During the 1930s, she was part of the greatest dance team in history. Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers were household names as they danced into the hearts of moviegoers nine times during that decade, with the last, the underrated "The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle," released in 1939. By this time, Astaire and Rogers were ready to strike out on their own.
And 1940 was a banner year for Ginger, and she would continue to be a popular and versatile actress during this decade. I always liked her, and she lands at #12 and leads off my 12 Favorite Actresses of the 1940s countdown this December.
By the time 1940 came around, Ginger was ready for her own career. Just a few years earlier, during a much-needed, 18-month break from the rigors of these films, both set out to make their own films. Fred made "A Damsel in Distress," which I recently blogged about, and Ginger made three -- "Vivacious Lady," "Stage Door" and "Having a Wonderful Time." This was her chance to prove herself, which she did nicely.
In 1940, she had three films in release -- "Primrose Path," "Lucky Partners" and "Kitty Foyle." The latter she nearly passed up due to her heavy work schedule from the previous years. But thankfully it did, because it became a hit and earned her stellar notices. With Katharine Hepburn now at MGM, Rogers became RKO's top leading lady.
"Kitty Foyle" is a guilty pleasure, a "women's picture" that gives Ginger a chance to show off her dramatic abilities as her character looks back on her life and the dilemma of choosing between two men. She's also a headstrong working gal in an era when women would be entering the workforce in droves after the start of WWII. It's her film and she shows confidence and strength in her portrayal. For her efforts, she was a surprising yet popular Best Actress Oscar winner.
But Rogers seemed most comfortable with comedy. "Tom, Dick and Harry" (1941) and "The Major and the Minor" (1942) are pure fun.
"The Major and the Minor" is a particular favorite of mine. Well-known as Billy Wilder's first film as a director, which Paramount Pictures was sure would fail, it instead was a hit. This daffy film showcases Ginger (above) at her best. She's stuck in New York and decides to travel back home -- only to discover she barely has enough train fare to travel as a child. So she pretends to be a 12-year-old who is befriended by Ray Milland. He works at a military school for boys, and when a storm washes out the rail line, she is taken to that school -- still acting 12 -- where every boy wants to meet her! Ginger must convince as both girl and woman, all while exhibiting impeccable comic timing. It's a wonderful performance in a terrific film.
That same year saw the release of a little-seen film called "Roxie Hart." Recognize the name? That's the main character in the musical "Chicago," but this non-musical comedy shows Rogers delightfully playing a clueless Roxie put on trial for murder.
As the war came to a close, Ginger's career began to cool. While the tearjerker "I'll Be Seeing You" (1944) lays it on a bit too thick, it was another movie to display her dramatic skills. She worked steadily throughout the decade and, in 1949, came the long-awaited reunion with Fred Astaire in "The Barkleys of Broadway." Although meant for Fred and Judy Garland, Judy dropped out and Ginger was brought in as a replacement. The story mirrors Fred and Ginger's own history: he wants to continue dancing, she wants to be a fine actress. This 10th and final pairing isn't as good as their 1930s output, but Fred and Ginger make it worth watching anyway.While other women who are not on my list may be better actresses, there's something about Ginger that makes her so likable. I've always been fond of her, from her dancing days to her heyday during the early 1940s, and when I think of this pre-war and early-war era in terms of film, I always think of her immense appeal. And that's why she's on my list.