July 16, 1911 – Virginia Katherine McMath:
“After all, it’s not as if we were Abbott and Costello. We did have careers apart from each other.”
Ginger Rogers was a very versatile dancer/singer/actor of the stage and screen. She worked in dramas, musicals and comedies with equal ease. Rogers won an Academy Award for playing a girl from the wrong side of the tracks in Kitty Foyle (1940), subtitled The Natural History Of A Woman. The dress she wore in the film became a popular style, known as a “Kitty Foyle” dress.
Wholesome yet seductive, blunt yet vulnerable, Rogers was one of Hollywood’s biggest stars of the 1930s and 1940s. If her range was not as great as her good friend Bette Davis, her appeal and glamour were more down-to-earth than other female stars of the era and easier for fans to identify with. She would still be remembered with affection now even if she had never danced with Fred Astaire. But, because she did, she will forever have a special place in film history, a place that elevates her above many other performers of the period just as popular and possibly more talented. Astaire and Rogers are quite simply the most loved dance duo of all time.
She was married five times and had no children. Rogers was most assuredly not gay, plus she was a very conservative Republican, a proud member of the Daughters Of The American Revolution (but then, so am I), a Christian Scientist, and a vocal supporter of the Hollywood Blacklist. But, she was a sublime performer. I can’t bring myself to dislike her just because of her politics.
Rogers’s political views earned her more adverse criticism than any other aspect of her life. Like her mother, Lela, firmly right-wing, she campaigned for Richard Nixon when he ran for Governor of California in 1962, and during the McCarthy hearings her mother testified that Rogers loathed making Tender Comrade (1944) 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 actor. The director Joseph Losey, himself blacklisted, declared:
“Ginger Rogers was one of the worst, red-baiting, terrifying reactionaries in Hollywood.”
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.”
I am not alone, but I find the film, Swing Time (1936) with Rogers and Fred Astaire, to be a nearly perfect work of art. The RKO musical, directed by George Stevens, with dances by Hermes Pan and songs from Jerome Kern and yesterday’s #BornThisDay girl, Dorothy Fields, is simply sublime. I have seen this film at least 10 times on television, and once on the big screen. The last time was just a week ago. The Husband remarked that Roger’s Never Gonna Dance dress by Bernard Newman was one of the stars of the movie.
A bit of research and I found that the dress is silk georgette, with two layers of fabric, forming a pair of big circles. The material was cut on the bias. The dress was constructed in 22 panels with French seams; every other seam held hand-applied sequins. It had an under-structure similar to a 1920’s bathing suit, with those short-short style legs. It also had weights in the hem that were the size of fifty cent pieces, made of something similar to a clear plastic. Swing Time is, of course, in black and white, but the dress is a shade of light pink. Newman surprised Rogers by producing it in her favorite color and she wrote in her memoir that she was greatly pleased by it. The RKO costume department took 85 hours to make the dress. It still exists, but is in a private collection, and not mine.
Rogers was just 22-years-old when she was cast in the hit film Flying Down To Rio (1933) with Astaire. She had been mostly cast as wise-cracking chorines in the manner of Joan Blondell when Dorothy Jordan, scheduled to play a small featured role in Flying Down to Rio, married the studio boss Merian C. Cooper instead. Rogers was rushed into the film three days into shooting and found herself playing opposite Astaire.
Rogers had met Astaire earlier when he had been brought in by MGM to help stage the musical numbers in Girl Crazy (1943) and they had even dated a few times. Neither of them expected anything special from the film they were about to make. Astaire told her: “It’ll be fun.” Dolores del Rio and Gene Raymond were the film’s leads, but audience response to chemistry of Astaire and Rogers and their dancing of The Carioca was huge. Though the two had supporting roles, their dancing was magnificent and showcased intricate footwork with expert craft.
Katharine Hepburn remarked:
“She gave him sex, he gave her class.”
Despite the showbiz legend, both Rogers and Astaire always insisted that their relationship was generally one of respect and friendship, though they were never close. Rogers:
“We had our differences. what good artistic marriage doesn’t? But, they were unimportant.”
They co-starred over the next few years in eight more films, dancing in notable numbers like Night And Day from The Gay Divorcee (1934), Cheek To Cheek from Top Hat (1935) and Let’s Face The Music And Dance from Follow The Fleet (1936).
The films with Astaire had been full of delicious musical numbers. I am crazy for Follow The Fleet‘s finale when they enacted a shipboard romance between two suicidal strangers who meet and fell in love to 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. In climactic number in Carefree (1938) Rogers is literally under a hypnotic spell as she succumbs to Astaire’s charms in Change Partners.
Her film career dripped to trickle in the late 1940s after a string of flops. MGM asked her to partner with Astaire once more in 1949. Judy Garland had withdrawn from The Barkleys Of Broadway and Rogers stepped in to the musical about a dance team’s break-up when the female partner wants to be a dramatic actor, which bore more than just a little resemblance to her career with Astaire. In the rehearsal tap routine Bouncin’ The Blues Rogers shows that she could keep up with Astaire even if some of their old spark was missing. Their romantic duet to They Can’t Take That Away From Me, first sung by Astaire in Shall We Dance?, recaptured the old magic as they swept languorously into and out of each other’s arms. Rogers works hard to make sure the public wouldn’t be disappointed in this reunion; she always believed in giving 100 percent. Rogers said: “I detest idling,” and both Astaire and Hermes Pan, dance director of the Astaire/Rogers films, attested to her professionalism and dedication.
Rogers presented Astaire with a special Academy Award in 1950, and they were co-presenters at Academy Awards in 1967, where they were given a standing ovation when they came on stage in an impromptu dance.
After film work dried up, Rogers had great success touring in established hits such as Annie Get Your Gun and Bells Are Ringing. In 1966 she succeeded Carol Channing as Broadway star of Hello, Dolly!, charming both critics and audiences. I saw her as Dolly Levi and she had it all: charm, star wattage and comic chops.
In 1969, with a flurry of publicity, she starred in the London production of Mame. The producers had a “Mame Express” take the press to greet her ship in Southampton, and spent a fortune decorating her theatre dressing room in pink “as befits a true star”. The show ran for 14 months.
In 1976, Rogers returned to London to headline at The Palladium, presenting a blend of songs, reminiscences and some carefully choreographed dancing. In her act, she made frequent and generous references to Astaire and the role he played in making her part of a legend. Both Rogers and Astaire happily realized in their lifetime that their contribution to dance on film would last as long as people watched movies.
Rogers has a connection to my state, Oregon. For decades she summered at her 4-Rs (Rogers’s Rogue River Ranch). In 1990, she sold that property and moved to nearby Medford. Rogers regularly supported, and made personal appearances, at the Craterian Theater in Medford, where she had performed in 1926 as a vaudevillian. The theater was restored in 1997 and posthumously renamed in her honor as The Ginger Rogers Theater.
Rogers’ final credits rolled in 1995 at her home in Rancho Mirage, California. She was 83-years-old, taken by a heart attack, but not a lack of heart.
”I’m most grateful to have had that joyous time in motion pictures. It really was a Golden Age of Hollywood. Pictures were talking, they were singing, they were coloring.”