Friday, June 7, 2013

Laughs with Ginger Rogers

I've got a double feature DVD tip for you.  The first one stars a Hollywood screen legend and Best Actress Oscar winner.  She was the talented Ginger Rogers.

Beside being Fred Astaire's most famous dance partner from a string of hit movie musicals from the 1930s, Ginger Rogers was also one of classic Hollywood's top screwball comedy actresses.  Add to that her Best Actress Academy Award victory for the 1940 feminist drama, Kitty Foyle.   Perhaps she didn't have the acting range of Bette Davis, Barbara Stanwyck and Vivien Leigh, but she sure did a lot with the talents she had.  She excelled at the brassy showgirl (42nd Street, Roxie Hart), the soft and sophisticated love interest in iconic original screen musical comedies with Fred Astaire (Top Hat, Swing Time, Follow the Fleet, Shall We Dance, Carefree), the sassy, respectable working classic girl determined to distinguish herself (Stage Door, Primrose Path, Kitty Foyle) and screwball comedy (Bachelor Mother and the first film Billy Wilder directed, 1942's The Major and the Minor).  Reportedly, she turned down offers to star in His Girl Friday and Ball of Fire.  To Hollywood's credit back then, the 1930s and early 1940s, actresses like Ginger Rogers, Irene Dunne, Barbara Stanwyck and Jean Arthur could turn down a  good script because they had the privilege to choose from several other good ones.  Hollywood writers were on the j-o-b.  For a taste of Ginger in a screwball comedy offering that shows why she was in demand, rent 1941's Tom, Dick and Harry.  This movie flips the script on the film that brought her the Oscar, Kitty Foyle.  In that drama, she's the hardworking career girl from the wrong side of the tracks in Philadelphia who falls for a not-so-hardworking guy from a rich family.  She's made a name for herself in her career.  As the movie opens, she's about to have a life review with herself (a clever mirror gimmick representing her conscience).  The smart, kind, independent and responsible Kitty is packing to leave and be with that rich guy.  But he's married to someone else.
For years, he's romanced her.  He even introduced her to relatives.  But he couldn't break away from being an overgrown trust fund baby who couldn't commit.  He does what the older relatives tell him to do.  And what not to do.  Like marry poor girls.

Tom, Dick and Harry opens with Janie, a telephone operator, at the movies with a boyfriend.  The movie they're watching spoofs that relationship in Ginger's Kitty Foyle.  Janie, constantly in a dreamy state, doesn't see why a poor girl can't marry a rich guy.  Janie will get marriage proposals from three different men.  You can probably guess what their names are.  The complication?  Janie said "Yes" to all three and has to choose just one suitor.  The first proposal comes from the over-achiever car salesman played by George Murphy.  Janie dithers in giving Tom an answer.  He snaps, "I'm not asking for a dance.  I'm asking you to marry me."  A funny line considering that George, like Ginger, danced with Fred Astaire.  He and Astaire were a dance act in Broadway Melody of 1940.
Burgess Meredith played another beau who proposes.  There's another Astaire connection.  He and Fred starred in the musical comedy, Second Chorus.  Harry is in Janie's financial category.  He takes her to a diner, where folks know him, and explains that the rich don't party with the poor:  "They invite people from their own circles and if they run out of them in this town, say, they import them -- from other towns."  He's just a regular palooka who doesn't like the "every man for himself" philosophy of getting ahead in the world.  That philosophy makes him lonesome.  Babyboomers knew Burgess Meredith as The Penguin on TV's Batman series and as the trainer in Rocky with Sylvester Stallone.  He was a great actor.  Now Tom and Harry need a Dick to complete the trio.  One comes along.  He proposes and....he's rich!  Who will Janie choose?

Oscar winning actress today like Reneé Zellweger, Anne Hathaway and Gwyneth Paltrow don't have the amount of versatility to their credits that Ginger Rogers did.  The RKO musicals she did with Fred Astaire would've been enough for an actress' Hollywood lifetime today. But Ginger also hit homeruns with more than one memorable drama and more than one memorable comedy before she turned 40.  I feel that Ginger's work in Tom, Dick and Harry is a textbook example of how to play screwball comedy.  She was a master at screen technique and vocal delivery.  There are things today's young actresses could learn from Ginger Rogers' performance in this old movie.  This movie has so many fun touches.  One of my favorite touches -- Janie's wisecracking bookworm little sister.  Barbara prefers to be called "Butch."  Also, Janie's dream sequences complement her dream-like personality in this wacky look at social class and true love.
It got an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay of 1941.
The movie is now available on Warner Archieve DVD.

If you want a weekend double feature, also check out Spike Lee's She's Gotta Have It.

Janie doesn't do "the grand horizonal" with her three suitors.  But Nola does!  Again, three men romantically pursue to same young woman and wants her to commit.

Spike Lee as Mars in this urban comedy -- one of the most popular independent movie characters of the 1980s.  There you have it.  Two movies.  Two girls.  Six boyfriends.  Lots of laughs and romancing.  I hope you get lots of lovin' this weekend too.

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