Ginger Rogers, a name synonymous with musical film. Centerpiece to the Golden age of Hollywood, and partner to the infamous Fred Astaire. Born as Virginia Katherine McMath on July 16th 1911, her stage name derives from two parts her childhood. Ginger attributed to a young cousin of Rogers who was unable to pronounce Virginia. Rogers coming from her mothers second husband, and the man who raised her, John Rodgers.
At age fourteen the young star won a four week contract with The Interstate Circus, transitioning still further to Vaudeville. Her tenacity and determination drove her still further as she acquired parts in short films. She returned to New York in 1929 where she appeared in the Broadway production, Top Speed on Christmas Day. It was this role in Top Speed that got Ginger parts in films like The Tip Off, (1931) Gold Diggers, (1933) and 42nd Street (1933).
The duo of the Golden Age
Then, in 1933 the actress was paired with Fred Astaire. The two stealing away the spotlight from film leads Gene Raymond and Delores Del Rio, in the 1933 film Flying Down to Rio. A theft that began a decade worth of success together.
Flying Down to Rio may have been their first film together, however it wasn’t their first meeting. Following Rogers success in Top Speed she was scooped up to star in the 1930 Broadway production, Girl Crazy. Here she ran into Astaire who had been hired as a choreographer for the show. In this first meeting little did either know that the two would reunite for ten films. Box office hits that captivated audiences with their grace and charm. Films like The Gay Divorce, Roberta, and Top Hat only solidified their place in Hollywood infamy. Ginger’s ability to hold character through each dance routine alongside Fred’s meticulous quest for perfection created a dynamic that reshaped musical film forever.
End of an Era
However, even a pairing as infamous as theirs couldn’t survive the close of the great depression.
Studio RKO couldn’t overcome their financial strife’s in the late 1930’s. With films Shall We Dance and Carefree failing to deliver at the box office, the two’s long partnership seemingly came to an end with their second to last film, The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle.
Fred moved on to dance with other partners and Ginger changed directions seeking out more serious roles. Later in life Ginger was asked about her relationship with Fred saying, “I adored Fred. We were good friends. Our only problem was that we never aspired to be any kind of a team. We didn’t want to be Abbott and Costello. We thought of ourselves as individuals. We didn’t intend to be another Frick and Frack, but it happened anyway didn’t it, and I’ll forever be grateful it did”. A pairing of two strong personalities that ultimately resulted in a pairing of the ages.
Illustrious from beginning to End
Outside of her long running career with Astaire, Rogers starred in other Hollywood successes. Vivacious Lady (1938), where she displayed her comedic chops alongside actor Jimmy Stewart. Fifth Avenue Girl, (1939) where she showcased her dramatic ability alongside Katherine Hepburn. In 1940 the actress finally received a much-deserved Academy Award for Best Actress in the film Kitty Foyle. Rogers fierce demeanor would push against female stereotypes going on to reshape Hollywood. She played in 73 films across her illustrious career, and became one of the highest paid actresses in Hollywood at the height of her career.
The arrival of the 1950’s began a slow decline for the actress, but it can never be denied the length to which her success went. Ginger Rogers died of a heart attack in the spring of 1995. Her passing is now almost 25 years past, and her last film Harlow (1965), over 50 years old. Fred Astaire wrote in his autobiography, “Ginger was brilliantly effective, she made everything work for her. Actually, she made things very fine for both of us, and she deserves most of the credit for our success.”. Musical film owes the power couple that was Fred and Ginger everything, and Rogers was so much more than just half of that duo. The actress was a talent that ascended the ages, something that will never be forgotten, and indeed never be surpassed.