Friday, March 30, 2012

Ginger Rogers Got Wilder

Besides having danced her way to global fame in sleek, original 1930s musical comedies with Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers was also one of the top screwball comedy actresses of the 1930s and '40s.  She was in a league with Carole Lombard, Claudette Colbert, Irene Dunne and Jean Arthur.  One of my favorite screwball comedy performances of hers is in an early Billy Wilder film that rarely gets mentioned in talks about his classics.  It's The Major and the Minor.  Ray Milland, who'd go to win a Best Actor Oscar for his dramatic work in Wilder's The Lost Weekend, plays Major Kirby.  He's the officer who believes Ginger is a 12 year old girl called Su-Su Applegate.  She's really a 20something woman who got fed up with being chased by men while she was trying to chase a career in Manhattan.  Susan Applegate wants a one-way train ticket back to Iowa.
Long before two male musicians dressed in drag and fled town on a train in Some Like It Hot, Susan Applegate disguised herself and desperately boarded a train.  She fled the concrete jungle of Manhattan to keep her virtue intact only to be surrounded by more wolves outside that concrete jungle.  Susan doesn't have enough money for an adult ticket.  She disguises herself as a kid to get away with paying half-fare.  Fake identity on a train.  Wilder would do this again for laughs in 1959's Some Like It Hot.  He'd do it dramatically in his 1944 film noir classic, Double Indemnity.
Men are still the problem.  She was working as a scalp massager.  One frisky, older gent in town without the Mrs. made a nighttime appointment.  You guessed it.  He wanted to massage Susan.  She calls it quits in the Big Apple.  Susan sneaks onboard the train, her mode of escape from Manhattan man hands, and she's chased yet again.  This time by the big bad conductors who catch on to her trick.  But kindly Major Kirby comes to the aid of little "Su-Su."  He's an honorable guy.  A handsome honorable guy.  Ironically, Susan Applegate -- fleeing from males with lively libidos -- will wind up in a military academy where "Su-Su" will carbonate the hormones of cadets who recently marched into puberty.  This 1942 box office hit was the first American film Billy Wilder directed.  He also co-wrote the screenplay.  It's got gender disguise, sexual tension, that touch of Wilder cynicism, love and -- in this case -- patriotism for its wartime audience.  This kind of movie script would not be done today.  Wilder had a witty, European touch.  He knew how far to go and where not to go.  The audience knows that Su-Su is really a young woman instantly smitten with Major Kirby.  When he squints with one eye at her and remarks "Su-Su, you're a knock-out,"  we know he's not at all improperly interested in that little girl.  He's the one man Susan wants to chase without her cover being blown.  For all its innocence, I still giggle at what Wilder got past the censors.  Susan is dodging lusty men.  She's now in disguise and hiding out in a military academy full of teen cadets clutching rifles -- big phallic symbols.  The spot where all the cadets take their girls to kiss & make out is by a campus cannon -- bigger phallic symbol.  Leave it to Billy Wilder.
Also, there's a little tension for Susan too.  Most of the young cadets are pretty gangly but Cadet Osborne  is a tall teen cutie.  And he likes Su-Su.  The movie was a release from Paramount Pictures.  One of that studio's big stars then was glamour girl Veronica Lake.  She's the star Kim Basinger's hooker in L.A. Confidential impersonated for her clients.  Lake's peek-a-boo hairdo was a sensation in the early '40s.
Cadet Osborne escorts Su-Su to the military dance.  He's the lucky one.  She's been pursued by several. 
We can see why.  The available girls from Miss Shackleford's School are all suffering from Veronica Lake Syndrome. 
Susan needs to attend this dance where she can scheme to win Major Kirby away from his witch of a fiancée.  Just the way the major squints and looks at Su-Su with one eye, we should take a better look at Ginger's skill in this role.  She's playing the female in the three stage of her life.  She plays her as the girl.
She plays her as the young woman.
She plays her as the older woman.
Three different stages and each stage that Rogers plays has a distinct personality and level of maturity.  She's very effective in each stage.  The female is more mature than the males.  The philandering dodo at the beginning wants more than a scalp massage.  He's an older man but has the same level of maturity and subtlety as the boys in the military academy.  ("Why don't you get out of that wet coat and into a dry martini?")  Actor/writer Robert Benchley was a pro at this kind of comedy part.
That aspect about male behavior is so Wilder.  The Major and the Minor could also been called They're Either Too Young or Too Old, which was the name of an Oscar-nominated song Bette Davis introduced in the all-star Warner Bros. wartime musical comedy, Thank Your Lucky Stars.  For single girl Susan Applegate, they are either too young or too old.  Except for good Major Philip Kirby.  Susan will chase him until he catches her.
Just as Tony Curtis played three characters in Some Like It Hot -- Joe the love 'em and leave 'em sax player, Josephine the band member and Junior the millionaire -- Ginger Rogers plays three characters, each a variation on the same female.  Ginger is delicious in this Billy Wilder comedy.  The role has what audiences expected in a Ginger Rogers comedy character -- the working class girl whose wisecracks are a tough front for the warm, vulnerable, lovable person who's known disappointment.
The work of Ginger Rogers should be studied by young women with dreams of acting careers.  Ginger had the kind of career that would humble Oscar winners like Nicole Kidman, Renée Zellweger, Gwyneth Paltrow and Jennifer Hudson.  She was versatile, an Oscar winner and a box office favorite before and after she won the Oscar.  She clicked with Depression era moviegoers as one of the brassy Gold Diggers of 1933, a famous musical with numbers created by Busby Berkeley.
Her look and attitude were softened and refined for the character she played in the 1935 original screen musical, Top Hat.  The score was written by Irving Berlin.
She and Fred Astaire sang and danced their way to box office success and film history with songs written for them to introduce.  Songs like "Cheek to Cheek" in Top Hat.
..."Pick Yourself Up" in Swing Time...
..."Let's Face The Music and Dance" in Follow the Fleet...
...and "They All Laughed" in Shall We Dance, the musical with an original score by George and Ira Gershwin.
She had wonderful screen technique that added extra magic to the musicals with Astaire.  They brought out the best in each other and their best was stunning.  Watch how Ginger acts in the dance numbers.  She internally reacts to the lyrics of the song, treating the song as a monologue.  She dances in character to the emotion of the scene.  The "Never Gonna Dance" number near the end of the classic Swing Time is a perfect example.  If she and Astaire were in a drama and verbally expressed all the complicated emotions that they dance in that awesome number, they probably would've gotten Oscar nominations.  There's a beautiful clarity in her acting.  Each did get one nomination in their long film careers.  For dramas.  Not for any of the musicals that made them film icons.  Ginger's brilliance at delivering zingers was in peak form when she played one of the struggling New York actresses living in a boarding house in the 1937 comedy/drama Stage Door.  Dancer Jean Maitland is one tough lady but she's really just as scared as the rest of the girls in that residence hoping for success.  Or, at least, a good meal -- even if it comes with a blind date.  Her "take-no-prisoners" wisecracks are her armor.
Katharine Hepburn, Lucille Ball, Eve Arden and Ann Miller.  The kind of machine-gun delivery of one-liners from the women in this movie is a lost art that I wish would make a return.  Although Ginger had nowhere near the classical stage training that co-star Katharine Hepburn did, Ginger steals the picture.  She's the heart of it.
The adolescent she plays in Billy Wilder's comedy echoes something she did at the beginning of Kitty Foyle.  In that very feminist 1940 drama written by Dalton Trumbo, she's a young unmarried woman with a career who's reviewing her life.  She's worked her way up from a clerical job and being born on the wrong side of the tracks.  She's offered the chance to run off with a man in her life.  A man from an upper class family.  He's got more money and less character.  In flashbacks, we see Kitty Foyle years before she became a secretary.  We see her as a kid watching the upper class.
For this drama, Ginger Rogers won the Best Actress Academy Award.  She deserved it.  Yes, it's an old film but its views on social class, class entitlement and women's independence feel fresh in comparison to some of the Hollywood films churned out today.
I mentioned Oscar winner Renée Zellweger earlier.  In 1942, Ginger Rogers starred as Roxie Hart.  The story was later musicalized on Broadway as Chicago.  Zellweger played Roxie in the film version of that Broadway hit.
If you're up for some Wilder fun with plenty of Ginger, watch her play three stages of the female's life as she outsmarts males of all ages in Billy Wilder's The Major and the Minor.  Just like Su-Su Applegate, she's a knock-out.

1 comment:

  1. I really like your writing style. Such a nice Post, Can’t wait for the next one.
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