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Centennial Tributes: Ginger Rogers

By Josh R
The studio system of the 1930s and '40s worked to both the advantage and detriment of those who lived and worked under its iron rule. Actors were under contract; the studio brass determined what films they appeared in, which roles they played and how they were presented to the public. Many didn’t mind or notice the degree of micromanagement that came with being a contract player — others rebelled against it. By the mid-'30s, Bette Davis had become increasingly dissatisfied with the quality of the films to which she was being assigned and went to court in an effort to be released from her contract with Warner Bros. The bid failed, but earned her the respect of Jack Warner, who paid closer attention to her demands and gave her better material to work with as a result. A decade later, Olivia de Havilland — feeling like an ossified Dresden shepherdess after so many hours spent in frilly costumes being wooed by Errol Flynn — successfully managed to break her contract with Warners, in effect ushering in the era of free agency. Actors now had the ability to go their own way, choose their own projects and challenge their accepted personas in ways parochial studio heads never would have sanctioned.

It is fortunate — extremely fortunate — that the studio system was firmly in place during the heyday of Ginger Rogers, for there is the definitive example of a performer whose ambitions and tastes were almost completely at odds with her strengths and talents. Indeed, she was talented; so much so that it’s depressing to contemplate what kind of a career she might have had if left to her own devices — to say nothing of what would have been lost in the process. Certainly, she wouldn’t have stuck around for nine films with Fred Astaire, nor have appeared in as many comedies. If you’d asked Rogers what she considered her crowning achievement as an artist, she would have undoubtedly cited Kitty Foyle, a prosaic tearjerker that earned her an Academy Award and only served to illustrate how inexplicably dull she could be when doing what she judged to be “serious acting.” After that win, she had more autonomy, turning down Ball of Fire because she felt it to be derivative; she had passed on His Girl Friday the year before. She did get to play Dolly Madison in a stately biopic of the former first lady, and always recalled Now, Voyager as “the one that got away.” The role she tried the hardest for during her tenure at RKO was Queen Elizabeth I in Mary of Scotland, going so far as to disguise herself for a screen test conducted under an assumed identity; the incredulity with which her efforts were met was enough to merit a Louella Parsons column, written in the spirit of a resounding guffaw. If the legacy she’d envisioned for herself was largely not to be — and there were probably days when she reckoned to herself that Greer Garson was the lucky one — the career RKO fashioned around her nimble footwork, trouper’s pluck and comic finesse is a cineaste’s delight and not to be sneered at by those who equate substance with seriousness. At her very best, Rogers was lighter than air; locked in Fred’s embrace, she didn’t simply move, she floated. When she struck out on her own, in a handful of roles that spoke to her spirit and sense of playfulness, the takeoff was just as smooth, and allowed her to travel at altitudes unmatched by all but a few gifted comediennes.

The driving force behind Virginia Katherine McMath — steering her firmly through the eddies and tributaries of the raucous vaudeville circuit to Broadway and beyond — was Mrs. Lela Rogers, whose plans for her tiny daughter were never less than awesome in scope. Mother was, by most accounts, a real piece of work; she remained permanently tethered to her offspring throughout her life and career, to the occasional chagrin of studio executives, directors and the five sons-in-law who came and went. She passed on to Ginger her ambition, reactionary conservatism and acute consciousness of class; if Ginger’s taste and judgment were occasionally suspect, her thinking usually was a reflection of Lela’s priorities. Fledgling success in vaudeville led to a stage career, culminating with the lead role in George & Ira Gershwin’s Girl Crazy. While Ethel Merman stopped the show belting out “Who Could Ask for Anything More?”, camera-ready Ginger was the one who caught the attention of Hollywood talent scouts. She worked hard in a variety of inconsequential parts — before teaming up with Astaire, she had already appeared in nearly 20 films. Two bouncy, lavish Busby Berkeley musicals showcased her to great effect — first, covered in shimmering gold pieces and singing “We’re in the Money” in Gold Diggers of 1933, then squinting through a monocle and trying not to let her English accent slip in 42nd Street. Those films boosted her stock while testifying to the fact that the camera served her well; but a key element still was missing in furthering her ascent to stardom.

Flying Down to Rio was the game-changer, bringing with it the missing piece of the puzzle and the ideal yin to her yang. She and Astaire played secondary roles but effectively stole the film from its advertised stars with their otherworldly synchronicity of motion and seamless give-and-take. The powers at RKO knew a good thing when they saw one and fashioned an entire series around the couple; if the films were largely interchangeable, their teamwork never became stale, or lost a fraction of its appeal for audiences. The Gay Divorcee, Roberta, Top Hat, Swing Time, Follow the Fleet, Shall We Dance?, Carefree and The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle provided welcome refuge from the bleak realities of the Depression; filmgoers were mesmerized by the deft movements of two figures gliding in perfect unison through an art deco paradise where ugly truths — war, poverty, privation — were never acknowledged. Katharine Hepburn famously said of the pair that “he gave her class, she gave him sex,” a canny assessment of the extent to which they both complemented and were enhanced by one another. Astaire, the perfectionist with an overweening attention to detail, lent Rogers an elegance and sophistication she may have lacked on her own, but she did more than make him seem virile and attractive. Her wry, unpretentious humor grounded him, making his rarefied persona more relaxed and consequently more accessible than it could have been otherwise; both on and off the dance floor, they each seemed to be basking in the other’s glow. Another famous quote — attributed to so many different people that it’s impossible to trace its true origin — insisted that Rogers had the tougher task of the two, since “she did everything he did, backwards — and in high heels.” Even more taxing may have been the effort it took to keep her million dollar smile fixed firmly in place through film after grinding film. Fred was too exacting, too controlling, and after the first few outings, both the material and the routine had grown increasingly repetitive; less than midway into their partnership, Ginger had become restless, fixing her sights on better things.

Even before the duo had been dissolved officially, Rogers had been testing the waters as a solo act. The results were variable, but produced at least one genuine classic; there was a charge and intelligence to Rogers’ work in Stage Door, Gregory La Cava’s 1937 comic drama set in a theatrical boarding house, that the actress would never again equal in her career. Working alongside Hepburn, the other major female star at RKO in the 1930s, brought out the best in her. It was a notoriously unfriendly rivalry; indeed, the lore surrounding their polite feud is just as entertaining, if less imbued with camp value, than the Davis-Crawford skirmishes of the mid-1960s. Rogers was jealous of Hepburn for several reasons; the latter had class, pedigree and commanded a much higher measure of regard than her stablemate. For her part, Hepburn — even more arrogant and aloof in Ginger’s presence than was the norm — probably was given to wonder why she had all the respect while Ginger enjoyed all the adoration; Rogers was a top draw with the public at the same time than Hepburn was continually at risk of being branded box office poison. It was necessary — perhaps predestined — that the two should meet in the celluloid arena at least once in their storied careers, and that the ensuing battle should give off sparks. Kate, along with everyone else, believed herself to be the better actress of the two, and made it known in subtle ways that she didn’t really consider Ginger an equal — or a threat. Ginger was self-conscious, insulted and, ultimately, not one to back down from a fight. When the two traded barbs in their scenes together, audiences were treated to an authentic battling rhythm fueled by genuine animosity and a spirit of competition. Maybe it took a slap in the face and a challenge to bring out both the toughness and the vulnerability in Ginger Rogers — whether that’s true or not, Stage Door represented her best work as an actress, demonstrating how easily she could segue from humor to pathos and back again without missing a beat.

As wisecracking chorine Jean Maitland, Rogers showed that she had a devastating way with a quip — her delivery of the film’s zingy one-liners was so quick, sharp and assured that it often sounded like inspired improvisation. Viewing it today, her performance seems even more skillful given how much emotional complexity she brings to the role without sacrificing any of its humor. Jean is a tough cookie to be sure, but not immune to experiencing disappointment or, worse still, losing hope. The aspiring actresses at The Footlights Club live a precarious, uncertain existence — Rogers, more than any of the other performers, allows us to understand that comic banter is a necessary distraction from the fact that, at any moment, the girls might have their dreams and livelihoods taken away from them and fall off the grid. It’s not that Rogers simply lets us see the fear and fragility behind the snazzy retorts of these tart-tongued dames; she shows just how inextricably linked those seemingly self-contradictory properties are. She’s a smart-aleck blonde with a chip on her shoulder — as with any stand-up comedian, it’s the chip that’s the source of her comedy, even if the reality behind it is a source of hurt.

The success with Stage Door propelled her to other comedy outings, which proved the public’s fondness for her was not predicated solely on her dancing skills. She was delightful with James Stewart in Vivacious Lady, and scored a huge hit with Bachelor Mother; but the siren call of drama (to be more accurate, melodrama) and its attendant prestige tugged at her with a greater insistence. She dyed her trademark platinum tresses a dull shade of brown and got her Oscar for Kitty Foyle — for serious hair and serious acting — though, in truth, she was much better in Primrose Path, a shantytown drama released that same year. Her earnest, unimaginative turn as Kitty the lovelorn shop girl — a blue collar sweetheart who suffers and overcomes — didn’t betray so much as an ounce of the spark and savvy that informed her best performances, but was nonetheless a solid piece of work; The Academy’s confusion of professionalism with excellence doubtless propelled her to seek out similarly themed exercises and tear-stained nobility soon became her stock in trade. Happily, she made a brief return to high form in 1942 with two very different showcases, both of which proved how on point her comic instincts could be when fully engaged. In The Major and the Minor, Billy Wilder’s maiden outing as a director, she was a short-tempered salesgirl posing as a 12-year-old in order to buy a half-price train ticket out of New York. The setup was ridiculous, but the performance was full of deft touches, even if her baby talk routine wore thin in patches. She was even better in William Wellman’s Roxie Hart, adapted from the Maurine Dallas Watkins play that also served as the basis for the stage and film musical Chicago. The role of a fame-hungry, gun-toting jazz baby was as close as she ever got to playing a genuine bad girl, and she warmed to the cynicism of the piece in ways that probably surprised even her. Even if the film chickened out towards the end, it still allowed the actress some welcome flashes of coarseness and naughtiness — qualities she had so studiously avoided for the bulk of her career, but which actually served her wry, knowing sensibility much better than conventional melodrama. The bathtub gin buzz didn’t last very long, and the actress retreated back to respectability too quickly for anyone to start questioning her integrity.

The films and performances that rounded out the remainder of the '40s were not especially interesting, regardless that they represented the types of projects the dancing lady of the '30s had fought so assiduously to be considered for. Some were ambitious failures — Weill’s Lady in the Dark was simply beyond her, while Heartbeat was an attempt at European sophistication with about as much lightness and airiness to it as a freeze-dried croissant. Tender Comrade, a war-time romance featuring only the vaguest of socialist undertones, was notable only for the extent to which the actress completely disowned it once Hollywood’s red paranoia kicked into high gear. I’ll Be Seeing You, Weekend at the Waldorf and Magnificent Doll all fell flat for various reasons, the common denominator being how smug and arch Rogers could seem when affecting the posture of a great lady. 1949 brought an unexpected reunion with Astaire, after Judy Garland pulled out of The Barkleys of Broadway. While the couple’s timing on the dance floor was as precise and polished as ever, it was clear that Ginger, the actress, had grown too grand for Fred; while still light on her feet, she’d lost her lightness of touch, and Astaire’s wariness was such that you could practically see him rolling his eyes when her back was turned.

The '50s were a mishmash of pretensions and delusions, pausing briefly for Monkey Business, hailed by many as her best late-career entry, although in truth somewhat disappointing given the caliber of the talent involved. Rogers gave it the old college try, indulging in infantile shenanigans with Howard Hawks and Cary Grant, but the film felt oddly stagnant — a second-tier entry from top-flight pros, and a warmed-over attempt to recapture screwball comedy glory at a time when the genre seemed to have lost confidence in itself. Forever Female somewhat clumsily attempted to expose the follies of an aging ingénue refusing to acknowledge the passage of time, while The First Traveling Saleslady was a grotesque illustration of the point — the high-pitched girlishness of the performance, shot through a soft-focus lens, lent the entire enterprise the feeling of a drag act. Rogers probably realized her mistake sometime after making it, and retreated to the more comfortable environs of television. She scored a personal success replacing Carol Channing in the Broadway production of Hello, Dolly! and toured extensively with a one-woman show that traded heavily in sequins and glamour, showing she’d lost none of the showgirl’s instinct and eagerness to please.

The more one learns about Ginger Rogers, the more difficult a figure she is to come to terms with. It goes beyond the fact that her political positions were as poorly thought out as many of her career choices; her blithe defense of her mother’s star turn as a cooperating witness before the House Un-American Activities Committee serves as one of the more uncomfortable passages to be read in any star autobiography (Ever an actress in search of a stage, Lela finally found one on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives, moralizing and naming names.) The real problem lies in trying to reconcile the delightful presence of so many classic films — a quick-witted triple threat with an unpretentious, refreshingly candid approach to comedy — with the snobbish, rather bourgeois attitudes of a woman who looked down on so many of the qualities for which she was cherished. How much greater her career could have been had she not turned up her nose at the things she excelled is a question with no easy answer – it’s possible the opportunities wouldn’t have been there for an actress in early middle age, even had her notion of quality been a little less narrow. Regardless of who Ginger Rogers was when the cameras stopped rolling — or what was going on in the back of her mind even as they were — in the handful of films that show her at her absolute best, she still is a wonder to behold. There are not many performers who bridged the gap between musical and non-musical careers as smoothly or as effortlessly as she did; even Garland always seemed a bit lost when she didn’t have her singing to lean on, or Gene Kelly his dancing. She had a beautiful understanding of the mechanics of her craft, as both an actress and a dancer, but wasn’t overly reliant on technical skill; there was an easy quality about her, as if she’d nailed the technical element down so completely that she didn’t even have to think about it when executing impossible feats of choreographic wizardry, or landing a wisecrack with a throwaway air than never smacked of premeditation. The greatness of her best performances lies in how comfortable she seemed with her own talent, and how naturally things came to her when she wasn’t bogged down by the notion of trying to seem impressive — when there were no Oscars to be won, and she felt free and loose, she came up with performances so good that they went right over the Academy’s head. That’s the Ginger Rogers we know and love; with or without Fred Astaire, she had all the right moves and an impeccable sense of how and when to use them.

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