In all of my years of research, I have discovered two actors that remain steadfastly adored and defended by their fans. The male counterpart is Errol Flynn. You don't ever say anything negative about Errol, or his fans will have your head, (can you blame them?). Just as devout is the loyalty that fans have for Ginger Rogers. The number of fansites, web pages, tributes, blogs, and continuing discussions about this woman are astounding. Of course, I had come across Ginger in my ambles through the past-- how could ya' not? But until the past month or so, I failed to completely understand her power. Thus, I decided to really dig into her life and work. And yes, I have been converted.
I suppose what didn't necessarily "turn me off" but rather deterred me from Ginger fanaticism at the beginning were all the rumors I ran into about her. The tight relationship she had with her mother is often interpreted in various references as odd or unnatural. Thus, I made it up in my own head that Lela Rogers was one of those crazy stage mothers who used her daughter to gain her own financial desires and that the two together were pushy, power-hungry divas. Well, shame on me. That's typical "man's history," (no offense). In Hollywood, when a woman is typecast behind the scenes as "difficult," "demanding," or "temperamental," it is pretty much a way of calling her strong. She will not submit to the casting couch, she will not be pushed around, she will voice her opinions, she will guide the course of her own career-- horrendous. Strength, dignity, integrity: these were qualities all possessed by Ginger and instilled by her mother, who was not a domineering tyrant but a supportive and intuitive businesswoman who charted her daughter's dreams and not her own. Also adding to my misconception was the fact that Ginger historically has been placed forever in a supporting role to Fred Astaire. It's "Astaire and Rogers," not the other way around. Fred has been remembered as the genius and Ginger his muse. But, while one may have worked fine without the other, the two worked best as equal partners. Astaire gave their relationship style; Ginger gave it life, or as otherwise noted by Katharine Hepburn, Fred gave Ginger "class," and she gave him "sex."
But that all came later. In the beginning, there was just Lela and Virginia McMath, a single mother and her young daughter, battling life's hard knocks on their own. Lela had escaped her wandering husband William Eddins McMath after he proved to be a ne'er-do-well. He would re-emerge only to kidnap his daughter-- a traumatizing event for the infant who remembered it well. Luckily, the defiant Lela stole her right back, and the mother and daughter never left each others' sides for the remainder of Lela's life. Early on, Ginger wasn't too interested in performing, but she had a natural knack for dancing and loved music as well-- she often played the ukulele. After being encouraged by friends to enter a "Charleston" competition, the untrained young girl blew the panel away and took the trophy. The taste of victory and the thrill of performing were thereafter chronically flowing through her veins. She and Lela started traveling around on the vaudeville circuit, performing with the likes of Ed Lowry and Paul Ash. After a failed teenage marriage to a childhood crush who turned out to be a boozer, Ginger found herself on Broadway performing in top notch shows like "Top Speed" and "Girl Crazy," where she would meet a helpful choreographer, Fred Astaire, for the first time. It wasn't long before Hollywood came calling for a screen test. Ginger delivered and was scooped up by Paramount and later Pathe, Warner Bros, Twentieth-Century Fox, etc. She already had plenty of cinematic experience in big productions like 42nd Street and Gold Diggers of 1933 before she was signed at RKO and re-teamed with Fred in Flying Down to Rio. Their supporting characters stole the show, particularly in their "Carioca" routine, which friend and choreographer Hermes Pan suggested they do with their foreheads touching. It caused a sensation. RKO had struck gold, and for 9 more pictures, the world would enjoy watching the most famous dancing collaboration of all time.
It's no secret that Mark Sandrich, the director who helmed 5 out of 10 of the Astaire/Rogers pictures, favored Fred. Ginger would often remark that she was left to feel like little more than window dressing to her tapping comrade and that the back of her head often got more screen time than her face. For this reason, she was ecstatic when she got to work with directors like George Stevens on Swing Time and was encouraged to stake her claim and indulge in her own talents. (Of course, Ginger didn't really need help with that; it was just nice to have someone fighting on her side). One of the many things that can be said about Ginger is that she was brimming with creativity. Whereas Fred was more the perfectionist, Ginger always gave their routines a little extra spice, and many of her suggestions were implemented into various dances. It was her idea that she and Fred dance on roller skates in the "Let's Call the Whole Thing Off" sequence of Shall We Dance. It was her idea that Fred swing her repeatedly over the tables in the "Yam" sequence of Carefree. The "I'm Putting All My Eggs in One Basked" routine of Follow the Fleet, one of the funniest ever filmed, was too her concept-- her character gets stuck in a step and keeps repeating it ad nauseum. She also eased the tension, for when Fred was stressed on set, Ginger was always relaxed. When Fred was insecure about a scene or one of her ideas, Ginger would talk him into it. And she was tough. Fred would remark that Ginger was the only partner he had who never cried... even when her shoes were literally filling with blood. With her crafty, playful persona, she added a unique energy that made their rapport and chemistry so believable and enviable. Even though the duo only kissed onscreen minimally-- allegedly due to the stipulation of Fred's wife Phyllis-- their romance, their synchronicity, and their poetry on the dance floor always indicated the true depths and passions of love.
And they got along, which is something both had to protest through the years. True, they had their spats, over Ginger's lush, feather dress of Top Hat, for example-- another one of her innovations that stole the show-- but they worked well together, enjoyed each other's company, and respected each other immensely. The fact was, they were two separate people, and didn't want to be forever joined. Their desires to work on other projects and further their individual careers suggested to many that they hated each other, but this was simply the product of mutual, respectful ambitions. Especially after the duo's films started to wane in popularity, particularly after The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle, they decided to go their separate ways and pursue other endeavors. The results were mutually successful. For Ginger's part, she had already showed the world her talents, her acuity, her ability to keep up with a superior dancer, and her progress can be seen from film to film, wherein she always holds her own. Flying solo, she got the chance to prove what she could do on her own two feet. Her comedic sensibilities were tested in Billy Wilder's directorial debut, The Major and the Minor, and she won the Academy Award for her honest and grave performance in Kitty Foyle. Prior to this, she had stepped out with great aplomb in Stage Door, Vivacious Lady, and Having Wonderful Time, all of which included stand out performances and revealed her many emotional levels and capabilities. This girl was the whole package: singer, dancer, acclaimed actress, athlete, and also fashionista-- I know Grace Kelly and "style" are supposed to be synonymous, but no one knew how to wear a dress like Ginger.
Ginger, as well as being beautiful, vibrant, and fun, was also resilient. She played the Hollywood game with her mother as her manager/consultant and herself alone as master. Being raised in the Christian Science faith, Ginger could easily enjoy the social life of Hollywood without succumbing to its temptations. She loved to go out, dance, and meet with friends, but she never drank or imbibed on any other substances. She didn't need 'em. The way she saw it, she had her head on straight, so why knock it sideways? To her, playing a game of tennis-- at which she excelled-- indulging on ice cream, or painting private works of art, were the best ways to stimulate the mind and body. She was the product of discipline, but not harshly so. She worked hard and lived lightly. When looking over old candid photos or reading her memoirs, one can't help but be envious. This woman had fun! She possessed self-confidence and pride without possessing arrogance. She possessed beauty and a perfect figure without being conceited. She enjoyed her life and the fruits of her diligent labor without throwing her weight around. All of this vitality and optimism shows in her work. Onscreen, there is always something that makes Ginger snap! This is what drew friends, like Margaret Sullavan, and scores of male admirers, like ex-fiance Howard Hughes, to her. Going down the roster of her boyfriends and wooers, one becomes downright jealous. From her marriage to Lew Ayres to a never fully realized romance with Cary Grant, this lady had her pick of the litter!
Unfortunately, love in its traditional form was never in the cards for Ginger, which is ironic since she was a fairly traditional girl who hoped for home and family. Her second marriage to Lew failed as did three following unions. The reasons for these dissolutions are never fully explained, but the educated guess is the usual sad song of independent, career women in Hollywood: men fall in love with the movie star, and are intimidated by the real woman. It is hard for anyone to play second fiddle to a star as big and bright an Ginger was, and while her great light drew many to her, for some, it in turn became too overpowering. Through all of this bad luck, Ginger relied on her own perseverance and faith to pull her through, and as a result she always won out. So, she missed out on the picket fence package? She still was able to love deeply, to work hard, and live life to the hilt-- in a mansion. She worked consistently if less often through her later years, and had a rebirth in live theater when she took on starring roles in both "Hello Dolly!" and "Mame," as well as her own Las Vegas show, which left audiences wondering how the heck someone her age still had "legs like that?" Life wasn't a competition, it was an experience-- one that she soaked up until her dying day at the ripe old age of 83.
While her films with Fred Astaire may have sealed her forever into the legion of legends, Ginger did all right on her own. The remaining, steadfast adulation of her fans speaks to that. A sassy woman, a street smart girl, a lady with chutzpah, and dame with integrity... she played them all. She was them all. It is her strength that continues to speak to future generations and to women in particular. One of our favorite accidental feminists, Ginger belongs in the same category as those determined, talented, and inhumanly human ladies like Davis, Stanwyck, and Hepburn. She was one of the greats, giving a positive spin on the depression through song and dance and giving the female sex someone to look up to as times started changing. We love Fred. We all love Fred. But while his dancing always leaves us in awe, it remains almost too impersonal. Too good. Ginger made it real, and she made it fun. And in the end, shouldn't that be what it's about?