Wholesome but sexy, forthright and vulnerable, honest and energetic, Ginger Rogers was one of Hollywood's biggest stars of the Thirties and Forties. Not a great actress, as she was always the first to admit, she could handle both comedy and drama capably as well as sing and dance, and if her range was not as great as some of her contemporaries, 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 just as popular and possibly more talented. Astaire and Rogers were, and are, quite simply the most famous dance team of all time.
Ginger was born Virginia Katherine McMath on 16 July 1911 in Independence, Missouri, but she quickly became known as "Ginger" when one of her young cousins had difficulty pronouncing her first name. Rogers was the surname of her mother's second husband. Ginger's mother Lela had always been attracted to show business, and when Ginger was five she was left with her grandparents in Kansas City while Lela went to Hollywood to pursue a writing career providing scripts (as Lela Leibrand) for silent stars such as Theda Bara.
Ginger had already appeared in some advertising films, and when Lela returned to Kansas as reporter and theatre critic for the Kansas City Post, she made sure her offspring met performers who were appearing in the city. Lela has often been described as the archetypal show-business mother, and Ginger herself always credited her with a major share of responsibility for her later success. Friends of theirs in Texas, however, have always claimed that Lela did not seriously push Ginger until the girl herself became irreparably stage-struck. This happened when Ginger, having studied dance since childhood, entered a local Charleston contest and won, going on to become champion Charleston dancer of Texas.
The prize included a vaudeville tour and Lela, taking over management of Ginger, hired the two runners-up to support her in a group called "Ginger and Her Redheads", with Lela supplying costumes and linking material. Later Ginger toured as a single, incorporating her speciality of monologues in baby-talk, then suddenly married another dancer, Jack Culpepper (against her mother's wishes), and they formed an act called "Ginger and Pepper". They separated after only a few months, and Ginger took her single act to New York, where she was spotted by the owner of the Mocambo night club, who recommended the newcomer to composers Kalmar and Ruby for their Broadway show Top Speed. As second female lead, Ginger stole a lot of the notices with her peppy rendition of "Hot and Bothered".
She had already been making one- and two-reelers at the Astoria studios in New York, and now she was offered a Paramount contract and made her feature debut in Young Man of Manhattan, starring Claudette Colbert. As an easy-going flapper, she uttered a line, "Cigarette me, big boy!", which became a popular catchphrase of the day and helped establish her name. Her first major break came with her casting as the lead in the Gershwin musical Girl Crazy on Broadway (1930), in which she introduced "Embraceable You" and "But not for Me". Her singing voice, never strong, came in for some criticism and the show was stolen by another newcomer, Ethel Merman, whose voice was anything but small.
Lela and Ginger decided that Hollywood was the place to pursue her future, and accepted a contract from Pathe. None of her early roles was memorable, however, until Warners cast her in 42nd Street. Besides being a landmark musical, it gave Ginger, as Anytime Annie ("The only time she said no, she didn't hear the question"), a chance to display her comic skills. She was now close friends with one of the studio's top film-makers, Mervyn LeRoy (it was strongly believed they would marry), and he cast her in an even stronger role in Gold Diggers of 1933, in which Ginger represented one of the cinematic icons of the Depression era when she opened the film clothed in gold coins singing "We're in the Money".
She was on the way to being typecast as a wise-cracking chorine in the Glenda Farrell-Joan Blondell mould 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 now under contract to RKO, so she was rushed into the film three days into shooting and found herself playing opposite Fred Astaire.
Rogers had met Astaire earlier when he had been brought in by Girl Crazy's producers to help out with the choreography and they had even dated a few times. Neither of them expected great things from the film they were about to make but as Astaire told her, "It'll be fun." 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.
While Ginger went on to other pot-boilers, and Fred to England to do The Gay Divorce on the West End stage, RKO started to plan more films for the team. The Gay Divorcee (title changed to placate Hollywood's production code) 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. Katharine Hepburn's famed remark "She gave him sex, he gave her class" is true, but conveys only part of their magical chemistry.
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 was 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 and 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, Mexixe, 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.
Sent by her studio to meet stenographer fans in New York she arrived at Grand Central station wearing the simple white-collar outfit from the film, but by then every inch a star she was also wearing a diamond brooch, gold earrings and a mink coat. An enormous hit at the time, neither the film (directed by Sam Wood) nor Ginger's performance seem as impressive today, particularly considering that her rival nominees included Bette Davis and Katharine Hepburn.
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 Gerswhin score was cut from the film and Ginger, possibly trying to duplicate Gertrude Lawrence's stage portrayal of the confused heroine, seemed too confused for comfort. Ginger was also alienating a lot of Hollywood with her demands - she closed down the production of Lady in the Dark for three weeks in order to get married.
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's political views perhaps earned her more adverse criticism than any other aspect of her life. Like her mother, firmly right-wing, she campaigned for Richard Nixon when he ran for Governor of California in 1962, and during the McCarthy hearings Lela testified that Ginger had loathed making the 1944 film Tender Comrade about four war wives who set up house together, alleging that Ginger had insisted that the line "Share and share alike, that's democracy" be given to another actress. The director Joseph Losey, himself blacklisted, declared "Ginger Rogers was one of the worst, red-baiting, terrifying reactionaries in Hollywood," while her supporters argued that she merely followed her mother's lead and, according to one RKO employee, "I doubt that she could have told you the difference between the Republican and Democratic parties."
Ginger made 15 more films, but sadly only a handful merit mention: Storm Warning, a powerful drama about the Ku Klux Klan; Monkey Business, Howard Hawks' screwball comedy about rejuvenation; Dreamboat, with Ginger and Clifton Webb as silent movie stars who find new notoriety when their films are shown on television; and Forever Female, a sharp comedy in which Ginger bravely portrayed an ageing actress trying to cling on to juvenile roles. Major mistakes included co-financing a film in England to co-star her fourth husband Jacques Bergerac (Beautiful Stranger - called A Twist of Fate in the US - was a flop in both countries); opening a film studio in Jamaica with her fifth husband William Marshall to film The Confession (which has never been released); and her final screen appearance, as Jean Harlow's mother in Harlow (1965), a film made in only seven days in a video-to- film process called Electronovision.
In 1951 she had entered television and became a sought-after guest star. In a Perry Como Show of the mid-Fifties shown on BBC TV she did a terrific dance to "Sweet Georgia Brown" that showed her regime of swimming, tennis and other activities was keeping her trim. She tried a Broadway play in 1951, Love Let Love, but it was unsuccessful and her next attempt, with a semi-musical called The Pink Jungle, closed in Boston before reaching Broadway.
Ginger had great success touring the States in established hits including Annie Get Your Gun and Bells Are Ringing. In 1966 she succeeded Carol Channing as Broadway star of Hello, Dolly and charmed both critics and public.
Three years later, amidst a lot of publicity, she was at Drury Lane in London starring in Mame. The producers had a "Mame Express" take the press to greet her at Southampton, and spent a fortune decorating her theatre dressing room in pink "as befits a true star".
A few years later Ginger Rogers came back to London to headline at the Palladium, presenting a superbly professional blend of songs, reminiscences and some carefully choreographed but pleasing dancing. Throughout the evening she made frequent and generous references to Fred Astaire and the role he played in making her part of a legend - one which both she and Astaire happily realised in their lifetime would last as long as people watch moving pictures.
Virginia Katherine McMath (Ginger Rogers), actress: born Independence, Missouri 16 July 1911; married 1928 Jack Culpepper (marriage dissolved 1931), 1934 Lew Ayres (marriage dissolved 1941), 1943 Jack Briggs (marriage dissolved 1950), 1953 Jacques Bergerac (marriage dissolved 1958), 1961 William Marshall (marriage dissolved 1969); died Rancho Mirage, California 25 April 1995.
Join our commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies