She was one of the biggest stars of the Golden era and we feel we haven’t given her her just due. A singer, a comedienne, a dramatic actress, and of course a legendary dancer.
Her career spanned decades.
She was born in 1911 in Harry Truman country, won a Charleston contest at age 15, and made her Hollywood feature debut in 1930 as a “flapper” with Claudette Colbert in Young Man of Manhattan.
Fred Astaire was nowhere to be found but that movie’s title could well have characterized Ginger Rogers’ cool, dapper dancing partner in some of classic Hollywood’s most popular popular films, ranking the duo high on the list of American screen legends.
It’s important to appreciate, however, that Rogers — whose career ended in the late 1980’s — had a vibrant screen life outside her legendary association with Astaire. She married five times, all to actors (including Lew Ayres and Jacques Bergerac), in unions that generally lasted under a decade. She didn’t drink, and she voted Republican. Obviously a talented and complex woman.
In 1986, director Federico Fellini came up with the delightful comedy, Ginger and Fred, about the travails of a pair of aging Italian music hall performers imitating Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire on European television. (If you haven’t seen this one, by all means track it down.)
Back in Hollywood Ginger — who died in 1995 at age 83 — took umbrage and sued the producers. In this instance, she may not have immediately noticed something — that her name is referred to in the title first, before Astaire’s. It’s Ginger and Fred, not the other way around.
We like that order since Rogers usually takes the back seat when her immensely popular partnership with the great Fred is discussed. As critic David Thomson notes, they became one of the clearest expressions of 1930’s style in the way they blended two contrary archetypes: the man about town and the girl next door.
The girl next door was indeed Ginger, or at least she came off that way onscreen. She also happened to have been a terrific dancer, who more than kept up with perfectionist Astaire every step of the way.
Some things you might want to know about her:
— Rogers was born 1911 in Independence, Missouri. Her name was Virginia McMath.
— Ginger and Astaire made 10 movies together: 1933’s Flying Down To Rio; 1934’s The Gay Divorcee; 1935’s Roberta and Top Hat; 1936’s Follow The Fleet and Swing Time; 1937’s Shall We Dance; 1938’s Carefree; 1939’s The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle; and 1949’s The Barkleys of Broadway.
— By the time she and Fred were paired in their first movie, Ginger had already compiled quite a resume consisting of 19 films. Flying Down to Rio was only Fred’s second screen outing.
— Ginger won her best actress Academy Award for 1940’s Kitty Foyle, an RKO melodrama in which Ginger plays a spirited, blue collar working woman (above). She richly deserved her Oscar.