places the movies have created, one of the most magical and enduring is the universe of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. To a series of movies made between 1933 and 1939, they brought such grace and humor that they became the touchstone of all things elegant. Astaire and Rogers were, first of all, great dancers. So were a lot of other film performers, including Astaire's partners (Rita Hayworth, Eleanor Powell, Cyd Charisse) after Rogers turned to serious dramatic roles. But what Fred and Ginger had together, and what no other team has ever had in the same way, was a joy of performance. They were so good, and they knew they were so good, that they danced in celebration of their gifts.
“Look at the final moment of their number ‘Isn't This a Lovely Day?’ in ‘Top Hat’ (1935). It begins with her mocking him, following him around a bandstand with her hands in her pockets. It escalates into a passionately physical dance in counterpoint to thunder and lightning, and then slows down into a sequence where they imitate each other's styles and moves. Finally, satisfied, they plop down on the edge of the bandstand and shake hands.
“I have always thought that handshake was between the dancers, not their characters. More than any other dancers in the history of film, Astaire and Rogers occupied real time. When you see anyone--an athlete, a musician, a dancer, a craftsman--doing something difficult and making it look easy and a joy, you feel enhanced. It is a victory for the human side, over the enemies of clumsiness, timidity and exhaustion. The cynical line on Astaire and Rogers was, ‘She gave him sex; he gave her class.’ Actually, they both had class, and sex was never the point. The chemistry between Fred and Ginger was not simply erotic, but intellectual and physical: They were two thoroughbreds who could dance better than anyone else, and knew it. Astaire's later dance partners danced in his spotlight, but Ginger Rogers, the dance critic Arlene Croce wrote, ‘shed her own light.’
“The best of the Astaire-Rogers films is their sixth, ‘Swing Time’ (1936), directed by George Stevens at a time when he was a king at RKO Radio Pictures. The plot, with its sly drolleries … serves to link the great dance sequences, built around Jerome Kern songs, including the climactic ‘Never Gonna Dance’ number that may be the high point of the Astaire-Rogers partnership. This song … has always struck me as mirroring the act of lovemaking.
“Ginger Rogers, … almost as tall as Astaire, slender, athletic, with a face more cheerful than classically beautiful, was Astaire's ideal partner even when they weren't dancing. That's because they both knew, long before many of their contemporaries, that less is more. Big broad facial reactions and strong emotions would have destroyed these fragile films. Rogers survived her ludicrous plots by never quite seeming to believe them. She was sad, but not too sad; angry, but as an act, not an emotion.
“When the genuine poignancy of their endangered romances had to be expressed, it was always through dance, not dialogue. That's why the ‘Never Gonna Dance’ number is so wonderful: In their voices and movements, they make it clear that if they can't dance, they can't live. Well, maybe they can, but what fun would that be?” -- Roger Ebert, “Swing Time” February 15, 1998
[A further appreciation of Ginger's special glories in "Swing Time"]
Pick Yourself Up … on Ginger Rogers’s Centenary
I was told that upon being asked to name his favorite among his books, Charles Dickens answered, “I love them all, but in my heart-of-hearts, I have a favorite child and his name is David Copperfield. “Well, though I love all the films I made with Fred Astaire, I, too, have a favorite child, and it is Swing Time. — Ginger Rogers (1911-1995)
In 1936, … Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers were dancing across the screens of the nation in Swing Time.
Look at Ginger
When Ginger tells Fred he’ll never learn to dance, she loses her job, which is his cue to demonstrate to the owner of the dancing school that she taught him plenty. After he shows off his footwork with a fancy bit of business to let her know that her clumsy student is a master, she hardly has time to be astonished before she’s in his arms and they’re bound for dance heaven. Fred may be the one leading, making it happen, but the inspirational force of charm, spirit, grit, and beauty is the partner who seemed at first to have merely thrown herself on the mercy of his genius. She’s happy, smiling, kicking up her high heels, doing wonderful things with her skirt, tugging it this way and that, lifting it to her knees and higher as she cavorts, no airs at all; she’s the essence of natural, at once sexy and sweet, womanly and girlish, and she’s doing everything he is; she’s not merely keeping up with him, this isn’t borrowed splendor; she’s matching him move for move, and then taking it to the limit in her own style.
You can’t love Fred; you can only be in awe of him. He has too much polish, too much sheer sophistication, too much immaculate virtuosity. But look at Ginger! What a joy she is! Boys and men, girls and women, old and young, all become her, put themselves in her place. Everyone watching is Ginger because she lets everyone into the dance. And the beauty of the “Pick Yourself Up” number is that it feels so real, so right, so on the spot spontaneous, even though you know it’s been laboriously rehearsed.
She’s so alive … washing her hair as Fred starts playing the piano and singing “The Way You Look Tonight” in the adjoining room. Jerome Kern’s song goes right to the aching heart and soul of romance; it’s irresistible, Ginger’s stopped washing her hair, listening, touched, drawn toward the song and the singer, her face luminous in soft focus, her eyes shining, her hair all soapy; she’s doing what she did before, this time not by dancing but by simply giving herself to the swelling movement of the melody; this is what she’s all about, feeling the music for us the way she felt the dance, and here again her response more than matches his performance. So into the other room she goes, her lovelights glowing as she reaches to touch his shoulder with her sudsy, shampooey hand, and he turns to her, it’s the big moment that in another, lesser movie would end with a kiss and words of love, but not when the adoring woman is in a bathrobe, the top of her head a frothy mass of soapy hair (according to her autobiography, they had to use whipped cream because real shampoo kept dripping down into her eyes). As Fred does a doubletake, Ginger sees her sudsy self in a mirror and retreats.
Down to Earth
The tune that will follow you around and have you incessantly humming, whistling, and even singing it to the annoyance of family and friends is “A Fine Romance,” in which lyricist Dorothy Fields rhymes “no kisses” with “this is” and gets away with it. Like “Pick Yourself Up,” it’s Ginger’s song, and she gives it a full measure of down to earth charm, striding inelegantly about in the snow in high heels, making the song as natural as she is, what with lines like “a couple of hot tomatoes” and “yesterday’s cold potatoes.” Performed in the falling snow, with Ginger not just singing it but selling it, a celebration of love’s vagaries and imperfections, it’s enough to make heads of state feel like schoolboys.
A Dance for Hamlet
In “Never Gonna Dance” Ginger’s energy and identity are fully absorbed into Astaire’s concept. If Fred were a writer, this would be his Hamlet. What he does with the three words of the title and Kern’s resonantly soulful, melancholy melody makes the song a failed prophecy, given who’s singing and the dance it prefaces. It’s like Hamlet telling Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, “I have of late, but wherefore I know not, lost all my mirth, forgone all custom of exercise” and then spinning fantastic word-pictures like the “majestical roof fretted with golden fire.” Shakespeare and Swing Time may seem an unlikely combination, but watch what happens when the man who is “never gonna dance” sidles up to the love of his dancing life, his partner in posterity, and begins walking her into a duet to the majestic melody of “The Way You Look Tonight.” In that same “what a piece of work is man” speech, Shakespeare could be describing the radiant merger of these two beings, “in form and moving how express and admirable! In action how like an Angel!”
September 21, 2011; http://www.towntopics.com/sep2111/book.php
An interview with Hannah Hyam about her book Fred and Ginger
Conducted by Patricia Guinot
Hannah Hyam's book, Fred and Ginger: the Astaire-Rogers Partnership, 1934-1938, is a precious document for lovers of the films and novices. It offers an elaborate analysis of their acting as well as their way of singing and dancing together. Her exhaustive thematic approach - extremely well documented - is an intelligent and brilliant choice that perfectly brings out the exceptional collaboration of this atypical couple in the history of the American movies. Captivated, thanks to her mother, by the charm of the "Fred and Ginger" films, she has devoted twenty years of her life -intermittently- to the process of writing this work, and has become one of the most outstanding experts on Astaire and Rogers.
Q: Your book focuses mainly on seven films (among the ten films Astaire and Rogers made together), from The Gay Divorcee (1934) to Carefree (1938). Why did you make this choice?
A: These seven films form a distinct series and, in my view, represent the most typical, memorable and important work that Astaire and Rogers did together. Their partnership proper begins in The Gay Divorcee - before that they just happened to appear together (in Flying Down to Rio), and the two films they made after Carefree (The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle and The Barkleys of Broadway) are very different in kind from the series of seven. It's in those seven films that we see the quintessential "Fred and Ginger", and that Astaire and Rogers perform the greatest of their dance duets.
Q: Not so many people know that they had already met before their teaming in Hollywood? What about their first professional meeting?
A: That was in 1930, when Astaire was asked to choreograph a dance for Rogers and her partner in the Gershwin stage show Girl Crazy.
Q: For their first film together, Flying down to Rio, Rogers had fourth billing and Astaire fifth billing. Why was she billed above him?
A: Rogers only appeared in the film by chance, as a replacement for another actress who had dropped out to get married, and neither she nor Astaire was ever intended to have a starring role. She was familiar to movie audiences by this time, having already appeared in 19 films, whereas Astaire, a star of the stage, had only appeared in one film (which was released just a month before Rio), in a relatively minor role. So it's not surprising that Rogers was billed above him. From then on they had equal top billing in all their films except Roberta (where Irene Dunne was the top star), though Astaire's name always appeared first.
Q: Their first dance on screen for this movie Carioca was a real success. Why did they make the difference?
A: The Carioca is not an outstanding dance by Astaire and Rogers standards, but it was a breath of fresh air in 1933. Before then, no really distinguished dancers had appeared on screen, and dance routines were clumsily filmed and directed - until Busby Berkeley came along and began to create his spectacular formations, which were really more to do with visual effect than choreography. When Astaire and Rogers got up to dance The Carioca it was the first time movie audiences had seen anything like it - a man and a woman dancing together with style, elegance, humour, apparent spontaneity and obvious rapport. It's not surprising they were an instant hit.
Q: To analyse their partnership, you have divided your book into thematic chapters instead of adopting the usual film-by-film approach, and you concentrate mainly on their acting together (their complementarity), their singing, and their dance duets - their playful and romantic duets. Their dancing together in these seven films represents only 50 minutes. You said that "they were partners in romance". Hermes Pan declared that "There's never been the same electricity that has happened as when Fred and Ginger danced together". Can you develop this idea?
A: First, let me stress that their complementarity - the rapport between Astaire and Rogers and the emotional richness of their on-screen relationship - is not limited to their acting together, it's a feature of their partnership as a whole, and especially their dance duets. Yes, it's rather amazing that their dances represent such a small proportion of the time they appear on screen - usually just three duets in each film, of about two or three minutes each.
Romance is the key to the relationship between Fred and Ginger, and it's this that distinguishes the series of seven films I focus on from the other three. Some of their best duets are dances of courtship, in which Fred wins over a reluctant Ginger - for example Night and Day from The Gay Divorcee, or Isn't This a Lovely Day from Top Hat - but most of them are romantic in essence, whether they're playful or more serious in mood.
Astaire of course danced with a great many women after his partnership with Rogers ended, and some of them were extremely fine dancers, but they all lack to some degree the qualities that made Rogers such a perfect partner for him, and especially such a perfect partner in romance. That electricity that Hermes Pan refers to stems partly from the wonderful rapport between Astaire and Rogers, but it's unique also because of all Astaire's partners Rogers was the most gifted dancing actress, able to convey quite brilliantly anything from mischievous humour to ecstatic joy to the deepest despair.
Q: Among the romantic duets, some of them are amazing. In Roberta, in Smoke Gets in Your Eyes, there is the famous gesture where Astaire cradles Rogers' head, in Carefree, in Change Partners, you describe the particular moment where Astaire hypnotizes Rogers and you comment "they glide slowly across the floor, lost in each other." Why were their romantic duets so special?
A: I think I've partly answered this in the previous question, but there is a lot more to be said about the romantic duets. They are supremely expressive, rich in emotional content and dramatic and romantic interest. As I've already suggested, their expressive range is very wide - from the warm serenity of Smoke Gets in Your Eyes to the ecstasy of the Waltz in Swing Time and the despair of Never Gonna Dance from Swing Time.
The romantic duets are also, of course, set to some of the finest songs in the Hollywood musical, and we shouldn't underestimate the importance of the music, and the orchestral arrangements, to their success. But a large part of their appeal is purely visual - Astaire and Rogers just look so beautiful dancing together in romantic mood, and you don't even need to hear the soundtrack to appreciate the superb visual spectacle.
Q: When Astaire was able to take control of the filming of his dances, almost all the dances were filmed in one continuous shot. Why was this so important?
A: Previously, dances had been filmed with distracting cuts and clumsy devices such as inserted shots of dancers' feet. Astaire's choreography isn't just a matter of legs and feet - he uses the whole body, and so he insisted on showing the dancers in full figure, with a minimum of editing or shots from different angles to interrupt the continuity of the dance. The viewer is therefore able to concentrate on the dance and the dancers, with no distractions, and the visual and dramatic impact is immeasurably enhanced. Watch an early dance such as Night and Day and you will find the cuts and fancy angles imposed by the director extremely irritating.
Q: Ginger Rogers sometimes felt that she was in Astaire's shadow. On the contrary, her contribution, both on and off the screen, was very important; and in fact Astaire accepted many of her suggestions; even Mark Sandrich, who did not appreciate her, recognized this fact (p.136, Sandrich quoted in your book): "You would be surprised how much [Rogers] adds to the number. Fred arranges them, and then when they get to rehearsing, Ginger puts in her own suggestions. And they're sensible ones. Fred discusses every one with her at length, and a good many of them are used." Can you explain her contributions in many routines?
A: Well, she claims in her autobiography to have suggested several important ideas, including the hypnotism in Change Partners and the "shadowing" in Isn't This a Lovely Day. We can never know exactly what or how much she contributed to the creative side of the duets. But her most important contribution was as a dancing actress - perfectly complementing Astaire in every respect and able to convey brilliantly the emotional or dramatic point of every dance they performed together.
Q: What is remarkable is her improvement as a dancer over the years, and she deserves all the credits. Astaire said: "She got so that after a while everyone else who danced with me looked wrong".
A: Indeed. She was not a trained dancer and not the most technically secure of his partners at the start of their collaboration, but she did improve spectacularly, by dint of tireless rehearsing, and became capable of increasingly demanding and complex choreography, making it all look just as easy as Astaire did. She was also the perfect height and build for him, unlike some of his later partners.
Q: In her autobiography, Rogers said: "Then there's the old story that Fred and I hated each other and suffered through movies, with him ranting and me bursting into tears. What nonsense!" In 1986, Astaire also declared: "All the girls I ever danced with thought they couldn't do it, but of course they could. So they always cried. All except Ginger. No no, Ginger never cried." How do you react?
A: I'm not surprised! Ginger Rogers was a feisty woman, on and off the screen, and she wasn't afraid of hard work. She loved rehearsing, and could cope with anything and everything Astaire demanded of her. She was most unlikely to burst into tears in any situation!
Q: The way she also uses her own body, her dresses and so on, in their duets. Can you develop this idea?
A: It's one of my favourite themes! Rogers' dresses are a vital part of the visual appeal and impact of their romantic duets, and she uses them with great skill and imagination. Look at the dress she wears for the Waltz in Swing Time, with its layer upon layer of frills, and watch the way she twirls it around as they dance. It's like a third partner, creating shapes that are as important to the impact of the dance as the choreography itself. Or watch how she transforms the gorgeous black gown she wears for Smoke Gets in Your Eyes : when she and Astaire bound onto the stage for I Won't Dance, the final dance in Roberta, she playfully flings the dress around, hoisting it up to her knees, whereas two minutes earlier she had just let it fall elegantly about her. She knew exactly how to make the most of her costumes for whichever dance they were performing.
Q: You mentioned the songs earlier, and you devote a whole chapter to them. Can you explain why you think they deserve so much attention?
A: As I said, the songs in these films, by some of the top composers of the day - Cole Porter, Jerome Kern, Irving Berlin, George Gershwin - are among the finest in the Hollywood musical, and indeed among the finest songs ever written. Many of them have become classics, and most of them were introduced by Astaire. He was an outstandingly fine singer, so much so that Irving Berlin said he would rather have his songs introduced by Astaire than by any other singer, because 'he can put over a song like nobody else'. It wasn't that he had an outstanding voice, but he had a great musicality, and his delivery and diction were exemplary, perfectly suited to musical film where the songs are an integral part of the action and virtually an extension of speech. 'Cheek to Cheek' is just one fine example, and this song also demonstrates what a good listener Rogers was, her subtle facial expressions beautifully conveying her emotions. She was also a fine singing actress in her own right, able to deliver a song such as 'The Yam', from Carefree, with great style, and she was a perfect match for Astaire in the duets they sing together.
Q: According to you, why did she accept another film with Astaire, The Barkleys of Broadway, in 1949, so long after their last film together in the 1930s? In 1945, she had been the highest-paid woman in the US, earning over $250,000. After 10 years, it was risky for her, she had not danced for many years…
A: We have Rogers' own word on the subject - she says in her autobiography that she was delighted to be offered the opportunity to do another film with Astaire. She had always loved working with him, and while it wasn't the easiest thing for her to get back into her dancing shoes after 10 years she welcomed the challenge. As she says, "it felt good to be putting myself through these rigorous activities. I began to feel like I could jump to the moon." She was ready by the time rehearsals began, and her hard work certainly paid off - in Bouncin' the Blues, a fast and demanding tap routine, her dancing is as relaxed as ever, and the years seem to have fallen away.
Q: Moreover, Stephen Harvey, in his book on Astaire, comments: "Despite the intervening ten years, Astaire and Rogers have an innate understanding of each other's verbal rhythms and mannerisms….The self-conscious drive with which Astaire often attacked his lines disappears here, as Fred and Ginger blend with and interrupt each other with a seamless intimacy that is heartwarming to witness." Astaire, here, has never been better as an actor. Do you agree?
A: I agree about the innate understanding and seamless intimacy, but I don't know what Harvey means by Astaire's "self-conscious drive" in earlier films. His acting is entirely natural and unaffected in his films with Rogers in the 1930s - Swing Time and The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle are particularly fine examples.
Q: You must have spent months and years analysing all their films? What is your favourite number ?
A: Impossible to choose just one favourite number - I love too many of them. But I would single out the three duets in Swing Time as the most stunningly brilliant that Astaire and Rogers ever performed together, and I could not live without any of them. Pick Yourself Up is the playful Fred and Ginger at their spectacular best. Waltz in Swing Time is a supremely beautiful expression of romantic ecstasy. Never Gonna Dance a powerful, absolutely heartrending piece of drama. That they should all three feature in one film is nothing short of a miracle.
“Underlying her great talent, charm, personality, versatility, and good looks, she had a strength of character, which earned her every bit of her many accolades. Yes, she admittedly and not surprisingly, also made mistakes, both professional and personal ... but … and this is key to understanding her ... bounced back every time. She didn't live in a dream world of her brilliant past career... but lived in the moment...even if that moment was not up to her highest past standards...as is almost always inevitable in late career.
“In my opinion, this did not diminish her one iota. As Billy Wilder said..."We are all as good as the best things we've done." If this is the standard, and I think it is, then Ginger Rogers must be ranked very highly indeed. Her dance musicals, her dramatic acting, and her skills as a first rate comedienne, her stage musicals, all place her in the category of a classic Hollywood legend.
“She was a hard working actress, who loved her audiences; quietly took care of her family and charities; transcended her mid-West background to become a woman of the world; and who never took out a loan in her life. Fred Astaire had a three word description of her spunk. Fred simply said: "She had guts." That's Ginger Rogers. I recognize the quality of her life....and I recommend this book highly.” – R. Bono, “In Her Own Words”, review of Ginger: My Story at Amazon.com, January 15, 2009 (http://www.amazon.com/gp/cdp/member-reviews/A4ECYB20UWH3N?ie=UTF8&display=public&sort_by=MostRecentReview&page=4)
“Astaire's career had several aspects, but his early career was crucial to all his future successes. In this phase, he established his formidable creative process in dance, singing, music, acting, and directing. In this phase, he perfected his integrated approach to all elements of the dance-musical. And in this phase, he established his modus operandi in both the paired and solo dances. Central to this effort was Ginger Rogers.
"It is difficult today to recall the absolutely electrifying effect that the Fred and Ginger partnership had on audiences of the 1930s. When they were dancing on screen quiet prevailed, breathing ceased, and hearts fluttered. Upon their completion, movie audiences burst into spontaneous applause.
"It is difficult to recall this today...but it's only mathematics to note that typically, in each of their films, THREE of the FOUR dances were DUETS. Hollywood producers then (as now), were hard boiled money-men...so it's quite safe to say, that this was not just happenstance. It was the PAIRED dances that sparked the imaginations of millions and created the tremendous box office bonanza for RKO. It was the PAIRED dances that established Astaire's career and assured his success and legend.
"And what did the often reticent Fred say about his pairing with his greatest dance partner? Here's his rare evaluation: ‘Ginger was brilliantly effective. She made everything work for her. Actually she made everything very fine for both of us and she deserves MOST of the credit for our success.’ (Emphasis mine.)
"By their third film, Ginger was filled with self-confidence under Astaire's and Hermes Pan's coaching. Not every dancer then could have withstood Fred's insistent perfectionism. Rogers, petite, 5-4, 105 pounds, was mentally strong, and highly motivated and determined. She never once cracked. She was the ‘tough cookie’ who just practiced harder. The results in virtuosic performance show an ease and grace that was [underlain] by an extraordinary commitment and unheard of hours of practice.
"With Rogers, first among his partners, Astaire was able to achieve greater and greater choreographic and rhythmic complexity, knowing full well that she was capable of handling anything he and Pan could imagine. And in fact, Ginger herself, as Fred and Pan acknowledged, made her own contributions in this sphere as well.
"Now add to this, the chemistry, and genuine poignancy, between them...even when not dancing, but when acting...and you begin to see Ginger's central importance to the whole enterprise. Rogers was a quality actress who also danced...and beautifully so. She dramatized every dance, with great technical skill, in a whole range of emotions. Astaire and Rogers were of one mind, and heart, and soul, on the dance floor. They together, were much more than the sum of two parts...and as such, were much more than any other of Astaire's later pairings. They together entered that rarefied realm of the sublime, time and time again....in ten films.
"Rather than buying this book, I would recommend John Mueller's ‘Astaire Dancing’, or Hannah Hyam's ‘Fred and Ginger’, and still Arlene Croce's ‘The Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers Book’.
"Well needless to say...that in missing all this, Levinson's book misses much about what is most essential about Fred. The book's major shortcoming...and there are many others...is that it fails, on its own terms, to give an objective view of Astaire's life and career, by failing to properly weigh the key role of Ginger Rogers, in performance, of the greatest of all film partnerships. Fans of Fred Astaire ought to be indignant at such treatment. Fred was.” -- R. Bono, “A Limited Perspective”, review of Puttin’ on the Ritz: Fred Astaire and the Fine Art of Panache, at Amazon.com
This is Lucille Ball's appreciation of Ginger and especially of Ginger's mother Lela Rogers. She describes the training and care she received from Lela as a struggling beginner in Hollywood, and provides insight into how Ginger became such a multi-talented marvel.
“One of the clichés of Hollywood is ‘Behind every successful actress are a hairdresser and a mother.’ Hairdressers come and go, but Ginger Rogers had only one fabulous mother, a woman who played mother to many of us as we worked our way up. Pandro Berman once remarked that Lela Rogers charged about the set like a mother rhinocerous protecting her young. Lela was petitie, dynamic, practical, and shrewd. She was also quite as sexy and beautiful as her daughter. One way or another, Lela Rogers generally got her own way.
“Her daughter was her Galatea, a star she created. Lela had started Ginger on the vaudeville circuit when she was barely fourteen. Lela wrote her a new act every week, including songs and dances, and made her costumes on a portable sewing machine. She was her daughter’s press agent, business manager, and schoolteacher as well.
“When I knew them, Lela was still keeping Ginger hopping with lessons of all kinds: painting, sculpture, tennis; geography, history, and the Great Books. Lela was great on improving Ginger, or any of us who happened to be lucky enough to be around.
“Ginger and Fred had little in common and battled through every picture, yet moviegoers found them one of the great romantic teams of all time. Lela used to say that Ginger was Fred’s best dancing partner because she imitated his body movements. When he danced with other girls, they took off and did their own kind of dancing. Ginger had no style of her own, so she borrowed Fred’s. Then, to make him appear romantic, she never took her eyes off him. He gave her class as a dancer, and she gave him romantic appeal.
“Just watching Lela handle Ginger on the set was an education in itself. Lela would go upstairs and say to the bosses, ‘You know, it would be a lot easier for Ginger if she had a little bit larger dressing room so she could wash her hair there instead of doing it at home. Ginger hasn’t asked for this, but we could save forty-five minutes every morning if you’d just knock out a wall and give her a little more room.’
“Ginger was working so hard that she needed a few assists. She was a sunny, cheerful person, friendly and approachable as a puppy. She never had an entourage to impress other people, as many stars did and still do. She needed a hairdresser right at hand and a choreographer, and a secretary and a press man or two, and when she moved about the lot, they moved too, to save her time. When she walked from her dressing room to the set, seven or eight people came along. Ginger made seventy-one A movies in a period of fourteen years, including nine with Fred at RKO. When one of their films was finally in the can, Fred would sail to Europe to recuperate for six months; Ginger would start a new movie within twenty-four hours.
“The wonderful thing about Lela was that she was ‘Mom’ to a bevy of young struggling starlets. She directed RKO’s Little Theater, where promising young people from other studios also came to be tutored by this wise, warm woman. When some young kid at Warner Bros. or MGM was hauled into the clink for drunken driving or some other charge, Mrs. Rogers was usually the first person the cops would telephone. ‘One of your kids is here,’ they’d tell her, ‘asking for Mom Rogers.’ And she’d drop everything and hurry to the police station.
“Just before we started filming ‘Roberta’, Lela got a phone call from Pan Berman at the front office. ‘We’ve put four models under short-term contract for “Roberta,” ’ he told her. ‘Three of them may be star material. Then there’s a kid named Lucille Ball. Don’t pay any attention to her. She’s great at parties, a real funny kid, but I can’t see any future for her in movies.’
“Lela thought otherwise. She told me years later, ‘I noticed the twinkle in your eyes, and the mobile face, which is a must for comedy. I also sensed a depth and a great capacity for love.’
“ ‘What would you give to be a star in two years?’ Lela asked me when I first was getting to know her.
“I gulped and answered, ‘Gee, what d’ya mean?’
“ ‘Would you give me every breath you draw for two years? Will you work seven days a week? Will you sacrifice all your social life?’
“I had observed Ginger’s dedication on the set, and I knew that Lela meant every word. ‘I certainly will,’ I promised.
“ ‘Okay,’ she said, ‘let’s start.’
“Lela was the first person to see me as a clown with glamour. She pulled my frizzy hair back off my brow and had a couple of my side teeth straightened. Then she sent me to a voice teacher, and told me to lower my high, squeaky voice by four tones.
“Lela used to say, ‘A comedienne who does Ginger’s style of comedy has to be good-looking. You should be able to sit and watch her read the telephone book, and with either Lucille or Ginger, you can.’
“Mrs. Rogers would arrive at her theater building on the RKO lot after lunch. Whoever wasn’t working on some movie set would join her then; the rest would arrive at six p.m., when shooting generally stopped. To break down our reserve, she put us in improvisations. At three in the morning we’d be begging, ‘Oh please, Mom … just one more … let’s do just one more.’ Then we’d be going home at four, punchy with weariness but feeling so wonderful!
“To me, the live theater was it, and still is. Lela mounted us in good plays and rehearsed us steadily for four or five months. Then we’d perform the play nightly except Sundays for the same length of time. Her productions were an incredible showcase for young talent. Admission to the plays was twenty-five cents. People flocked to our theater from all over town and from as far as New York. Often, we had directors and producers in the audience, and critics too. I met Brock Pemberton and his wife backstage one evening. For months after that, he tried to find me a part on Broadway.
“I soon became part of a small, intimate group centered around Ginger, who was about my age. On weekends we played tennis, went swimming, and double-dated at the Ambassador and the Biltmore. The group included Phyllis Fraser, Ginger’s first cousin, who is now Mrs. Bennett Cerf; Eddie Rubin; Florence Lake; and Anita ‘the Face’ Colby. Ginger was dating Lee Bowman, Henry Fonda, Jimmy Stewart, and Orson Welles; often I went along.
“It was such a happy, busy time for me. Lela took the dungarees off us and put us into becoming dresses; she ripped off our hair bands and made us do our hair right. If we went to see a big producer in his office, she cautioned us to put on full makeup and look like somebody. She made us read good literature to improve our English and expand our understanding of character.
“She drummed into us how to treat agents and the bosses upstairs. Lela believed that sex is more of a hindrance than a help to a would-be star. More actresses have made it to the top without obvious sex appeal than with it. Lela taught us to dedicate ourselves to our work and to ignore the nerve-wracking rumors of calamity issuing from the front office. I never played politics at RKO, and it wouldn’t have helped if I had. RKO had eleven presidents in fourteen years. Lela advised us to work on ourselves and pay no attention to those corporate machinations.
“Lela wouldn’t tolerate anyone taking advantage of her charges. My contract had been extended to a year, but as 1935 drew to an end, Lela found me in tears. ‘Last night at midnight was the last hour they could pick up my option,’ I told her. ‘I guess I’m through.’
“Lela stormed up to the front office and learned that indeed I had been dropped. A new president had been installed and was effecting ‘economies’ by cutting down the payroll.
“ ‘Very well.’ Lela shrugged. ‘If Lucille goes, I go. She’s the best student I’ve got. I’ll take her to some other studio and manage her like I do Ginger.’
“The bosses paled at this threat, and I was immediately rehired. Lela told me that the legal department had made a mistake about the date of the option. ‘They may ask you to take the same salary, without a raise this year,’ she added. ‘And if I were you, I’d take it.’
“So there I was, safe for another year. Lela taught us never to see anyone as bigger or more important than ourselves, but she discouraged outburst of petty temperament. It was very bad, she said, for a young player to get the reputation of being ‘difficult’.
“Lela expected all of us to show up at play rehearsals, whether we were in the production or not. We all spent hours and hours in the darkened theater watching rehearsals.
“We were putting on ‘A Case of Rain’, with Anita Colby in the lead, when Lela called me at ten o’clock one morning. ‘Anita’s sick and can’t go on tonight,’ she announced. ‘Will you take her place?’
“She then explained that there was no time for a full rehearsal. ‘My assistant will go through the lines and moves with you,’ she said.
“I had, of course, studied the play, and watched the rehearsals, but there’s a big difference between this kind of mental approach and the actual performance. I arrived at Lela’s theater about eleven a.m. and stayed there all day, until the opening at eight o’clock that night. I don’t know how I did it, but I played the lead without missing a line or a cue, and got twenty-five more laughs than usual.
“Afterward Lela came to me and said, ‘Lucille, if you’re in the theater for fifty years, you’ll never face a more difficult task. You’ve been through the worst that can happen to a performer. I hope you’ll always rise to challenges like that.’
“Only recently did I learn from Lela that my jumping in at the last moment was her way of testing me. Anita’s sudden ‘illness’ was a put-up job.
“Sitting in the back row of Lela’s Little Theater [that] night was Pandro Berman. He was short, dark, vital, and still in his early thirties, the boy wonder of the industry. He produced all the Astaire-Rogers musicals and had often been locked in mortal combat with Lela over Ginger’s lines or dances or her attention-getting costumes. One of Ginger’s bouffant ostrich-feather dance gowns almost suffocated skinny Fred. But Lela fought Pan Berman for every feather, and won.
“As RKO’s top producer started to leave the theater after the performance, Lela came up to him and crowed, ‘That was Lucille Ball who played the lead tonight on only a few hours’ notice. She’s the girl you said had no acting potential.’
“For once, Mr. Berman had no counterattack to the ‘mother rhinocerous.’ ‘Yes, I know,’ he told Lela quietly, and stole away.
“Lela kept telling RKO producers and directors, ‘I have a passel of good talent, and when you’re casting bit parts, I want you to use my students.’ Director Mark Sandrich came to her one day when he was casting ‘Top Hat’, and Lela talked him into giving me a few lines. It was my first real speaking part, and during the filming I was so nervous and unstrung that I couldn’t get the words out. They phoned Lela and told her I wasn’t doing well and would have to be replaced. So Lela hied herself right over to the set.
“My scene took place in a florist’s shop, where I was supposed to make some biting remarks to some man about Fred’s sending flowers to Ginger. I stumbled and blew my lines until Lela said to Mark Sandrich, ‘Reverse the lines. It’s not in character for the girl to make those biting remarks … Give them to the man.’ So we reversed the dialogue and everything worked out fine.
“My next movie was ‘Follow the Fleet’, which was another big splashy Astaire-Rogers musical, with Betty Grable in one of her early parts. I played Ginger’s friend. The picture opened at Radio City Music Hall in February 1936, and shortly afterward I got my first fan letter, which I still have. It was addressed to the front office, and said, ‘You might give the tall, gum-chewing blonde more parts and see if she can’t make the grade – a good gamble.’
“I was going at such a pace at the studio and in Lela’s Little Theater around this time that I wore myself down to 100 pounds. My normal weight today is 130. While I was in the hospital on a fattening diet, Lela asked me if I wanted a bit part in a play by Bartlett Cormack, ‘Hey Diddle Diddle,’ which was headed for Broadway. Lela developed not only actors and actresses, but playwrights too. It never hurts a movie actress to appear in a successful play back east, so I jumped at the chance.
“Back in Hollywood, I did another play for Lela, ‘Breakfast for Venora.’ After the last performance, as I was removing my makeup, Lela came backstage with a huge bouquet of red roses. ‘These are for you,’ she said.
“ ‘But Lela,’ I said, amazed, ‘what for?’
“ ‘Tonight’s our last night together,’ explained Lela. ‘I’ve taught you everything I can. From now on, you have to put it into practice.’
“I could feel the tears welling up inside me. ‘You mean I’m not coming back anymore?’ I asked incredulously.
“ ‘No, darling,’ said Lela. ‘I’ve had you two years, and the studio says that’s all. They’ve got some new students for me. You’re through here at the Little Theater.’
“We both cried a little and then I didn’t see Lela for weeks. As a final favor, she got me a speaking part in ‘Stage Door,’ which Gregory La Cava directed. He was an outstanding director, but he didn’t particularly like me; he’d only given me the part, I’m sure, at Lela’s prodding.
“I played one of the boarders at the Footlights Club, wearing my hair long and dark, loose and straight like Hepburn’s. It was my first standout part, and afterward some Hollywood producer’s wife lunching at Chasen’s was overheard to say, ‘Who was that funny, tall girl in ‘Stage Door’ who went home to Oregon to marry a lumberman?’ "
-- Lucille Ball, from her autobiography Love, Lucy (1996), pp. 70-83
“Ginger Rogers, at 74, still whirls around the dance floor.
“ ‘Tell them “she loves it,”’ Rogers says with a husky laugh. With no prodding, she inches up her dress with a white-gloved hand to show off a calf taut with muscle.
“That's not all that smacks of Old Hollywood.
“The beauty mark on the chin is penciled black, the lips are poppy red. She wears a marble-sized diamond on her ring finger, an emerald on her pinky.
“Her Mae West-blonde hair does a '40s swoop at the forehead. Catlike strokes of liner curl from her blue-green eyes. A cloud of lavender-laced scent, ‘made especially for me,’ surrounds her.
“ ‘Frankly, I don't really give the thought of age any of my time. I've had such a full, full experience,’ says Rogers, who has weathered 73 films and five divorces.
“ ‘I don't read about the things a lot of people do. I wouldn't give you a nickel for all the articles that have to do with aging. Instead, I'm living my life.’
“There's been one concession to the clock. She used to play six sets of tennis without stopping, but now, ‘I haven't got the stamina. I play two sets or three.’
“In 1957, she teamed with then-Davis Cup captain Frank Shields - Brooke's grandfather - in the U.S. Nationals mixed doubles tournament.
“ ‘He was a tall, handsome, beautiful man. We got whipped, because he really didn't trust me on the court,’ Rogers recalls. ‘I've always been attracted to tennis players - not as boyfriends necessarily, but as friends.’
“She also was an ace skeet shooter, fisherwoman, horseback rider and golfer who frequently paired with Rita Hayworth at the Bel Air Country Club.
“ ‘I don't have time for all that anymore,’ says Rogers, now premiering as a director in the first revival of Rodgers and Hart's ‘Babes in Arms’ in 48 years. It plays the Tarrytown, N.Y., Music Hall through July.
“Off the road, she stays in shape by swimming and taking long walks at her 600-acre cattle ranch on the Rogue River in Eagle Point, Ore. Her second residence is a ‘small house’ in Rancho Mirage, Calif.
“During interviews in Washington, where she stopped in honor of the Mary Pickford Foundation, and in her suite at Manhattan's Lowell Hotel, the ex-movie star stresses that Hollywood never distorted her sense of self.
“ ‘I was always this Ginger Rogers, and I put on the clothes that were that Ginger Rogers. It was a job like anything else. I was never up in [a] cloud of pink, up here somewhere in the sky.’ She pokes the air with a hot pink fingernail.
“ ‘I always had my two feet on the ground, so to speak.’
“By Christmas 1929, Rogers was on Broadway in ‘Top Speed.’ ‘It was absolutely an accident. I call it a blessed event,’ says Rogers of being discovered. ‘At the time I was thinking only about being a teacher. I was in love with my English teacher. I thought she was the greatest thing since 7-Up or Coca-Cola.’
“Her first movie appearance came in ‘Young Man of Manhattan’ in  with the legendary one-liner, ‘Cigarette me, big boy.’ The walk-on part turned her into a smoker.
“ ‘I was never going to smoke, but my director made me for the movie,’ says Rogers who has since quit. ‘I said, “But I don't know how to smoke a cigarette.” He said, “Go and learn.” I turned green. It's a good thing the film wasn't in technicolor.’
“Rogers refuses to criticize her mother [Lela] for pushing too hard, too fast. ‘My mother was not Gypsy,’ snaps Rogers. ‘One writer wrote she was a tyrant. My mother was no tyrant. She never whipped me, maybe slapped me a couple of times because I was naughty, but what mother doesn't? I didn't mind. But she was not on the set everyday knitting and watching me. No way. No way.’
“Lela, who died at age 83 in 1977, split from her husband, Eddins McMath, when Ginger was a child. She later remarried - and eventually left - John Logan Rogers.
“He provided her with a solid father image. ‘He was loving, he was sweet, he was kind, he was tender. And he took my side in many things against my mother,’ she says.
“To ‘keep me happy,’ RKO Studios, Rogers' spawning ground, gave Lela a staff position heading a theater to showcase new playwrights. One of her finds was ‘I Remember Mama.’ She appeared in one of her daughter's movies, ‘The Major and the Minor.’
“ ‘If I had not had my mother, I would never have survived it,’ Rogers says of dealing with the good old boy network of Hollywood. ‘With my mother's Marine background, she was a help in muscling through things. Because when you started to get into negotiations, you found that it really was a man's world in which women were not invited to even comment. Well, my mother commented, and she almost got fired.’
“ ‘I've sort of emulated my mother,' Rogers admits. ‘I had a clear sense of who I was - I didn't know how far I was going to go however.’ She gives a raspy chuckle.
“It's a tough-talking Rogers who drives home the point that this star was born on her talent -- not on her reputation as the sidekick of Fred Astaire. ‘I was making four movies to every one movie Fred Astaire was making,’ she says. ‘I would run over to his movie, start dancing, then run back and finish the movie I was making.’
“ ‘Not to try to take the top off his ice cream soda, but I was in for an awful lot of creativity too,’ she says. ‘I loved dancing with him, but I had not come into the movie business to be a top dancer of the screen. I came into the movie business to be an actress.’
“Only 10 of her 73 pictures were made with Astaire. ‘That's one-seventh of my whole shot. I didn't win an Academy Award for dancing, did I?’ That honor for Best Actress came for her 1940 portrayal of ‘Kitty Foyle,’ a white-collar girl from a lower-middle-class family who is courted by a rich Philadelphian played by Dennis Morgan.
“Despite Rogers' solo successes, it was her coupling with Astaire that she is best remembered for. Works like ‘Roberta,’ ‘Top Hat,’ ‘The Gay Divorcee’ and ‘Swing Time’ put some sunshine into the Depression years while making a fortune for RKO.
“ ‘Our films were keeping the studio open,’ Rogers says. ‘We were the moneymakers - and still are. I'd like to see the money that is paid to use these films on television today and the cassettes. The money that has compiled must be hundreds of millions. I don't see a nickel of it; not a penny,’ she adds, but won't take legal action – ‘you want me to fight City Hall?’
“The Rogers-Astaire chemistry was explosive, she says, because although their styles were different when they [started], they came together as a match. Yet RKO's penchant for slotting her as a dancer was far from satisfying.
“ ‘It disturbed me. I didn't know I was going to just suddenly be pigeonholed and I was - let's face it. Not that I wanted completely out of it. I only wanted not to be so typecast. And that's what they do to you, you know. If you can make a dollar here, they pound it into the cement.’
“The Rogers-Astaire swan song for RKO was ‘The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle’ in 1939. They appeared together once again in MGM's ‘The Barkleys of Broadway’ in 1949, and the two remain [in contact]. ‘Fred and I remember each other at Christmas, and at birthdays and things like that. He's married to a real cute gal,’ she says of the reclusive Astaire, 86, and his wife Robyn Smith, a jockey 46 years his junior.
“ ‘But I haven't had any heart-to-heart talks about it with him. I don't think it's any of my business. I wouldn't like for anybody to get that close to the epidermis of my heart either. I want people to stay away from my heart.’
“Those who do come close are carefully screened by Rogers.
“ ‘Oh my mother, and those I've married, but not anyone else. I mean, I don't say, “Come in, I want to tell you all the things that have happened to me.” No way. No, no, no way.’
“There was never a romance between Rogers and Astaire, she says. ‘Well, (a sigh), I dated him, and there was a possibility. But I was too fascinated with my career. My career always came first.’
“Concentrating on her job with the fervor of today's feminists put a crimp on her domestic life. ‘Certainly I was bent on my career, but it was not so evident to me at the time because I seemed to be able to sacrifice things,’ she says. ‘I thought my husbands should be as lenient with me as I was with them. But men weren't like that - are they yet? I was not one of the fortunate ones who had that kind of attitude in a man.’
“She once was engaged to Howard Hughes, and is reportedly the only woman who ever made him cry. Is that true? ‘I wasn't there,’ she says softly. Why the two never married is a story Rogers is saving for her autobiography which she is in the process of writing.
“Rogers says women of vintage Hollywood - like herself, Lana Turner, Rita Hayworth and Zsa Zsa Gabor - married several times in the name of morality. ‘All of those marriages came from wanting to live up to the golden rule and say, “We are legally paired if any children come from this union.” ’
“Having babies out of wedlock like the new Hollywood moms - Farrah Fawcett, Jessica Lange, Amy Irving - sits poorly with Rogers. ‘Well, I'm sorry I don't go with that, so there is nothing I can say about it, other than that it is not something I admire. It's too bad, you see. Because they're trying to make morality out of immorality, and you can't make a silk purse out of a sow's ear.’ ” – Iris Krasnow, “After 73 films and 5 divorces, Ginger Rogers is still dancing,” Houston Chronicle, July 14, 1985
“Her School Was the Stage”
by Aubrey B. Haines
Though she has been a dancing star in many motion pictures, Ginger Rogers confesses, “I never took a dancing lesson in my life.” This seems incredible when one recalls her co-starring films with Fred Astaire and her more recent television appearances. “I don’t consider myself primarily as a dancer, she adds. “I regard myself as an actress. Dancing and singing have been a part of my acting career.”
The girl’s talent first became apparent at an early age. “My mother was a former dramatic critic,” Ginger recalls. “Through her I became familiar with the theatrical world when I was quite young.” While just a girl, Ginger appeared in two Charleston contests: a city contest at Fort Worth, and a state contest at Dallas. She won them both. These amateur contests were a springboard to vaudeville appearances in an act of her own called Ginger Rogers and the Red Heads. From there she went on to a singing-and-dancing engagement at Chicago’s Oriental Theatre at the age of fourteen. Born with gifts of beauty, musicality and an engaging kinesthetic vitality, she was already a striking performer.
In fact, Paul Ash, the Oriental’s band leader, was so impressed by her talent that – when he went to Brooklyn’s Paramount Theatre – he called her to join him. “I didn’t realize then,” Ginger recalls, “that this was my first big ‘break.’ Eddie Cantor saw me at the Paramount. He was unsuccessful in getting me a part in Whoopie, produced by Florenz Ziegfeld, but this contact finally resulted in my getting the comedy lead role of Top Speed.”
Her first film opportunity was at the Paramount Long Island studios in Young Man of Manhattan. So pleased was Paramount with her work that they offered her a contract and asked her to leave for the West Coast at once. However, at the same time she was also offered the lead role in the musical comedy, Girl Crazy, and her Broadway success in this singing-dancing role solidly established her stature in the entertainment world.
In 1931 she left for Hollywood with her mother who was her manager, to work for Pathé. Later she was featured in Warner Brothers’ musicals, 42nd Street and Gold Diggers of 1933. Ginger’s big opportunity came when she danced with Fred Astaire in Flying Down to Rio. In that picture the “Carioca” number created a public demand for more team work from them. Ginger followed this musical with such outstanding successes as [complete list, in sequence, of the RKO Rogers/Astaire films].
Though Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire by now were America’s foremost dance team, Ginger suddenly switched to dramatic roles in films. Asked why, she says, “I considered myself primarily an actress and wanted experience in different kinds of roles – not just dancing and singing.” In 1940 she played the title role in Kitty Foyle, which brought her an Oscar.
Though a hard working professional who demands much from herself and from others, Ginger Rogers gets along with her fellow actors and the crews on her sets. She is completely engrossed in her work when making a picture. This attitude earns the respect of everyone who works with her, from producers and directors to cameramen and electricians.
In the fall of 1954 she made her television debut in a Producer’s Showcase on NBC – a selection of Noel Coward’s Tonight at 8:30. The blonde, blue-eyed actress is but five feet, four inches tall and weighs 112 pounds. Nevertheless, her driving ambition has enabled her to make sixty-nine films. In 1951 she starred in Love and Let Love on Broadway and returned to the stage in the 1958-1959 season in Pink Jungle.
A veteran performer on stage, screen and television, she has convictions based on keen observation. “I believe strongly that all television ought to be taped,” Ginger says. “I don’t believe in ‘live’ television. I’ve played in both. When it was ‘live,’ I’ve played as many as three roles to a performance and changed my costume fourteen times in the days when there were no idiot boards. (An idiot board is a large card which contains all the words the actor is to say.) Taped television signifies progress. I’ve no objection to that.”
She sees no difference between appearing in films and on taped television. “I never saw any of my ‘live’ television shows,” she says, “because I was in them. I’m more satisfied with anything I can have time for. I like to practice and rehearse a good deal before performing in the actual show. In taped television the director pushes buttons to select what particular camera picture will be shown. In making movies, the film too is edited and cut. This makes for much better selection.”
Strangely, though Ginger became a dancing star on her own, she never looked forward to a dancing or even a theatrical career. “Like Topsy,” she says, “my career as an actress just grew. Actually I always wanted to become a schoolteacher.”
Ginger names tap, ballroom, eccentric, and soft shoe as the kinds of dancing she has done. She calls the kind of dancing she did on the Red Skelton Show in October “light comedy dancing.” “I’m not really a technician,” she says, “so I can’t even distinguish between the different kinds.”
Asked what advice she would give a struggling dance student who plans a dance career, Miss Rogers says: “I’d tell him that he’s taken on a profession that’s three-fourths work. It demands many personal sacrifices. If he’s studying ballet, he should learn acting, too. If going into musical comedy, he should learn acting, singing and comedy. One should go the complete circle in what he tries to do in the entertainment world. I consider myself a ‘Jack of all trades.’ But I don’t like the phrase that follows: ‘master of none.’ There’s no easy road to success. The straight actor has fewer demands on his time than does the dancer, especially girl dancers. Even male performers put in fewer hours than women because the makeup does not take as long.”
Miss Rogers has never served as a choreographer. “In the pictures I co-starred with Fred Astaire,” she says, “Fred and Hermes Pan were the choreographers. I came in for my share of invention but I’d call myself mostly an ‘idea woman.’ I sometimes propose certain ideas, which others develop if advisable.”
Ginger has strong reactions to dancing on television. “My chief complaint,” she says, “is the floor on which we have to dance. In theatres there are wooden stages, but on television one must dance on vinyl which covers a cement floor. That is very hard on the dancer. If there is such a thing as the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to People, they ought to be notified.”
Ginger has made occasional night club appearances, such as the ones at the Riviera Hotel in Havana (before the emergence of Castro) and at the Riviera Hotel in Las Vegas. Because her personal appearances nowadays are relatively few, she has little need to keep physically fit for dancing. However, as participation sports she enjoys tennis, golf, ping pong, swimming, and water skiing. “I think that tennis can be played more gracefully if the player is a dancer,” she says.
It seems incredible that her fabulous career did not include dance lessons. “I didn’t know that I was going to become a dancer,” Ginger Rogers says. “In show business I answered the call for what was needed at the time, and then I tried my best to do it well.”
-- Dance Magazine, November 1963, pp. 32-34
“In the mid-'30s, Rogers was making about $2,500 a week at RKO -- good money, but nothing close to what Fred Astaire was making for starring in the same pictures. ‘It's a man's world, dear,’ Rogers says. Even more amazing is the fact that character actors in the same films, such as Edward Everett Horton, were making twice as much as Rogers. ‘The only thing I could have done is kick up a fuss and storm off the set,’ Rogers says, ‘but I don't like those demonstrations.’
“Rogers had a pleasant professional relationship with Astaire, she says, though if she resented her junior-partner status, it wouldn't be hard to blame her. ‘If he didn't like a song, he'd say, “Give it to Ginger.” That's how I got “The Piccolino” … and “The Yam.” I didn't care, as long as I was doing something I thought was enjoyable.’
“She talked about … George Gershwin: "George was just about an angel. He used to call me, and we'd go out to the seaside and get some seafood, and then come back and run a movie at my house.’” – Mick LaSalle, “Ginger Rogers Dances 'Round Her Story,” San Francisco Chronicle, November 7, 1991
“Ginger Rogers … embodied star power with unsurpassed subtlety. Katherine Hepburn believed that Rogers made the dapper but aloof Astaire a star. Film historian David Thomson notes, "On the screen, her robustness rubbed off on his remoteness so that he seemed warmed by her, just as she gained cool in his draft." These observations are substantiated by Astaire's subsequent inability to find a female partner who matched him so well; his costars sometimes possessed Rogers' charm (Judy Garland in ‘Easter Parade,’ Audrey Hepburn in ‘Funny Face’) and sometimes her physical skills (Cyd Charisse, Leslie Caron), but never both.
“And yet, in terms of money and industry clout, their relationship was not reciprocal. At a time when her name was selling millions of movie tickets with or without Fred Astaire's help, she was not pulling down a comparable salary; sometimes she made less money than male fellow cast members who played second and third fiddle to her. And although Astaire was granted room in their pictures together to design magnificently inventive solo routines that often used furniture and items of clothing as partners, winning his physical skills comparison to Charlie Chaplin's, Rogers rarely got equal time to strut her stuff without a partner. Like so many women, she was judged by studio heads and money men not on her own charm, exuberance, and ability, but by how artfully she interacted with a man.
“Her predicament became a weary in-joke among women. Decades later, it was the basis of a legendary pop culture observation often repeated by the founders of America's feminist revolution, and broadcast to the nation by former Texas governor Ann Richards at the 1988 Democratic convention: Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did, but she did it backwards and in heels.’
“She was not rewarded accordingly. Between V-E day and Lyndon Johnson's inauguration, Rogers appeared in 17 films, compared with almost twice that number in the preceding decade, and by the end, she was used as either a supporting player or a curiosity item--while Astaire continued toplining major motion pictures clear through 1969's ‘Finian's Rainbow,’ often paired with love interests young enough to be his grandchildren.
“Others, however, have argued that Rogers' getting the short end of the celebrity stick was due to her own measured, professional, resolutely Midwestern personality rather than to institutionalized sexism. Rogers was a devout Christian Scientist who didn't drink or smoke, and who generally preferred the company of friends to partying with potential employers. [Some of] her female contemporaries, including Joan Crawford, Bette Davis, and Claudette Colbert, took more actorly chances, reaped bigger rewards, and had richer and more varied dramatic careers.
“Which is a shame, in a way, because on a good day, Rogers could act the corsets off any of them. Her dancing was so justifiably celebrated that it eclipsed her very real thespian talents. Perhaps this stems from the very nature of dance; when bodies are whooshing across the screen in spectacular motion, expressing in action what can't be said with words, it's hard not to be awed. While, to paraphrase Spencer Tracy, the mark of truly fine acting is that you don't let anybody catch you doing it.
“Nobody caught Ginger Rogers acting, partly because she disappeared into her roles completely, and partly because she rarely appeared in obscure, arty, or intellectually difficult movies.
“Rogers' most enduring gift [was] her absolutely matter-of-fact delivery, which made the most preposterous scenes and lines believable. Ultimately, her ability to find the glamour in the girl next door--the dreamer inside the typing pool employee, the hungry ingenue inside the starstruck teen--forms the core of her appeal, and will guarantee her legacy. Even when she was absorbing quirky and outrageous characters through her pores, she was among the most real, the most seemingly approachable, of any of Hollywood's stars.
“Pauline Kael, another great lady who makes bold tasks look easy, said it best: ‘She made American women marvelous.’ " – Matt Zoller Seitz, “Final Step: Ginger Rogers, 1911-1995”, The Dallas Observer, May 11, 1995 (posted at http://www.reelclassics.com/Actresses/Ginger/ginger-article4.htm)
“Wholesome but sexy, forthright and vulnerable, honest and energetic, Ginger Rogers was one of Hollywood's biggest stars of the Thirties and Forties. She could handle both comedy and drama capably as well as sing and dance, and ... her appeal and glamour were more down-to-earth than other screen heroines and thus easier to identify with. She would be remembered with affection now even if she had never danced with Fred Astaire. It is because she did, though, that she will have a special place in film history, a place that elevates her above many other actresses of the period.
“When Dorothy Jordan, scheduled to play a featured role in RKO's ‘Flying Down to Rio’, married the studio boss Merian C. Cooper instead, Ginger was … rushed into the film three days into shooting and found herself playing opposite Fred Astaire. Neither of them expected great things from the film they were about to. Dolores del Rio and Gene Raymond were the film's romantic leads, but audience response to Fred and Ginger and their dancing of ‘The Carioca’ was immediate.
“ ‘The Gay Divorcee’ … confirmed the team's magical chemistry and included the first of their classic romantic duets, ‘Night and Day’. In a deserted ballroom, as Ginger crosses Fred's path to leave, he blocks her. Tentatively resisting, she bends her body with his and they start to glide across the floor. The harmony and sensual tension of this sequence is due in no small part to Ginger and demonstrates why she was the greatest of all Astaire's partners. Not only do they dance as one (‘She could follow Fred as if one brain was thinking’ said Ben Lyon), but Ginger acts the dance perfectly, never appearing to be revelling in the display of technique or conscious of anything other than the emotions of attraction and seduction implicit in the choreography.
“The team's next, ‘Roberta’, had them again billed below the romantic leads (Irene Dune and Randolph Scott) but they had no trouble stealing the film. Because dialogue in their earlier films had been drowned out by cinema audiences applauding their numbers, RKO were careful in ‘Roberta’ to follow all their dances with applause or laughter so that there was time for audience response.
"Both Astaire and Rogers had raised objections to carrying on their partnership - Fred had long been paired with his sister Adele on the stage and now wanted to consolidate a reputation as a solo star; Ginger, though grateful for the good the films were doing for her career, wanted to be accepted as a straight actress. Her talents as a comic were already being appreciated - in ‘Roberta’ she adopted a hilarious Polish-Hungarian accent to mimic Lyda Roberti, who had played the same role in the stage production, while ‘I'll Be Hard to Handle’ in the same film was the first of the team's playful ‘challenge’ dances, in which Ginger displayed her mischievously impish sense of humour. Combined with the effortless technique that was in fact the result of weeks of work, the result was perfection.
“Their next film was the first to be written directly for them (by Dwight Taylor) with new songs by Irving Berlin. ‘Top Hat’ was the greatest film of their partnership, an enchanting combination of witty script, superb production values, hand-picked supporting cast and wonderful songs and dances. Their great romantic duet, ‘Cheek to Cheek’, caused the one major rift between the two stars when Ginger insisted on wearing an ostrich-feather gown which ‘moulted’ all over the set, besides creating some problems of manoeuvrability for Fred. Ginger had to enlist her mother, along with RKO's top brass, to persuade Fred to accept this, but when he saw how well the number had photographed, he conceded its effect and thereafter would often refer to Ginger as ‘Feathers’. Despite rumours to the contrary, both Ginger and Fred always insisted that their relationship was generally one of respect and friendship, though they were never close. ‘We had our differences,’ said Ginger later, ‘what good artistic marriage doesn't? - but they were unimportant.’
“ ‘Follow the Fleet’ (music also by Berlin) included Ginger's only solo tap routine in the series and she acquitted herself well. ‘Swing Time’ (music by Jerome Kern), ‘Shall We Dance’ (Gershwin), and ‘Carefree’ (Berlin) followed, though in between Ginger was making her mark in straight roles, notably as the caustic rival to Katharine Hepburn in ‘Stage Door’. In this witty and touching story of stage-struck hopefuls, Ginger was Hepburn's room-mate whose brittle exterior conceals the fear of rejection, and she won particular praise for a deftly handled drunk scene. She also sparkled in ‘Vivacious Lady’ as a cabaret singer who marries a professor and disrupts academia.
“The films with Astaire had been full of treasurable musical sequences, such as ‘Follow the Fleet's dramatic finale when the team enacted a shipboard romance between two suicidal strangers who meet and fell in love to the strains of ‘Let's Face the Music and Dance’, ending with one of the most daring moments in screen choreography as the pair go into what many believe to be their finest and certainly their most emotionally powerful duet on an enormous art-deco set. ‘Carefree's climactic number had Ginger literally under a hypnotic spell as she succumbed to Astaire's charms for ‘Change Partners’.
“Their scripts, though, had been getting weaker, and audiences were falling off, so ‘The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle’ (1939) was planned as the last Astaire-Rogers movie. A departure for the team in that it was both a period story and a true one (about the couple who pioneered ballroom dancing in America) with a tragic ending, it disappointed some at the time with its in-built restriction on the scope for the team's routines, but it is one of their finest all-round films and their dancing, though limited for the most part to displays of the Waltz, Tango, Maxixe, etc, is as exquisite as ever, their ‘Robert E. Lee’ routine one of their most exhilarating. For Ginger, the final scene, in which while waiting for Vernon to join her in celebration she learns of his death, then reminisces about their years together as the orchestra reminds her of key melodies in their lives, was proof if needed that she could handle such tricky dramatic material without descending to bathos or banality.
“One of Ginger's most fondly remembered comedies followed, Garson Kanin's ‘Bachelor Mother’, which included a brief Charleston but otherwise concentrated on Ginger's comic skills. The following year she made the film which firmly established her as a leading Hollywood actress and won her an Oscar, ‘Kitty Foyle’. Audiences had always found that they could identify with Ginger more easily than with many other actresses, and as the office girl who falls for a socialite but finally settles for an idealistic doctor from the same social background as herself, she induced so much empathy that stenographers all over America bought replicas of the white collar Ginger wore as Kitty.
“For Garson Kanin, Ginger did another good comedy, ‘Tom, Dick or Harry’, which Dilys Powell called ‘pure enchantment’, adding that ‘one day we will be remembering Ginger as we now remember Mary Pickford and the Gish sisters.’ In ‘Roxie Hart’ she had a bubble-cut and chewed gum in an amusing satire on justice in which, as a murder suspect, she had the jailers dancing the ‘Black Bottom’ with her. Her best comedy of all is ‘The Major and the Minor’, Billy Wilder's first film as a director and pure joy as Ginger masquerades as a 12-year-old to travel half-fare, then has to sustain the impersonation at a military academy. Lela, still very prominent in Ginger's life and career, played her mother in this.
“Ginger was now at the peak of her career but from the mid-Forties both her material and performances became inconsistent. ‘Lady in the Dark’ (1944), adapted from the Broadway musical satirising the then fashionable craze for psychoanalysis, was Ginger's first film in colour and a huge success, not least for the publicity surrounding a stunning gown of mink and jewels in which the star performed ‘The Saga of Jenny’, but most of the Kurt Weill- Ira Gershwin score was cut from the film.
“ ‘I'll Be Seeing You’, a superior wartime weepie, and ‘Weekend at the Waldorf’, a glossy remake of ‘Grand Hotel’ with Ginger in a more humorous reworking of the Garbo role, were big successes, but films such as ‘Heartbeat’, ‘Magnificent Doll’ and ‘It Had to be You’ had virtually ended her film career - when she was asked to partner Astaire once more. Judy Garland had withdrawn from ‘The Barkleys of Broadway’ and Ginger happily stepped in to enact a story (a dance team breaks up when the female partner wants to be a dramatic actress) which bore a mild resemblance to hers and Fred's. In the rehearsal tap routine ‘Bouncin' the Blues’ Ginger demonstrated that she could still keep up with the master even if some of the old spontaneity was missing. Their romantic duet to ‘They Can't Take That Away From Me’, first sung by Fred in ‘Shall We Dance’, recaptured the old magic as they swept languorously into and out of each other's arms. Ginger worked hard to make sure the public weren't disappointed in this reunion - she always believed in giving 100 per cent, and had tremendous energy. ‘I detest idling,’ she once said, and both Astaire and Hermes Pan, dance director of the Astaire-Rogers films, attested to her professionalism and dedication.” – “Ginger Rogers,” obituary, The Independent (London), April 26, 1995
“ 'The magic of Astaire-Rogers . . . cannot be explained; it can only be felt,' wrote director Garson Kanin in 1967 after Miss Rogers had returned to Broadway in 'Hello, Dolly!' and Manhattan's Gallery of Modern Art had organized a Ginger Rogers film festival.
" 'They created a style, a mood, a happening,' Kanin wrote. 'They flirted, chased, courted, slid, caressed, hopped, skipped, jumped, bent, swayed, clasped, wafted, undulated, nestled, leapt, quivered, glided, spun--in sum, made love before our eyes. We have not seen their like since.'
“She once called her teaming with Astaire ‘just a wonderful happening. It wasn't planned. I thought it turned out to be magic. I was told even in the first picture people could see something was happening. But when you're in the eye of the hurricane you don't see that yourself.’
“Both partners in the idyllic dance team consistently denied persistent rumors that they couldn't get along off-screen. At a Masquers' Tribute to Miss Rogers in 1979, the elegant Astaire said: 'She's been such a wonderful partner. There are all kinds of rumors that we used to fight. And we didn't. I've been denying it for the last 20 years or more.'
" ‘Studio publicity men were always trying to make it look like we fought,’ Miss Rogers said in a 1980 interview, ‘just to keep our names in the papers.’
" ‘I just adored and admired Fred with all my heart,’ she said at the time of his death. ‘He was the best partner anyone could ever have.’
“She made several movies each year, varying from song-and-dance spectaculars to drama and comedy, rarely taking vacations because of her philosophy that ‘if you are going to be in pictures, be in pictures.’
“Aging gracefully thanks to her lifelong regimen of swimming, tennis and golf and avoiding lunch and overeating, Miss Rogers returned triumphantly to Broadway when she was in her mid-50s to take over the Dolly Levi role from its originator, Carol Channing.
“ She gave up the footlights only when ill health forced her to use a wheelchair. She continued, however, to collect honors at film festivals and tributes, most notably the Kennedy Center Honors in December, 1992.
“[She] became one of Hollywood's wealthiest stars. Named one of the 10 highest-paid Americans in 1943 when she earned $355,000, Miss Rogers invested her six-figure salaries in blue chip stocks and land, including an 1,100-acre ranch on Oregon's Rogue River. Whenever she could, Miss Rogers retreated to the ranch she had bought in 1939 to fish, golf, play tennis, cook, paint, [and] sculpt.
“In recent years, Miss Rogers worked to preserve the past--Hollywood's and her own--through testimony and litigation. She urged Congress to prohibit the colorizing of classic black and white movies, many of which she had starred in, saying the technique made her feel ‘painted up like a birthday cake.’ And she beseeched the state Legislature to prohibit commercial exploitation of the likeness, name or voice of deceased celebrities without their heirs' consent.
“In various courts, she protested the unauthorized use of her image in such items as a ‘Ginger Rogers as Dinah Barkley’ doll (named for the character in her last film with Astaire). She also sued unsuccessfully to prevent distribution of a 1986 Federico Fellini movie titled ‘Ginger and Fred,’ claiming the film unfairly capitalized on the fame she had gained with Astaire and portrayed her in an unsavory light.
“Although Miss Rogers refused to give her age as she grew older, her birth date, July 16, 1911, was unchallenged and critics frequently commented that she looked far younger than she was. Asked in 1980 if aging bothered her, the irrepressible leading lady said:‘Age can't take your individuality away from you, and that's what counts. There isn't enough time in the world left for me to do all the things I want to. . . . But no one's going to say the girl didn't try.’ – Myrna Oliver, “Movie Great Ginger Rogers Dies at 83,” Los Angeles Times, April 26, 1995
“There was something adorable about Ginger Rogers on screen, a down-to-earth sexiness combined with a just-plain-niceness that warmed audiences. Assured immortality for the series of hit musicals she made with Fred Astaire between 1933 and '39, she had an equally distinguished nonmusical career, starring in dozens of comedies and straight dramas through the mid-'60s. Whether singing, dancing with Astaire or playing it straight, few performers were as likable, accessible or natural as Ginger Rogers.
“In her early films Rogers was usually typed as a singer and dancer, a young woman bred on the stage and with an oblivious attitude about morality. Her role in ‘42nd Street,’ as Anytime Annie, is just one example. Scantily clad in ‘Professional Sweetheart’ and ‘Gold Diggers of 1933’ -- and bordering on indecent in her burlesque number in ‘Upperworld’ -- Rogers embodied the child-like sexuality of a Jean Harlow, without Harlow's cynicism or menace.
“Even her first Astaire film, ‘Flying Down to Rio’ (1933), finds Rogers cast according to type, rolling her eyes and leering as she sings the suggestive ‘Music Makes Me.’ A devout Christian Scientist, Rogers told me in a 1990 interview that at the time she made these early, risque films she didn't approve but did them anyway ‘to pay the gas bill.’
“ ‘Flying Down to Rio’ led to [the] Astaire-Rogers phenomenon. They were both informal, no-fuss personalities, and they radiated ease and good will. He danced better than she did, but she was the better actor. And fortunately neither of them could sing -- at least not in the starched, overly enunciated manner of the day. Like Astaire, she was an innovative singer, who sang as she talked.
“When she sang Rogers invariably sounded as though she just learned the song in the last five minutes but didn't mind you listening while she gave it a go. Her vocals were often choppy, but they had heart and the unmistakable but elusive element of charm. Often the Ginger song in the Astaire-Rogers movies was a stand-out, particularly in ‘Follow the Fleet’ (1936), where she sang ‘Let Yourself Go,’ and [in] ‘Carefree’ (1938), where she belted out ‘The Yam.’
“Tiring of second-banana status -- she was not only making less money than Astaire but also less than supporting players Edward Everett Horton and Eric Blore (the fussy butler) -- Rogers pushed for roles to expand her range and appeal. She scored one of her greatest successes in ‘Stage Door’ (1937), an adaptation of the Ferber-Kaufman backstage drama, where she more than held her own acting with Hepburn.
“As the Astaire-Rogers vogue faded, Rogers' star was in the ascendant. Again playing a show girl -- but this time a virtuous one -- she starred opposite Jimmy Stewart in ‘Vivacious Lady’ (1938). She also played opposite David Niven in ‘Bachelor Mother,’ a comedy that had to do its own dance with the censors in order to depict a single working woman bringing up a baby on her own.
“Rogers almost turned down her role in ‘Kitty Foyle,’ thinking the original novel too lewd. But in the path from book to screen, the role was sanitized, and Rogers -- with her hair dyed brown -- went on to her Oscar triumph. Rogers continued making good pictures throughout the World War II years.” – Mick LaSalle, “Rogers Had Down-to-Earth Charm,” San Francisco Chronicle, April 26, 1995
“Let's not say she made it look easy. Not for a minute did it look easy. Not for a minute did it look like something the ordinary mortal could ever possibly do. When Ginger Rogers swept or leapt or twirled or whirled around the dance floor with Fred Astaire, she may have made it seem effortless, but easy? No.
“And what everybody knew, what was universally understood, was that you could be the most accomplished dancer in the world and train for years and still not be able to do it just this way, just the way Fred and Ginger did ‘The Carioca’ or ‘The Continental’ or ‘The Yam’ or ‘The Piccolino.’ It was inspired, it was celestial, it was perfect.
“Ginger Rogers knew that when she died, all the obits would identify her first and foremost as half of the greatest dance team of all time. But like Astaire, … she survived the dissolution of the partnership, which ended with, and helped define, the 1930s, and she remained a star for decades more.
“But she is fated forever to be linked with Astaire, with whom she made 10 of her 73 films -- among them the 1949 reunion movie 'The Barkleys of Broadway,' which spoofed longstanding rumors, always denied by both parties, that she and Astaire fought frequently when they worked together. There was apparently no particular passion, positive or negative, to their relationship. All the sparks were saved for the screen.
“Hermes Pan, the dance director on their films, was asked in a 1972 interview whether the pair's chemistry was an accident. ‘I think so,’ Pan said. ‘See, I think Ginger realized it more than Fred that they had created a chemistry together. . . . Fred was getting a little tired of being known as a team, and for a long time he was the one who wanted to break away. But the public demanded them. It was a crisis for Fred when she left. I mean, she just moved into another range and the public accepted her as a ‘single,' but there was a lull before he found his second wind. It used to make him furious.’
“What critic Arlene Croce, quoting a Jerome Kern song, called ‘La belle, la perfectly swell romance’ involved more than dancing. Ginger Rogers had some of the greatest love songs of all time sung to her by Astaire, and she sang a few right back to him. To many of the numbers, though, there was a keen comic edge that Rogers knew just how to modulate. As Astaire sings ‘Isn't This a Lovely Day (To Be Caught in the Rain)?’ to her in ‘Top Hat,’ Rogers fixes him with a look of skeptical detachment, daring him to seduce her.
“Slowly she begins to mellow, and when he finishes his final chorus, she is ready for the consummation devoutly to be wished: They dance. What happened then has often been called magic, and there doesn't seem to be a better word to describe it. It was pure exhilaration. One felt terribly sophisticated for being able to appreciate it, and yet it was accessible sophistication, aimed at the mass audience, something to make everybody feel royal and refined. It was democratized elegance.
“Growing old isn't easy for anybody, but it must be especially difficult for movie stars. Ordinary people may have photos and home movies of themselves when they were young, but those images were not directed and lit and costumed and designed to make them look glamorous, glorious and unreachable. You can't blame some stars for not wanting to see fabulous, idealized versions of their youthful selves.
“The rest of us, though, can relish and cherish and luxuriate in them, return to them for sustenance and joy. No matter how much life speeds up or chills out or is automated and computerized, surely we'll always get an incomparable kick out of watching Ginger and Fred flirt and float and fly across the screen: the skinny, balding, self-effacing fellow and the shimmering, beauty-marked blonde with a sardonic twinkle and a saucy, show-me smile.” – Tom Shales, “Ginger Rogers, Dancing Chic to Chic”, Washington Post, April 26, 1995
“Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did, only backward and in high heels. That's the usual feminist slant given to the accomplishments of the platinum blond half of the silver screen's most famous dancing pair. But the fact is they were first and foremost a team. Fred and Ginger became as much icons of romance as the bride and groom statues atop a wedding cake.
“Says Adolph Green, who with wife Betty Comden wrote ‘The Barkleys of Broadway,’ ‘She and Astaire were just beautifully precisioned dancers. They had a quality of flow and improvisation at the same time - improvising and yet performing planned choreography. They were just dazzlingly attractive.’
“Says Richard Brown, professor of cinema studies at New York's New School for Social Research, who had one of the last interviews with Rogers in 1994: ‘She felt that Astaire got a lot of credit and that people didn't fully appreciate her contribution. She felt she was in Astaire's shadow. In the last five years, however, she was very generous, loving and grateful to Astaire.’
“Says John Mueller, author of ‘Astaire Dancing:’ ‘Their personal lives were quite different. She was more Hollywood and he was a family man. There was an edge of competitiveness but there was never any fighting. It was all at a highly professional level, for the good of the dance and the good of the film.’
“She did, however, enjoy watching her old musicals with Astaire. ‘I sit there and enjoy them,’ she once admitted. ‘Yes, I do. Because I know that I did the best at that time that I knew how to do.’
“A devout Christian Scientist, the five-times-married actress never smoked or drank and had no children. Her romances over the years [also] included Rudy Vallee, Harold Ross of ‘The New Yorker,’ directors Mervyn LeRoy and George Stevens, Jimmy Stewart, Howard Hughes, Cary Grant and [George] Gershwin. Career, however took precedence over family life. As Gershwin noted, ‘She has a little love for a lot of people, but not a lot of love for anybody.’ ” – Susan Wloszczyna, “Through her, our dreams could dance,” USA Today, April 26, 1995
[This article's ending "quote" from George Gershwin is from a story told by his friend Oscar Levant, who actually provided a context for it that should be noted, as related in the recent Gershwin biography by Howard Pollack, George Gershwin: His Life and Work:
"Oscar Levant reported that after a 'Don Quixote tilt with a blond windmill in the form of a charming girl' (thought to mean Ginger Rogers), Gershwin remarked, 'She has a little love for everyone and not a great deal for anybody,' leaving Levant to wonder if Gershwin had not 'unconsciously mirrored himself in these words.' " p. 109
According to the same source, Gershwin told "Sheila Graham that he would never marry until he found a 'girl' who 'A -- understands him; B -- fulfills a certain need (George isn't quite sure himself what that is); C -- measures up to his ideal conception of woman; and D -- resembles Ginger Rogers ... ('Ginger Rogers is so bubbling with gaiety and vivacity I don't understand any man who can resist her charms,' he explained.)" p. 114]
“It will be hard not to remember Rogers as the best and most enchanting of Fred Astaire's several dancing partners. It was partly because she seemed the least like him. It was true that Astaire was born in Omaha, but his image was as transatlantic and cosmopolitan as his real name, Austerlitz, while she could not have been more prototypically mid-American, independent, sassy, the steno with unsuspected talents and depths.
“Yet it may well be that Rogers herself, taking nothing away from her pride in the Astaire films, would hope, at very least, to be remembered for the range of her triumphs as an actress: the films that she carried triumphantly minus Fred. There were plenty of those in which she had co-stars who didn't dance a step. 'Kitty Foyle' and 'Lady in the Dark' leap to mind first, along with others.
“But celluloid (with the help of the preservationists) provides its own immortality and its own truths, and the graceful magic of Ginger Rogers in motion--perfectionist zeal made to look effortless--and the wry humor and the emotional range of Rogers the actress, holding her own with all of her acting partners--Joel McCrea to Ray Milland to David Niven--confirmed always that she really was the free-standing and independent talent she played so often. Her success owed most to her combination of native gifts and hard work, in a career that began early and gave us pleasure for most of a half-century.” – Charles Champlin, “Appreciation: Remembering Rogers’ Graceful Magic,” Los Angeles Times, April 26, 1995
“At one point in the great 1933 backstage musical, ‘42nd Street,’ Ginger Rogers, a chorus girl who has made a bid to take the lead when the star breaks her ankle, utters perhaps the most ironic line of her career to the director. ‘I haven't got a chance of carrying the show. I know that as well as you do, maybe better.’ She recommends that Ruby Keeler be plucked from the chorus. The irony is that in her role of Anytime Annie, Rogers could easily have carried the show and outshone Keeler in every respect.
“Her 19th film (but only her third musical) was ‘Flying Down To Rio’ (1933), where as a second lead she was partnered with Fred Astaire, a huge stage star who was far less experienced in movies than she was. The electric Astaire-Rogers performance of ‘The Carioca’, their only number together, caught the public's imagination. The film was a hit and the dance became a craze. Astaire was summoned back to Hollywood for the film ‘The Gay Divorcee’ (he had been London, starring in the stage version) and teamed again with Rogers.
“Rogers and Astaire worked extraordinarily well together. It has been said that he was the dancer, she was just the partner who followed him around. The films prove otherwise. Her speed and precision clearly match his, and there is an extraordinary unity between them. He had many other partners ... but none could match the closeness and attraction Astaire and Rogers had together, each generously and instinctively making the other look good.
“Would Rogers have been a star without Astaire? Most certainly. She was a brilliant comedy actress, and in her roles in ‘Stage Door’ (1937), ‘Vivacious Lady’ (1938) and ‘Bachelor Mother’ (1939) she showed a fine control and sensitive timing. As the gum-chewing publicity-seeker heroine of ‘Roxie Hart’ (1942) she was marvellous, and performed an astonishing tap dance on an iron jail staircase.
“In ‘The Barkleys Of Broadway’ (1949), she replaced Judy Garland at short notice to play opposite Astaire in an MGM musical that was to exploit the success of the previous year's ‘Easter Parade’. This film is unlike the RKO series in almost every respect, not least for being in colour, but memories of their great partnership are rekindled, particularly in the rehearsal number, ‘Bouncin' The Blues.’ ” – George Perry, “Steppin’ Out in Style,” The Times (London), April 30, 1995
Lovely. Never, never change.
Keep that breathless charm.
Won't you please arrange
It, 'cause I love you,
Just the way you look tonight.
When Fred Astaire sang Jerome Kern's song to a Ginger Rogers whose red hair was momentarily hidden under soapsuds, he was not only perpetrating a romantic joke, he was also expressing a wish that every filmgoer has at some time felt about a great movie star. Catch that moment, that look, that glimpse into the soul -- and freeze it. We are lucky that film has preserved a hundred or so such crystalline moments in the career of Ginger Rogers. Miss Rogers was a good actress (winning an Oscar for a dramatic role in Kitty Foyle), a great comedienne, and a sublime dancer. Many people missed the first two achievements because she was the kind of professional who made them seem easy, just part of the job. No one could miss the third.
In her ten musicals with Fred Astaire, she made popular dance a true vehicle for emotions as various as irritation, lightheartedness, and romantic love. Watching them in "Pick Yourself Up" or "Never Gonna Dance," we simultaneously admire their sheer gravity-defying skill and are moved to feel the emotions their characters feel. As long as our world lasts, whatever somersaults taste performs, Astaire and Rogers will tap irresistibly into our imaginations.
In her non-dancing roles, comic and dramatic, Miss Rogers played -- indeed, was -- a new kind of woman, a lively, wise-cracking, independent American girl. If Dietrich was the characteristic European sex symbol, mysterious and slightly threatening, Ginger Rogers was the new American type, sexy yet companionable -- and only just out of reach. We have lost her, and yet not lost her. When we're awfully low, we can start the film -- and we will feel a glow . . .
-- "Ginger Rogers RIP", National Review, May 29, 1995
Almost 70 years ago, when a teenage Ginger Rogers had just graduated from dancing the Charleston in Texas to performing in vaudeville in New York City, she was pleased to discover how effortlessly she was able to establish rapport with an audience. "I realized that there was a trick," she said later, "and that was being warm with them." A simple enough credo, but it carried Rogers through 73 movies, including the ten unforgettable musicals in which, paired with Fred Astaire, she whirled across elegant Art Deco sets trailing feathers and chiffon, setting an unmatchable standard for dancing on film. There were also her straight-shooting performances in 1937's "Stage Door," 1940's "Kitty Foyle" and 1942's "The Major and the Minor." Robust yet glamorous, with a purposeful stride and a beauty mark on the left side of her chin, Rogers was, as TIME pronounced in 1941, "the flesh-and-blood symbol of the United States working girl."
Rogers died last week at age 83. By the end, she was virtually confined to a wheelchair. But even recently, "she was as spunky and chipper as you could imagine," says Steven Ames Brown, her attorney. The strongly religious Rogers -- who would end her phone conversations with "God bless you" -- always credited her indomitability to a lifelong faith in Christian Science, which eschews doctors in favor of prayer and meditation.
She relied on that faith April 25, when she died serenely at her three- bedroom home in Rancho Mirage, Calif. Very early in the morning, Rogers called out to Roberta Olden, her live-in secretary of 17 years. Olden brought her a glass of water, then waited by her bed. "There was a lot going on behind those blue eyes," says Olden. "By 6 a.m. I could see that something was going to happen."
The actress instructed Olden to call her Christian Science practitioner -- her authorized healer -- who read Bible passages to Rogers over the phone. Then at 7 a.m., "her breathing became labored," says Olden, "and it just stopped."
Rogers was, says attorney Brown, "one of the last examples of Hollywood royalty" -- the sort of star who insisted on being called "Miss Ginger Rogers." Fourteen-year-old Ginger, who had been taking singing and dancing lessons from early childhood, won a [Texas] statewide Charleston contest. Ultimately that victory led her to Broadway. In 1930's Girl Crazy, the 19-year-old Rogers, who had a pleasantly girlish voice, introduced Gershwin's "Embraceable You" and "But Not for Me." That same year, she made her movie debut in Young Man in Manhattan, in which she uttered a line that would become a catchphrase: "Cigarette me, big boy." Her first screen hits came three years later, in "42nd Street" and "Gold Diggers of 1933."
"What a smart aleck she was in those pictures," recalls a friend, singer- actress Rosemary Clooney. "The chutzpah, the gum-cracking!" She got rid of the gum for her unforgettable dance numbers -- elegant, romantic, fun -- with Fred Astaire, starting in 1933's "Flying Down to Rio." A typical dance routine required six weeks of 8-hour-a-day preparation, and she usually dropped 10 pounds during filming. "Ginger was a real, honest-to-God hoofer," says dancer- actress Mitzi Gaynor, a pal.
Still it bothered Rogers that her movies with Astaire ... tended to overshadow her other [films], including the working-girl heartbreaker "Kitty Foyle," for which she won an Oscar, and "Stage Door." She made movies until 1965 (her last role was Jean Harlow's mother in "Harlow") but retired from the screen, she said, because she disapproved of the new frankness of Hollywood (nor, at that age, was she being offered plum roles).
Her personal life was remarkably scandal-free for a high-profile star. "Ginger led a rather simple existence," says her cousin Phyllis Cerf Wagner (widow of humorist Bennett Cerf and former New York City Mayor Robert Wagner). She didn't drink, and she kept a soda fountain in her home instead of a bar. For most of her life, she lived with her mother. She preferred sports to parties. Her chief concession to the Hollywood lifestyle, in addition to flings with Cary Grant and Howard Hughes in the '30s, was her string of failed marriages: to comic Jack Pepper, actors Lew Ayres, Jack Briggs and Jacques Bergerac, and actor-producer William Marshall.
Since Lela's death in 1977, Rogers, who had no children, lived alone, except for Olden and a small menagerie of pets that consisted, when she died, of a poodle, a beagle and three cats. One new friend in the past two years was Wings star Crystal Bernard, who met Rogers at Bob Hope's 90th birthday party in 1993. "As I got to know her," says Bernard, who would phone and occasionally visit, "I began to see the lady I always saw on the screen -- all her youthfulness."
Bernard recalls one recent phone conversation, when she was feeling miserable after a bad day on the set. Rogers, to console her, remembered a similarly rough day of filming, more than half a century before. "But that's just the way it is," the old star counseled. "Let it pass, and enjoy it the best you can."
-- Tom Gliatto, "Sophisticated Lady", People Weekly, May 8, 1995
Ginger Rogers at 100: Even with Astaire, always taking the lead
By Sarah Kaufman
"I've got enough nerve to do anything!"
- Ginger Rogers in "Swing Time"
"Swing Time," the sixth film that Ginger Rogers made with Fred Astaire, spins the workaday world of a gambler and a dance teacher into gilded heaven, with duets unlike any the two had whipped up before. But nothing tops this 1936 film's final nightclub scene - the one in which Astaire serenades a heartbroken Rogers with that aching vow of celibacy "Never Gonna Dance," then coaxes her into an increasingly explosive waltz that sends them whirling up twin flights of stairs.
Paradise, right? Not yet. On the set's upper level, with its polished floor like black ice, Rogers flies around in tight turns, and this cyclone force carries her right to the edge of the platform - where there's no rail, nothing but her wits to keep her from plummeting. Your heart hops. Part of the wonderment and pain of the moment is that Rogers is completely in character, disconsolate and remote. (Having fallen in love with Astaire's cardsharp, she had hoped to marry him, until the fiancee from his past showed up.) But there's a revitalizing purity in her turns, and with her white gown whipping like wind, she finally spins out the door in celestial glory. All Astaire can do, slumping slack-jawed onto a bench, is watch her go.
That dance went from pas de deux to pas de don't. And Rogers had the last word.
She usually did. In her life, as in her films, Rogers was a distinctly independent woman. She was so modern in her directness, her self-possession, her firm command of her expressive powers - let alone her career - that the arrival of her centennial year, twinned with Ronald Reagan's, comes as a shock. Unbelievably, the actress who died in 1995 would have turned 100 this July.
In a better world, this milestone would be marked with a reissuance of gowns by Irene (run, mink!), with big bands, swinging jazz and dancing in the streets. Short of that, dancers and actors alike can honor Rogers by studying her enduring naturalness, the way she underplayed her parts, keeping her cool even if she was losing her heart. There's ample opportunity for this during the American Film Institute's impressively wide-ranging Ginger Rogers retrospective, on view in Silver Spring through April 7.
All 10 of Rogers's films with Astaire are included, and an equal number of her 63 others: comedies and dramas including "Kitty Foyle," which tracks a living-by-her-wits shop clerk's disastrous love life, for which Rogers won a Best Actress Oscar in 1940. And "The Major and the Minor," with Rogers's clear-eyed schemer masquerading as a child to save money. By that point (1942), Rogers was a huge star, and her benediction enabled Billy Wilder to make his American directorial debut with this sharply observed picture.
As we near Oscar season and its inevitable coronation of actors with looks and charisma but comparatively narrow abilities, the time is right to reconsider Rogers and her remarkable - and undervalued - talents. Even for her time, when actors were typically more accomplished than they are today, Rogers was a golden hat trick. Not only was she a singer-dancer-comedienne, but that multifaceted nature extended to the way she played her parts.
The key to her appeal is her duality, her mix of high and low, glamour queen and saucepot. Her best performances draw on that mixed allure. Take "The Major and the Minor," in which she is sugary and bashful one minute, and plotting how to land her man between drags on a cigarette in another.
"Swing Time's" furious dance-drama in the nightclub encapsulates Rogers's yin and yang, the vulnerability and the firewall will. (She recounts in her maddeningly unrevealing autobiography, "Ginger: My Story," that after weeks of rehearsals, 48 takes went into filming that number, and shooting finished at 4 a.m. Hours before, her feet started bleeding, and choreographer Hermes Pan told her to go home. "I wanted to get the thing done," she writes, and she stuck it out.) Rogers was appealingly earthy, a fleshly dream with a knockout body. Yet when she danced, she could make you believe she'd float away if Astaire weren't holding onto her. She was silk in his arms.
Could any other actress move so well yet be so stable, so versatile? Not Cyd Charisse, the better dancer but less convincing performer. Not Eleanor Powell, the tap queen with more power than purr, and a singing voice that, like Charisse's, had to be dubbed. Jean Arthur did the comedy but not the dancing. The heartbreakingly gifted but troubled Judy Garland was a victim of the very fragility that made her so watchable - in fact, she was tapped to star in "The Barkleys of Broadway," the last of the Fred-and-Ginger films, but, in the parlance of the day, dropped out for health reasons.
Rogers had it all, plus the power of illusion. She was a paradox, at once weightless and grounded. Heaven and earth, united in a pair of kid pumps.
"She made it look easy," says Mike Mashon, head of the Library of Congress's Moving Image Section. "She was never showy. The Astaire films were about as showy as she got. But look at her next to him in those films; she's so much more natural in front of the camera than he is."
Astaire was a virtual movie novice when he made his first screen appearance with Rogers, dancing the Carioca in 1933's "Flying Down to Rio." But Rogers had 19 films under her belt, after an adolescence climbing up through song-and-dance acts, comedy routines and Broadway musicals (including the Gershwins' "Girl Crazy," alongside a newcomer named Ethel Merman.)
Her level-headedness and work ethic were much praised in Hollywood, and no wonder. She'd grown up around work. Rogers was born in Independence, Mo., to a single mother who brought her only child to the office with her from infancy, rescued her twice from kidnapping attempts by Rogers's father and would go on to manage her career with an iron grip.
Rogers picked up dancing on the fly: At age 14, she picked up the Charleston from a vaudeville acquaintance, won a dance competition with it and parlayed that into a road show. She spent years charming live audiences before heading to Hollywood, and it shows in her films - in her way with a zinger, her comic timing and her spontaneous, living reactions to the other actors in her scenes.
In "Stage Door," the 1937 film about a boarding house full of ingenues trying to make it in show biz, Rogers and Katharine Hepburn - fire and ice - are unwilling roommates. "Don't you ev-uh get tired of quarreling?" chides the snarkily superior Hepburn. "Why, can't you take it?" snaps Rogers, not about to be dressed down. Za-zing!
But watch her gaze at Astaire in "Top Hat" as he woos her with Irving Berlin's gently bouncy song "Isn't This a Lovely Day (To Be Caught in the Rain)?," how Rogers's eyes consume him, how her face brightens by degrees. I find it impossible to pick a favorite Fred-and-Ginger number, but this one is high on my list. She's decidedly unglamorous, in baggy jodhpurs and riding boots, and rain, thunder and lightning slash through the music. Yet once they start dancing, the effect is pure gold: the thumpy rhythms of their feet on the wooden floor of a park pavilion, the couple's shared power and mutual athleticism, their whizzing quickstep that feels like the Earth's been knocked off its axis and the effortless, ecstatic, romantic joy of it all.
How very different their dancing is from what passes for ballroom today. Rogers and Astaire take the form to Elysian heights because they take their audience along with them. The characters they play are screwy and sympathetic enough to feel real. And they carry that into their dancing, which is not about technique, glorious as it is, but about storytelling - the direct communication of body and spirit, barely implied but perfectly clear. You can watch their numbers over and over and see more in them every time. Next to them, even the best of the jackknife legs and splayed-out lifts on "Dancing With the Stars" or "So You Think You Can Dance" look like horrifying mutations from Planet Schlock.
Part of Rogers's secret lay in what she learned on the road. Live theater works different muscles in actors, and survival in that world is one reason that performers such as Rogers, Astaire and other greats from Hollywood's Golden Age still seem so alive today, so warmly three-dimensional.
"You develop a feeling for the audience, and a sense of rhythm and timing," says Jeanine Basinger, historian and Wesleyan University film professor. "People who went around the country from town to town learning their craft, having to fill in for another performer, going on no matter what, finding out how to make it work when it was dying - those kinds of experiences don't exist anymore."
Rogers, Basinger says, "knows how to talk you through a song and make the lyric mean something. How to create a conversation through a song, how to create a conversation with a dance, how to have a conversation with a fellow actor. In all cases, it was about rhythm, timing, action and response."
In looking at Rogers in her own right, I find myself wondering what a Fredless life would have been like for her. As much as she is identified with Astaire, she had the multiple gifts and the drive to have succeeded without him.
Indeed, most of Rogers's work over the decades - she made movies into the 1960s - did not involve singing and dancing. And during the height of the Astaire years, from 1933 to 1939, she made 21 films without him. Astaire needed her more than the other way around. His films with other dance partners never attained the popularity or high art that the best ones with Rogers did. To the extent that his legacy as one of the world's greatest dancers rests on his film work, it's arguable he would not have made such brilliant movies and become so big without the uniquely seductive matchup with Rogers.
Rogers's name is forever linked with Astaire's, but she is hardly a second banana. Matching her warmth and steeliness to his nervous perfectionism, she elevated the greatest dancer of the day. She had hotshot composers - Gershwin, Kern, Berlin - writing for her films, much as Tchaikovsky wrote for the Russian ballet. She ran with intellectuals, entrepreneurs and celebrities alike; among her many wooers were New Yorker founder Harold Ross, aviation magnate Howard Hughes and actor Cary Grant. She had five husbands and no children, and when she wasn't in front of a camera, she was probably on the tennis courts - a natural athlete, she was said to have had near-professional skill - or at her Oregon ranch.
The AFI retrospective is a rare and welcome chance to see the Rogers roles that have been all but forgotten - the hard-luck career women, survivors in the big city, plucky individualists who won't give up.
She played against the prevailing stereotypes. "Real characters, that's what I was after," she wrote. Occasionally Rogers turned down some plums, such as the female lead in "It's a Wonderful Life" - which she described as "such a bland character."
Ironically, the down-market heroines Rogers championed were all but doomed to slip out of the public consciousness. "The simple fact is they're the traditional women's films that are down at the bottom of everybody's critical ash heap," Basinger says. "They still are. Nobody wants to see a movie about the working girl Kitty Foyle who doesn't murder anybody. These kinds of movies don't gain respect."
Yet Rogers put her most famous persona - the divine firecracker in feathers and furs - behind her and pursued her own path. She didn't want to be limited, either to musical comedies or goody-goodies; she didn't want them to define her. She wanted the last word.
http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2011/02/11/AR2011021104692.html, February 11, 2011
Putting a spotlight on Ginger Rogers
By Charlie McCollum
For most people, there is just one Ginger Rogers: a glamorous image in black and white, sweeping across a dance floor with Fred Astaire to the music of Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern and the Gershwins.
But there was much more to Rogers than those dazzling duets with Astaire.
"She worked with Fred for a period of time in her career, but she had a career both before and after Fred. Quite major events in her career happened before and after Fred," says Scott Schwartz, the director of "Backwards in High Heels," a musical about Rogers ... at the San Jose Repertory Theatre.
"She was a fascinating woman and remains a major figure in Hollywood history. And she really changed the way that women and female stars were treated in Hollywood. For someone who is remembered as a dancer and as an entertainer, she really made a difference in the way women were viewed in Hollywood's golden age."
However, much of Rogers' career and contributions have been forgotten -- or perhaps obscured by those nine Fred and Ginger films that the team made at RKO from 1933 to 1939.
Born in 1911, Rogers was a teenager when she joined the vaudeville act of Eddie Foy after she won a Charleston contest before one of Foy's shows in her hometown of Fort Worth, Texas. She became a Broadway star at 19 in "Girl Crazy," a Gershwin musical that also made a star of Ethel Merman. (Astaire was hired at one point to help with the choreography.)
That success attracted the attention of Hollywood, and in 1933, she had another breakout role, playing Anytime Annie in "42nd Street." She followed that with star roles in "Gold Diggers of 1933" and her first film with Astaire, "Flying Down to Rio."
Astaire once said that when they filmed "Flying Down to Rio," "Ginger had never danced with a partner before. She faked it an awful lot. She couldn't tap, and she couldn't do this and that ... but Ginger had style and talent and improved as she went along. She got so that after a while everyone else who danced with me looked wrong."
For the next decade, Astaire and Rogers were the "It" couple of film with such movies as "Top Hat," "Swing Time" and "Shall We Dance." But by 1939 and "The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle," they both wanted to expand their careers beyond the partnership. Rogers was also tired of being paid less than Astaire and her other male co-stars and not being able to choose the films in which she starred -- battles she fought for much of her career.
Rogers made some good films on her own ("Stage Door," "Roxie Hart") and won an Oscar in 1941 for her performance in "Kitty Foyle," beating out such nominees as Bette Davis. But by the 1950s, the roles became fewer and fewer, and Rogers settled into a career of occasional stage and television roles until her death in 1995.
"What fascinates me most about her was that she was gifted in so many ways, and she was able to roll all those things up into a package that became a fantasy for all of these people," says Christopher McGovern, who wrote the book and some of the music for "Backwards in High Heels."
"Not only was she famous in the Depression, but she was famous playing those amazingly glamorous people. Her stock in trade was fantasy -- and that to me is the definition of Hollywood. When everyone was living in black and white, she took them into color."
McGovern was working at the Florida Stage in West Palm Beach, Fla., with director-choreographer Lynette Barkley when they began discussing a possible Rogers musical.
"We were working together on a show about another '40s icon -- the Andrews Sisters -- and that's when we started talking about the nature of celebrity as a concept. Why are we attracted to celebrities? What kind are we attracted to?" McGovern recalls. "And Ginger was part of the 1930s, a wonderful era. It has a mystique to it. It's just more glamorous. There was a more mysterious air about being celebrity and, I think, you really had to do something to be a celebrity."
McGovern took the title of the show from the famous quote, often incorrectly attributed to Rogers herself, that "Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did -- except backwards and in high heels." (It actually came from a 1982 "Frank & Ernest" comic strip, done by Bob Thaves.)
In 2007, Florida Stage first produced "Backwards" -- which covers the period from that Charleston competition to Rogers' Oscar and mixes McGovern's original songs with standards of the period. It was a box office success, and the show was periodically staged by regional theater companies, although McGovern says, "We really had nothing to do with those productions."
Then late last year, the Asolo Repertory Theatre in Sarasota, Fla., and Phoenix's Arizona Theatre Company decided to revive "Backwards" as a coproduction. (Eventually, the Rep and the Cleveland Playhouse would also sign on as co-producers.) They asked Schwartz -- who has directed off-Broadway and at regional theater companies and is the son of composer Stephen Schwartz -- if he was interested.
"I liked it very, very much. But I had some thoughts about the book," Schwartz says. "I looked at it as a new musical. It had had a couple of productions, but one of the first things I asked those involved was: 'Is this a finished show?' And they said, 'No, no, no. It's new.'
"So Christopher (McGovern) and I sat down in New York, and he was willing to dive back in and revisit it."
Anna Aimee White, who will play Rogers in this production, first took on the role earlier this year at the International City Theatre in Long Beach. "Because of that production, I auditioned for the version that is coming to San Jose," White says. "It is really a different show, and there have been a lot of rewrites, a different cast and different choreography.
"So it's a whole new ballgame for me. I had a lot to work with, a lot of new material, so that Long Beach really became more of a jumping-off point."
One of the key changes was new choreography by Patti Colombo, a veteran choreographer who has worked on the national touring companies of such shows as "Peter Pan" and "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers."
"One of the things that Patti Colombo did not do was try to exactly re-create any of those routines" made famous by Astaire and Rogers, McGovern says. "It would be a big mistake. To create dances that are evocative of some of those dances, fine. But to try to imitate those dances would be unwise."
White adds that "it's really a case of being in-the-style-of. There are some signature moves that we wanted to get in there, but we didn't take the choreography exactly as it is on film. Many people who come to see the show think they've seen what they saw on screen even though they haven't."
In fact, the central relationship in "Backwards" -- the one that drives the show -- is not the one between Fred and Ginger. Instead, the show focuses on the one between Ginger and her mother, Lela.
"While Fred's the man and the partner she's most identified with, she really did have this relationship with her mother which was quite complicated. That's what makes this very much a mother-daughter story," Schwartz says.
Rogers, adds Schwartz, was "a woman who has to balance her desires for her career with her needs for family and love and a woman who never quite worked it out, quite frankly. She struggled with these issues her whole life, including having five marriages and having a wonderful but tempestuous relationship with her mother and with some of her co-stars. I think that's something we all can relate to."
Those involved in the show are quick to point out that "Backwards in High Heels" is meant be, as McGovern puts it, "an entertainment, something like the kind of movie RKO would have made in the '30s."
"I feel like we're in really scary times, in really sad times, not unlike when Ginger was getting famous," he says. "People went to her movies for relief. The plot of 'Swing Time'? -- we're not talking 'Hedda Gabler.' People flocked to those movies because they took them away from their problems for a little bit.
"I can rest easy if I've helped the audience to do that."
Remembering Ginger Rogers on Her Centennial
by Whitney Hopler
July 15, 2011
On-screen, Ginger Rogers dances with Fred Astaire, gliding and swirling and leaping in joyful motion across their 10 films like Swing Time (1936) and Carefree (1938).
She elicits laughs in the many comedies she made, inviting audiences to share her joy in adventures like disguising herself as a child aboard a train (The Major and the Minor, 1942), and cavorting with monkeys alongside Cary Grant (Monkey Business, 1952). And Rogers’ joy even shone through her dramatic films—such as her Oscar-winning role in Kitty Foyle (1940)—in the form of a serene sort of grace mixed with a flinty sense of confidence that she could do what’s right, no matter what.
In 73 classic movies spanning Hollywood’s entire golden age, Ginger Rogers became known for her joyful spirit.
Rogers, who died in 1995, once said: “The most important thing in anyone’s life is to be giving something. The quality I can give is joy. This is my gift.” Now, as fans celebrate Rogers’ centennial (her 100th birthday would have been July 16, 2011), it’s a good time to remember the source of all that joy: a relationship with Jesus Christ.
“Her faith was what was most important to her,” said Rogers’ former personal secretary and close friend Roberta Olden in an interview with Crosswalk.com. “It taught her the truth with a capital T. As long as you know the truth about yourself and about God, you can do just about anything, because you reflect what he gives you. She knew that it was God’s gift of goodness that shone through [her performances].”
Offscreen, as well, Rogers became known as a clean-living movie star. She attended church regularly, modeled a strong work ethic, took care of her mother, refused to drink alcohol, and spent far more time on tennis courts than at Hollywood parties. She tried to set a good example of a healthy lifestyle while surrounded by many others who were caught in destructive lifestyles, Olden recalled. “If someone wanted to follow her example, she would be glad for that.”
However, Rogers’ joy in the midst of the Hollywood scene didn’t come easily. While her image lit up movie screens in darkened theaters for audiences, she sometimes struggled to fight the darkness of Hollywood’s pressures with the light of Christ in her own life.
“Although she had a glamorous Hollywood life, she also went through some struggles,” said Olden.
Hollywood fame ushered many pressures into Rogers’ life. She had to sacrifice privacy. Fame and fortune hunters tried to use her to achieve their own desires. People who were hostile to faith mocked her Christian beliefs. After her marriage to true love Lew Ayres (star of the popular Dr. Kildare movies) broke apart under the stress of their career demands, she endured several marriages to husbands who were unfaithful to her. She never had the children she’d hoped to have, since her work was so consuming.
The pressures got to be so intense that Rogers even had to fight off suicidal thoughts. “She said to me that if it hadn’t been for her faith, she probably would have jumped off the Hollywood sign because of the pressures,” Olden said. “She was very genuine; a straight-talker. She didn’t sugarcoat things.”
However, Rogers drew the strength she needed to overcome Hollywood’s pressures by asking the Holy Spirit to renew her mind so she could think about each challenge from the right perspective, said Marcia Castle Durham, who attends the Christian Science church Rogers attended in Medford, Oregon, near where Rogers owned a ranch she escaped to for respite between movies and other work.
Rogers saw her churches in both Oregon and California as safe places to honestly express her struggles and seek Christ’s healing through prayer, Durham said, and Rogers often told people in the congregation how grateful she was for the freedom to do so in church. Rogers made going to church a high priority, seeking out a church to worship in even when she was traveling. “She went to church faithfully, wherever she was,” Durham said.
Olden said that a daily habit of thanking God for her blessings also helped Rogers maintain a joyful spirit. “I don’t think there was a day that went by when she didn’t thank God for something.”
The movie characters Rogers played often struggled with discouragement or the temptation to sin, yet emerged from those struggles with the determination to move forward to do what’s right and enjoy the process. Rogers did the same herself in Hollywood, said Olden. “A lot of the ladies who she played onscreen struggled but were able to come out on the right side of those struggles. In her own life, Ginger relied heavily upon her faith and it saw her through a lot of hard times.”
Over the years, Rogers turned down a lot of roles in films that didn’t reflect the biblical values she wanted to portray onscreen. She looked for redemptive stories in scripts whenever possible. “She was not one to see something false portrayed,” Olden recalled. “She didn’t compromise herself. She understood that she did not want to portray any ugliness that she might have seen. She wanted to show goodness at work.”
By the 1960s, she had become so disillusioned with the types of roles she was being offered that she left Hollywood to focus mainly on stage roles, such as Hello, Dolly! on Broadway and Mame on the London stage. Rogers was outspoken about her concerns that Hollywood was making more and more movies that depicted unhealthy values. In a 1976 United Press International interview, she said: “I was privileged to have been a part of the Hollywood scene when it was understood that audiences wanted to know beauty and hope exist. There’s a sadness, a darkness today in entertainment.” However, she also praised films that did portray good values. In a 1982 Toledo Blade interview, she said the popularity of the movie E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial “proves that audiences want to see clean, healthy movies.”
Though she made her last film in 1965, Rogers continued to give audiences the gift of joy through wholesome, positive entertainment on stage and sometimes on television until several years before her death. “It was very gratifying for her to know that what she was doing was pleasing to audiences,” said Olden.
By the time Rogers passed away, she was at peace, Olden said. God had used her life in a way that brought him glory.
So the next time you enjoy a Ginger Rogers movie, remember that it’s more than just good entertainment. The enjoyment you get from it is a reflection of the spirit behind it—the joy that comes from Jesus Christ.
Robert Osborne's appreciation of Ginger's spectacular success in "Kitty Foyle".
Ginger Rogers once told a reporter, “Kitty Foyle was my first picture. It was my mother who made all those pictures with Fred Astaire.” The lady was kidding, of course, but there is no denying that everything connected with the spectacular Rogers career dates B.K. (Before Kitty) and A.K. (After Kitty). The Foyle role fit her like a coat of enamel, won her an Academy Award and kept her from being known solely as part of something called Astairenrogers.
Kitty Foyle was made at RKO Radio Studios in Hollywood in 1940, long after blonde and bouncy Ginger had been established as Fred Astaire’s most popular on-screen partner. She’d also proven her solo box office worth in a few comedies of her own. Up to that point, however, she hadn’t been established as an actress (and no fault of her own, but critics and the public have always assumed performances in musicals and comedies require no acting prowess, only nervous feet). One day she’d had quite enough, put down her foot – one of the unnervous ones – and divorced Fred as a partner. “No more musicals!” she told her bosses. While they ran for the aspirin bottle, Ginger started looking for a juicy role.
Enter Kitty Foyle, the most popular literary heroine of the day – and the timing couldn’t have been better. Kitty was the creation of author Christopher Morley, a hard-working white collar girl who was fed up to her typewriter ribbons. “I read about the guts of the pioneer woman, and the woman of the dust bowl, and the gingham goddess of the covered wagon,” says Kitty. “What about the woman of the covered typewriter? What has she got when she leaves the office?” It wasn’t all work for Kitty – she also had to choose between a liaison with a rich, married socialite and a romance with an industrious young doctor. But the public loved her, and every actress in the movie world wanted to play her. RKO, meanwhile, bought the screen rights and Ginger snapped it up. She darkened her hair, replaced the usual maribo feathers with a working girl’s wardrobe and went to town on the part, turning in a performance that made one critic clap his hands in glee, writing “Ginger Rogers plays Kitty Foyle so well it’s hard to remember she ever danced her way to fame.” The flourishing, epic touch came when she won that hard-to-get Oscar over the likes of Bette Davis, Katharine Hepburn, Martha Scott and Joan Fontaine. Goodbye, Fred!
In the years that followed, Ginger got to play everything from gum-chewing molls and ex-convicts to Dolly Madison and Dolly Levi, all thanks in great measure to that first encounter with Ms. Foyle. Her movie career has been long winded (36 active years, 73 major films), quite dazzling, an audience pleaser, always fun to watch. And despite the enduring fame of Astaire n’ Rogers, Rogers n’ Astaire, she is still best remembered as Kitty Foyle, the white collar girl. Their names remain synonymous. This is a permanent record of that collaboration – and proof the lady known as Ginger could do very well indeed without the hint of a Carioca, a Continental or a Castle Walk in reel three.
-- c. 1975, by ROBERT OSBORNE, author of Academy Awards Illustrated and four other books on motion pictures.
Thanks to Huey, aka VKMfan, at Gingerology! http://jwhueyblog.blogspot.com/
[This interesting analysis of “Lady in the Dark” is by Edward Gallafent, from his book Astaire and Rogers (2000 in UK, 2002 in US), which looks at all the films they made, together or separately, from “Flying Down to Rio” to “The Barkleys of Broadway.” He is interested in how each film builds upon preceding ones, and focuses on the issues they treat. In the case of “Lady in the Dark” he illuminates aspects of the film and its production that have led to misperceptions of Ginger Rogers’ performance by most commentators. So although it’s not really an appreciation of Ginger, it helps clear the way for a proper appreciation of her achievement in this film.]
“ ‘Lady in the Dark’ (Mitchell Leisen [director], 1944) is set in the editorial offices of ‘Allure’ magazine, dubbed by one character ‘a world of women’, but in fact totally controlled by men. As the editor of ‘Allure’, Liza Elliot (Rogers) exercizes power over her staff, but she is also explicitly the person through whom a group of three men relate to this women’s world. Kendall Nesbit (Warner Baxter) represents the power of capital: he is a businessman who financially underwrote the setting up of the magazine and wants to marry Liza if he can negotiate a divorce settlement. Randy Curtis (Jon Hall) is a Hollywood star who poses for the magazine and also wishes to marry Liza. Charlie Johnson (Ray Milland) is one of two men working for ‘Allure’; he wishes to replace Liza and become editor of the magazine, believing that jobs which confer power are the property of men and for a woman to have such a job is ‘flying in the face of nature’. The other man working for ‘Allure’ is photographer Russell Paxton (Misha Auer), who is coded as gay and is the only one of the four who shows no desire to assert power over Liza.
“In the face of these pressures, Liza both dresses and behaves in a way that for the men of the film (particularly Johnson) defines her as mannish rather than feminine. That she is also deeply unhappy, anxious and depressed is hardly surprising, given her situation. But the film is not about that situation, or rather not directly. It overlays it, and in part conceals it, with another, psychoanalytic discourse. In other words, the possibility that Liza’s feelings might be directly, or simply, produced by her current situation is ignored, and it is assumed without hesitation that the explanation for them must lie elsewhere.
“The film begins with Liza submitting to the power of two more men: Dr Carlton (Edward Fielding) and his psychoanalyst colleague Dr Brooks (Barry Sullivan). Dr Brooks starts with a clear demonstration of power, insisting that he will accept Liza as a patient only if she submits to analysis there and then.
“With the help of several dream and flashback sequences, the analyst duly comes up with an explanation for Liza’s condition. We are made aware of her absolute love for her father – ‘I … thought he was the most wonderful man in the whole world’ – and the narcissism and indifference of her mother (under analysis, Liza recalls her mother flirting while she is trying to sing for her). These things having been established as the cause of Liza’s condition, the analyst tells her that she has ‘attempted to dominate all men’. She is advised to find a figure who will dominate her. Of the three suitors, Nesbit and Curtis abruptly prove weak at this juncture, leaving her to choose the unremitting dominance of Johnson – ‘I’ve always had to win because I’m me’, he remarks. Misha Auer closes the film by pronouncing that this is the end, the absolute end.
“Through Auer, ‘Lady in the Dark’ may perhaps register a sense of its own preposterousness, even of its deeply reactionary project, both in its presentation of women (and men) and of its appropriation of psychoanalysis as no more than a tool to allow it to elucidate the patient’s trauma in such a way that the advice can be to reimpose its conditions. This is not, incidentally, a comment on the stage show by Moss Hart, Ira Gershwin and Kurt Weill on which the film was based – the distance between the two is considerable. [Director] Leisen claims to have written the film himself on the basis of Moss Hart’s ‘original prompt copy’. Then again, the film was not released as Leisen shot it. Two numbers that had been filmed but were then cut by the producer, Buddy DeSylva, might have gone a little way to reduce the emphasis on male empowerment in the released version. These were ‘Tchaikovsky’, a major element of the stage success that was sung in the film by Misha Auer, and ‘My Ship’, an a capella number sung by Rogers in a high-school flashback.
“Reservations about ‘Lady in the Dark’ often seem to centre on the performance of Rogers, rather than on the film’s project. The idea that Rogers was somehow not clever enough to ‘understand’ the film, or – outrageously – not mentally unhealthy enough for it … seem to endorse the values of the film. The explanation that the actress is somehow psychically ‘wrong’ involves ignoring the disgraceful circumstances in which she is having to operate, at their clearest in the unredeemedly sexist and sadistic role of Charlie Johnson. Ray Milland, who played the part, subsequently commented that ‘everybody thought “Lady in the Dark” was so wonderful at the time, but I always disliked it.’
“Rogers notes in her autobiography that ‘Lady in the Dark’ was her first film in colour, and then tells us how little she liked it, a view evidently shared by almost all the Hollywood professionals involved, even though the film was a substantial commercial success. The decision to film in colour emphasized the glamour of haute couture and glossy magazine publishing. But … the exotic and glamourous here is always negatively conceived as troubling and threatening. This is not only true where we might most obviously expect it, in her first two dreams, which are nightmares, but also in the set design of her waking world, for example in the clouded, fragmented mirror over the mantelpiece in her apartment and the oppressive bed-head in her boudoir. Even the offices of ‘Allure’ are decorated with portentous artwork rather than, say, fashion stills. The only exception to this atmosphere are the circus dream-sequence and Rogers performance of ‘Jenny’, but this song, no longer preceded in the film by the ‘Tchaikovsky’ number to which it had been a response in the stage show, seems to have little to do with the narrative that surrounds it.” [pp. 202-204]
“In 1941 Paramount Pictures bid what was then the highest amount ever paid for the screen rights of a literary work, $285,000, [for ‘Lady in the Dark’]. Both [Kurt] Weill and [Ira] Gershwin hoped that Paramount would use their musical score, [but it was drastically cut and other music substituted].
“The studio enlisted Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett to write the screenplay. However, Mitchell Leisen, who was approached to direct the picture, rejected their adaptation [of the stageplay]. ‘[Producer] Buddy DeSylva called me and said that he had never expected to have to make it, but part of his three picture deal with Ginger Rogers was that she play this part, and for God’s sake, would I please agree to do it. I said I would not shoot the Hackett script. He said, “I don’t give a damn what you shoot. Just say you’ll make the picture.” So I went to Moss Hart and got his original prompt copy, and I came back to California and wrote the script of "Lady in the Dark." The Hacketts got credit but their script was thrown in the wastebasket.'
“Leisen’s screen play opens in a general physician’s office. After Liza’s checkup, Dr. Carleton recommends that she see a psychoanalyst. Liza is next seen arriving at the offices of ‘Allure’. Charley [Johnson, played by Ray Milland] presents his idea of a circus cover and, after feeling the lapel of Liza’s jacket, remarks that they must go to the same tailor. This prompts Liza to hurl a paperweight at him. Charley then discusses Liza’s ‘big executive pose’ with Maggie [played by Mary Philips]. This concludes the introduction, and we next see Liza in Dr. Brooks’s office, corresponding to the first scene of the stage play.
“From here the screenplay, like Hart’s script, alternates scenes in Dr. Brooks’s and Liza’s offices. Save for small changes, the only significant addition is a new scene. It occurs after Liza leaves for dinner with Randy [played by Jon Hall]. Whereas in the theater, audience members had to learn from Alison what transpired, the screenplay takes us to a posh nightclub. We see Randy express interest in Liza and her reaction to his advances. Charley and his date interrupt their romantic interlude. He informs Liza that in an evening gown she looks like a woman and admits that he is after her job. Insulted, Liza abruptly ends the evening. Charley’s snide comment exemplifies how Leisen ratcheted up the gender stereotypes.
“The film began a projected three-month shoot on December 9, 1942. Almost immediately, Rogers and Leisen clashed. According to Rogers, ‘Mitch’s interest was in the window draperies and the sets, not in the people and their emotions.’ According to Leisen, for a story about psychoanalysis, Rogers, a cheerful and well-adjusted Christian Scientist, ‘didn’t know what the hell she was talking about.’
“Because of the film’s complexity, two extra assistant directors were required. Leisen passed over his longtime assistant, Chico Day, for the more important of the two positions, and instead gave it to a friend of his partner, Billy Daniels. Havoc ensued among Leisen’s staff. His decision had upset the seniority ranking of the unit, and to punish him, the staff became as uncooperative as possible. So tense were working conditions that when Leisen’s secretary smiled at him one day on the set, he looked over his shoulder to see whom she might be addressing.
“For the climactic musical number, Rogers and Leisen butted heads one last time. He wanted ‘Jenny’ to be sexy, the way [Gertrude] Lawrence was performing it [on stage]. Rogers balked, telling him it would hurt her girl-next-door image. They proceeded to shoot the number, each attempting to outwit the other. ‘When we came in for the closer shots,’ Leisen remembered, ‘she kept covering her legs up with the skirt. So I moved the camera way back, but put a long lens on so we got a full figure of her showing the legs.’ Unbeknown to him, Rogers’s stiletto heels were catching in the hemp rug on the floor, and the static electricity from closing the mink dress was giving her shocks.
“Although budgeted at $2.3 million, ‘Lady in the Dark’ climbed to $2.6 million by the end of the shoot on March 20 . This gave the film the dubious distinction of being the most expensive picture ever made since ‘Gone With the Wind’. Contractually Paramount could have released ‘Lady in the Dark’ while the stage tour was winding down; however, the film lay on the shelf for well over a year. Concerned with the exorbitant price tag, Paramount was quick to publicize that the rights had been purchased and the production planned prior to America’s involvement in WWII. The studio was so jittery about the film’s topic that the publicity campaign excluded all references to its subject matter. The advertisement ran with the banner, ‘The Girl of the Moment … with the Loves of the Year … in the Picture of a Lifetime.’ Small inset pictures featured the star alone (‘Ginger Rogers: A Minx in Mink with a Yen for Men’) and with each of her suitors. From the sales pitch, no one would have guessed that the picture had anything to do with psychoanalysis.
“ ‘Lady in the Dark’ was first shown on February 9, 1944, at the Paramount Hollywood Theater. Critics were divided. Those from the ‘Hollywood Reporter’, ‘Variety’, and ‘Daily Variety’ all gave it an enthusiastic thumbs up. The first critic wrote, it is ‘not enough to say it is one of the most beautiful pictures ever made,’ but ‘possibly THE most beautiful.’ All three critics roundly praised the film’s physical production, especially the Technicolor achievement. Ginger Rogers’s portrayal of Liza Elliot was similarly commended: ‘Daily Variety’ claimed that her performance ‘was second to none she has ever done,’ and the ‘Hollywood Reporter’ called it her ‘greatest performance.’
“Writing for newspapers outside the entertainment industry, Dorothy Manners, Edwin Schallert, and David Hanna had less flattering things to say. Manners delivered the backhanded compliment, ‘Ginger … wears her gowns marvelously’; Schallert reported, ‘Technicolor photography is not kind to Ginger Rogers’ in this, her first color feature; and Hanna decided Rogers was ‘no longer a beauty’ and her dance with Don Loper was ‘decidedly second rate.’ He concluded, ‘The picture’s impressive production stature neither awes the spectator into liking it nor camouflages the fact that the story is old hat.’
“The next day, ‘Lady in the Dark’ also opened at L.A.’s Downtown Paramount. Despite the mixed reviews, both venues reported breaking box-office records for an opening day, Hollywood by 40 percent and Los Angeles by 48 percent. For East Coast promotion, Paramount sponsored live trailers in the form of fashion shows featuring costumes from the film. In New York, the studio recruited five hundred women from various branches of the U.S. Armed Forces to watch the parade. Despite the opulence of the fashions on the runway, the attendees were all dressed in uniform. Hoping to cash in, Saks reintroduced ‘Lady in the Dark’ perfume with a new sales pitch, ‘A subtle moving fragrance that makes an enchantress of any woman, even an executive … for the important spring evenings ahead.’
“In New York, ‘Lady in the Dark’ opened at the Paramount Theatre in Times Square. The following day the ‘New York Times’ reported that approximately twenty-three thousand people had paid about $22,000 to see it for ‘the biggest opening day in the history of the theatre.’ By the end of the week, ‘Lady in the Dark’ had broken the record set by ‘Star Spangled Rhythm’ with Benny Goodman and Frank Sinatra the previous year, by grossing $123,000. As part of the publicity, a ‘distinguished psychiatrist … with degrees from two universities’ analyzed the film for ‘Coronet’ magazine.
“One inexplicable omission in the film was that ‘My Ship’ was never sung. A bemused Gershwin jotted off a note to Weill: ‘I attach a small clipping from the ‘Citizen News.’ I take it to mean that there must have been many inquiries about what the hell Liza was humming all through the film. At Arthur Schwartz’s party the other night I asked Ginger Rogers about the song. She said she had made a charming rendition and had no idea why it had been cut. She suggested that I call Mitch [Leisen].’ Leisen in turn claimed that the decision to cut ‘My Ship’ had been DeSylva’s, not his: ‘We had made a live recording of Ginger singing it right on the set, and she sang it a cappella in the park with the boy [Ben] as the band played ‘Ain’t She Sweet’ in the gymnasium dance. But Buddy [DeSylva] put his foot down. He couldn’t stand Kurt Weill and he couldn’t stand that song. Having been a songwriter himself, he was adamant about it. It was vital to the story, the one spot where she remembers the lyrics finally, after being haunted by the tune through the whole story. The whole picture hung on that song. I said, “You’ll take it out over my dead body,” but I was overruled.’
“After the film’s general release on August 21, it racked up $4.3 million, making it the fourth-largest grossing film of 1944. Yet despite its box-office success, the film is a major disappointment. Paramount did not use most of Weill’s score; instead, numbers by Johnny Burke and Jimmy Van Heusen, Clifford Grey and Victor Schertzinger, and Robert Emmett Dolan were interpolated. Leisen, who had never directed a musical, tried to turn it into a psychological drama. Despite DeSylva’s discomfort with the idea that Liza is suffering from an Electra complex (harboring unconscious sexual desire for her father), Leisen won out, with the play portion of ‘Lady in the Dark’ surviving mostly intact.
“As a result, the dream sequences had to be sacrificed. The nearly twenty-five-minute ‘Glamour Dream’ was hacked down to less than five; the ‘Wedding Dream’ suffered a similar fate. Only the ‘Circus Dream’ survived relatively unscathed. Throughout the film many of the musical numbers were robbed of their context. On stage, ‘This Is New’ signified the budding relationship between Randy and Liza. In the film, the principals never sing the replacement song, and Ginger Rogers dances with a character who is never identified, as Randy looks on. In the original, each of the sequences is built to a musical climax; in the film, they all fade innocuously back into Dr. Brooks’s office.
“What had been literate in ‘Lady in the Dark’ was dumbed down for the film. Instead of letting the viewer discover Kendall’s role, Dr. Brooks says flatly, ‘Isn’t it because your affection for Kendall Nesbitt is based on the fact that he resembles your father? That you have, in fact, transferred your love for your father to him?’ Because most of the music consists of instrumental arrangements by Robert Russell Bennett, virtually all of Gershwin’s lyrics were cut.
“Rogers gives her portrayal of Liza Elliott gravitas, which underscores the work’s dramatic pretensions, and Ray Milland softens some of Charley Johnson’s harder edges. For the snippets of ‘My Ship’, Bennett’s orchestration employs the Theremin, an early electronic instrument. The film and its 350 specially designed costumes look every bit the nearly $3 million that it cost.
“A year after the film’s release, Rogers, who had hawked Lux Toilet Soap in the pages of ‘Photoplay’ since 1935, appeared in Lux Radio Theatre’s one-hour adaptation. Joining Rogers from the film was Ray Milland. Because of airwave restrictions, some of ‘Lady in the Dark’’s adult themes had to be sanitized. Kendall and Liza no longer live together, and their relationship is nonphysical. [Sketch writer Sanford] Barnett excised all of the swearing, and even the word ‘sex’ had to go (Charley’s line became ‘Rage is a pretty good substitute for love’). The script omitted all of the music except ‘My Ship.’ Typical for radio drama, musical bridges tied the scenes together. The listening audience was reportedly more than thirty million.
“Lux broadcast ‘Lady in the Dark’ on January 29, 1945, from Hollywood’s Vine Street Theatre, and CBS carried it on the airwaves. The cast members were all formally dressed and seated on stage. The spoken introduction always worked in a plug for the sponsor. In this case, the combination of ‘dark’ and ‘lux’ proved irresistible: ‘Now, of course, the meaning of tonight’s title, “Lady in the Dark”, is a lady who’s in the dark about herself. And not a lady in the dark about Lux Toilet Soap. Although they may be one [and] the same thing. A lady who isn’t sure of her appearance may prefer a dim light, while a woman with a captivating, smooth complexion wouldn’t choose to stay in darkness very long. Now if you recall your Latin you’ll remember the word “lux” means light, so if by any chance you are a lady in the dark yourself, perhaps, the easiest solution to your problem is Lux Toilet Soap.’
“After the introductory scenes, the remainder of the play follows the outline of the film. Here, however, Rogers sings a full rendition of ‘My Ship.’ Unlike most actresses who step out of character for the number, she continues using her high school voice, even ad-libbing a girlish “la, dee, dee.” Rogers’s performance here is much more convincing than in the Paramount film. One gets the distinct impression that given what amounted a second chance at ‘Lady in the Dark’, she tried to redeem herself. Due to the broadcast’s success, Lux [chose] to encore ‘Lady in the Dark’ nine years later.” – Bruce D. McClung, Lady in the Dark: Biography of a Musical (2007), pp. 168-177
Ira Gershwin on the film:
"Later, when 'Lady in the Dark' was filmed, the script necessarily had many references to the song. But for some unfathomable reason the song itself—as essential to this musical drama as a stolen necklace or a missing will to a melodrama—was omitted. Although the film was successful financially, audiences evidently were puzzled or felt thwarted or something, because items began to appear in movie-news columns mentioning that the song frequently referred to in 'Lady in the Dark' was 'My Ship'. I hold a brief for Hollywood, having been more or less a movie-goer since I was nine; but there are times..."
-- quoted at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/My_Ship
Links to Ginger Rogers sites with more information about her:
The Ginger Rogers Official Website: http://www.gingerrogers.com/index.php