“I’ve got enough nerve to do anything!
- Ginger Rogers in “Swing Time”
Ginger Rogers once said that “It’s a Man’s World” when asked why Fred Astaire’s name was listed before hers.
Yet that statement is somewhat misleading. Ginger might have lived in a man’s world, but she definitely had her say. I especially admire this well written and accurate portrayal written by Sarah Kaufman
Swing Time, the sixth film that Ginger Rogers made with Fred Astaire, spins the workaday world of a gambler and a dance teacher into gilded heaven, with duets unlike any the two had whipped up before. But nothing tops this 1936 film’s final nightclub scene - the one in which Astaire serenades a heartbroken Rogers with that aching vow of celibacy “Never Gonna Dance,” then coaxes her into an increasingly explosive waltz that sends them whirling up twin flights of stairs.
Paradise, right? Not yet. On the set’s upper level, with its polished floor like black ice, Ginger flies around in tight turns, and this cyclone force carries her right to the edge of the platform - where there’s no rail, nothing but her wits to keep her from plummeting. Your heart hops. Part of the wonderment and pain of the moment is that she is completely in character, disconsolate and remote. (Having fallen in love with Astaire’s cardsharp, she had hoped to marry him, until the fiancee from his past showed up.) But there’s a revitalizing purity in her turns, and with her white gown whipping like wind, she finally spins out the door in celestial glory. All Fred can do, slumping slack-jawed onto a bench, is watch her go.
That dance went from pas de deux to pas de don’t. And Ginger had the last word, rare for a period in movie history that was dominated by men.
She usually did. In her life, as in her films, Ginger was a distinctly independent woman. She was modern in her directness and self-possession.
The key to her appeal is her duality, her mix of high and low, glamour queen and saucepot. Her best performances draw on that mixed allure. Take “The Major and the Minor,” in which she is sugary and bashful one minute, and plotting how to land her man between drags on a cigarette in another. In today’s coronation of actors with looks and charisma but comparatively narrow abilities, it’s worth taking a look at Ginger and her remarkable - and undervalued - talents. Even for her time, when actors were typically more accomplished than they are today, she was a triple threat. Not only was she a singer-dancer-comedienne, but that multifaceted nature extended to the way she played her parts.
“Swing Time’s” furious dance-drama in the nightclub encapsulates Ginger’s yin and yang, the vulnerability and the firewall will. She recounts that after weeks of rehearsals, 48 takes went into filming that number, and shooting finished at 4 a.m. Hours before, her feet started bleeding, and choreographer Hermes Pan told her to go home. “I wanted to get the thing done,” she said, and she stuck it out. Ginger was appealingly earthy, a fleshly dream with a knockout body. Yet when she danced, she could make you believe she’d float away if Astaire weren’t holding onto her.
Ginger relaxing on a tilt table between takes on the set. The tilt table was used to allow actors to relax between takes without sitting down, which would cause their costumes to wrinkle
Could any other actress move so well yet be so stable, so versatile? Not Cyd Charisse, the better dancer but less convincing performer. Not Eleanor Powell, the tap queen with more power than purr, and a singing voice that, like Charisse’s, had to be dubbed. Jean Arthur did the comedy but not the dancing. The heartbreakingly gifted but troubled Judy Garland was a victim of the very fragility that made her so watchable - in fact, she was tapped to star in The Barkleys of Broadway the last of the Fred-and-Ginger films, butdropped out for health reasons.
Ginger was a paradox, at once weightless and grounded. Heaven and earth, united in a pair of kid pumps.
“She made it look easy,” says Mike Mashon, head of the Library of Congress’s Moving Image Section. “She was never showy. The Astaire films were about as showy as she got. But look at her next to him in those films; she’s so much more natural in front of the camera than he is.”
Fred Astaire was a virtual movie novice when he made his first screen appearance with Ginger, dancing the Carioca in 1933’s Flying Down to Rio But Ginger had 19 films under her belt, after an adolescence climbing up through song-and-dance acts, comedy routines and Broadway musicals (including the Gershwins’ “Girl Crazy,” alongside a newcomer named Ethel Merman.)
Ginger picked up dancing on the fly: At age 14, she picked up the Charleston from a vaudeville acquaintance, won a dance competition with it and parlayed that into a road show. She spent years charming live audiences before heading to Hollywood, and it shows in her films - in her way with a zinger, her comic timing and her spontaneous, living reactions to the other actors in her scenes.
In Stage Door,” the 1937 film about a boarding house full of ingenues trying to make it in show biz, Ginger and Katharine Hepburn - fire and ice - are unwilling roommates. “Don’t you ev-uh get tired of quarreling?” chides the snarkily superior Hepburn. “Why, can’t you take it?” snaps Ginger, not about to be dressed down.
But watch her gaze at Fred in Top Hat as he woos her with Irving Berlin’s gently bouncy song “Isn’t This a Lovely Day (To Be Caught in the Rain)?,” how her eyes brighten by degrees. She’s decidedly unglamorous, in baggy jodhpurs and riding boots, and rain, thunder and lightning slash through the music. Yet once they start dancing, the effect is pure gold: the thumpy rhythms of their feet on the wooden floor of a park pavilion, the couple’s shared power and mutual athleticism, their whizzing quickstep that feels like the Earth’s been knocked off its axis and the effortless, ecstatic, romantic joy of it all.
How very different their dancing is from what passes for ballroom today. Ginger and Fred take the form to such great heights because they take their audience along with them. The characters they play are screwy and sympathetic enough to feel real. And they carry that into their dancing, which is not about technique, glorious as it is, but about storytelling - the direct communication of body and spirit, barely implied but perfectly clear. You can watch their numbers over and over and see more in them every time. Next to them, even the best of the jackknife legs and splayed-out lifts on “Dancing With the Stars” or “So You Think You Can Dance” pale in comparison.
In looking at Ginger in her own right, I find myself wondering what a Fredless life would have been like for her. As much as she is identified with Fred, she had the multiple gifts and the drive to have succeeded without him.
Indeed, most of Ginger’s work over the decades - she made movies into the 1960s - did not involve singing and dancing. And during the height of the Astaire years, from 1933 to 1939, she made 21 films without him. Fred needed her more than the other way around. His films with other dance partners never attained the popularity or high art that the best ones with Ginger did. To the extent that his legacy as one of the world’s greatest dancers rests on his film work, it’s arguable he would not have made such brilliant movies and become so big without the uniquely seductive matchup with her.
Ginger was hardly a second banana. Matching her warmth and steeliness to his nervous perfectionism, she elevated the greatest dancer of the day. She had hotshot composers - Gershwin, Kern, Berlin - writing for her films, much as Tchaikovsky wrote for the Russian ballet. She ran with intellectuals, entrepreneurs and celebrities alike; among her many wooers were New Yorker founder Harold Ross, aviation magnate Howard Hughes and actor Cary Grant. She had five husbands and no children, and when she wasn’t in front of a camera, she was usually on the tennis courts or at her Oregon ranch.
She played against the prevailing stereotypes. “Real characters, that’s what I was after,” she wrote. Occasionally she turned down some plums, such as the female lead in It’s a Wonderful Life - which she described as “such a bland character.”
Ironically, the down-market heroines Ginger championed were all but doomed to slip out of the public consciousness. Yet Ginger put her most famous persona - the divine firecracker in feathers and furs - behind her and pursued her own path. She didn’t want to be limited, either to musical comedies or goody-goodies; she didn’t want them to define her. She wanted the last word.
Some Ginger Trivia
Was of Welsh and Scottish descent.
One of the celebrities whose picture Anne Frank placed on the wall of her bedroom in the “Secret Annex” while in hiding during the Nazi occupation of Amsterdam, Holland.
Ginger was married five times. These included:
Jack Pepper (29 March 1929 - 11 July 1931) (divorced)
Lew Ayres (13 November 1934 - 13 March 1941) (divorced)
Jack Briggs (16 January 1943 - 7 September 1949) (divorced)
Jacques Bergerac (7 February 1953 - 7 July 1957) (divorced)
William Marshall (16 March 1961 - 1969) (divorced)
Ginger was a fashion consultant for the JC Penney Company from 1972 to 1975.
Featured on the cover of Life four times.
Her feathered dress from the film Top Hat was designed by Ginger herself. It also earned her the nickname “feathers” from Fred due to all of the feathers flying around.
Ginger was nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture Actress in a Musical or Comedy for Monkey Business (1952).
Originally wanted to be a teacher.
Ginger had her own clothing factory in Rock Island, Tennessee for her label, Form Fit Rogers.
Ginger was the highest paid Hollywood actor of 1942.
Turned down lead roles in To Each His Own (1946) and The Snake Pit (1948). Both of these roles went on to be played to great acclaim by Olivia de Havilland.
Author Graham Greene always said he would have liked Ginger to play the role of Aunt Augusta in the film version of his novel ‘Travels With My Aunt’ [when the film was made in 1972 the role was played by Maggie Smith].
Ginger didn’t like alcohol and had an ice cream fountain installed in her house.
Ginger was 5 feet 4 1/2 inches tall.
In 1941, she won a Best Actress Oscar for her portrayal of Kitty Foyle in the film “Kitty Foyle”.
The first Rogers and Astaire teaming, Flying Down to Rio (1933), was her twentieth film appearance and only Fred’s second.
Dated Fred Astaire in New York while she was appearring in the musical play “Girl Crazy.” Fred was called in to help with the choreography.
Was named #14 Actress on The AFI 50 Greatest Screen Legends
Has a street named after her in Rancho Mirage, California, her final winter home. Ginger Rogers Road is located in the Mission Hills Golf Course. It crosses Bob Hope Drive, between Gerald Ford Drive and Dinah Shore Drive and 2 blocks from Frank Sinatra Drive.
Was asked to replaced Judy Garland in both the movies Harlow (1965/II) (which was filmed in eight days) and Valley of the Dolls (1967). She turned down “Dolls” because she hated the script; she did, however, do the quickie version of “Harlow” and, unlike the movie, garnered good reviews as Harlow’s mother.
Is one of the many movie stars mentioned in Madonna’s song “Vogue”
Always the outdoor sporty type, she was a near-champion tennis player, a topline shot and loved going fishing.
A keen artist, Ginger did many paintings, sculptures and sketches in her free time but could never bring herself to sell any of them.
Her favorite film was “All Quiet on the Western Front”.
Directed her first stage musical,’Babes in arms’, at age 74
She made her final public appearance on 18th March 1995 (just five weeks before her death) when she received the Women’s International Center (WIC) Living Legacy Award.
During the last years of her life she bought a ranch in the Medford, Oregon area because she liked the climate. She donated money to the community and funded the Craterian Ginger Rogers Theater in downtown Medford, which was named after her.
Ginger’s ashes reside only a few yards away from screen partner Fred Astaire, at Oakwood Memorial Park in Chatsworth, CA.
Both Fred Astaire and his longtime co-choreographer, Hermes Pan, always noted that Rogers was an integral part of the dance team.
Fred particularly respected Ginger’s dedication and endurance, saying, “All the girls I ever danced with thought they couldn’t do it, but of course they could. So they always cried. All except Ginger. No no, Ginger never cried.”(And if you’ve heard that Ginger’s feet would often bleed from rehearsing dances until Fred thought they were perfect, that’s true.)
Ginger would, from time to time, ask not to be cast in musicals, not because she didn’t value all that dancing in musicals had done for her career, but because she wanted to grow creatively. In all, she made 73 motion pictures, ten of them with Fred Astaire.
The two most famous quotes about Ginger are that “She did everything that Fred Astaire did, except backwards and in high heels”(this quote came from Bob Thaves, creator of the cartoon “Frank and Ernest”, 1982) and that “Fred gave Ginger class, and Ginger gave Fred sex” (the latter of which is attributed to Katherine Hepburn).
However, both of these suggest that Ginger’s only fame and talent was as Fred’s dance partner. While she certainly excelled at that, she had many talents as a dancer, actress and singer.
Ginger’s philosophy - The most important thing in anyone`s life is to be giving something. The quality I can give is fun, joy and happiness. This is my gift.