July the 16th, 1911 saw the birth of one of Hollywood's greatest. An Academy Award winner in 1941, and the highest earning star of 1942, Ginger Rogers blazed a trail for actresses everywhere.
Born in Independence Missouri as Virginia Katherine McMath, she was the daughter of Lela Emogene and William McMath. After a previous child died during a traumatic birth in hospital, Lela refused to be hospitalised for the birth of Virginia, and delivered her at home. A younger cousin struggled to pronounce Virginia, so shortened the name to Ginga, and, the rest, as they say, is history!
Her parents had a troubled relationship, and separated while Ginger was young. After a failed reconciliation and two occasions where her father kidnapped Ginger, her parents divorced.
Ginger lived with her grandparents while her mother went to California to try and sell an essay she had written in the hope it would become a movie. She succeeded, and spent the next few years writing for Fox. Lela remarried when Ginger was 9, and the family lived in Fort Worth, Texas. By this time, her mother had become a theatre critic for the local newspaper, and Ginger spent many evenings in the wings of local theatres singing along with the performances on stage.
She won a local Charleston dance contest in 1926 and was awarded a six-month contract travelling with Eddie Foy's vaudeville show. Ginger married for the first of five times in 1929 at the age of 17, but she realised shortly afterwards that she had made a mistake. The couple separated months after the marriage and the divorce was finalised in 1931.
After the show travelled to New York, Ginger stayed there with her mother, and picked up a few singing jobs. She was cast in a Broadway musical, Top Speed. Within a fortnight, she had caught the eye of George and Ira Gershwin, who cast her as the lead for their new show, Girl Crazy. They employed a dance trainer to work with the cast, a gentleman by the name of Fred Astaire.
Things moved quickly. The show was a hit. She became an overnight Broadway star and was signed to make pictures with Paramount. She made a few at the Astoria studios in Queens New York, but managed to extricate herself from her 7-year contract and headed for the bright lights of Hollywood.
A Gershwin Broadway star with a five films under her belt, she managed to get work with Pathe, Fox, Warner Brothers and Monogram, and was also named as one of the 15 rising young stars to look out for in 1932.
1933 was the year of 42nd Street. She Played Anytime Annie in the WB film and then went on to sing "We're in the Money" in Gold Diggers of the same year. Then the partnership she is probably best remembered for started.
Between 1933 and 1939 she made 9 films with Fred Astaire, the first being Flying Down to Rio, and the last being The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle. A decade later they reunited in the MGM classic, The Barkleys of Broadway. Across their 10 films together, they partnered in 33 routines. She is probably his best remembered partner, although he made films with Cyd Charrise, Judy Garland, Audrey Hepburn and Jane Powell (Royal Wedding is worth a watch). Critics often applaud Ginger's performances as she was as good an actor as she was a dancer. She understood that the acting didn't stop when the dancing began, making her performances more believable.
Famed for saying that she did everything the man does, but backwards and in high heels, Ginger was a real advocate for strong women. In 1934 she starred in Finishing School, one of the first films co-written and co-directed by a woman, Wanda Tuchock. Only 2 films in the whole of the 1930's credited a woman as a director, and Finishing School was one of them.
Ginger's Oscar came for her dramatic portrayal of Kitty Foyle in a film of the same name. A story dealing with love, marriage, threatened disinheritance, divorce and the death of a child during childbirth. Pretty hard hitting, and well worth a watch. You can buy a copy here. Known as a strong woman, and long term close pals with Bette Davis and Lucille Ball, Ginger could well inspire young women today. She is quoted as saying:
"You know, there's nothing damnable about being a strong woman. The world needs strong women. There are a lot of strong women you do not see who are guiding, helping, mothering strong men. They want to remain unseen. It's kind of nice to be able to play a strong woman who is seen".
A lifelong Christian Scientist, a type 1 diabetic, tee-total and a highly talented tennis player, this short article merely scratches the surface. If you'd like to read more about Ginger Roger's life, can I suggest her own autobiography, My Story, which is available from Amazon, here. If you'd like to see some of her best movies, there is a DVD collection set available to buy here.
Thanks for reading!