Friday, April 30, 2010

Friday Dance Party: Backwards, And In High Heels

You may not believe this, but Ginger Rogers and I have something in common. We both won Charleston contests. Her win, in 1926 in Fort Worth, Texas, snagged her a spot in Eddie Foy's vaudeville act, which toured the country for several years before landing her in New York, where she was pegged to star in Girl Crazy, along with another unknown named Ethel Merman. MY win, in 1976 in Canoga Park, CA, snagged me 75 bucks and a t-shirt. We're practically twins.

Ginger Rogers met Fred Astaire during her Girl Crazy gig, but did not appear with him until their first film together, 1933's Flying Down to Rio. She was to make a total of 10 musical films with Fred, and they became the preeminent dance team of the 30s musical genre. When interviewed in 1986, Astaire was blunt about Rogers's ability: "Ginger had never danced with a partner before. She faked it an awful lot. She couldn't tap and she couldn't do this and that ... but Ginger had style and talent and improved as she went along. She got so that after a while everyone else who danced with me looked wrong."

Fred was right. Although he partnered with far better dancers than Ginger, he never looked so good as when he was gliding across the floor with Rogers. It may have been that, as an actress who danced (rather than a dancer who tried to act), she recognized that characterization did not stop once the music started. She had an ongoing non-musical career before, during, and after her decade with Astaire. She held her own opposite Katherine Hepburn in Stage Door in 1937, and won the Best Actress Oscar for her dramatic work in Kitty Foyle in 1940. (Here's a fun fact: Rogers portrayed the role of Roxie Hart in the film of the same name in 1942, a role which would later be played by Gwen Verdon, Liza Minnelli, Ann Reinking, Brooke Shields, Melanie Griffith, Bebe Neuwirth, and Renee Zellweger, among many others, in the musical version, Chicago.)

In her later life, Ginger was a prominent Hello, Dolly! replacement, once Carol Channing left the role, and she spent almost two years playing Mame in London, earning more money than any other stage actress had, at the time. She was beloved by Hollywood, despite her Republican leanings and background; her mother, screen writer Lela Rogers, named names before the House Un-American Activities Committee, and Rogers herself remained a staunch Reaganite until her death in 1995.

Our favorite Commie-hater was awarded the Kennedy Center Honor in 1992, but Astaire's widow demanded more money than CBS was willing to cough up for the rights to include film clips of their work together, so her televised tribute noticeably lacked her most famous dance sequences. Fred and Ginger made nine movies together in the 1930s, and one more a decade later, and those ten films constitute a trove of dancing gems. The clip below, from 1936's Swing Time, is one of my favorites. Our Ginger is a dance instructor in danger of being sacked; Fred comes to the rescue, and shows off a bit for the boss. The sequence is not cluttered up with elaborate sets or costumes, and allows the duo's smooth simplicity to shine.

It was Texas governor Ann Richards who is credited with the famous line regarding our gal: "Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did, only backwards and in high heels." The quote became a motto for a generation of feminists; a musical version of Ginger's life, called "Backwards in High Heels" is currently making the regional rounds.

Ginger Rogers died 15 years ago this week.