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Star of the Month. March 2010

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For the very first time. Ginger Rogers was star of the month on TCM in March. About 43 films were shown to honor this great movie icon.

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FROM TCM:'Sure [Fred Astaire] was great, but remember, Ginger Rogers did everything he did backwards...and in high heels. " - Bob Thaves, creator and animator of Frank 'n Ernst

Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers made ten films together between 1933 and 1949 and created a screen partnership that has never been equaled. Yet both Astaire and Rogers made very successful films on their own and Rogers branched off into dramatic roles which would earn her an Academy AwardŽ for Best Actress.

She was born Virginia Katherine McMath on July 16, 1922 in Independence, Missouri, the daughter of William Eddins McMath and Lela Owens. Rogers later said that her mother knew she would be a dancer because "I was dancing before I was born. She could feel my toes tapping wildly inside her for months." The McMath's marriage ended before Virginia was born and Eddins McMath twice kidnapped his daughter, but both times she was returned to her mother. She rarely saw her father afterwards and he died when she was eleven. As a small child, Virginia was given the nickname "Ginja" by her cousin who couldn't pronounce her name and it became Ginger, which she kept for the rest of her life.

Lela McMath had become a screenwriter in Hollywood and later New York where she brought her daughter to live with her. During World War I, Lela joined the Marines (one of the first women to do so), became a newspaper editor and married John Rogers whose last name Ginger took as her own, although she was never formally adopted. They settled in Fort Worth, Texas where Lela became a theater critic and her daughter fell in love with the stage and its performers. "Vaudeville was in its prime at that time, and most of the top acts on the Orpheum circuit also played the Interstate circuit. Stars like George Burns and Gracie Allen, Jack Benny and his wife Sadie (later Mary), Eddie Foy and his five kids, George Jessel, Billy House, and Sophie Tucker appeared in Dallas, Fort Worth, Houston, and San Antonio, and I met all of them. Because of Mother's position on the newspaper, she frequently invited the headliners over to our house for some homey atmosphere and a fried chicken dinner. One evening I did an imitation of Sophie Tucker singing "One of These Days." Sadie and Jack Benny were at the house that night and enjoyed my performance. Thereafter, whenever Jack and I were at the same party, he would goad me into doing my "imitation." He would laugh until he was almost on the floor!"

Ginger began acting in school plays (usually written by her mother) and began dancing. At fourteen she won the Texas state champion Charleston contest and her career in show business began. Part of the prize for winning the state championship was a contract to tour the Interstate Circuit of theaters. Thinking it would be more professional to have a troupe, she and the two runners-up formed an act "Ginger Rogers and her Redheads" (Rogers was a redhead, then a blonde and for a brief time in the 1940s a brunette in her films) and toured Texas. The act was successful and continued for three years until her "Redheads" were hired away by a comedian and Ginger found herself on her own. She continued to tour the vaudeville circuit which took her all over the United States until at seventeen, she impulsively married an actor she'd had a crush on as a child. The marriage, as her mother predicted, didn't last long, and she resumed her career on stage in the Broadway musical Top Speed where she was noticed by the critics. Brooks Atkinson, theatre critic of the New York Times wrote that she "carried youth and humor to the point where they are completely charming." Walter Wanger and Adolph Zukor of Paramount offered her a seven year contract and she began appearing in films at Paramount's studios in Astoria, Long Island, which was convenient for Broadway actors (it was where the Marx Brothers made their earliest films). In one of her first films Young Man of Manhattan (1930) she played a flapper and spoke the line "Cigarette me, big boy" which became a national catchphrase for many years.

At the same time she was appearing in films at the Astoria Studios, Rogers got the starring role in George and Ira Gershwin's Girl Crazy where she introduced "Embraceable You" and "But Not For Me" which have become classics. When Girl Crazy folded, Rogers went to Hollywood.

Ginger's earliest films were unremarkable until she made a splash in Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933). She opens the film singing "We're in the Money" in pig-Latin, something she had done as a joke in rehearsals, but was ordered to sing it that way after Warner Bros. production chief Darryl F. Zanuck showed up on the set and loved it.

The year 1933 was very important for Ginger Rogers. She made ten films, including Rafter Romance, 42nd St., Sitting Pretty and Flying Down to Rio which paired her with Fred Astaire, who had been a star on the stage in London and Broadway – and who Ginger Rogers had briefly dated in New York. Now Astaire was married to socialite Phyllis Potter and the Astaire-Rogers relationship was strictly platonic. While not the stars of the film (they played supporting roles to Dolores Del Rio and Gene Raymond), their dance number "The Carioca" became a sensation. "Flying Down to Rio established RKO as a leader in musical film production throughout the 1930s. The film helped to rescue the studio from its financial straits and it gave a real boost to my movie career...While I was making my solo films, RKO was busily trying to get me and Fred Astaire back together. The studio wanted to capitalize on the success of Flying Down to Rio and realized that the pairing of Rogers and Astaire had moneymaking potential. Everyone was looking for appropriate properties for us."

They found it in The Gay Divorcee (1934). It was another smash hit and the "Fred and Ginger" franchise was born. The formula included the dapper Astaire, the beautiful Rogers, top notch character actors like Eric Blore, Edward Everett Horton, and Helen Broderick, the choreography of Hermes Pan, and the music of composers such as George and Ira Gershwin, Jerome Kern, Cole Porter, and Irving Berlin. It was an unbeatable combination. The Astaire-Rogers films contained many songs now regarded as classics: "Night and Day," "Cheek to Cheek," "Let's Face the Music and Dance," "The Way You Look Tonight," "Let's Call the Whole Thing Off," "They Can't Take That Away From Me" and "Change Partners." The films, Roberta (1935), Top Hat (1935), Follow the Fleet (1936), Swing Time (1936) - Rogers' own favorite of all her films, Shall We Dance? (1937), Carefree (1938), and The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle (1939) were light comedies that gave audiences a much needed escape after coming out of the economic disaster of The Great Depression and worrying about an impending war in Europe.

Although Astaire and Rogers made nine films together during the 1930s each made films apart. "Both Fred and I had been bombarding the head office with requests to do separate projects. There wasn't any antagonism on either his part or mine; we just wanted to grow in different directions and not be stereotyped." Rogers starred in comedies like Bachelor Mother (1939) with David Niven before she made the transition to serious actress – and OscarŽ winner in Kitty Foyle (1940).

"I had been making films for almost ten years and the head men at RKO thought of me only in terms of musicals. I found no fault with that, except I just couldn't stand being typed or pigeonholed as only a singing and dancing girl. I wanted to extend my range. I hoped and prayed to be handed a serious role that would be both romantic and dramatic...The RKO front office knew absolutely nothing about me, and hadn't from the time I first came to them. No one had any idea about my theatrical background. Once, I talked to an assistant producer of an upcoming musical who told me, "We're looking for a girl who dances and still can read lines." He wasn't kidding! RKO didn't know what to do with me and dropped me into comedienne roles. Eventually, they gave me leading lady roles. I almost became confused as to whether I was a comedienne or a leading lady. So I become a dancing–leading lady-comedienne. I don't know how long I'd have continued in this vein had not producer David Hempstead sent me a copy of a best-seller recently purchased by RKO, Kitty Foyle by Christopher Morley." The high-class soap opera earned Ginger Rogers her only Academy AwardŽ as Best Actress. And it proved to Hollywood that she was more than just a dancer.

During the 1940s Ginger Rogers made fifteen films - Roxie Hart (1942), The Major and the Minor (1942), Lady in the Dark (1944), Week-End at the Waldorf (1945) and It Had to Be You (1947) among them. In 1949 she made her final film with Fred Astaire The Barkleys of Broadway. Made under the direction of Arthur Freed at MGM, with Rogers added at the last minute as a replacement for Judy Garland who was unable to continue the film, it was the only Technicolor film they ever made together.

Throughout the 1950s Ginger Rogers continued her film career with several films at 20th-Century-Fox, We're Not Married! (1952), Monkey Business (1952), Teenage Rebel (1956) and Oh, Men! Oh, Women! (1957). She also branched out into television with Producer's Showcase and The DuPont Show with June Allyson. Roles for an actress now in her fifties were few and by the mid 1960s Ginger Rogers was through with movies. "I made my last motion picture in March 1965 for Magna Pictures. Harlow, based on the life of actress Jean Harlow...I didn't know at the time that Harlow would be my last motion picture. I had been turning down scripts that were, in my opinion, too permissive in their dialogue and scenes. Hollywood was going in a whole different direction, one I didn't want to follow. I felt that the kind of films I made in my career were not the kind of films Hollywood was now interested in producing. I decided to look to my first love, the stage, to fulfill my acting needs."

Rogers' career had now come full circle. She made several appearances on stage in Bell, Book and Candle (1961), The Unsinkable Molly Brown (1963), Hello, Dolly! (1965-1968) and for four years, her own stage review The Ginger Rogers Show (1974-1979). Her last stage appearance was in a 1984 production of Charley's Aunt.

After being in ill health for several years, Ginger Rogers passed away at her home in Rancho Mirage, California, on April 25, 1995. She is buried in Oakwood Memorial Park in Chatsworth, California, next to her beloved mother, Lela, and only a few yards away from Fred Astaire.

by Lorraine LoBianco

Sources:
Ginger: My Story by Ginger Rogers
The Internet Movie Database
www.GingerRogers.com (official site)