Ginger Rogers would have been 100 years old today. In honor of this immensely multi-talented star of stage and screen, I am putting together a humble birthday tribute to say a posthumous thank you to a woman who quite literally gave her heart and soul to the film industry.
I will start by saying that I consider Ginger Rogers to be massively underestimated as a screen star. Ask anyone on the street who Ginger Rogers was, and you’ll get a response like “Fred’s dancing partner!” In a sense, I think it was a curse that Ginger became known as just one of “Fred and Ginger,” because it isolated her in the eyes of the public. If Ginger had a flaw, it was that she was TOO talented. She was a master at everything. People who have too many talents tend to get either smothered completely by their own talent, or become known for one thing and the rest of their potential goes down the drain. The relative anonymity of Kay Thompson today is an example of someone being smothered by their own talent, I think–and Ginger is an example of the latter. The public can’t handle that much talent from a single person, and don’t know where to focus their energy, so either one thing takes center stage, or nothing at all.
She was born Virginia Katherine McMath in Independence, Missouri, and was raised by her mother and stepfather (John Logan Rogers) in Fort Worth, Texas. She took the last name of her stepfather as a child, and as one of her young cousins couldn’t pronounce “Virginia,” she became “Ginger.” Her mother, Lela, had worked as a scriptwriter and had a real passion for Hollywood, one that she passed on to her daughter–Ginger grew up with the theatre, and soon fell in love with it.
After winning a Charleston dance contest at the age of 15, she was given the opportunity to join a vaudeville traveling act, and traveled with them for 6 months. At the age of 18 she made her Broadway debut in a play called Top Speed, which was followed by a starring role in the musical Girl Crazy, which garnered her rave reviews and a seven year contract with Paramount Pictures.
The Paramount contract didn’t really work out, and she garnered a number of other, smaller contracts, including those with Warner Brothers and Pathé. She made a significant impression at the Warner Brothers studio with 42nd Street and Gold Diggers of 1933 (a personal favorite of mine), but it was at RKO that Ginger would make her biggest mark. She was paired with Fred Astaire in Flying Down to Rio in 1933, which was followed by 8 other films together at that studio (The Barkleys of Broadway, their 10th and last film together, was made at MGM in 1949). Here are some moments from those films:
“The Carioca,” from Flying Down to Rio, (1933)
“The Continental,” from The Gay Divorcée, (1934)
“Smoke Gets In Your Eyes,” from Roberta (1935)
“Cheek to Cheek,” from Top Hat (1935)
“Let Yourself Go,” from Follow the Fleet (1936)
“Pick Yourself Up,” from Swing Time (1936)
“Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off,” from Shall We Dance (1937)
“The Yam,” from Carefree (1938)
“Waiting for the Robert E. Lee,” from The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle (1939)
“Bouncin’ the Blues,” The Barkleys of Broadway ( 1949)
It was also with RKO that Ginger made Kitty Foyle in 1940, the film that would showcase her talent as a dramatic actress as well as a dancer and comedienne. The story of a woman torn between two men, Ginger proved to the world that she was more than just the musical counterpart to Fred Astaire. She garnered an Academy Award nomination, and won for the Best Actress of 1940.
As the 1950’s approached and McCarthyism began to rise in the United States, Ginger was one of the few people in Hollywood to show strong support toward McCarthy’s policies. A lifelong Republican, she held views that were not in line with those of many of her close friends (Katharine Hepburn, Lucille Ball, and Bette Davis, to name a few), but nonetheless, Rogers was known for being a good and loyal friend, and was well-loved within Hollywood. It has been said that Ginger herself may not have been as conservative as she said she was–but instead put on that face for her mother, to whom she was very close and who was a staunch supporter of McCarthy.
Though her career declined as roles for older women became harder to find, Ginger still managed to find work in smaller films and on Broadway, notably replacing Carol Channing as Dolly Levi in Hello, Dolly! in 1965. She made a number of television appearances, acting right up until her death of congestive heart failure in 1995.
From an appearance on “The Lucy Show,” with her good friend (and distant cousin) Lucille Ball. The young girl is Lucie Arnaz.
Ginger spent her last years in ill health, confined to a wheelchair due to a fall on the stairway of Ronald Reagan’s yacht. A number of strokes did not help. It’s sad to think of the great Ginger Rogers in a wheelchair, but I guess it’s some consolation that her movies are still around and keep her alive and well in our minds.
I leave you with one of my favorite moments of hers, from Gold Diggers of 1933. Happy 100th birthday, Ginger!!