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Ginger Rogers, Soaring Past Fred Astaire's Shadow

Updated on December 4, 2014

Ginger Rogers

A sexy pose, one of many roles Ginger Rogers mastered.
A sexy pose, one of many roles Ginger Rogers mastered. | Source

The Best Way To Remember Ginger Rogers: Backwards

If I start out by telling you that Ginger Rogers (See Ginger: My Story), a devout Christian Scientist, died at age 83, unattended by a physician but soothed by prayers, you'd be right to say I'm telling the story backwards.

But isn't that exactly how she's best remembered - doing every step Fred Astaire did, backwards? And in high heels?

Astaire, whose own dance steps defied gravity, is said to have remarked that Ginger deserved most of the credit for their success.

That she did so well in the arms of the demanding Astaire becomes even more impressive when you learn that Ginger had never danced with a partner before dancing with him.

According to Astaire,

"She faked it an awful lot. She couldn't tap and she couldn't do this and that ... but Ginger had style and talent and improved as she went along. She got so that after a while everyone else who danced with me looked wrong."

During their years together, Ginger was frustrated when RKO, where the Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers's films were made, refused to pay her as much as Astaire. Revenge was sweet, though, after the dance team separated and she made movies on her own.

With a string of hits, she became the highest paid performer in Hollywood.

It's ironic that, before and after her unforgettable series of films with Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers scored independent successes that get lost in the bright lights radiating from her shorter dancing career.

Unforgettable, Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire - Or Should That Be Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, Backward

The may nine movies together. Here are some collection that let you get your hands on some or all of them.

Astaire & Rogers Ultimate Collector's Edition (11-Pack)
Astaire & Rogers Ultimate Collector's Edition (11-Pack)

Fred and Ginger built an act that no one could ever duplicate, probably because there was only one Fred and he found his perfect match. It's too bad neither really got to show off their acting skills. They were too busy dancing.

 

Best of Fred and Ginger, Complete Films

Limitless Range in Characters

Ginger Rogers In Kitty Foyle
Ginger Rogers In Kitty Foyle | Source

A Song And A Dance In Her Heart

Ginger Rogers Was Born To Star

With only a little vaudeville, radio singing and a single Broadway show to her credit, Ginger became an overnight star at 19, sharing the spotlight with Ethel Merman in George and Ira Gershwin's Girl Crazy.

Never fully appreciated for her voice, she introduced their classics Embraceable You and But Not For Me in the show.

In her films with Astaire as a duet, she also introduced I'm Putting All My Eggs In One Basket, a classic from the legendary pen of Irving Berlin; Jerome Kern and Dorothy Fields' A Fine Romance; and another Gershwin tune that's never left the pop repertoire, Let's Call The Whole Thing Off.

But no matter how you pronounced potato or tomato, Ginger was an original who earned her fame with Astaire, but was also a standout actress who won an Oscar for her serious role in Kitty Foyle, a 1940 film that finds her trapped in the class struggles Americans endured before World War II brought a new unity to the nation.

By 1941, only two years after her string of hits with Astaire ended (They'd reunite for The Barkelys of Broadway, ten years later.), her popular film roles - without dancing - led TIME magazine to call her,

"...the flesh and blood symbol of the United States working girl,"

a compliment few would have have predicted while she and Astaire mesmerized audiences with numbers that seemed impossible and were - for any other team.

(Photo credit for Ginger Rogers in Kitty Foyle, Creative Commons license)

Kitty Foyle
Kitty Foyle

Two years after she and Fred made their last RKO picture, Ginger won an Academy Award for this role.

 

Oscar Winner - Kitty Foyle

Ginger Rogers in Kitty Foyle
Ginger Rogers in Kitty Foyle | Source

Ginger Rogers, A Movie Star In Her Own Right

Unimaginable Versatility

It may be blasphemy, but the Ginger Rogers of her partnership with Fred Astaire strikes me as a kind of ice queen, remote and aloof.

The dancing is astonishing, but although critics have claimed that, in spirit, Fred gave Ginger class while she gave him sex appeal, it wasn't that way for me.

Give me the Ginger Rogers of Tom, Dick and Harry, Roxy Heart, and Kitty Foyle, and that doesn't count her matching postures with Katharine Hepburn in Stage Door, while still making movies with Fred Astaire.

Those characters are more down to earth and more closely aligned with Ginger's real life personality. There wasn't much "second fiddle" in Ginger, and with her in the lead, movies burned with special energy.

Taking first the not so well-known Tom, Dick and Harry, Ginger, then 30 years old, convincingly plays a girl in her first job out of high school, boy crazy, and beautiful as she is, a trap for George Murphy, Burgess Meredith and Alan Marshal, all three at the same time.

Murphy is a smug car salesman who tries to possess her, Marshal a wealthy business owner who wines and dines her, and Meredith a proto-beatnik with a kicked back, non-materialist take on the world. What makes the movie even more fun is Phil Silvers who pops in for several comedy turns.

In the end, Burgess Meredith wins, driving off with Ginger, much to the consternation of Murphy, an arch-conservative who later became a U.S. Senator and blamed the film for helping foment the hippie movement more than twenty years later. Really.

It was during the filming of Tom, Dick and Harry that Ginger won her Academy Award for Kitty Foyle.

The roles were very different, one perky, one resilient and determined, but both were all Ginger Rogers.

Speaking of her skill at adapting to roles, a year later, she starred in The Major and The Minor, at 31, playing a woman masquerading as a 12 year old.

In the same year, she played the title role in Roxy Heart, a role that later inspired the long running Broadway Musical Chicago.

In this movie, Ginger was the complete opposite of her characters with Fred Astaire, all grown up, sexy, strong enough to stand on her own and a drama queen. She takes the blame for a murder her husband, Amos, commits and goes through a trial, a divorce, and competing marriage proposals before rejecting a wealthy man in favor of regular guy with whom she has six children.

Now is that versatile, or what?

(Image credit: Ginger Rogers, Working Girl, Creative Commons license)

Ginger Rogers Without Fred, Songs or Dances

Ginger Rogers will probably always be best remembered for her work with Fred Astaire. But she made her greatest mark while performing solo. These films may not be as well known, but they helped her make a lot more money.

Favorite Movies With Ginger Rogers - My Favorites, Anyway

At 30, she plays much younger in "Tom, Dick and Harry," and then, a year later, she plays a woman masquerading as a 12 year old. Amazing.

Tom, Dick & Harry
Tom, Dick & Harry

30 years old, Ginger plays a perky, sexy 20 year old and has men bouncing off the walls in competition for her.

 
The Major and the Minor (Universal Cinema Classics)
The Major and the Minor (Universal Cinema Classics)

Then, she played a 12 year old. Convincingly.

 
Stage Door
Stage Door

Here, in a major role while still teaming with Fred Astaire elsewhere, she joins a cast that includes Katharine Hepburn and one of my favorites, Ann Miller.

 

Ginger Before Hollywood and Fred Astaire

Ginger Rogers at 20
Ginger Rogers at 20

When Not In Front Of A Camera

Not the Life of a Star

What makes Ginger Rogers stand out most is that her successes came in spite of the fact that she was so off type. She was not “Hollywood.”

She neither drank nor smoked, and she stayed devoutly religious all of her life.

On the day Ginger Rogers died, she asked her caregiver to get call her designated Christian Science healer, not a doctor, and in her last hour, he read her passages from the Bible as she eased into the afterlife.

But the way she’d found resonance in roles of not so nice girls through her career suggested an awareness of the not so sanctified corners of reality. The realities of the show business life weren’t something she closed her eyes to.

In fact, to go along with affairs with Cary Grant and Howard Hughes during her years as Fred Astaire’s dance partner, Ginger was married - and divorced - five times.

Aside from her irrepressible talent and her religion, the one consistent element in her life was her mother Lela, a remarkable character in her own right, who was her coach, manager and most loyal fan.

(Image credit for Ginger Rogers at 20, Creative Commons license)

Embraceable You, Introduced by Ginger Rogers - George and Ira Gershwin Classic

Originally, she sung this in her first Broadway hit, "Girl Crazy."

Ginger Rogers Playing The Vivacious Nice Girl - In "Tom, Dick and Harry"

With the man who wins her heart, a young Burgess Meredith

Honored by The Nation At The Kennedy Center - Ginger Rogers, An Official Legend

Ginger's Resting Place

Ginger Rogers Grave
Ginger Rogers Grave

What Happens After The Late Movie Ends

Ginger Rogers Finishes Her Career On Stage

Twenty years after leaving Broadway for movie stardom, Ginger Rogers returned to the stage where she'd first found success.

By 1959, her career on film was dwindling and her return to the theatre a renewed success. She starred in productions from Annie Get Your Gun to Hello Dolly.

In 1969, probably her greatest stage achievement came when she took the title role in Mame at the Drury Lane Theater in London.

She was, at that moment, the highest paid performer ever in the British counterpart of Broadway, the West End.

By then, her last movie was four years behind her and only periodic stage work followed. In her late years, her performances included some minor roles on television, including an episode of Here's Lucy, in 1971, with her pal Lucille Ball.

Beyond the glare of her stardom as a dancing actress with Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers was a meteoric success at everything she tried (except marriage.)

After her mother died in 1977, she saw the curtain slowly fall on her public career, the key to the success of which she believed was "to be warm" with her audiences. In that way, she melted all ice anywhere nearby, including her own.

Ginger always ended her telephone conversations with, "God bless you," and in fact, the Creator she believed in certainly did, including her as well as her audiences.

(Image credit: Ginger Rogers Grave With Her Mother's)

Ginger Rogers, An Inside Look

Ginger Rogers autobiography tells the story as it happened on the far side of the camera.

One Last Dance with Fred Astaire

© 2013 David Stone

What do you think?

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    • David Stone1 profile imageAUTHOR

      David Stone 

      3 years ago from New York City

      It's interesting that she got so tightly identified with Fred Astaire. He best work came after they split up the team, but that work seems to have less staying power. Too bad. She was just a kid when she worked with Fred and never got a chance to do anything more than second fiddle.

    • colorfulone profile image

      Susie Lehto 

      3 years ago from Minnesota

      Dave, this is an informative article on Ginger Rogers. She certainly had the talent and determination to become a great star. A truly beautiful lady!

    • David Stone1 profile imageAUTHOR

      David Stone 

      4 years ago from New York City

      Thank you, Susan, from an enthusiastic Tom, Dick and Harry fan. The movie never gets enough attention, and that is seriously a shame.

    • Susan Zutautas profile image

      Susan Zutautas 

      4 years ago from Ontario, Canada

      My favorite Ginger movie is Tom Dick and Harry. Loved Ginger Rogers. What a fantastic article David!

    • David Stone1 profile imageAUTHOR

      David Stone 

      4 years ago from New York City

      @Donna Cook: And it was so interesting because she worked so hard and made it look easy. A really unique individual.Thank you.

    • profile image

      Donna Cook 

      4 years ago

      Fabulous lens! Have always loved Ginger Rogers-it seemed like she just floated through the routines. Kinda like the infamous feathered dress that Astaire hated.

    • David Stone1 profile imageAUTHOR

      David Stone 

      4 years ago from New York City

      @Adventuretravels: Me, too. Thanks.

    • Adventuretravels profile image

      Giovanna 

      4 years ago from Perth UK

      Great to read about this tremendously talented actor. I love her! Thanks for all this info.

    • David Stone1 profile imageAUTHOR

      David Stone 

      4 years ago from New York City

      @meggingmad: Ginger Rogers was all of that.

    • meggingmad profile image

      meggingmad 

      4 years ago

      Great lens, Lovely lady.

    • profile image

      Ibidii 

      4 years ago

      My Mom's name is Virginia like Ginger's real name. My Mom was nicknamed Ginger by my Dad. I enjoyed the dancing movies of hers and others. I wanted to be a dancer when I was a child. I loved all the musicals and especially the ones with dancing, all kinds of dancing! My favorite movie she made that was a sort of non dancing movie was "The Major and the Minor."How she at age 33 made herself look and act age 12 was just great. Love Billy Wilder movies like "Some Like it Hot." one of my favorites. A great Bio lens Dave! :D

    • David Stone1 profile imageAUTHOR

      David Stone 

      4 years ago from New York City

      @SteveKaye: She did and a lot more, Steve. Thanks.

    • profile image

      sybil watson 

      4 years ago

      I had no idea that she was such a devout Christian Scientist. I loved watching her dance with Fred Astaire, and her wicked sense of humor.

    • David Stone1 profile imageAUTHOR

      David Stone 

      4 years ago from New York City

      @sybil watson: Ginger was a memorable character in many ways. She always wanted to be known as something more than Fred's dance partner, although she was very proud of that.

    • profile image

      SteveKaye 

      4 years ago

      She moves as if she's weightless, with the grace of a soft feather. Thank you for publishing this wonderful lens about a true legend.

    • BritFlorida profile image

      Jackie Jackson 

      4 years ago from Fort Lauderdale

      What a brilliant article.I absolutely loved her. When I was young, maybe in the late 1960s (?) I saw her on stage at the London Palladium where she performed in the Royal Command Performance. (Coincidentally, I wrote a review of Top Hat just a few days ago). I'm so glad that I am able to say that I saw her live.

    • Lady Lorelei profile image

      Lorelei Cohen 

      4 years ago from Canada

      Ginger Rogers was so beautiful, graceful, and truly real. This article was a real pleasure to visit.

    • David Stone1 profile imageAUTHOR

      David Stone 

      4 years ago from New York City

      @Nancy Hardin: She knew how to use the most subtle features to maximum effect.

    • David Stone1 profile imageAUTHOR

      David Stone 

      4 years ago from New York City

      @EpicEra: The research surprised me in some ways and made me want to write about her.

    • EpicEra profile image

      EpicEra 

      4 years ago

      Fantastic glimpse into the life of Ginger Rogers

    • Nancy Hardin profile image

      Nancy Carol Brown Hardin 

      4 years ago from Las Vegas, NV

      I always love Ginger Rogers, she was a very special lady. I particularly loved her eyes, they looked so vulnerable, but could also look so strong and determined. I really enjoyed this page.

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