GINGER ROGERS SPICED UP THE MOVIE WORLD
By Paul Freeman [From the late Ms. Rogers’ 1984 San Francisco Film Festival Appearance]
An anticipatory buzz sweeps through the audience at the San Francisco Film Festival. It’s time for a massive injection of glamour - old Hollywood style.
The theatre is packed and the crowd rises as one, cheering and applauding, when Ginger Rogers is introduced. She enters the balcony, regally waving to her worshipful subjects below.
At 73, she’s remarkably zesty and attractive. The lights dim and Rogers’ vigor and versatility are demonstrated in clips from her classic films. Her contradictory characteristics are revealed: She’s tough and vulnerable, wisecracking and sweet, virginal and sexy. Each tasty tidbit on the screen receives a warm response from the audience.
Another standing ovation erupts as she mounts the steps to the stage. Dressed in a striking blue suit, set off by red vest and bag, platinum hair falling softly to her shoulders, Rogers is now ready to field a deluge of questions from the crowd.
Inevitably, there are queries about Fred Astaire. Rogers’ fondness for the man is tempered by a tinge of frustration at being liked to him inexorably and eternally.
Most of her responses on the Astaire subject are perfunctory, but she drops in a few interesting comments: “Of course Fred and I were opposites - He’s a man. I’m a woman. Vive La difference!”
“He’s got a precious wife. She’s a darling, just adorable. She called the other day and shocked me. She said, ‘Hello, this is Robyn Smith. I said, ‘Who?” She said, ‘Robyn Smith.’ I said, ‘Robyn Smith who?’ She said, ‘Robyn Smith Astaire.’ I said, ‘Oh, of course. How lovely to hear from you.’ I felt so stupid.’”
Rogers is asked why she didn’t attend the American Film Institute’s salute to her legendary dance partner. “They asked me too late. I already had cash in a show I was doing in New Orleans. I didn’t want to lose what I had invested, so I said, ‘I’m sorry. I can’t come.’ I had already been to three or four tributes to him. I was there in thought. People have chewed me out since, but you can’t always do everything.”
Might she ever work with him again? She laughs heartily. “If you could get Fred Astaire to do another film with me, you’d be Houdini.”
Rogers recalls her most unusual vocal. “When we were making ‘Gold Diggers of 1933, I was on stage, rehearsing my song, ‘We’re in the Money.’ Everybody left for a break. The pianist stayed to help me make sure I had it. We were having fun and we got to laughing. I told him I knew it so well, I could sing it backwards. So I started singing it in Pig Latin.
“Someone entered the hall and everything stopped. It was a man with a hat and a big cigar - Mr. Zanuck. He said, ‘What are you doing, Ginger?’ ‘I’m just going over my song for tomorrow.’ ‘What is that? Pig Latin?’ ‘Just kidding, Mr. Zanuck.’ ‘I want to hear it. Do it for a minute.’ The pianist whispered to me, ‘This may be the end for both of us. Sing it.’
“When it was over, there was a big silence. Finally, Mr. Zanuck took the cigar out of his mouth and said, ‘I want you to sing it just like that in the film.’ And he walked out. I didn’t know what to do. Was he serious or kidding?
“The next day, Mervyn LeRoy said, ‘You’re going to sing it just like you did in rehearsal.’ So I originated something. No one had ever sung Pig Latin on screen before.”
She speaks of her disenchantment with “Lady in the Dark.” “The director [Mitchell Leisen] got distracted by the frosting on the cake and he left out a lot of the cake. A lot of the heart of ‘Lady in the Dark’ was not in the release print. What could I do about that? I’m not an executive. I’m an actress. It’s very sad - an actress can end up with her best scenes on the cutting room floor.
“Television often cuts out the most salient points of the story. They say, ‘We’ve got to stop the movie now for five minutes of advertising.’ And they do. So they cut the heart out of the movie. They don’t care.”
Rogers brightens at the mention of Cary Grant. “He’s just marvelous. He had perfect timing. He knew when to pause, when to wait for an answer. It’s like playing tennis with someone who knows how to keep the ball in play. That’s the fun.”
Lela Rogers not only guided daughter Ginger, but also played an instrumental role in the careers of such luminaries as Betty Grable, Tyrone Power, Lucille Ball and Ethel Merman.
“Ethel Merman,” says Ginger Rogers, “Now she was really something special. My mother and I came to New York for an audition for a musical comedy. It ran only four months, but it was seen by the Gershwins. They got me to play the female lead in ‘Girl Crazy,’ another musical comedy. They were still looking for someone to play the part that Ethel eventually would play.
“One day, my mother and I happened to go to this little movie theatre. They pulled a piano out onto the stage and announced, ‘We have a special lady we want you to hear. Ladies and gentlemen - Ethel Zimmerman!’ And Ethel Zimmerman came out and sang a couple of songs. The house went crazy. We went back to the rehearsal and my mother told the Gershwins she had found the perfect girl to sing ‘I Got Rhythm.’ They called Ethel Zimmerman and gave her an audition. She got the role and she was sensational.
“On a tribute on TV not too long ago - it was an ASCAP special - I said, ‘I remember the time...,’ and told the story. And she did not like it. She said, ‘My name was never anything but Ethel Merman.’ I was heartbroken that I’d offended her, even unintentionally.
“My name isn’t Ginger Rogers. It’s Virginia McMath. If you called me that, I wouldn’t get mad at you. I guess she was just shocked that I mentioned it on TV. I would never have said it, if I had known it would touch a nerve. She was one of our great musical comedy ladies.”
Asked for a list of her favorite leading men, she replies coyly, “Well, there’s C.G. There’s F.A. - So far you’re with me? And J.M. You don’t know know who J.M. is? Joel...” “McCrea!” shouts the audience.
Rogers reflects on the thrill of winning the Best Actress Academy Award for 1940’s “Kitty Foyle.” “I had no idea I would win the Oscar. I was so certain Katherine Hepburn would win. She came from the East. She was very Bryn Mawr, don’t you know,” she says, affecting a snooty accent. “I came from Missouri and Texas. I thought they’d be more likely to go for that Bryn Mawr sort.
“In the running for the Oscar that year, we had Joan Fontaine for ‘Rebecca,’ Martha Scott for ‘Our Town’ - that was a wonderful picture - Bette Davis in ‘The Letter,’ Hepburn for ‘The Philadelphia Story’ and Ginger Rogers for ‘Kitty Foyle.’ Now you can see why I had no idea.
“I was absolutely shocked. When the president of RKO put his elbow in my ribs and yelled, ‘It’s you! It’s you!,’ I looked around to see who ‘You’ was. I went down to get the Oscar. Lynn Fontanne, that great stage actress, was holding it in her hand, ready to give it to me. I could have been walking on hot coals and I wouldn’t have known it. I was so out of it. I thanks absolutely everybody and then I thanked the doorman.
“I understand the darling people who get up there and thank their mother, their father, sister, brother, cousin, second grade teacher, chauffeur. It shouldn’t be allowed, but I understand it.
“On the last Academy Awards, they showed ‘The Continental’ [an unforgettable Astaire/Rogers musical number from 1934’s “The Gay Divorcee”]. That was actually about the 89th take we had done on that number. It was 4:30 in the morning. I was so tired, I hardly knew the steps were there. The lights would go out; there’d be something wrong with the floor; everything happened. There was no Screen Actors Guild in those days. It came along later to disallow producers from overworking actors and actresses.
“Some of you may remember the close-up of me in ‘Top Hat.’ The director said to me, ‘Well, before you go home, let’s shoot your close-up.’ I said, ‘That’s a bit much. It’s 6:00... it the morning! I don’t think this is the best time for a close-up.’ You know what they always say? ‘You look marvelous, darling.’ They couldn’t care if your shoes were on your head as long as they got their schedule done.
“I turned down a lot of pictures I shouldn’t have. I was overworked. When you’re tired, you can turn down caviar, if you don’t look at it closely. And I love caviar. They really worked us. They put us in a coffee grinder and ground us up like little bits of confetti.
“When they had an actor under contract, and they were paying him every week anyway, they liked to keep him working as much as possible. We did what we were told... unless we were one of those finicky actresses who stirred up a fuss about what she would or wouldn’t do. Actually, I always wished I had the courage to walk away from scripts I knew were bad... and don’t ask which ones those were,” she chuckles.
Did she keep any of her gorgeous costumes? “For all the films I made, the studio that hired me purchased the clothes. They never belonged to me. I never bought any when I had the chance. After you’ve danced in a dress 89 times, you don’t want to take it home.”
An awed fan meekly asks about “Stage Door.” “We had great team spirit,” Rogers declares. “We had a wonderful director - Gregory La Cava. He was an innovator. Other directors have since picked up things he created. He would write dialogue for people in the background so there would be real conversation. That had never been done before. This gave us true animation. It made things far more interesting than having people mouth words. I also did ‘Fifth Avenue Girl’ with Mr. La Cava. I’m very much a fan of this director. He’s not with us anymore, but what a talent!’
“’Stage Door’ dealt with problems women have when they set out on careers. Today, they don’t make women’s pictures. They only make men’s films. And they put blossomy little girls in them - if you know what I mean. That’s not what women are about. Don’t forget, you fellas, a woman was your mother!’”
This leads the outspoken actress into a vehement denunciation of modern moviemaking. “Today’s films are a result of greed. The producers will do anything to make a fast dollar. They’ll take your child and undress her on the screen. They’ll shoot your grandmother and watch her die, if it will get them a few dollars more. That’s not fun. It’s not dignified. It’s not pretty. It’s not interesting. It’s so unattractive for an actress to open her mouth and say one filthy word to get the audience to laugh.”
Rogers shoves an accusing finger towards the startled San Francisco audience. “You’re supporting this kind of degradation of the human mind! Why do you go to see these movies? It’s a shame, a real shame. What has this country come to? Sodom and Gomorrah?
“I was not raised in a rich family, but we had quality, real quality. We were good churchgoers. Bad language was never used. There’s nothing wrong with doing things straight-laced and proper.
“There’s plenty of performing talent out there - more than will ever get to be seen. But writing talent has been somewhat buried for the past 20 years. It’s not of the caliber and quality it could be. Everybody today dips their pen into blood instead of ink. Permissiveness and bad language show a lack of quality of thought.
“We should have some sort of censorship board, like the Hays office. We wouldn’t have to have a police department in our cities, if everyone was honest. But they’re not. We wouldn’t need a censorship policy for films, if they were all expressing what they should be expressing. But they’re not.
:If the only picture playing is full of filthy-mouthed people, I won’t go see it. I’ll stay home and make jam.”
Rogers’ film and television appearances have been scarce in the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s. But she has toured with her nightclub act and has graced Broadway and London stages in such productions as “Hello Dolly” and “Mame.”
“In southern Oregon, I have a ranch. The Rogue River runs along the edge of my property for two or three miles. The fishing is fabulous. I love to fish. The atmosphere is ideal there.
“I’m writing a book now - my memoirs. It won’t be one of those tattletale books. That’s not my style.”
But it should be colorful, clever and candid. That is her style.
[Edtior’s Note: In 1991, HarperCollins published her autobriography, “Ginger: My Story”]