Ginger Rogers is my favorite actress. She’s mostly remembered today for being Fred Astaire’s dance partner throughout the 1930s. But Rogers had an acting talent that went beyond that. She was a fantastic and graceful dancer, but she should be remembered as so much more. Her range was unbelievable. She could make a fantastic screwball comedy, and then turn around and make a melodrama, giving great performances in both. Rogers stopped dancing with Astaire in 1939 with The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle (they’d re-team just once more, ten years later, for The Barkleys of Broadway) to focus on a career in non-musical films. Almost immediately her talent was recognized and she won an Academy Award for her performance in the 1940 film Kitty Foyle. Unfortunately, though, so many of her sans-Fred films aren’t remembered today. Here are some of the best.
Primrose Path (Gregory La Cava, 1940)
The same year she gave her award winning performance in Kitty Foyle, she gave an even better performance in Primrose Path, as the daughter of a prostitute who tries to escape her life by marrying Joel McCrea. This is one of the most beautiful love stories put out by the studio system. It’s about the importance of honesty in a marriage. It’s surprising that this film got past the Production Code, not just because it featured characters who were clearly prostitutes, but because these characters were sympathetic. Marjorie Rambeau (who received an Oscar nomination for the role) played Rogers’ mother and a basically good woman simply doing what she was taught in order to support her family. Her relationship with Rogers is gentle. She only wants the best for her children. Primrose Path is a really brave film for the time it was made, and it’s just one of the best romance films I’ve ever seen.
Rafter Romance (William A. Seiter, 1933)
Rafter Romance is actually a pre-Fred film. It’s a simple but incredible sweet and pretty funny romance. Rogers and Norman Foster play two people who share an apartment – he lives there during the day, she lives there at night. They never meet, but they still can’t stand each other. Of course, they meet outside of the apartment, not realizing the other is the person they believe they can’t stand, and they fall in love. This is definitely one of the most original romantic comedies of the early 1930s. Rogers is completely charming, and Norman Foster is a good match for her. They’re both just so endlessly cute.
Romance In Manhattan (Stephen Roberts, 1935)
It’s amazing that such a simple romantic dramady can be so moving. Francis Lederer plays an immigrant who is in the country illegally. He’s taken in by Rogers and her kid brother. It’s really as simple as that. The three just try to make a living and stay afloat while Lederer and Rogers fall in love. But it’s such a sincere and genuine romance. It’s made with so much heart from all involved. And it has one of the funniest finales ever.
Star of Midnight (Stephen Roberts, 1935)
Star of Midnight is my favorite Thin Man knockoff. It’s central mystery is really very interesting, and it has a certain “strange” feeling that I think sets it apart from other screwball mysteries. Powell stars in this (and he’s great, as always) with Rogers as his much younger and very eager love interest. She goes after everything with determination and vigor, whether it’s trying to solve the case or trying to get Powell to marry her. I really wish these two had made more movies together. They were a perfect fit.
Vivacious Lady (George Stevens, 1938)
Vivacious Lady is a sweet romantic comedy made great by the brilliant pairing of Ginger Rogers and James Stewart. They both had an “everyman” feel to them, which made them an incredibly relatable couple. You want so badly for them to be happy together because they’re so normal and remind you of yourself. I also like that it’s not really a movie about two people falling in love. They get married early on in the film. The movie is about them trying to break the news to his family, and staying together while they do it. It’s just an adorable movie.
Bachelor Mother (Garson Kanin, 1939)
This is one of Rogers’ very best performances. She plays a woman who has to raise an orphaned baby she finds on her own because nobody believes it’s not hers. In the meantime, she begins to fall in love with David Niven, her boss’s son who takes an interest in caring for the baby as well. This movie is so great because, in addition to the great romance between Rogers and Niven, it’s wonderful to watch Rogers’ love for the baby, that’s not even hers, grow. It’s one of the most interesting and beautiful relationships in film.
5th Avenue Girl (Gregory La Cava, 1939)
5th Avenue Girl is such a good movie because it has so much going for it. First would be the relationship between Rogers and Walter Connolly. Connolly plays a wealthy man who is ignored by his family, she when he meets Rogers on a park bench he takes her in and the two pretend they’re having an affair in the hopes that the family will finally pay attention to what he’s doing. Rogers and Connolly bond and form a really nice father/daughter relationship that’s the heart of the movie. But the movie has three love stories going on. Throughout the film, Connolly and his wife eventually find their way back to each other. Connolly’s daughter is in love with the chauffer, who seems to be something of a communist. The best love story, though, you don’t realize is there until about halfway through the movie. Rogers and Connolly’s son, Tim Holt, fall in love. It’s a strangely done romance, I’m not even sure I can really describe it, but it’s a really strong film all together.
Tom, Dick, and Harry (Garson Kanin, 1941)
Rogers played a character in Tom, Dick, and Harry who was a little… simpler than most of her other characters. She dreams of romance and love, but can’t choose between three different guys: the regular guy who’s working his way up to management at a local store, the millionaire, and the poor guy. The best part about this movie is that each of the guys has their pros and their cons, and you really have no idea who she’ll choose in the end. She gives a really adorable performance, and this movie is just cute.
Tales of Manhattan (Julian Duvivier, 1942)
In this series of loosely connected vignettes, Ginger Rogers has one of the best stories. It’s a little, short, self contained story about Rogers finding out her fiancee is a cad and realizing his pal, Henry Fonda, is perfect for her. It’s short, sweet, and funny. And Rogers and Fonda are SO good together. Watching this, it’s hard to believe they never made any other films together. They were such a good pairing.
I’ll Be Seeing You (William Dieterle, 1944)
This movie is SO amazing. While there were a lot of movies being made to show how awesome soldiers were and to spread patriotic propaganda during the war, I’ll Be Seeing You was one of the first films to really take a look at the negative effects the war was having on the soldiers. This movie gives us two incredibly flawed, complicated, and damaged characters and allows them to fall in love. It’s just such a beautiful movie. You really didn’t see movies and characters like this too much in classic film.
By Katie Richardson