Ginger Rogers at 100: Even with Astaire, always taking the lead

February 11, 2011

"I've got enough nerve to do anything!"

- Ginger Rogers in "Swing Time"

"Swing Time," the sixth film that Ginger Rogers made with Fred Astaire, spins the workaday world of a gambler and a dance teacher into gilded heaven, with duets unlike any the two had whipped up before. But nothing tops this 1936 film's final nightclub scene - the one in which Astaire serenades a heartbroken Rogers with that aching vow of celibacy "Never Gonna Dance," then coaxes her into an increasingly explosive waltz that sends them whirling up twin flights of stairs.

Paradise, right? Not yet. On the set's upper level, with its polished floor like black ice, Rogers flies around in tight turns, and this cyclone force carries her right to the edge of the platform - where there's no rail, nothing but her wits to keep her from plummeting. Your heart hops. Part of the wonderment and pain of the moment is that Rogers is completely in character, disconsolate and remote. (Having fallen in love with Astaire's cardsharp, she had hoped to marry him, until the fiancee from his past showed up.) But there's a revitalizing purity in her turns, and with her white gown whipping like wind, she finally spins out the door in celestial glory. All Astaire can do, slumping slack-jawed onto a bench, is watch her go.

That dance went from pas de deux to pas de don't. And Rogers had the last word.

She usually did. In her life, as in her films, Rogers was a distinctly independent woman. She was so modern in her directness, her self-possession, her firm command of her expressive powers - let alone her career - that the arrival of her centennial year, twinned with Ronald Reagan's, comes as a shock. Unbelievably, the actress who died in 1995 would have turned 100 this July.

In a better world, this milestone would be marked with a reissuance of gowns by Irene (run, mink!), with big bands, swinging jazz and dancing in the streets. Short of that, dancers and actors alike can honor Rogers by studying her enduring naturalness, the way she underplayed her parts, keeping her cool even if she was losing her heart. There's ample opportunity for this during the American Film Institute's impressively wide-ranging Ginger Rogers retrospective, on view in Silver Spring through April 7.

All 10 of Rogers's films with Astaire are included, and an equal number of her 63 others: comedies and dramas including "Kitty Foyle," which tracks a living-by-her-wits shop clerk's disastrous love life, for which Rogers won a Best Actress Oscar in 1940. And "The Major and the Minor," with Rogers's clear-eyed schemer masquerading as a child to save money. By that point (1942), Rogers was a huge star, and her benediction enabled Billy Wilder to make his American directorial debut with this sharply observed picture.

As we near Oscar season and its inevitable coronation of actors with looks and charisma but comparatively narrow abilities, the time is right to reconsider Rogers and her remarkable - and undervalued - talents. Even for her time, when actors were typically more accomplished than they are today, Rogers was a golden hat trick. Not only was she a singer-dancer-comedienne, but that multifaceted nature extended to the way she played her parts.

The key to her appeal is her duality, her mix of high and low, glamour queen and saucepot. Her best performances draw on that mixed allure. Take "The Major and the Minor," in which she is sugary and bashful one minute, and plotting how to land her man between drags on a cigarette in another.

"Swing Time's" furious dance-drama in the nightclub encapsulates Rogers's yin and yang, the vulnerability and the firewall will. (She recounts in her maddeningly unrevealing autobiography, "Ginger: My Story," that after weeks of rehearsals, 48 takes went into filming that number, and shooting finished at 4 a.m. Hours before, her feet started bleeding, and choreographer Hermes Pan told her to go home. "I wanted to get the thing done," she writes, and she stuck it out.) Rogers was appealingly earthy, a fleshly dream with a knockout body. Yet when she danced, she could make you believe she'd float away if Astaire weren't holding onto her. She was silk in his arms.

Could any other actress move so well yet be so stable, so versatile? Not Cyd Charisse, the better dancer but less convincing performer. Not Eleanor Powell, the tap queen with more power than purr, and a singing voice that, like Charisse's, had to be dubbed. Jean Arthur did the comedy but not the dancing. The heartbreakingly gifted but troubled Judy Garland was a victim of the very fragility that made her so watchable - in fact, she was tapped to star in "The Barkleys of Broadway," the last of the Fred-and-Ginger films, but, in the parlance of the day, dropped out for health reasons.

Rogers had it all, plus the power of illusion. She was a paradox, at once weightless and grounded. Heaven and earth, united in a pair of kid pumps.

"She made it look easy," says Mike Mashon, head of the Library of Congress's Moving Image Section. "She was never showy. The Astaire films were about as showy as she got. But look at her next to him in those films; she's so much more natural in front of the camera than he is."

Astaire was a virtual movie novice when he made his first screen appearance with Rogers, dancing the Carioca in 1933's "Flying Down to Rio." But Rogers had 19 films under her belt, after an adolescence climbing up through song-and-dance acts, comedy routines and Broadway musicals (including the Gershwins' "Girl Crazy," alongside a newcomer named Ethel Merman.)

Her level-headedness and work ethic were much praised in Hollywood, and no wonder. She'd grown up around work. Rogers was born in Independence, Mo., to a single mother who brought her only child to the office with her from infancy, rescued her twice from kidnapping attempts by Rogers's father and would go on to manage her career with an iron grip.

Rogers picked up dancing on the fly: At age 14, she picked up the Charleston from a vaudeville acquaintance, won a dance competition with it and parlayed that into a road show. She spent years charming live audiences before heading to Hollywood, and it shows in her films - in her way with a zinger, her comic timing and her spontaneous, living reactions to the other actors in her scenes.

In "Stage Door," the 1937 film about a boarding house full of ingenues trying to make it in show biz, Rogers and Katharine Hepburn - fire and ice - are unwilling roommates. "Don't you ev-uh get tired of quarreling?" chides the snarkily superior Hepburn. "Why, can't you take it?" snaps Rogers, not about to be dressed down. Za-zing!

But watch her gaze at Astaire in "Top Hat" as he woos her with Irving Berlin's gently bouncy song "Isn't This a Lovely Day (To Be Caught in the Rain)?," how Rogers's eyes consume him, how her face brightens by degrees. I find it impossible to pick a favorite Fred-and-Ginger number, but this one is high on my list. She's decidedly unglamorous, in baggy jodhpurs and riding boots, and rain, thunder and lightning slash through the music. Yet once they start dancing, the effect is pure gold: the thumpy rhythms of their feet on the wooden floor of a park pavilion, the couple's shared power and mutual athleticism, their whizzing quickstep that feels like the Earth's been knocked off its axis and the effortless, ecstatic, romantic joy of it all.

How very different their dancing is from what passes for ballroom today. Rogers and Astaire take the form to Elysian heights because they take their audience along with them. The characters they play are screwy and sympathetic enough to feel real. And they carry that into their dancing, which is not about technique, glorious as it is, but about storytelling - the direct communication of body and spirit, barely implied but perfectly clear. You can watch their numbers over and over and see more in them every time. Next to them, even the best of the jackknife legs and splayed-out lifts on "Dancing With the Stars" or "So You Think You Can Dance" look like horrifying mutations from Planet Schlock.

Part of Rogers's secret lay in what she learned on the road. Live theater works different muscles in actors, and survival in that world is one reason that performers such as Rogers, Astaire and other greats from Hollywood's Golden Age still seem so alive today, so warmly three-dimensional.

"You develop a feeling for the audience, and a sense of rhythm and timing," says Jeanine Basinger, historian and Wesleyan University film professor. "People who went around the country from town to town learning their craft, having to fill in for another performer, going on no matter what, finding out how to make it work when it was dying - those kinds of experiences don't exist anymore."

Rogers, Basinger says, "knows how to talk you through a song and make the lyric mean something. How to create a conversation through a song, how to create a conversation with a dance, how to have a conversation with a fellow actor. In all cases, it was about rhythm, timing, action and response."

In looking at Rogers in her own right, I find myself wondering what a Fredless life would have been like for her. As much as she is identified with Astaire, she had the multiple gifts and the drive to have succeeded without him.

Indeed, most of Rogers's work over the decades - she made movies into the 1960s - did not involve singing and dancing. And during the height of the Astaire years, from 1933 to 1939, she made 21 films without him. Astaire needed her more than the other way around. His films with other dance partners never attained the popularity or high art that the best ones with Rogers did. To the extent that his legacy as one of the world's greatest dancers rests on his film work, it's arguable he would not have made such brilliant movies and become so big without the uniquely seductive matchup with Rogers.

Rogers's name is forever linked with Astaire's, but she is hardly a second banana. Matching her warmth and steeliness to his nervous perfectionism, she elevated the greatest dancer of the day. She had hotshot composers - Gershwin, Kern, Berlin - writing for her films, much as Tchaikovsky wrote for the Russian ballet. She ran with intellectuals, entrepreneurs and celebrities alike; among her many wooers were New Yorker founder Harold Ross, aviation magnate Howard Hughes and actor Cary Grant. She had five husbands and no children, and when she wasn't in front of a camera, she was probably on the tennis courts - a natural athlete, she was said to have had near-professional skill - or at her Oregon ranch.

The AFI retrospective is a rare and welcome chance to see the Rogers roles that have been all but forgotten - the hard-luck career women, survivors in the big city, plucky individualists who won't give up.

She played against the prevailing stereotypes. "Real characters, that's what I was after," she wrote. Occasionally Rogers turned down some plums, such as the female lead in "It's a Wonderful Life" - which she described as "such a bland character."

Ironically, the down-market heroines Rogers championed were all but doomed to slip out of the public consciousness. "The simple fact is they're the traditional women's films that are down at the bottom of everybody's critical ash heap," Basinger says. "They still are. Nobody wants to see a movie about the working girl Kitty Foyle who doesn't murder anybody. These kinds of movies don't gain respect."

Yet Rogers put her most famous persona - the divine firecracker in feathers and furs - behind her and pursued her own path. She didn't want to be limited, either to musical comedies or goody-goodies; she didn't want them to define her. She wanted the last word.

The nerve.

Schedule

AFI Silver Theatre, 8633 Colesville Rd. in Silver Spring, is celebrating Ginger Rogers's centennial with a film festival. The schedule:

"Top Hat," with Fred Astaire, Wednesday, 7:00.

"Roberta," with Astaire, Saturday, 5:30; Feb. 22, 6:30.

"Follow the Fleet," with Astaire, Feb. 20, 4:15; Feb. 20, 6:30.

"Swing Time," with Astaire, Feb. 25, 4:45; Feb. 26, 5:10; Feb. 28, 4:45; March 1, 4:45; March 2, 4:45; March 3, 4:45.

"Star of Midnight" with "Rafter Romance," Feb. 27, 1:00; Feb. 28, 7:00.

"Shall We Dance?" with Astaire, March 4, 4:45; March 5, 5:00.

"Gold Diggers of 1933" with "42nd Street," March 6, 1:00; March 7, 7:00.

"Carefree," with Astaire, March 12, 2:45; March 14, 5:30; March 16, 5:30; March 17, 5:30.

"Stage Door," with Katharine Hepburn and Lucille Ball, March 16, 7:20; March 17, 9:20.

"Vivacious Lady," March 16, 9:20; March 17, 7:20.

"Bachelor Mother," March 20, 12:30; March 21, 5:30, 9:10; March 22, 5:30.

"Monkey Business," with Cary Grant and Marilyn Monroe, March 18, 9:30; March 19, 9:45; March 24, 5:30.

"Roxie Hart," March 25, 5:30; March 28, 5:30; March 29, 5:30; March 30, 5:30, 7:10; March 31, 5:30.

"The Major and the Minor," March 27, 7:00; March 28, 7:10.

"Kitty Foyle," Rogers's Oscar winner, March 27, 7; March 28, 7:10.

"The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle," with Astaire, April 1, 5:30; April 2, 6:05; April 5, 5:00; April 7, 5:00.

"The Barkleys of Broadway," with Astaire, April 3, 12:20; April 4, 4:30; April 6, 4:30.

"Storm Warning," April 2, 8:00; April 3, 2:30.

For information: 301-495-6720 or www.afi.com/silver/new/nowplaying/2011/v8i1/rogers.aspx.

"Top Hat," with Fred Astaire, Wednesday, 7:00.

"Roberta," with Astaire, Saturday, 5:30; Feb. 22, 6:30.

"Follow the Fleet," with Astaire, Feb. 20, 4:15; Feb. 20, 6:30.

"Swing Time," with Astaire, Feb. 25, 4:45; Feb. 26, 5:10; Feb. 28, 4:45; March 1, 4:45; March 2, 4:45; March 3, 4:45.

"Star of Midnight" with "Rafter Romance," Feb. 27, 1:00; Feb. 28, 7:00.

"Shall We Dance?" with Astaire, March 4, 4:45; March 5, 5:00.

"Gold Diggers of 1933" with "42nd Street," March 6, 1:00; March 7, 7:00.

"Carefree," with Astaire, March 12, 2:45; March 14, 5:30; March 16, 5:30; March 17, 5:30.

"Stage Door," with Katharine Hepburn and Lucille Ball, March 16, 7:20; March 17, 9:20.

"Vivacious Lady," March 16, 9:20; March 17, 7:20.

"Bachelor Mother," March 20, 12:30; March 21, 5:30, 9:10; March 22, 5:30.

"Monkey Business," with Cary Grant and Marilyn Monroe, March 18, 9:30; March 19, 9:45; March 24, 5:30.

"Roxie Hart," March 25, 5:30; March 28, 5:30; March 29, 5:30; March 30, 5:30, 7:10; March 31, 5:30.

"The Major and the Minor," March 27, 7:00; March 28, 7:10.

"Kitty Foyle," Rogers's Oscar winner, March 27, 7; March 28, 7:10.

"The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle," with Astaire, April 1, 5:30; April 2, 6:05; April 5, 5:00; April 7, 5:00.

"The Barkleys of Broadway," with Astaire, April 3, 12:20; April 4, 4:30; April 6, 4:30.

"Storm Warning," April 2, 8:00; April 3, 2:30.

For information: 301-495-6720 or www.afi.com/silver/new/nowplaying/2011/v8i1/rogers.aspx.

Sarah Kaufman received the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Criticism and has been The Washington Post's dance critic since 1996. But after logging serious sit-time in opera houses, church basements, fairground tents and lawn chairs, what moves her most is seeing grace happen where she least expects it.
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