Is it possible to talk about Ginger Rogers without mentioning Fred Astaire? While the two are inextricably linked in one of the greatest dance partnerships of all time, the ten movies the pair did together are only a fraction of the seventy-plus movies Ginger made. Their first on-screen teaming inFlying Down to Rio marked Fred's second film... and Ginger's twentieth. So even though it may be what she is best remembered for, Ginger's career did not begin (or end) dancing with Fred Astaire.
Her success did start with dancing, however. After winning a Charleston contest at the age of 14, Ginger began touring, eventually performing on Broadway and making her way to Hollywood. While she didn't like being pigeon-holed as only a singing and dancing girl, even in her non-musical films there are often scenes where Ginger dances. Of all her dancing partners, both on and off the screen, who were her favorites? In her autobiography, Ginger explained that for her, part of the joy in dancing came when the man could carry on a conversation without losing the rhythm. Among those getting a ten on her dance card: choreographer Hermes Pan, Jimmy Stewart, and Cary Grant.
Ginger got a chance to step away from musicals and play a more serious role in 1940's Kitty Foyle. For her strong performance, Ginger was nominated for an Academy Award. In the first year the results were kept secret until the ceremony, the suspense ended with Ginger Rogers winning the Oscar for Best Actress, beating out Katherine Hepburn, Joan Fontaine, and Bette Davis -- fierce competition indeed!
In addition to her dramatic skills, Ginger also had a knack for comedic roles. My favorite example of this is Billy Wilder's The Major and the Minor. In a role tailored for her, Ginger plays a woman who gets stuck pretending to be years younger than she really is, all because she wants to get a cheaper train fare home. (Ginger herself used to enact this charade to travel more cheaply during the early days of her career.) The movie also gave Ginger a chance to act with her mother, with whom she had a very close relationship. Ginger said she had more fun making this film than any other except forKitty Foyle, and it shows, for the film is delightful.
That sense of fun is present in many of Ginger's movies, and is part of what adds to her appeal. She makes dancing with Fred look like the best time ever, even though it was definitely a lot of hard work. She's graceful, beautiful, yet manages to display (even while dancing) a sense of humor, making her seem more down-to-earth. She can also be incredibly cute, like in Gold Diggers of 1933 where she sings "We're in the Money" in pig Latin (which came about only because production chief Darryl F. Zanuck heard her practicing that way). There's also a sharpness to her, an alert, intelligent look and a wonderful delivery of witty dialogue. Take Stage Door for an example, where the director listened to the off-camera chit-chat of the actresses and worked it into the lines -- who knows which of the barbs delivered may have come from Ginger?
That range Ginger had keeps me fascinated with her, always happy when I discover another one of her movies. In her films she's tender, natural, funny, smart, amazingly watchable and relatable. Who was she? Actress, dancer, singer, comedienne. Not Fred & Ginger. The very talented Ginger Rogers.