Vintage Funny Women Awards: Ginger Rogers

Each month I take a look at Funny Women from throughout the 20th Century – stating their case so that you may decide which to vote your favourite Vintage Funny Woman. So far we have looked at Fanny Brice, Lucille Ball, Yorkshire’s Marti Caine, Music Hall star Vesta Tilley, the great Judy Garland, Carry On star Hattie Jacques, the ‘Lady in the Tutti Frutti Hat’ Carmen Miranda and now the dazzling Ginger Rogers.

I have always loved old musical films – I say ‘loved’ but you could actually substitute that with ‘been obsessed by’. At seven years old you may have faked being ill so that you could miss a horrible spelling test, but I would do it because I had seen in the ‘Radio Times’ that ‘Calamity Jane’ was going to be on BBC two that lunchtime. Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers movies featured third in my list of movie preferences after anything with Judy Garland or Doris Day and more recently I have seen performing the great music of these movies around care homes to huge enjoyment of my local elderly folk (n.b. not as sad an experience as you may expect; the ratio is about one man to every ten women and they have a twinkle in their eye that tells you they are in their element!)
Whilst re-watching Fred and Ginger numbers for my singing set list I realised Ginger Rogers was really funny, classy and ballsy all-in-one. I had never initially planned to add her into a Vintage Funny Women but it would be silly to leave her out. Here she is with Fred doing what she does best…

Ginger Rogers was born Virginia Katherine McMath in Missouri 16th July 1911. An only child, Rogers lived with her grandparents in Kansas City for much of her early years as her parents were divorced and mother wrote scripts in Hollywood. The name ‘Ginger’ was a childhood nickname as one of her cousins could not pronounce ‘Virginia’. At nine years old, her mother remarried and Ginger changed her surname to ‘Rogers’ taking her step-father’s name. Her hair was a dark shade of red but she would dye it blonde for decades.

Rogers started taking performing serious aged 14 when she won ‘The Texas State Charleston Championships’ and the prize was a four week state-wide tour. Ginger auditioned for red headed dancers and billed the show as ‘Ginger and the Red Heads’ – it went on to tour around the Western States of America. By the time she reached Chicago her dancers had left her for another Vaudeville act and she found herself performing as a solo act which went onto transfer to St Louis and ran for 28 weeks. Her success snowballed.

“When Paul Ash invited her to appear with his band at the Oriental Theatre, Ginger left St. Louis and traveled to Chicago. After performing for nearly four months with Ash, Paramount Publix lured her away to New York to perform at Broadway’s Paramount Theatre. They also began preparing a stage show for Ginger to tour in at their theatres across the country. However, her routines with the Master of Ceremonies were so successful, she was held over for several weeks and the touring show went on without her. The Paramount Theatre subsequently brought Paul Ash and his band to New York and invited Ginger back to join them.”

On Christmas day 1929 Ginger starred in her first Broadway show, ‘Top Speed’ which only ran for just under 20 weeks but long enough for Ginger to receive rave reviews. At the same time as performing in ‘Top Speed’ Ginger performed in her first movie alongside Claudette Colbert, ‘Young Man of Manhattan’. She went onto star on Broadway in the Gershwin musical ‘Girl Crazy’ which was later turned into ‘Crazy for You’ and performed last year in the West End (and twice by me as a 14 year old and at 20). Ginger (unlike me) moved straight to Hollywood making 19 films, including ‘42nd Street’

She also appeared in ‘The Gold Diggers of 1933’ (singing ‘We’re in the Money’) before being partnered with Fred Astaire – who, according to Hollywood folklore, was branded  “Can’t sing. Can’t act. Balding. Can dance a little.” By RKO after his screen test. Let’s pause here to watch ‘We’re in the Money’ purely for her insane costume and the second chorus she does in pig latin is weird…just weird:

Fred and Ginger appeared in their first film together, ‘Flying Down to Rio’, as supporting actors but they were a huge success and went onto star in eight more movies for RKO and then ten years later they made one last picture, ‘The Barkley’s of Broadway’ for MGM.

The formula was usually that Fred spends the film trying to woo a rather unconvinced Ginger but of course she comes round in the end, usually through the power of ballroom dancing. What I liked about Ginger’s performances is that she didn’t play weedy, wimpy girls – she held her own and made Astaire’s characters work for her affection.

She didn’t mind looking silly either – here is a clip of her trying to sing with hiccups from ‘Follow the Fleet’:

In a number from ‘Roberta’, Fred and Ginger perform ‘I Won’t Dance’ with Ginger sporting a bizarre accent – this video is what inspired me to add her to the hall of Vintage Funny Women.

Ginger shall not just be known for her films with Astaire; in 1940 she won the Best Actress Academy Award for Kitty Foyle and by 1945 she was the highest paid woman in Hollywood. Here is a silly scene of her beating up Frances Mercer over James Stewart in ‘Vivacious Lady’:

In 1952 she starred opposite Cary Grant (and Marilyn Monroe in a small role) in ‘Monkey Business’ – a very silly film where Grant is trying to find an elixir of youth and it turns them into children. Here is Ginger regressing and being a bit naughty…

A huge star, Ginger appears here on the Bob Hope Show – there are some fun sketches so give it a watch.

She was a multi-skilled wonder woman by all accounts. As well as a fantastic dancer, actress, singer and dairy farmer (Ginger bought a ranch in Southern Oregon and built a modern dairy complex, breeding Guernsey cows for seven years), she was an accomplished artist and sculptor, a brilliant athlete and excelled at tennis. She spoke her mind and fought for equal pay as she received less than men billed below her in movies. Her best friends were Lucille Ball and Bette Davis so she kept good company.

In 1965 she starred on Broadway in ‘Hello Dolly’ and came to London to star in ‘Mame’ the following year and performed for the Queen. In 1969 she sold her Beverley Hills home and moved to live at her Oregon ranch permanently although her work and public appearances took her around the world. In 1985 she even directed the show ‘Babes in Arms’ showing there were no end to her skills.

Here is a bizarre recording of her singing The Captain and Tennille’s ‘Love will keep us together’ – what are the backing dancers doing?!

Ginger passed away on 25th April 1995, of congestive heart failure; she was aged 83. She had been married five times and made more than 70 movies.
N.B. Rogers never actually said the famous ‘backwards and in heels’ quote – here is its origin…

I think Rogers is a worthy competitor for our Vintage Funny Woman mantle but if you have other ideas please contact me with suggestions of future nominees on twitter @MirandaDawe

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