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A centenary spiced in Ginger: Happy 100th, Ms. Rogers!



Today marks a special day for fans of classic Hollywood; that's because 100 years ago this day, Virginia Katherine McMath was born in Independence, Mo. We, of course, know her better as Ginger Rogers (shown above with Carole Lombard and a chihuahua at a February 1937 Red Cross relief show), one of the genuine legends of the '30s and '40s.



While Rogers will be known first and foremost for generations to come as Fred Astaire's most famous cinematic dance partner, her career went far beyond those classic collaborations. Ginger was a special talent -- she could sing (she introduced "Embraceable You" on Broadway in 1930), dance, and excel in both comedy and drama, all with a genuine vivacity and likability. (Remember, she won an Academy Award for best actress of 1940 for "Kitty Foyle.") Yes, she had an undeniable sex appeal, but the old bromide about her and Astaire that "she gave him sex and he gave her class" shortchanges both.

Rogers' film career began at Paramount in 1930, at about the same time Lombard started at the studio, but Ginger was based at its Astoria branch (she was still regularly working on Broadway at the time), while Carole was in Hollywood. (It's possible they met when Lombard came east that summer to appear in "Fast And Loose.") As was the case with Carole, Paramount -- suffering from a surfeit of riches where its actress roster was concerned -- didn't know what to do with her. So when Rogers went west once Paramount shut down Astoria, she worked for RKO Pathe, Warners ("42nd Street," "Gold Diggers Of 1933"), even Monogram. RKO eventually became her long-term home, and she had some success there ("Professional Sweetheart," "Rafter Romance") before teaming up with Astaire. (They had known each other in New York, where they had even briefly dated.)



The hits kept coming throughout the mid-1930s, most of them with Astaire, but each wanted to preserve their own filmic identity. Ginger did it through vehicles such as "Star Of Midnight" (with William Powell), "Stage Door" (part of an array of ace actresses) and "Vivacious Lady" (with James Stewart). By the time Carole arrived at RKO in 1939, Ginger was the unquestioned queen of the lot, through both comedy ("Bachelor Mother," "Fifth Avenue Girl") and dramas such as "Kitty Foyle." And let's not forget that she starred in the first film Billy Wilder directed, "The Major And The Minor."



Rogers continued working regularly in films until the mid-fifties, but then largely gave up movies to both return to the stage and appear occasionally on television. Her last movie assignment was the Carol Lynley version of "Harlow," where she played Mama Jean Bello. (Ironically, Rogers' mother Lela was also a force in the film capital, and she and Ginger were quite close.) Rogers died in April 1995, a few months shy of her 84th birthday.

There's a lot to like about Ginger Rogers, and for more on this real-life vivacious lady, go to the official website, http://www.gingerrogers.com, or my favorite fan site devoted to her, the wonderful "Gingerology" (http://jwhueyblog.blogspot.com).

Like Lombard, Rogers enjoyed playing tennis. Did they ever play each other? That's a subject for research for both camps.



As a centenary treat, here's a recording of "Alice In Wonderland" that Ginger made for Decca in the 1940s (this is a 45 rpm reissue from the 1950s). Ginger uses her little-girl voice from "The Major And The Minor" for this assignment, and she's delightful. (Oh, and it sounds as if the White Rabbit is played by Arthur Q. Bryan, cartoon voice of Elmer Fudd.) This is a lot of fun, and lasts about 26 minutes.

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