Monday, 28 January 2013

Ginger Rogers: Divinely Modern in an Old Hollywood World

Rogers in the 1940s

Ginger Rogers may have started out as a chorus girl and as Fred Astaire's legendary dancing partner, but this Old Hollywood icon certainly had her own onscreen identity.

Whenever I watch Ginger onscreen, I am struck by her strength and independence. She doesn't always seem like a STAR. Instead, she seems like the intelligent and strong-willed every woman of the 1930s and 1940s. No wonder she was a hit with female audiences. 

Rogers and Colman in Lucky Partners (1940)
As I was watching her under-seen Lucky Partners (a cute little flick with dashing leading man Ronald Colman) a few days ago, I was floored that, among this escapist little comedy, there were very modern undertones of independence and feminism in Rogers' character. In a scene with Colman, she discusses a strong desire to remain independent, to make her own living (by running a small bookstore), and that, despite plans to be married, she takes great pride in paying her own way all by herself. Strong words coming from an all-male screenwriting team, and made very poignant and true by Rogers' acting. I found myself identifying personally with her speech, 73 years later. Whoever says classic film is outdated isn't watching or listening close enough. 

Rogers in her Oscar-winning role of Kitty Foyle (1940)
1940 seems to be a defining year for the maturing of Rogers' onscreen persona. A quick IMDb search reveals that the following trio of films of hers were released during this year: Primrose Path, Lucky Partners, and Kitty Foyle. All 3 films feature a very different Ginger than her glamorous 1930s version: she dyes her hair brunette instead of her trademark blonde locks, and she plays (in order of the films listed above) a daughter of a prostitute, a bookstore owner wanting to maintain independence despite a planned marital union, and a middle class woman from Pennsylvania trying to make her own way alone in the world (her performance as Kitty Foyle won her the Academy Award). These roles are a far cry away from the escapist world of the Fred-Ginger movies (though Ginger asserts her strength in those films as well in different ways), or the chorus girl belting out "We're in the Money" in Gold Diggers of 1933.

Ginger was desperate to become recognized as a dramatic actress, and she certainly proved herself in 1940. In the 1940s, she became a representative of the struggling American woman, the woman who made a life for herself and didn't apologize for it. Or, the woman who desperately wanted love but didn't always get it. Or, the woman who got love but still retained an identity and female strength. She reflected both the joys and tragedies of being a woman of the time.The fact that she had no problems changing her appearance to accurately reflect the role proves that she was committed to making her roles realistic, and faithful to her female audience. And it turns out audiences loved Rogers no matter what her hair colour was!

David Niven and Rogers in Bachelor Mother (1939)
While Rogers was a gifted dramatic actress, she was an equally gifted comedienne. In fact, Rogers was able to be subversive and scandalous as a character in the comedies and get way with it! No better example than the closing of the classic 1939 comedy Bachelor Mother. Department store employee Rogers is forced to look after a baby that has literally arrived at her doorstep, and upon falling in love with Niven's department store owner character (who believes that the child is Rogers' own out of wedlock), he believes they should raise the child together, and he will call himself the father. When Niven agrees he will take care of the child even though he is not the father, Rogers' "Haha" at the close of the film speaks volumes. The audience knows that Rogers isn't the mother of the child, but she reveals to the audience that Polly Parrish (her character) is no stranger to the act that creates children. Polly is able to marry a rich man despite being a "marked" woman, and we're able to be in on the truth with Rogers, by virtue of the screwball comedy genre of the film.

Cary Grant and Ginger Rogers in Once Upon a Honeymoon (1942)
Rogers was also a symbol of strength for women during the tumultuous WWII years. In the tragically underrated Once Upon a Honeymoon (1942), Ginger single-handedly helps a Jewish woman and her children escape from the Nazis, and (accidentally, but still satisfying) kills the Nazi villain in the film played by Walter Slezak. She also lands Cary Grant in the process, and the strength of her character is certainly an aspect Grant is attracted to.

Rogers in Tender Comrade (1943)

In Tender Comrade, Rogers plays a defence plant worker and mother, living in a house with other women in the same situation while her husband is at war. Despite the sad circumstances surrounding her character, one can't help but enjoy the camaraderie of these independent women. They are making a living on their own, raising their children, and putting on a brave face on for their families. There is almost a romance (not sexual) to the circumstance, and a feeling that their independence may be taken away when/if their husbands return. When Rogers' husband dies in action and she makes a speech to her son about the bravery of his father, one can't help but admire the strength of Rogers' character. She will have to raise her son alone, but she will also have the friendship of the women that surround her. 

Rogers with Joseph Cotten in I'll Be Seeing You (1944)
Finally, in I'll Be Seeing You (1944), Ginger plays a very unique role: a convict. Responsible for the accidental murder of a rich man who has sexually harassed her, Mary Marshall (Rogers) is shown to us in the movie while on leave from prison. While it's amazing to me that this screenplay ever got the green light to be filmed, it's also amazing that Rogers is able to present a woman resigned to her temporary fate, but also optimistic about the future, and committed to not giving up on herself. It is one of my favourite Rogers performances, and the fact that Mary is instrumental in helping soldier Joseph Cotten find his strength again after fighting PTSD makes her character even more of a heroine to me. 

Ginger is a beautiful example of the modern woman of the 1940s. Feminine but strong-willed, beautiful but certainly not delicate, and outspoken but not unlikeable. While we may be all-too-quick to only remember her as the partner of Fred Astaire who danced backwards and in heels, she was a much deeper and more complicated screen personality than that. Her messages in her films are still relevant for women today, and I, for one, am at times in awe of her. Women in 2013 are still desiring to achieve that independence she projected on screen. We can all still get treasures of advice from a Ginger Rogers film, despite her being gone from this world for almost 15 years. How wonderful is that? Pretty damn wonderful.

Divine Ginger, 1940s


  1. Nice write up of a well-rounded (and often unappreciated) actress

    I do think though in her later years if her director wasn't careful she would "act" the impt Ms. Rogers and not be as effective.

    Nice to see someone who likes Lucky Partners, too.

    1. Thanks so much for your reply! I do agree... I don't tend to watch her later performances (1950s onwards) as often, as she seemed to lose her more natural quality. She did become more the "star" than the everyday girl.

      I find Lucky Partners a very charming film!

      Thanks again for reading!