On Ginger Rogers and the Choreography of Comedy

Could Ginger Rogers be a greater comedienne than dancer?

It seems a vaguely heretical thing to ask.  Rogers is, after all, half of the most famous dance team the movies have ever known, and her performances with Astaire are so legendary they represent something that transcends movie lore—something that defines both performance art and pop culture, and even redefines modern notions of womanhood.

Ginger Rogers cartoon Backwards-High Heels

Take, for example, the now famous quote about Astaire and Rogers, “Sure he was great, but don’t forget that Ginger Rogers did everything he did…backwards and in high heels.”  It originated in a 1982 “Frank and Ernest” cartoon by Bob Thaves, but it was made famous by Texas State Treasurer (and soon-to-be Governor) Ann Richards in her 1988 address to the Democratic National Convention, and has since been erroneously attributed to many powerful women including various feminist scholars and former Republican White House Senior Staff member Faith Whittlesey.  From these sundry citations, it has entered the cultural mainstream as part of an ongoing feminist debate, sometimes as a critique of Betty Friedan’s groundbreaking The Feminine Mystique—for example, in Alexandra Petri’s February 2013 article in The Washington Post: “Call it the backwards-in-heels school of female accomplishment, to adapt the famous Ann Richards quote. We can do everything men do, but we have to do it backwards and in heels. If we are CEOs, we have to give birth to a live human, take maybe six seconds of leave and insist that everything is grand.’ Clearly, to see Rogers dance is to be moved, even transformed.

So why ask if she’s a better comedienne than dancer?  Well, lot’s of reasons.

First, it’s important to acknowledge that her talents as an actress, both comedic and dramatic, are an important part of what made her dancing so powerful.  There was never more dance talent available than in the 1930s, but Rogers was able to dance in character—a feat far more challenging for the actor and rewarding for the audience.  As dance history scholar John Mueller put it, “Rogers was outstanding among Astaire’s partners not because she was superior to others as a dancer but because, as a skilled, intuitive actress, she was cagey enough to realize that acting did not stop when dancing began.”

Also, there’s the fact that she made far more comedies than musicals (per imdb, the count is 86 comedy performances in her filmography to 38 musical performances).  Granted, such a preponderance can simply point to the tastes of the theatergoing public in a given era (would anyone’s career today be dominated by comedic parlor mysteries, as Sam Levene’s was for some years?).  But you have to say this much for the studios: as many mistakes as they made handling talent, in the long run they usually figured out what their actors were good at and cast them accordingly.  You don’t get cast in that many comedies unless you’re a superb comedic actress.

Most importantly, there are the performances themselves—sparkling, touching, sometimes side-splittingly funny performances in a string of comedy features spanning over three decades, from YOUNG MAN OF MANHATTAN (1930) to THE CONFESSION (1964), and including such gems as RAFTER ROMANCE (1933), STAGE DOOR (1937), VIVACIOUS LADY (1938), THE MAJOR AND THE MINOR (1942) and MONKEY BUSINESS (1952).

Watching these films, you realize there’s a simple reason Rogers was without peer as both a dancer and a comedienne.  Timing.  Where most good comedic actresses (and dancers) hit their lines at just the right moment, Rogers seemed to anticipate the next line by the slightest fraction of a second, while in actuality perfectly retaining the rhythm of the exchange.  She somehow implied she had already read her partner’s mind and was beginning to embody a response, before taking any action.  Just as she did when dancing with Astaire.

This made her a devastating comedienne in the 1930s and early ’40s—the era for comedies dependent on quick and witty verbal exchange.  If you want to understand just how good she was, watch her opposite Katharine Hepburn, Lucille Ball, Eve Arden and Gail Patrick in STAGE DOOR (1937).  There’s no questioning the talents of any of those actresses, and yet Rogers always seems to be a step ahead.  Even Hepburn, the comedic genius of ALICE ADAMS (1935), BRINGING UP BABY (1938) and THE PHILADELPHIA STORY (1940), is flat-footed beside Rogers. Simply put, Rogers nailed the choreography of her comedy, and no where is that more evident than in her brawl in VIVACIOUS LADY (which you can watch here).

Rogers1

Rogers plays a nightclub performer of modest origins for whom Jimmy Stewart’s bookish professor falls hard.  They marry in a whirlwind of romance, and are left to sort out the implications when he takes her back to his academic life to meet his prominent family (including his father, the University President, played expertly by Charles Coburn), only to find he lacks the courage to do so. Finally, he gets his nerve up, but right then Stewart’s childhood sweetheart (played by the formidable Frances Mercer) confronts Rogers to let her know she’ll never gain Stewart’s affections (not realizing he is already married to Rogers).  The two women square off in a catfight for the ages, which ultimately serves as her introduction to the family.

Remarkably, this was Mercer’s film debut.  She’s excellent as a haughty society girl, largely because she’s able to maintain a cold, controlled physical reserve even as she fights.  It may be that her time as a top New York City fashion model lent her that poise, but it couldn’t have been easy to maintain as she was mauled by Rogers.  Somehow, she holds to a rhythm set by the more experienced actress as the fisticuffs escalate. The lines come in rapid succession, each followed by a slap, until Rogers begins to shush the hysterical Mercer.  Shh. Shh-Shh.  Sssshhhh.  Shh-Shh.  Shh. (Pause: one, two, three.) SMACK! When Mercer turns to kicking, Rogers gathers herself, removes her shawl, claps her hands, extends her fists, and says, “Alright, put ‘em up.” Every gesture and line perfectly timed, every move choreographed, until the grand reveal when Coburn and Stewart arrive on the scene to find Rogers holding Mercer in a headlock.

Rogers2

It’s as funny the fiftieth time you see it as it is the first.  Maybe funnier.  And that’s not because it catches you by surprise or depends on some “gross-out” joke, like so much of today’s humor.  Rather, like “Shall We Dance” or “Swing Time” or “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off,” or any other Astaire-Rogers routine in flats or heels or roller skates, the fight has a technical excellence, a choreography to its physicality, that is more impressive and entertaining every time you see it.

So ultimately the question is not whether she’s a better comedienne or dancer, but how did she become (arguably) the best  of both?

That one’s much easier to answer.  Astaire summed it up when he called Rogers “The hardest working actress I ever knew.”  And from notorious taskmaster Astaire, that’s saying something.

38 Responses On Ginger Rogers and the Choreography of Comedy
Posted By Doug : June 23, 2013 3:29 pm

Thank you, Shannon, for this fine post about the lady who was the best at dancing, comedy, and for my money in the running for best at drama.
She was just that good at everything-yesterday I picked up “The Major and the Minor”.
“Once Upon a Honeymoon” is a favorite, also “We’re Not Married” where she acted with one of the great Fred Allen.
As great as she was at comedy and drama, her dancing with Astaire
is, for me, the highpoint of her career.
Thank you for the clip from “Vivacious Lady”-I had it years ago on VHS-now I need to find it on DVD.

Posted By Doug : June 23, 2013 3:29 pm

Thank you, Shannon, for this fine post about the lady who was the best at dancing, comedy, and for my money in the running for best at drama.
She was just that good at everything-yesterday I picked up “The Major and the Minor”.
“Once Upon a Honeymoon” is a favorite, also “We’re Not Married” where she acted with one of the great Fred Allen.
As great as she was at comedy and drama, her dancing with Astaire
is, for me, the highpoint of her career.
Thank you for the clip from “Vivacious Lady”-I had it years ago on VHS-now I need to find it on DVD.

Posted By robbushblog : June 24, 2013 4:00 pm

That clip is great.

Now, I’m not saying Ginger Rogers wasn’t a great dancer, but a great male dancer can lead a much-less experienced female dancer to be better than she would normally be. To say that she did everything Astaire did backwards and in heels is funny and cute, but it’s not really true. When she was in his arms he was leading her, under his choreography. She was not doing everything he was doing backwards and in heels. However, she was great at what she did, without question.

Posted By robbushblog : June 24, 2013 4:00 pm

That clip is great.

Now, I’m not saying Ginger Rogers wasn’t a great dancer, but a great male dancer can lead a much-less experienced female dancer to be better than she would normally be. To say that she did everything Astaire did backwards and in heels is funny and cute, but it’s not really true. When she was in his arms he was leading her, under his choreography. She was not doing everything he was doing backwards and in heels. However, she was great at what she did, without question.

Posted By Dale : June 26, 2013 6:01 pm

For me, The Major and the Minor is the best proof of Ginger Rogers killer comedic flair, as well as her ability to be authentic. Let’s face it, in someone else’s hands that role…heck, even the movie, could be plain creepy. But Rogers makes it all believable, conceivable, and sympathetic.

I’ve always liked Ginger Rogers, but have always liked her comedies more. She had timing, style, and attitude.

Posted By Dale : June 26, 2013 6:01 pm

For me, The Major and the Minor is the best proof of Ginger Rogers killer comedic flair, as well as her ability to be authentic. Let’s face it, in someone else’s hands that role…heck, even the movie, could be plain creepy. But Rogers makes it all believable, conceivable, and sympathetic.

I’ve always liked Ginger Rogers, but have always liked her comedies more. She had timing, style, and attitude.

Posted By CH : June 28, 2013 1:11 am

I thought it was Ginger who made that quote about herself?

Posted By CH : June 28, 2013 1:11 am

I thought it was Ginger who made that quote about herself?

Posted By Shannon Clute : June 28, 2013 1:21 pm

Quite true Doug, and I too am guilty of underselling her talents! To your point, it’s worth remembering her only Academy Award win (and nomination, for that matter) came for the drama KITTY FOYLE. And it would have been just as easy for me to take this position in favor of her dancing (after all, her timing and the way she “choreographs” and moves through a scene are the factors I’m citing in favor of her comedy). But it seemed more thought provoking to champion her comedic delivery. Thanks for your thoughts.

Posted By Shannon Clute : June 28, 2013 1:21 pm

Quite true Doug, and I too am guilty of underselling her talents! To your point, it’s worth remembering her only Academy Award win (and nomination, for that matter) came for the drama KITTY FOYLE. And it would have been just as easy for me to take this position in favor of her dancing (after all, her timing and the way she “choreographs” and moves through a scene are the factors I’m citing in favor of her comedy). But it seemed more thought provoking to champion her comedic delivery. Thanks for your thoughts.

Posted By Shannon Clute : June 28, 2013 1:29 pm

It’s an interesting point you make: “A great male dancer can lead a much-less experienced female dancer to be better than she would normally be.” Undoubtedly that’s true of any strong lead, and there’s no doubt that Astaire (and his choreographic collaborator Hermes Pan) coaxed great performances out of many of his talented dance partners. That said, what makes Astaire-Rogers numbers work so well, in my opinion, is that I don’t really get the sense Astaire is leading. This is clear when the two are dancing not as a couple, but side by side, and it’s often Rogers who captures the viewer’s eye. But to your point, this quote about Rogers is probably more provocative than descriptive, but that’s why I thought it was worth citing it up front. It really does call attention to what an impression Rogers made, because she continues to be a key figure in so many debates.

Posted By Shannon Clute : June 28, 2013 1:29 pm

It’s an interesting point you make: “A great male dancer can lead a much-less experienced female dancer to be better than she would normally be.” Undoubtedly that’s true of any strong lead, and there’s no doubt that Astaire (and his choreographic collaborator Hermes Pan) coaxed great performances out of many of his talented dance partners. That said, what makes Astaire-Rogers numbers work so well, in my opinion, is that I don’t really get the sense Astaire is leading. This is clear when the two are dancing not as a couple, but side by side, and it’s often Rogers who captures the viewer’s eye. But to your point, this quote about Rogers is probably more provocative than descriptive, but that’s why I thought it was worth citing it up front. It really does call attention to what an impression Rogers made, because she continues to be a key figure in so many debates.

Posted By Shannon Clute : June 28, 2013 1:31 pm

I got a good chuckle out of your comment Dale, because THE MAJOR AND THE MINOR would indeed be creepy if it were handled any less deftly. And let’s face it, some films could NOT be remade today! But it is still a hoot.

Posted By Shannon Clute : June 28, 2013 1:31 pm

I got a good chuckle out of your comment Dale, because THE MAJOR AND THE MINOR would indeed be creepy if it were handled any less deftly. And let’s face it, some films could NOT be remade today! But it is still a hoot.

Posted By Shannon Clute : June 28, 2013 1:33 pm

Interesting. That’s one attribution for the quote I’d never heard, and her website cites Thaves. But it would put a spin on things if she said it!

Posted By Shannon Clute : June 28, 2013 1:33 pm

Interesting. That’s one attribution for the quote I’d never heard, and her website cites Thaves. But it would put a spin on things if she said it!

Posted By Christy Putnam : June 28, 2013 7:04 pm

Shannon, thank you for this lovely tribute to Ginger! You probably already know my favorite Ginger Rogers’ film, THE MAJOR AND THE MINOR!

Posted By Christy Putnam : June 28, 2013 7:04 pm

Shannon, thank you for this lovely tribute to Ginger! You probably already know my favorite Ginger Rogers’ film, THE MAJOR AND THE MINOR!

Posted By swac44 : July 3, 2013 7:35 am

I love The Major and the Minor, but the first film that came to mind for me was Roxie Hart, which became the stage and screen musical Chicago. She even does a little bit of dancing in it, even though it’s not a musical; I recall watching the film musical version and wishing Ginger was in it instead of Renee Zellweger.

Posted By swac44 : July 3, 2013 7:35 am

I love The Major and the Minor, but the first film that came to mind for me was Roxie Hart, which became the stage and screen musical Chicago. She even does a little bit of dancing in it, even though it’s not a musical; I recall watching the film musical version and wishing Ginger was in it instead of Renee Zellweger.

Posted By robbushblog : July 3, 2013 9:50 am

I certainly can’t blame you for wishing that, swac.

Posted By robbushblog : July 3, 2013 9:50 am

I certainly can’t blame you for wishing that, swac.

Posted By Anonymous : July 3, 2013 11:01 am

My brother recommended I might like this blog. He was entirely right.

This post actually made my day. You can not imagine simply how much time I had spent for this information!

Thanks!

Posted By Anonymous : July 3, 2013 11:01 am

My brother recommended I might like this blog. He was entirely right.

This post actually made my day. You can not imagine simply how much time I had spent for this information!

Thanks!

Posted By swac44 : July 3, 2013 2:11 pm

Here’s my favourite Ginger scene from Roxie Hart:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bUE7SjLMMYM

Posted By swac44 : July 3, 2013 2:11 pm

Here’s my favourite Ginger scene from Roxie Hart:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bUE7SjLMMYM

Posted By swac44 : July 3, 2013 2:14 pm

That’s Ginger Rogers in a nutshell right there, the way she moves, the rhythm in her body, the look on her face and the humour she brings to the scene, all working together as one. And in a very atypical role for her to boot.

Posted By swac44 : July 3, 2013 2:14 pm

That’s Ginger Rogers in a nutshell right there, the way she moves, the rhythm in her body, the look on her face and the humour she brings to the scene, all working together as one. And in a very atypical role for her to boot.

Posted By Doug : July 3, 2013 4:30 pm

Thanks to this post, I ordered “The Primrose Path”, “Fifth Avenue Girl” and once more, “Once Upon A Honeymoon”. I’ll have to keep better track of movies I lend out.
I also have Ginger’s “Black Widow” and a “Rogers and Astaire” collecting heading this way.
I love the age we live in where these movies can be purchased on
DVD/Blu-Ray.
I remember the first time that I visited a used book store when the owner, Don, told me about being able to find/order used books online. I didn’t have a computer yet, and that idea blew my mind. The world opened up that day.

Posted By Doug : July 3, 2013 4:30 pm

Thanks to this post, I ordered “The Primrose Path”, “Fifth Avenue Girl” and once more, “Once Upon A Honeymoon”. I’ll have to keep better track of movies I lend out.
I also have Ginger’s “Black Widow” and a “Rogers and Astaire” collecting heading this way.
I love the age we live in where these movies can be purchased on
DVD/Blu-Ray.
I remember the first time that I visited a used book store when the owner, Don, told me about being able to find/order used books online. I didn’t have a computer yet, and that idea blew my mind. The world opened up that day.

Posted By Shannon Clute : July 8, 2013 12:38 pm

Thanks Swac. That’s a fantastic scene (from a film I’m not familiar with) and you summarize it perfectly. She really was the full package as an actress, with the ability to use her dancing to improve her acting and vice versa–even in roles that really stretched her usual screen persona. Thanks for posting this.

Posted By Shannon Clute : July 8, 2013 12:38 pm

Thanks Swac. That’s a fantastic scene (from a film I’m not familiar with) and you summarize it perfectly. She really was the full package as an actress, with the ability to use her dancing to improve her acting and vice versa–even in roles that really stretched her usual screen persona. Thanks for posting this.

Posted By Shannon Clute : July 8, 2013 12:42 pm

I’m so glad to hear this conversation has you tracking down various Ginger Rogers films. It really is amazing how many good titles are available these days on the internet–as DVDs, or via streaming services. I hope you’ll find many posts on the Morlocks blog that will inspire you to keep finding new classics.

Posted By Shannon Clute : July 8, 2013 12:42 pm

I’m so glad to hear this conversation has you tracking down various Ginger Rogers films. It really is amazing how many good titles are available these days on the internet–as DVDs, or via streaming services. I hope you’ll find many posts on the Morlocks blog that will inspire you to keep finding new classics.

Posted By Doug : July 9, 2013 12:44 pm

I ordered Ginger’s “Black Widow” simply because it was available and…it rocked. A great ‘noir’ also starring Van Heflin and Gene Tierney. Some good extra features on the disc, and I encourage anyone who loves Ginger to seek it out.

Posted By Doug : July 9, 2013 12:44 pm

I ordered Ginger’s “Black Widow” simply because it was available and…it rocked. A great ‘noir’ also starring Van Heflin and Gene Tierney. Some good extra features on the disc, and I encourage anyone who loves Ginger to seek it out.

Posted By Shannon Clute : July 12, 2013 3:34 pm

Thanks for that information Doug. I’m a huge noir fan (in fact, I’ve published on the subject elsewhere), but I’ve never seen “Black Widow.” Seeing as how it together one of my favorite genres and favorite actresses (plus Van Heflin and Gene Tierney, to boot!) I’ll have to check it out soon.

Posted By Peter Gong : August 17, 2013 11:18 pm

I read this blog albeit late. Better late than never as I always say. Ginger was a fine dancer as she was a product of the Vaudeville era thus she had the dancing shoes to prove it. As an actress, she was extra-ordinary in possession of intuitive acting skills to make Lee Stratsberg rolled over in his grave. As for timing, which is an innate trait not blessed to everyone, she had in abundance. Here she excelled in her own rights. The Major and the Minor is a prime example to boot. Not to say she is not a capable dramatic actor. Kitty Foyle proves it as well; Ginger, pardon the pun, gingerly slip between the two medium quite easily and without being appearing to be fake. Watch her in Black Widow. She can really go to to town.

As for her pairing with Fred Astaire, whose persona is devoid of all sexuality, was a pitch-perfect duo. This is the basis of truth in the quote given many times over, “He gave her class and she gave him sex.” Ginger Rogers, no matter dressed in Travis Banton’s suit or a bias-cut satin evening gown, always had a touch of toughness, a hard-edge, street-wise demeanor to her glamour.

Watch them dance on screen. You will notice that it is she who is the hunter; and Fred is the hunted. Like a native tribal mating dance, I watched them twirl, dip and entwined with such velocity of sexual energy that after watching them on-screen I often find myself spent, panting. At the conclusion of their mating ritual dance, I would lit up a cigarette with complete satisfaction.

Leave a Reply

Current day month ye@r *

MovieMorlocks.com is the official blog for TCM. No topic is too obscure or niche to be excluded from our film discussions. And we welcome your comments on our blogs and bloggers.
See more: facebook.com/tcmtv
See more: twitter.com/tcm
3-D  Action Films  Actors  Actors' Endorsements  Actresses  animal stars  Animation  Anime  Anthology Films  Art in Movies  Autobiography  Avant-Garde  Aviation  Awards  B-movies  Beer in Film  Behind the Scenes  Best of the Year lists  Biography  Biopics  Blu-Ray  Books on Film  Boxing films  British Cinema  Canadian Cinema  Character Actors  Chicago Film History  Cinematography  Classic Films  College Life on Film  Comedy  Comic Book Movies  Crime  Czech Film  Dance on Film  Digital Cinema  Directors  Disaster Films  Documentary  Drama  DVD  Early Talkies  Editing  Educational Films  European Influence on American Cinema  Experimental  Exploitation  Fairy Tales on Film  Faith or Christian-based Films  Family Films  Film Composers  Film Criticism  film festivals  Film History in Florida  Film Noir  Film Scholars  Film titles  Filmmaking Techniques  Films of the 1980s  Food in Film  Foreign Film  French Film  Gangster films  Genre  Genre spoofs  HD & Blu-Ray  Holiday Movies  Hollywood history  Hollywood lifestyles  Horror  Horror Movies  Icons  independent film  Italian Film  Japanese Film  Korean Film  Literary Adaptations  Martial Arts  Melodramas  Method Acting  Mexican Cinema  Moguls  Monster Movies  Movie Books  Movie Costumes  movie flops  Movie locations  Movie lovers  Movie Reviewers  Movie settings  Movie Stars  Movies about movies  Music in Film  Musicals  Outdoor Cinema  Paranoid Thrillers  Parenting on film  Pirate movies  Polish film industry  political thrillers  Politics in Film  Pornography  Pre-Code  Producers  Race in American Film  Remakes  Revenge  Road Movies  Romance  Romantic Comedies  Satire  Scandals  Science Fiction  Screenwriters  Semi-documentaries  Serials  Short Films  Silent Film  silent films  Social Problem Film  Sports  Sports on Film  Stereotypes  Straight-to-DVD  Studio Politics  Stunts and stuntmen  Suspense thriller  TCM Classic Film Festival  TCM Underground  Television  The British in Hollywood  The Germans in Hollywood  The Hungarians in Hollywood  The Irish in Hollywood  Theaters  Thriller  Trains in movies  Underground Cinema  VOD  War film  Westerns  Women in the Film Industry  Women's Weepies