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Ginger Rogers (1911-1995): “She Could Even Shed Her Own Light”

By Maureen E. Maryanski

Ginger Rogers was an actress, comedian, singer, dancer, vaudeville performer, Broadway starlet, Hollywood film star, Academy Award winner, and one half of the most lauded dance team in film history. Today, she is best known for the ten movies that paired her with Fred Astaire between 1933 and 1949. Indeed, it is difficult to find much discussion of or inquiry into Rogers as an individual. Although she had a diverse and celebrated career before, during, and after her films with Astaire, it is because of their partnership that Rogers is best known for her dancing. Even one of the most famous quotes about her—cartoonist Robert Thaves’ 1982 line, “Sure [Fred] was great, but don’t forget that Ginger Rogers did everything he did, backwards…and in high heels!”1—while presenting the duo as equals, defines Rogers in relation to Astaire. Considering the breadth and longevity of her career, it is infuriating that the true scope of her talent as a performer has not been examined as thoroughly and seriously as that of her male counterpart.

Rogers was born Virginia Katherine McMath on July 16, 1911, in Independence, Missouri. The nickname Ginger came from a young cousin who could not pronounce Virginia, while Rogers was the surname of her step-father. Her mother, Lela, was a determined stage mother, heavily engaged in her daughter’s career. Lela first acted as a combination manager, chaperone, and writer during Rogers’ early years in the southern vaudeville circuit, which began when she was just fourteen. Although not a trained dancer, Rogers had won Charleston contests at a young age and both sang and danced on stage.

In 1929, at just eighteen, Rogers relocated to Brooklyn, initially as a bandstand singer. Within months, she was cast as the second lead in her first Broadway show, Top Speed, which earned her the following review from the New York Times: “ an impudent young thing who carries her youth and humor to the point where they become completely charming.” The following year Rogers landed her first leading role in Ira and George Gershwin’s musical Girl Crazy. While this musical is notable for several reasons, including the introduction of Ethel Merman to the New York stage, it is most significant to the story of Rogers and her dancing as the first meeting of Rogers and Astaire – in rehearsal. Astaire, who had found much success and renown in his stage career with his sister Adele, was brought in to choreograph a dance number for Rogers. And so, on a Broadway stage, the duo first danced together.

In addition to her Broadway work, Rogers also began her film career in New York, under contract to Paramount. Her first film was Young Man of Manhattan in 1930, and she went on to appear in 19 films on the east and west coasts prior to her partnership with Astaire. Her early films were primarily non-musical, and Rogers played a wide range of roles from ingénue to chorus girl to sassy girlfriend. Memorably, she appeared in Busby Berkeley’s 42nd Street (1933) and Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933), both of which featured prominent musical numbers that she performed. In addition to her musical film roles, Rogers excelled in comedies and dramas, remaining a popular box office draw for much of her career. Some of her most engaging and successful films were Stage Door (1937), Bachelor Mother (1939), Kitty Foyle (1940), for which she won the Leading Actress Academy Award, and Monkey Business (1952). Rogers continued to make films into the 1960s, and later returned to stage musicals in the 1960s and 1970s.

When focusing on Rogers’ dancing, it is for her partnership with Astaire that she is best remembered. Not only did their dancing in ten movies create some of the most recognizable and memorable moments in film history, but also at the peak of their creativity in the mid-1930s, Rogers and Astaire were the most popular team in movies, a constant box office attraction that the public adored. With such films as Top Hat (1935), Follow the Fleet (1936), Swing Time (1936), and Shall We Dance (1937), Rogers and Astaire created what are regarded as the greatest dance musicals in movie history. As Arlene Croce states, within their films, the love scenes were the dances, and it was “through their dancing that the public grew to love them and to identify their moods, the depth of their involvement, and the exquisite sexual harmony that made them not only the ideal dancing couple but the ideal romantic team.” Their dances were more than dances; they were physical manifestations of their characters’ emotions, both advancing the plots of their movies and inviting their audience into the emotional world being created. As part of the escapist, fantasy culture that arose during the Great Depression, Rogers and Astaire also offered their audience a glimpse of freedom through movement.

For all the acclaim and attention that the Rogers-Astaire films have garnered in the last eighty years, Rogers has not always received due credit for her share of the partnership. Astaire’s longer, more dance-centric career and his role as the major creative force behind their dances has largely overshadowed Rogers and her contributions on screen, which were equal to those of Astaire. Hannah Hyam argues that Rogers is taken less seriously as a performing artist because dancing was never her sole focus, nor was she as professionally trained as Astaire. Yet over the course of their series of films, Rogers adapted and evolved her technique to whatever was required for the dance. She matched Astaire in the ever-increasing complexity of choreography he created for each new film, and as Croce states, “she could even shed her own light.” Indeed Rogers is universally considered to be Astaire’s best dance partner, one who could match him step for step in the dance, but also complement his style, both choreographically and physically. 

The adaptability and the effortlessness with which Rogers executed the physical steps of a dance, as well as conveying the emotions connecting it to the plot, belies the energy and dedication that went into each performance captured on film. Throughout Rogers’ memoir, Ginger: My Story, tales of demanding rehearsals and hours of shooting dance sequences reveal the most striking aspect of this performer’s ability: her tenacity. Her work ethic and drive are evident as she went toe to toe with Astaire and the male-dominated Hollywood of the 1930s to fight for and prove her worth and value. What she may have lacked in training, she more than made up for with grit and determination as she performed elegant, graceful dances while exhausted and with bleeding feet, as when she and Astaire spent all night and forty-eight takes filming “Never Gonna Dance” for 1936’s Swing Time

“I haven’t even met her, but I’d kinda like to marry her.” Astaire utters these words in 1937’s Shall We Dance after seeing a flip-book of Rogers dancing. As Croce points out, these are the words of a man who has fallen in love, not just with the picture of a girl, but “with a girl who dances like that.” What is that? It is grace, elegance, tenacity, humor, determination, and emotional depth. Rogers communicated with her dance. She may not have had the technical skill of Astaire or his other dance partners, but she connected to people and was someone with which audiences could identify. In her 1995 editorial following Rogers’ death, Maureen Dowd attributed Rogers’ appeal to her ordinariness. As Dowd put it, “her gift was to make ordinary girls feel that they could do it too.” What an extraordinary thing to do.

NOTES

1.Ginger Rogers Website. http://www.gingerrogers.com/about/quotes.html.


Maureen Maryanski is a reference librarian at the New-York Historical Society. She also worked for the Dance Heritage Coalition as an Archival Fellow in 2012-2013, at the Dance Notation Bureau and at the Lar Lubovitch Dance Company. A former modern dancer and choreographer, Maryanski continued to study and write about dance history while earning an MA in History and an MLS at Indiana University.

 


Selected Resources for Further Research

Books

Arlene Croce. The Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers Book. New York: Random House, 1972.

Morris Dickstein. Dancing in the Dark: a Cultural History of the Great Depression. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2009. 

Maureen Dowd. “Ginger Rogers: A Fine Romance with a Fine Gal.” New York Times, April 27, 1995.

Edward Gallafent. Astaire and Rogers. New York: Columbia University Press, 2002.

Harvey, James. “Astaire and Rogers,” and “Gingers Rogers,” in Romantic Comedy. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1987.

Hannah Hyam. Fred and Ginger: the Astaire-Rogers Partnership 1934-1938. Brighton, England: Pen Press Publishers, 2007.

Sheridan Morley. Shall We Dance: The Life of Ginger Rogers. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1995.

Ginger Rogers. Ginger: My Story. New York: HarperCollins, 1991.