Monday, April 8, 2013

Ginger Rogers is ROXIE HART

This is the character Bob Fosse musicalized in Broadway in Chicago.  The film version, with Renée Zellweger as "foxy Roxie Hart," took the Oscar for Best Picture of 2002.  If you get Turner Classic Movies, tune in at 8pm ET to see Ginger Rogers as Roxie Hart.  There will be no order in the court when she gives the jury a look at her gams.
When I was a kid and started reading movie books in the local library, I read that Ginger was the first choice to play Sugarpuss O'Shea in Ball of Fire, the hip 1941 comedy twist on Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs with a screenplay by Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett.  Ginger passed on the part.  Barbara Stanwyck took it and got a Best Actress Oscar nomination for her zesty performance.  Roxie Hart was a 1942 release.  Another Ginger Rogers comedy that same year marked some Hollywood history.  She starred in another screwball comedy with a screenplay by Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett -- The Major and the Minor.  This was the first movie Billy Wilder directed.  The rest truly is Hollywood history.  In The Major and the Minor, Ginger precedes Tony Curtis in Some Like It Hot by playing three characters in one sex-confusion/disguise comedy involving a train getaway.  Gingers plays characters in three stages of the female's life.

Roxie Hart runs only about 80 minutes.  In it, you can see why Howard Hawks would've considered Ginger for Ball of Fire.  She is sassy and brassy fun.  I loved seeing her Roxie go "billy goat" on anyone who worked her last good nerve.  Although this 20th Century Fox film is not a musical, one of the liveliest and most delicious bits in it is an impromptu jail house dance number with Roxie and members of the press.  Ginger shows 'em how Roxie does "The Black Bottom."  William Wellman directed this comedy.
I like the movie Chicago but this number has something the 2002 movie didn't -- unexpected, loopy joy.  Roxie Hart has at least three actors who went on to hit sitcom work in the 1950s -- William Frawley (I Love Lucy), Phil Silvers (The Phil Silvers Show) and Spring Byington (December Bride).

In the 1980s, the late and gifted actor/playwright Charles Ludlam praised Ginger's work saying that there was "great clarity" about her acting.  I agree.  She may not have had the acting training of Bette Davis and Katharine Hepburn, she may not have had the dance training of Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse, perhaps she didn't have the musical comedy and dramatic range of Judy Garland and Bing Crosby...but she did the absolute best with the talent she possessed.

Look at brassy showgirl Ginger in 42nd Street singing the Busby Berkeley-directed "We're In The Money" number with giant coins over her special lady parts during the Great Depression.

Then look at the sleek and sophisticated Ginger with Fred Astaire in those great original movie musicals Top Hat...

....Follow the Fleet in which they introduced "Let's Face the Music and Dance"...

...and Swing Time, to name a few.

Ginger is still Astaire's most famous dance partner.  She acted the story and emotions of the songs to which they danced.  She reacted to the words.  Ginger danced in character and in the moment, as did Fred.  They made that hard work look easy.  Their partnership in RKO musicals seems something that was pre-planned by Heaven before they were born.  It was a divine partnership, just meant to be.  Look at them in Swing Time directed by George Stevens.  I still feel that if a couple like Ronald Colman and Greer Garson had expressed verbally all the complex, heartbreaking emotions that Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire expressed through Hermes Pan choreography in the "Never Gonna Dance" number near the end, they would have received Oscar nominations.  But, often, people don't see musical comedies as hard work.  They are.  They're basically triathlons with a downbeat.  You have to act, sing and dance.

Ginger could whip out a wisecrack with the best of them.  She shines in Stage Door as a Broadway hopeful living in a women's boarding house with other wisecracking Broadway hopefuls.  That cast included Katharine Hepburn, Lucille Ball, Eve Arden and Ann Miller.

Hits like Bachelor Mother (1939) further proved her top screen comedienne skills.

And then she wins a Best Actress Oscar for her fine dramatic performance as Kitty Foyle.  This 1940 story of an independent and hard-working Irish-American career girl in Philadelphia shows us her self-reflection.  Will she continue to be in love with the irresponsible trust fund baby who can't commit to her?  His rich relatives run his life.

This role fit Ginger's "working class girl with the right stuff" screen image like a glove.  It's also a good look at early feminism and social class in America.  She earned that Oscar.

And then came Roxie Hart.  By the way, Ginger's 1920s jailhouse numbers in the movie were choreographed by Hollywood's Greek god of the dance.  That's how I feel about Hermes Pan, the Greek-American who created the dance numbers for the famed Astaire and Rogers musicals at RKO in the 1930s. Pan's in the middle and then dons a hat.

Pan must have also been a part of Heaven's pre-plan.  Not only was he one of Astaire's closest friends, they almost looked like twins separated at birth.  At the time Ginger made Roxie Hart at Fox, Hermes Pan was there choreographing and appearing in musicals starring Betty Grable and Rita Hayworth.  Here's Pan with Hayworth in My Gal Sal.

Here's Fred with Rita Hayworth in a publicity photo for You'll Never Get Rich.

Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers were two definite icons of Hollywood musicals.  Ironically, each received only one Oscar nomination in their long careers and each one's nomination came for work in a dramatic film.  (Astaire was up for Best Supporting Actor thanks to surviving that 1974 disaster called The Towering Inferno.)  Look at Ginger from 42nd Street (1933) to Billy Wilder's The Major and the Minor (1942). What young movie actress today has a diverse line-up of hits like that to her film role credits within a 10-year span? Again...Ginger Rogers is really good as a bad girl called Roxie Hart.

Charles Ludlam was right.  Great clarity about her acting.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. I agree. Ginger was an amazing woman, actress, and dancer. Check out my blog about Ginger's life and career at

  3. This article is great! Question: I swear I saw Ginger Rogers in a serious role when she was a little older. She plays a woman of advanced years who Is recalling her life and then most of the film is a flashback to the affair she has with a married wealthy man. Every year they meet in a house on the coast of California. It's very touching. I cannot remember the title nor the leading man. Van you help me solve this ? Thanks in advance!

  4. Just watched "Roxie Hart" the umpteenth time today and appreciate even more what Rogers brought tot this film. It is quite rowdy start to finish but she acts in a wide range from calculating, clever, rowdy and making fun of the people she is moving among. Her singing and dancing are perfection, too. She really could play any kind of part in any kind of movie effectively. She grew up, by the way, down the street from Bess Truman's family in Independence, Missouri.


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