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Ginger Rogers, One Half of a Legend

Updated on August 2, 2012

Ginger Rogers

Many people naturally, but mistakenly, believe that Ginger Rogers's career began and ended with her partnership with Fred Astaire. Of course it was that wonderful partnership from heaven which made her a household name but she was already an experienced Hollywood performer when they first danced together in 'Flying Down to Rio' in 1933 and without Fred she continued to have a highly successful Hollywood career as a solo performer, including winning an Oscar for Best Actress for 'Kitty Foyle' in 1940.

As well as her dancing and acting prowess Ginger was a talented painter and sculptor and was also a first class golfer and tennis player. A very accomplished, talented and determined lady.

Early Years

Her birth name was Virginia Katherine McMath and she was born in Independence, Missouri in 1911. The name 'Ginger' comes from the diminutive of Virginia, 'Ginja' which she was called as a little girl and it stuck. The followed her father to Texas when he found employment there but her parents divorced acrimoniously when Virginia was very young. Her father rarely saw her after the divorce and he died when she was 11 years old.

She was brought up by her mother's parents in Kansas City whilst her mother moved to Hollywood to find work as a screenwriter and, when she was six, young Virginia joined her. When she was nine years old, her mother married John Logan Rogers whose name Ginger took although the adoption was never made legal.  Her mother was intensely ambitious for her, and the theater became Ginger's passion.

Ginger in Vaudeville, age 15
Ginger in Vaudeville, age 15

Rising Star

Her dancing skills showed early and when she was 14 she won the Texas State Charleston Championship which enabled her to tour on the Texas Interstate Theatre circuit for 4 weeks. It proved to be the break she needed and she continued touring for over 6 months. She was young and exuberant, as well as talented, and she got noticed.

Appearances in vaudeville soon followed, gaining her more valuable experience and exposure, and by December, 1929 she was featured in her first Broadway musical, ' Top Speed'. Star status followed rapidly and Ginger's first starring role on Broadway was in George and Ira Gershwin's 'Girl Crazy'. Her two hit songs from that show, Embraceable You and But Not For Me, have since become musical standards.

"Cigarette me, big boy!"

Paramount Studios saw her movie potential and hired her whilst she was still working in 'Top Speed'. During the early thirties she played the role assigned to her - a blonde with a cynical expression and a fast line in smart dialogue: so she is spikey and sassy and steals many scenes in '42nd Street' in 1933 as the wise-mouth chorus girl Anytime Annie. One of her early films,in 1933, 'The Young Man of Manhattan', featured Ginger as a 16-year-old flapper. Her line "Cigarette me, big boy," became a classic phrase in the American vocabulary.

Her apprenticeship also included 'The Sap from Syracuse', 'Follow the Leader', all in 1930, 'Honor Among Lovers' in 1931, 'The Tenderfoot', 'Hat Check Girl', 'You said a Mouthful' in 1932, 'Gold Diggers of 1933', in which she popularised 'We're in the Money' and 'Sitting Pretty' in 1933. In the same, busy year, she was funny and sexy as an uninhibited radio star who marries for a promotional stunt in 'Professional Sweetheart'.

After a total of 19 films, Ginger left Paramount for RKO studios. In her first film with them, 'Flying Down to Rio' in 1933, she was given a secondary role, dancing The Carioca head-to-head with a movie newcomer, fresh from Broadway success, a slim, fussy, perfectionist, genius called Fred Astaire. Ginger's life was about to change, and so was the Hollywood musical.

Flying Down to Rio (1933) The Beginning of a Legend

Ginger and Fred

Their names go together and always will. Although Fred Astaire had numerous other partners, starting with his sister, Adele, and including such brilliant artistes as Rita Hayworth, and Cyd Charisse, only with Ginger Rogers were the sublime heights reached so seemingly effortlessly, time after time. Ginger, as we have seen, had already made 19 films before she was partnered with Astaire, and she was to have a successful career after him, but no matter what, fate has decreed that she and Fred Astaire will go down in posterity with their names forever linked together.

Ginger, as well as being a talented, fast and sure dancer, was one clever lady and she made sure she complemented his artistry, rather than competing with it. She naturally had a rather brash, edgy personality but none of that showed when she danced with Astaire. She was a robust, athletic girl and she combined dancing skills, natural beauty and exceptional abilities as a dramatic actress and comedienne, which contrasted perfectly with the slim Astaire's remote style so that he seemed warmed by her, just as she gained coolness from him. As a result, they became one of the clearest expressions of 1930s style in the way they blended two contrary archetypes: the man about town and the girl next door.

All women thought they could dance like Ginger as long as Astaire was there to lead them. No man thought he could dance like Astaire but each man knew that Ginger wouldn't mind.

The Picolino - Amazing

World Stardom

The new team took the world by storm, subsequently making eight more pictures together at RKO: Gay Divorcee, Roberta, Top Hat, their biggest success, breaking box office records at Radio City Music Hall and earning an Academy Award nomination for Best Picture, Follow the Fleet, Swing Time, Shall We Dance, Carefree and The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle.

Astaire has acknowledged Ginger's important contribution to the innovative routines which were introduced during this golden period. Because of the contractual film commitments which she had to fit in between the movies she did with Astaire, she spent a lot of time rehearsing with Hermes Pan, Astaire's assistant choreographer and ideas man. He was a brilliant dancer and bore an uncanny resemblance to Astaire.

Swing Time
Swing Time

Ginger Dancing The Charleston from 'Roxie Hart'

Hot Property

Whilst making the Astaire musicals, Ginger was anxious to prove herself as an independent actress and she kept busy making other movies for RKO. They tended to be lightweight comedies and included such films as “Stage Door” in 1937 with Lucille Ball, Eve Arden, Ann Miller and Katharine Hepburn, and “Vivacious Lady” the following year.

She worked extremely hard and the effort sometimes showed a little too much for easy viewing, especially when whe was doing one of her child impersonations. She was in 'Bachelor Mother', Fifth Avenue Girl' in 1949, 'Primrose Path', and 'Lucky Partners', in 1940, and in the same year she won The Best Actress Academy Award for her performance in 'Kitty Foyle', in which she portrays a class-confused working girl in love with a Philadelphia socialite. For a few years she was RKO's hottest property and the highest paid actress in Hollywood with 'Tom, Dick and Harry' in 1941, 'Roxie Hart', 'The Major and the Minor', 'Once Upon a Honeymoon' in 1942, 'Tender Comrade' in 1943, 'Lady in the Dark' and 'I'll Be Seeing You' in 1944.

Career Decline

However, after the war her career began to decline. She made 'Weekend at the Waldorf' in 1945, 'Magnificent Doll' in 1946, and 'It Had to Be You' the following year. Then came a two year gap before a not completely satisfactory reunion with Astaire in 'The Barkleys of Broadway' in 1949. By then, however, she was mixing comedies and souped-up dramas, for which she was not really suited. Only 'Monkey Business' in 1952 is memorable among her late films. Otherwise, she was seldom at ease: 'Perfect Strangers', 'Storm Warning' in 1950, 'Dreamboat' in 1952, 'Forever Female' in 1953, 'The Beautiful Stranger' and 'Black Widow' in 1954.

After that her output slowed markedly. She made two oddities:'Quick, Lets Get Married' and 'Harlow' both in 1965. In the same year she took to Broadway in a successful run of 'Hello! Dolly'. She spent her later years doing guest spots on TV shows. After that, she retired and wrote a well-received utobiography in 1991 entitled, "Ginger, My Story".

Ginger was married five times, to Edward Culpepper, Lew Ayres, Jack Briggs, Jacques Bergerac, and finally William Marshall. She divorced Marshall in 1962 and never remarried. She died in 1995 in California, at the age of 83.

Summing Up

It is very easy to underestimate Ginger Rogers, and many people did, to their cost. She was certainly not the vapid, easily intimidated partner of a demanding, tyrranical dancing genius. Rather, she was a consummate professional performer, and she and Astaire formed a genuine partnership with input from both. She was clever enough to see that she had to be an actress, not just a dancer, and it was that which lifted her above the other brilliant dancers who partnered Fred.

It is certainly difficult to put into words what the magic was that they produced. But it was undeniably there. Everyone sees it, everyone feels it and we should be grateful for it. The images of Ginger and Fred pirouetting together are her legacy. Let us leave them together dancing, forever floating, gliding, spinning, gracefully, effortlessly never ending in our memories.

The Wonderful Ginger Rogers
The Wonderful Ginger Rogers | Source


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    • gunsock profile imageAUTHOR


      12 years ago from South Coast of England

      Thanks, William, the more I see of Fred and Ginger the more I admire their skill and invention. Just fantastic.

    • William F. Torpey profile image

      William F Torpey 

      12 years ago from South Valley Stream, N.Y.

      Simply another fantastic hub, gunsock. Ginger was fabulous, indeed. She and Fred Astaire were legends. I also liked Fred because he was so good with Bing Crosby in "Holiday Inn" and "Blue Skies." The ladies like to say about Ginger that "she did everything Fred did except that she did it backwards and in high heels." Thanks for the memories.


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