Posted by Shannon Clute on June 23, 2013
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.
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).
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.
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.
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