Dancer, singer, actress. Born Virginia Katherine McMath, on July 16, 1911, in Independence, Missouri. Rogers made her professional debut at age 14, dancing in a vaudeville troupe.
The best-known aspect of the Rogers career is her membership in the most beloved and celebrated dance team in the history of the American musical cinema--the Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers combination that was paired in ten dance musicals. Together, from 1933 to 1939, they made nine films for RKO, managing to keep the financially unstable studio afloat for several years. Because many film scholars consider the Astaire/Rogers films to be the greatest dance musicals produced by Hollywood, they have been the subject of extensive analysis. Most of the research concerns the revolutionary aesthetic contributions that have been attributed to Fred Astaire; the integration of musical numbers and choreography with plot and story line, sound recording methods, and the use of camera work to maintain the integrity of the dance numbers.
Historically, the other half of the team, Rogers, has been continually overlooked. As film scholar Robin Wood so aptly states, "One habitually thinks of Rogers as Astaire's partner, rather than the other way around." Some have argued that Astaire, in fact, needed Rogers more than she did him.
After Astaire's sister broke up the Broadway dance team of Fred and Adele Astaire in 1932, Astaire found his career in musical comedy faltering and embarked on a career in the motion picture industry. It was a risky undertaking. Already 33 and thin, balding, and not-classically handsome, Astaire did not possess the qualities of the typical Hollywood leading man. Rogers, however, was already well established in the American film industry. Before being matched with Astaire, she had appeared in 19 feature films, beginning with Young Man in Manhattan (1930), and including two of Warner's Busby Berkeley musicals, 42nd Street and Golddiggers of 1933.
Her first role with Fred Astaire, in 1933ís Flying Down to Rio, was understated, but they went on to star together in nine more movies, and Rogers soon was sharing top billing with Astaire. She made several nonmusical roles, and in 1940 she won a Best Actress Oscar for her role in Kitty Foyle. At the height of her success, in 1945, Rogers was the highest paid performer in Hollywood.
During the years in which she and Astaire were a team, she made several films, both dramatic and comedic, without him. According to Croce, "By the end of 1939, RKO considered Rogers its No. 1 star and began laying plans for a straight dramatic career, while Astaire ran out his contract."
In their filmed musical pairings, Astaire and Rogers seemed wrong for one another, gloriously mismatched physically, intellectually, and stylistically. Rogers was down-to-earth, athletic--very much the "all-American" type. In the exaggerated manner of film stars, she represented the ordinary. Astaire was the elegant, European in grace, and so exceptional that he has never been equaled. Yet together, they personified the idiosyncrasy of romance--two people that friends would never match up, but who have been brought together by an inexplicable attraction. This attraction was physicalized and eloquently expressed through their dances. The best explanation of the Astaire/Rogers chemistry is a quote attributed to Katharine Hepburn: "She gave him sex, and he gave her class."
Had Rogers not been so ambitious, she might have settled for lasting fame as Astaire's most popular dance partner. But she wanted more for herself, and knew from her years in films before Astaire that she could play comedy and drama well. She broke off the partnership, a courageous career move for which she is seldom given credit.
Her first major success as a dramatic actress was Kitty Foyle, for which she won the 1940 Oscar for Best Actress. Having thus established herself as a solo performer, Rogers continued to pursue an active career in comedy as well as drama, occasionally returning to the musical format. Her screen image became that of a wise, tough-minded, humorous, hard-working, real-life American woman, an image built to last as it accommodated her advancing age and afforded her the versatility to play in different film genres. In later years, Rogers made a successful transition from films to television, and found equal acclaim in big Broadway musicals such as Mame and Hello, Dolly!
Any discussion of the career of Ginger Rogers must give credit to her mother, Leila Rogers, who managed her daughter with determination and intelligence. Together, the two women made the most of all opportunities they had, beginning with young Ginger's first triumph in a Charleston contest. Rogers was not considered the most beautiful woman in Hollywood, nor the best actress, singer, comedienne, or even dancer. But she was an attractive woman who could be glamorous or wholesome, depending on what the role required. She could sing and dance well, and she was versatile, with excellent comedic timing, and ability to mimic, and real dramatic skill. Putting it all together gave her the edge she needed which, supplemented by the Rogers family business acumen, and her own professionalism, made her a top star.
Rogers died on April 25, 1995 in Rancho Mirage, California of congestive heart failure.
© Biography Resource Center, 2001 Gale Group BIOGRAPHY.COM
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