(Air Date: Week Of 4/26/95)
At her very best, Ginger Rogers made singing and dancing and acting seem like the easiest things in the world to do. With or without Fred Astaire by her side, she always appeared self-possessed, funny & engaging. It took work to create the illusion, of course, and even more to sustain it over her long career. But Rogers - & mother Lela - were used to that from the early days when she used to enter and win Texas Charleston contests. Together, Lela and Ginger were a formidable team for over 63 years, with Lela disarming the competition backstage and on the set and Ginger trouncing them soundly onstage & onscreen. In her first feature film, released 65 years ago this month, Ginger was Puff Randolph who demanded "Cigarette me, Big Boy. Well, do it!" After seeing Paramount's "Young Man Of Manhattan", young women all over the country started saying the same thing to their boyfriends.
Paramount didn't exactly do right by Ginger: I dare anyone to see 1930's "Follow The Leader" all the way through, but she fared better at R.K.O. studios where she starred, off and on, for over 25 years. When Ginger sang "We're In The Money" over at Warner Bros. In "Golddiggers of 1933", she perfectly captured the mood of a depression weary world. Earlier that year at the same studio, Ginger Rogers, who could sing and dance rings around the planet, talks Warner Baxter into casting Ruby Keeler of all people as the star of "42nd Street"! But by Christmas of 1933, Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire were firmly planted in the international consciousness as the real stars of "Flying Down To Rio". Neatly upstaging top-billed Dolores Del Rio and Gene Raymond.
Between 1935 and 1937, Fred and Ginger were among the top 10 stars, a record unequaled by any other dance team. But as Rogers slogged her way through nine classic musicals, she realized that her days as song and dance girl were numbered. Unlike Astaire, she played no role in the creative decision-making of her films and she insisted that she be recognised as something more than Fred's other foot: a real actress: 1937's "Stage Door" opposite Katherine Hepburn supplied her with the chance to really act and by 1940, she was out of musicals & into meaty dramatic roles like "Kitty Foyle", which won her an Academy Award.
Young working women strongly identified with the resourceful, idealistic characters she played onscreen: she pretended to be a child to get her guy in Billy Wilder's "The Major And The Minor" and threw a masher out of a high rise window to defend her honour in "I'll Be Seeing You". After Rogers' long onscreen reign, she turned to the stage and, eventually to writing her well-regarded memoirs. She never evolved into a sweet little old lady, but instead, into a rather peppery gadfly who expressed her opinions sharply and forcefully. But this is not how we will remember Ginger Rogers. Composer George Gershwin could barely get through "They Can't Take That Away From Me" without crying his eyes out. And this is how the image of Ginger Rogers will survive: in timeless musicals like "Shall We Dance" in which Fred and Ginger immortalised many of Gershwin's loveliest melodies. Rogers may have made them chomping at the bit, but it's what's onscreen that breaks our hears and enchants and endures forever,
Copyright 1995 Monica Sullivan
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