GINGER ROGERS: Curse of the Working Class

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A natural-born mimic, ham, tease, hard worker, stoic follower and out-of-reach babe, Ginger Rogers has proven one of the most difficult to define of all the 1930s Hollywood stars. At her best she was a synonym for fun and high spirits while also conveying a dignified and skeptical kind of resistance to other people, and these contradictory impulses made her one of the most special and ambiguous performers of her time. Rogers excelled in her first seven musicals with Fred Astaire and in several of her comedy vehicles and even in some of the programmers she churned out in the early 1930s. She was beloved, and rightly so.

In Stage Door (1937), Rogers gives one of the most distinctive, most suggestive, and most perfectly judged performances of the period, molding every one of her bone-dry, wisecracking line readings (and what lines she has in that movie!) into something pleasurable, something unexpected, even something profound, delivering them all with her guarded, in-transit sort of face.

I’ve seen Stage Door probably more times than I’ve seen any other movie, but I always notice something new in it, some new line, some new angle. As a kid, I didn’t really understand the source of Rogers’s misgivings here, which is the same source that animates her outrageously and inventively bitchy yet somehow tender and worldly fights with Linda (Gail Patrick), her high-falutin’ former roommate. Linda is the mistress of Anthony Powell (Adolphe Menjou), a powerful Broadway producer. When Powell sees Rogers’s Jean Maitland rehearsing a dance routine, his little weasel eyes light up with lust. He thinks she’s just playing hard to get when she makes her habitual mordant jokes at him, but she is really just trying to delay the inevitable. She wants no part of sleeping with a man for his money not because she thinks it’s morally wrong, per se, but because she’s basically too tired-out to go through those motions.

Jean is so disenchanted that the disenchantment seems to be leading her to some kind of drastic change. She talks herself into going out with Powell but gets out of sleeping with him by getting, or pretending to get, disruptively yet vaguely drunk. Jean gets drunk the way she does everything else, at some very unusual kind of steady and wary behavioral half-mast. She cracks wise as a matter of course, but she sleeps with a doll and she plays a ukulele. These cute details don’t seem to fit her character, but they do express the divided character of the woman who was playing her.

Jean stumbles home from Powell’s penthouse to her new roommate Terry (Katharine Hepburn), a rich girl with airily la-di-da attitudes about life and the theater. Hepburn had not endeared herself to Rogers with her much-repeated remark about Rogers’s partnership with Astaire: “He gives her class and she gives him sex.” The competitive rivalry between Hepburn’s upper-class pretension and Rogers’s low-burning common sense is the heart of their conflict in Stage Door, and this conflict and mutual dislike reads as pure chemistry on screen, just as it did for Rogers with Astaire.

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There is such chemistry between Jean and Terry that Stage Door has always been a kind of closeted lesbian classic just waiting to burst into full-on Sapphic love. Terry has no love interest and shows zero interest in acquiring one, while Jean looks more than ready to give up on poor, unreliable young men and rich, sexually demanding older men like Powell. Jean and Terry, in fact, are perfect for each other and wind up with each other, and in the last scene Rogers reaches a kind of epiphany as she reacts to their friend Judy (Lucille Ball) leaving New York to get married. “At least she’ll have a couple of kids to keep her company in her old age, and what’ll we have?” she asks. “Some broken-down memories and an old scrapbook that nobody’ll look at.”

I first saw Stage Door when I was eight years old. Now that I’m well into adulthood, these last few lines that Rogers tosses off with such face-the-facts casualness have the force of revelation, as if she has finally washed up on the shores of some final philosophy. They predict the real lives of both Hepburn and Rogers (though some people still do want to leaf through those particular scrapbooks) and Terry and Jean, and everybody else for whom the easy way and the conventional way of living will never fit or will never be acceptable.

Rogers was capable of that tough-minded and frank and bleak attitude on screen, but in life and in general she was actually, and alarmingly, one of the most clueless of stars, never quite knowing what it was that people liked about her. Starting as early 1938, the year she made Vivacious Lady and Carefree, something peculiar started to happen to Rogers. After years of the most unlikely and enormous success in her Astaire films, where she was up to any dance challenge he gave her and where her timing in both musical and comic and dramatic scenes was magically sharp, her timing started to go horribly awry. Rogers began to be afflicted by self-consciousness, miscalculation, cutesiness, self-infatuated archness and flashes of deep-rooted mean-mindedness. She slipped back into her best controlled star mode in several films after that year, but she started to deteriorate more and more by the mid-1940s, almost as if someone had put a curse on her.

Rogers was born Virginia McMath in Independence, Missouri in 1911. Her formidable mother Lela Rogers was a writer for silent films and a journalist, and she was seemingly joined at the hip to her daughter. It was Rogers who wanted a career as an actress, and Lela resisted this at first, but when Ginger won a Charleston contest Mama Lela knew which way the wind was blowing. She poured all of her own considerable energy and ambition into making Ginger a star and keeping her one (that first name supposedly came about because a cousin couldn’t pronounce the name Virginia).

At the height of her stardom, when Rogers was sent the script of The Hard Way (1943), she wonderingly said, “This is the story of my life,” and turned it down. In that movie, Ida Lupino works like a demon to get her malleable kid sister (Joan Leslie) into show business, and the comparison is not flattering to Lela, who made a fool of herself testifying before HUAC as an expert on Communist infiltration of Hollywood, citing particularly the time when Rogers had to say Dalton Trumbo’s line, “Share and share alike, that’s democracy” in Tender Comrade (1943). Lela herself actually turns up playing Ginger’s mother in Billy Wilder’s The Major and the Minor (1942), and she’s a rather low-key presence, but she talks and moves like a woman who has power and feels no need to make any outward show of it.

In that Wilder movie, Rogers spends most of her time pretending to be a twelve-year old, and this uneasy reversion to little-girlhood was one of her most troubling fallback modes. She had made her first successes on stage with “baby talk monologues” written by Lela, and her early style, as seen in films like Young Man of Manhattan (1930) and Honor Among Lovers (1931), was very much a hold-over from the 1920s, a Betty Boop baby vamp persona that was more suited to cameo roles than to leads (Claudette Colbert, the star of Young Man of Manhattan, gently mocks these baby affectations after meeting Rogers’s character).

She churned out lots of low-budget programmers in 1932, and in 1933 she made ten films. In two of those, 42nd Street and Gold Diggers of 1933, Rogers nearly steals the show in fairly small parts. As Anytime Annie, a notoriously obliging chorus girl in 42nd Street, Rogers is first seen wearing a monocle and affecting a grand manner accent, and this was the first sign of her aptitude for two-faced disguise. As Manuel Puig once said of Ann-Margret, Rogers is anything but reassuring.

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She’s close to surreal in her gold-coin outfit singing “We’re in the Money” with pig Latin verse in Gold Diggers of 1933, looking directly into the camera and not flinching as it travels all the way up to her face. Rogers gobbled up attention like that, and she had what it took, but she needed something or someone to stabilize her. When she strips down to her slip and stockings and gyrates in Professional Sweetheart (1933), an outraged Norman Foster spanks and then punches her, the first in an increasingly ominous series of punishments that would shadow her later career.

In the very horny Pre-Code musical Flying Down to Rio (1933), her first film with Astaire, Rogers is a hot mama, singing and swaying to “Music Makes Me” in a vagina power dress that even Marilyn Monroe might have rejected as too overt. When they dance “The Carioca,” Astaire starts out holding his head slightly away from Rogers, as if she might be diseased, but by the end their electric chemistry has fully kicked in.

Astaire had spent his youth dancing with his sister Adele and didn’t want to get stuck with another steady partner. Rogers had her eye on dramatic parts, announcing to an incredulous press that she wanted to play Joan of Arc. She was an ambitious and competitive person, and she knew that she was not even close to Astaire’s Olympian league as a dancer. But that’s part of the magic of their series of films, in which Rogers improves as a dancer bit by bit until she is fully capable of following his every step.

Astaire objected that no one would believe Rogers as an English girl in The Gay Divorcee (1934), and surely no one could mistake her for English, but this part gave her the reserve that she intriguingly used and toyed with for her best years as a star. Like most first sexual experiences between two people, their first real romantic dance together in that film, “Night and Day,” is both exciting and a little awkward. In their follow-up Roberta (1935), Rogers looks tense during their slow “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” routine, but she comes wonderfully alive when they casually tap to “Hard to Handle,” their first really great dance together.

She was always at her best in the lively comic numbers, where her wacky energy seems to warm Astaire, but she worked hard at the dramatic routines, so that when they do “Let’s Face the Music and Dance” in Follow the Fleet (1936), Rogers has somehow ascended up to Astaire’s level as a dancer. It must have taken nearly super-human will, but she did it, and audiences saw and felt her progress, and they loved it because it meant that anything was possible if you worked hard enough, even dancing like or with Fred Astaire.

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Astaire didn’t like her feather dress for the “Cheek to Cheek” dance in Top Hat (1935), and you can see why he didn’t: it’s a little tacky. Costumer Walter Plunkett said Rogers always wanted to “add a crepe paper orchid or a string of beads or some goddamned feathered thing. She just never could resist little improvements.” But her feather dress in Top Hat does move beautifully when she dances, even if we do see some of the feathers floating away from them, as if she’s molting.

A more characteristic and winning image of her comes in the way she hikes up her skirt in the “Pick Yourself Up” number in Swing Time, which has a deeply charming kind of put-on nonchalance, or in the soldier-like way she executes a series of brutally exacting turns at the end of the “Never Gonna Dance” finale toward the end of that movie (while she shot this scene, her feet started to bleed in her shoes). One of the real pleasures of American moviegoing is watching Rogers as Astaire sings a love song to her: she would listen so intently, with barely any change of expression, but with such sensitive receptivity behind her eyes and in the set of her mouth.

People like to wonder if Astaire and Rogers hated each other. Maybe there were moments when they did, but mainly they just resented being tied together as a team, and those misgivings are part of what give their partnership and their best dances such impact, such crackle. Rogers reported in her autobiography that Astaire had taken her out on dates in New York when they were both working in theater, and at the end of one such date he gave her “a kiss that would never have passed the Hays Office Code!” But when they worked together in films, Astaire was married to a woman he adored, and he was a distant taskmaster in the killer rehearsal sessions for their dance routines. His friends, cultivated when he played on stage in London in the 1920s, were the English gentry. Rogers was not his cup of tea, and he made that known to her in subtle ways. She said either, and he said eye-ther, and they wanted to call the whole thing off, but no one else ever did.

In the many years after their partnership ended, they were still stuck with each other, and they both still resented that. Rogers would sometimes make friendly overtures to Astaire, and he would politely but firmly put her off, and this led to hurt feelings for her, so much so that she didn’t even go to his American Film Institute Lifetime Achievement Award ceremony. Film scholar Joseph McBride helped to put together that evening, and when I asked him about it, he remembered Astaire saying, “I suppose we’ll have to have Ginger,” in an irritated voice. When she didn’t come to the ceremony, it seemed like sour grapes on her part, but it had been made clear to Rogers that Astaire only wanted the bare minimum to do with her, and so she withdrew. It would do well to remember, of course, just how obnoxious Rogers could be. If you want to feel the full force of that, just look at any number of the films she made from 1944 to 1964 and you’ll see one garishly misplayed, mistimed performance after another, including the last one she did with Astaire, The Barkleys of Broadway (1949), where her dramatic aspirations were mocked and then the mockery was unintentionally confirmed when she did a goggle-eyed recreation of Sarah Bernhardt reciting the Marseillaise.

So what happened to Rogers? Why did she lose all of the qualities that had made her a star right after her stardom was confirmed? Many writers have tried to explain it. Analyzing Astaire and Rogers in The Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers Book (1972), Arlene Croce says, “She’s an American classic, just as he is: common clay that we prize above exotic marble. The difference between them is that he knew it and she didn’t. Rogers always wanted to be something more. Probably no other major star has so severely tried the loyalty of her public by constantly changing her appearance and her style.” In his book Romantic Comedy (1987), James Harvey writes, “Can there be any other major star who was so variable, even from film to film, as she was?”

Harvey blames George Stevens, who directed maybe the finest Astaire/Rogers film, Swing Time (1936). He sees a softening of her character in the straight scenes in Swing Time, but the rot really sets in with Vivacious Lady, a romantic comedy that has all the elements for success but perversely ruins them with its taffy-pull pacing, its willful lack of coordination, its leaning on jags and cutesiness and bizarre sequences like the fight scene between Rogers and a rival that devolves into a series of unmoving tableaus broken only by a coy laugh from Rogers, as if Stevens wanted to turn her into Frank McHugh. In the same year, in Carefree with Astaire, Rogers exhibits such unpleasant sadism when her character is under hypnosis that it feels like a revelation of some inner nastiness that had always been prudently hidden from view.

The damage was reversed in Bachelor Mother (1939), a working girl comedy that has no right to be as charming as it is, where Rogers added a kind of moony dreaminess to her repertoire of personas. She then made two films for Stage Door director Gregory La Cava, 5th Avenue Girl (1939) and Primrose Path (1940). In her second La Cava film, Rogers is so deadpan that it reads as a lack of basic vitality, a first in her career; it’s as if La Cava is unearthing the suicidal or even homicidal side of Jean Maitland. “People annoy me,” she says in that movie, and boy does she mean it. In Stage Door, when Powell tells Jean he wants to put her name in big electric lights, she says, “Gotta be big enough to keep people away.” La Cava is the director who understood Rogers the most, discerning something anti-social and solitary behind her sunny audience-pleasing looks and manner. In Primrose Path, he cast her as a teenager who breaks away from her family before she joins their prostitution racket, and her work in that movie is stark, clean, unsentimental.

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Rogers won an Oscar for Kitty Foyle (1940), and many have dated her decline from that point, even if she is modestly touching in what is a modest working girl soap opera. She was close to unbearable in Tom, Dick and Harry (1941), where director Garson Kanin seems to dote on every moment of her self-indulgent performance as a dumb and narcissistic telephone operator who must choose between three suitors. Something about playing dumb here makes Rogers’s style seem laborious and throws her timing all out of whack, yet the following year, in Roxie Hart (1942), she certainly gets her laughs with her broad playing of a very dumb murderess who lives for publicity and likes to do the Black Bottom for reporters. In her segment in Tales of Manhattan (1942), you want to say to her, “OK, you can have all that hair on the top of your head or you can have all that hair fanning over your back, but you can’t have both, Ginger.”

Leo McCarey’s Once Upon a Honeymoon (1942) did her no favors, but most writers agree that the real coup de grâce in her career was Lady in the Dark (1944), a Technicolor movie of the psychoanalytical stage musical that had starred Gertrude Lawrence. Rogers insisted on playing it, and she was at loggerheads with director Mitchell Leisen and Paramount studio chief Buddy DeSylva, who vengefully cut most of the Kurt Weill songs from the film. All in all, the mercifully little-seen Lady in the Dark looks now almost as if it had been made in a spirit of deliberate sabotage. It is has to be the most nastily misogynist of any major studio production of this time, constantly hammering home the idea that Rogers’s Liza Elliott is an unnatural woman unhealthily attached to her work, and her leading man Ray Milland warrants particular scorn here for the gleefulness he brings to the scenes where he humiliates Rogers’s character. In the one extended musical number Rogers has, “The Saga of Jenny,” she doesn’t seem to have been given any choreography or direction and she can barely move in the outfit Leisen designed for her. “After Lady in the Dark there was nothing left of the Rogers character,” wrote Croce. “She died on the analyst’s couch.”

Rogers’s career proceeded only through sheer determination on her part (and on Lela’s part). She floundered in an updated remake of Grand Hotel (1932) called Week-end at the Waldorf (1945), and the next twenty years of her career were a real trial for her fans from the 1930s. Howard Hawks’s Monkey Business (1952) was supposed to be about scientist Cary Grant reverting to childhood when he drinks an elixir of youth, but Rogers insisted that she “wanted to do the kid thing too,” and so she ripped into scene after scene of coarse-grained youthful impersonation, the wise child of her early ‘30s character bearing rotten and poisonously un-watchable fruit.  Cast as a hardened gangster’s moll in Phil Karlson’s Tight Spot (1955), Rogers is so heavy-handed and slow and cutesey with her dialogue that the effect is ghastly. If I were to make a simple diagnosis of her problems in the last half of her film career, I’d say that she caught a bad case of George Stevens-itis and never got over it (she had an affair with the married director during Vivacious Lady, which had Lela up in arms).

When she worked with a fine and sensitive director, as she did with Frank Borzage for Magnificent Doll (1946) and with Edmund Goulding for Teenage Rebel (1956), Rogers was still capable of restrained and acceptable if somewhat colorless work. But hateful things kept happening to her. In something like Storm Warning (1951), where she does battle with the Ku Klux Klan while also doing a transposed version of A Streetcar Named Desire, it seemed as if someone behind the scenes wanted to see Rogers punished. When Steve Cochran attacks her in Storm Warning, the scene is so prolonged that finally it is Rogers being humiliated and hurt, not the character she is playing.

Rogers went through five husbands, including the pacifistic and beautiful Lew Ayres, and most of them lasted for a couple of years, but Lela was her real partner for life. The last husband, William Marshall, got her to play a madam in a dire film shot in Jamaica, variously known as The Confession and Quick, Let’s Get Married (1964), and after that low point she made only Harlow (1965), where she was intriguingly cast as Jean Harlow’s mother, before retaining her star status in long-running stage stints in Hello, Dolly! on Broadway and Mame in London. After that came a little TV and nightclub work, where she ended most of her songs with a corny wink to the audience. A Christian Scientist like her beloved or at least inescapable mother, Rogers refused medical treatment after having a stroke, and she was ill for several years before dying in 1995.

The last forty-five or so years of Rogers’s long career basically ran on fumes of good will from her first twelve years in movies, and particularly those Fred Astaire musicals that she preferred to forget. Like many actors, Rogers had no real center or base that was really her, and this lack of center meant that she was able to in effect be something she wasn’t with Astaire, and transcendently so, but it also meant that bad habits and instincts were ready to rush in and overwhelm her when her guard was down.

“May I rescue you?” Astaire asks her in Top Hat, to which she snaps, “No, I prefer being in distress.” The Astaire/Rogers films are so romantic because part of her resistance is that she is suspicious of romance, and maybe she doesn’t believe in it at all. That lack of belief was what made her so sexy beyond her God-given but worked-on perfect figure (“Women weren’t born with silk stockings on, you know,” she says in Follow the Fleet). Look at how cool and unreachable she is when Fred is singing his heart out to her during “Never Gonna Dance” in Swing Time. She preached that God is Love and soda fountains were forever, but in her best work with Astaire and in Stage Door, she let darker and more movingly yearning things cloud her almost cartoonishly pretty brow, and those things are what should define her and what should be remembered.

by Dan Callahan