Ginger Rogers, actor

31 August 2012

I’m still buried under piles of paper, moving boxes, notes to myself about next week’s lectures, and paperwork — you have no idea how much universities rely on busywork and excessive documentation — but my father just sent a lovely short New Yorker piece about Ginger Rogers that I had to share.

To be precise, it’s not an essay about Rogers’ dancing. It’s about her acting.

She’s most famous for dancing with Fred Astaire, of course; but the writer Arlene Croce asks us to set that aside for the moment and think about Rogers as a subtle presence in more than just those films. When she wasn’t wearing white gowns that showed off her beautiful back, or ostrich feathers, or that great dress with the sunflower/starburst pattern from Shall We Dance (1937), she often appeared as working-class girls, women hard on their luck. Like Polly Parrish in Bachelor Mother (1939), or the titular character in Kitty Foyle (1940), or the nose-to-the-grindstone dancer in Stage Door (1937). She was Everywoman for that dark era of the Depression just as much as she was its glamorous ballroom dancer.

Croce argues that her subtlety led her to be underrated as a talented actor, one who excelled particularly in the embodiment of the struggler, the striver, that woman with a sense of humor yet a clear sense of self-worth in the face of difficulties. She was “the fabulous Miss Average, imaginative, unsentimental, the dyed-in-the-wool product of an era and one of its immortal symbols”:

…suppressing her anger, she smiles through clenched teeth. She isn’t going to take his guff, but she isn’t about to lose her temper, either. Manners matter to her. When you don’t have any money — and in the Depression nobody had any — manners, morals, ethics, are coin of the realm. In her continually wounded sense of self-worth and her spirited defense of it lies the drama of Ginger Rogers. It transcends self-interest; it is in essence idealistic, an insistence on the dignity of the individual, the responsibility of the citizen, the honor of the woman she knows herself to be when she’s at the top of the stairs.

What a nice piece of writing. And a particularly nice sentiment for these hot days, as I’m struggling to complete paperwork or deal with my internet provider over the phone. Aren’t we all Ginger, at some level?


5 Responses to “Ginger Rogers, actor”

  1. kynamorgan Says:

    Nice piece. I grew up watching black and white classic movies from the 40’s, including those of Ginger Rogers, but have yet to see a Rogers-Astaire film! I’ve seen clips of scenes, but no films in their entirety. So, my understanding of Ginger Rogers has always been based on her acting, and I’m glad to have that perspective. She is one of the best actresses I’ve ever watched, and she is criminally underrated as such.

    • Didion Says:

      Many thanks, Kyna — and I’ll confess that I would stop everything, right now, to watch Top Hat or Swing Time. If I weren’t prepping for class, that is. They’re just as frothy and goofy as anything you’ve ever seen onscreen, yet those long, uncut dance sequences that show Rogers’ & Astaire’s perfectionism, are so crazy good it’s almost serious. And Ginger’s dresses … and Fred’s lightness on his feet ….

  2. Hi Didion,

    Absolutely! Ginger was amazing! I had a great BW movie promo poster of Ginger dancing with Fred on the wall of my office in grad school.

    The caption read: Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did–backwards and in high heels.” Snap!

    Cheers! Grati ;->

    P.S. Here is a link to a similar image:

    • Didion Says:

      I love that line. My other favorite (and I think this was Croce’s insight, yet again) is that they worked together so well onscreen because they each brought a singular quality that the other lacked: “He gave her class, and she gave him sex.”

      • Giggles! I think Ginger already had class. Though she could play a range of characters–whereas Fred was kind of always the same character, man who dances. But I did love him. As to the sex? Ha ha ha ha ha!

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