Ginger Rogers' last Star of the Month evening begins tonight, March 31 '10, at 5 p.m. Pacific Time on Turner Classic Movies.
Among the Rogers classics on TCM's schedule are two of the actress' most important vehicles: Sam Wood's romantic melodrama Kitty Foyle (1940, right), which earned Rogers a Best Actress Oscar for her portrayal of a working-class young woman who falls for a high-society type (Dennis Morgan), and Billy Wilder's The Major and the Minor (1942), considered by some to be Rogers' best film.
In The Major and the Minor, Rogers plays a woman who disguises herself as a little girl so as to travel half-fare on her way back home from New York. On the train, she's befriended by army major Ray Milland, who develops fatherly feelings toward her. Later on, those fatherly feelings become increasingly less chaste, which made audiences in 1942 laugh but would make politically correct audiences in 2010 squirm.
Let'em squirm: The Major and the Minor is a delightful comedy, with both Rogers and Ray Milland in top form. In a bitchy supporting role, Rita Johnson steals (or at least gets close to stealing) all of her scenes.
I'd also recommend Leo McCarey's Once Upon a Honeymoon (1942), which at the time was poorly received by critics who found that a comedy about Nazism was in bad taste. (Similar accusations greeted Ernst Lubitsch's To Be or Not to Be that same year.) It's been a while since I last saw this one, but at the time I found it very funny. Rogers is excellent as a gold digger who unwittingly marries a conniving Nazi. Cary Grant is the befuddled good guy, while Walter Slezak is outstanding as the Nazi.
The First Traveling Saleslady (1956), one of the last productions made at the moribund RKO, is considered by some to be one of the worst movies of Ginger Rogers' career. As so often happens, I disagree.
I find Arthur Lubin's The First Traveling Saleslady a thoroughly enjoyable comedy, with Rogers and Barry Nelson displaying great chemistry as she tries to convince early 20th-century Texans that a woman can be as good a salesperson as a guy. All in all, The First Traveling Saleslady is a 1956 production with a surprisingly modern feel.
As a plus, even granite-faced Clint Eastwood comes across as a real human being in this one. Had he remained human, he'd probably never have become a star – though I, personally, might have become a fan. (Lubin has been credited for giving Eastwood his first several breaks. In addition to Eastwood, the gay director peppered The First Traveling Saleslady with good-looking guys in supporting roles and bit parts.)
Another curiosity: Carol Channing is nearly unrecognizable as Eastwood's paramour. Check it out.
Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire became movie stars thanks to Dorothy Jordan. Jordan, Ramon Novarro's leading lady in three popular early MGM musicals, had been cast as the second female lead in RKO's Flying Down to Rio, a 1933 musical starring Mexican Dolores del Rio as a (hilarious) Brazilian and Gene Raymond as her red-white-and-blue suitor.
But instead of practicing her tap dancing, Jordan opted to get married to King Kong co-director Merian C. Cooper. Enter Ginger Rogers. And what followed in the next two-and-a-half decades were a series of delightful performances in movie comedies, dramas, and musicals.
Ginger Rogers in old Greta Garbo role
Turner Classic Movies is currently showing The Barkleys of Broadway (1949), the last Ginger Rogers-Fred Astaire pairing and the duo's only movie in color. Next is the Robert Z. Leonard-directed Weekend at the Waldorf (1945), a less prestigious but immensely popular remake of 1931-32 Best Picture Academy Award winner Grand Hotel.
Transposed from Berlin's Grand Hotel to New York's Waldorf-Astoria, Weekend at the Waldorf stars Rogers in the old Greta Garbo role and Walter Pidgeon in the John Barrymore part. Others in the cast: Lana Turner, Van Johnson, and Edward Arnold in roles originally incarnated by Joan Crawford, Lionel Barrymore (Johnson's role was fully revamped), and Wallace Beery.
Schedule and synopsis from the TCM website:
5:00pm [Romance] Kitty Foyle (1940)
A girl from the wrong side of the tracks endures scandal and heartbreak when she falls for a high-society boy.
Cast: Ginger Rogers, Dennis Morgan, James Craig, Eduardo Ciannelli Dir: Sam Wood BW-108 min.
7:00pm Tom, Dick And Harry (1941)
A girl accepts three wedding proposals at once and dreams of marriage to each man.
Cast: Ginger Rogers, George Murphy, Alan Marshal, Burgess Meredith Dir: Garson Kanin BW-87 min.
8:30pm Major and the Minor, The (1942)
A woman disguises herself as a little girl and ends up in a military academy.
Cast: Ginger Rogers, Ray Milland, Rita Johnson, Robert Benchley Dir: Billy Wilder BW-100 min.
10:15pm [Short Film] Short Film: One Reel Wonders: Lions On The Loose (1941)
Cast: Pete Smith BW-8 min.
10:30pm Primrose Path (1940)
The youngest child in a family of prostitutes tries to go straight with a working man.
Cast: Ginger Rogers, Joel McCrea, Marjorie Rambeau, Henry Travers Dir: Gregory La Cava BW-93 min.
2:00am Once Upon a Honeymoon (1942)
A radio correspondent tries to rescue a burlesque queen from her marriage to a Nazi official.
Cast: Cary Grant, Ginger Rogers, Walter Slezak, Albert Dekker Dir: Leo McCarey BW-115 min.
5:45am [Romance] Weekend at the Waldorf (1945)
In this remake of Grand Hotel, guests at a New York hotel fight to survive personal tragedy.
Cast: Ginger Rogers, Lana Turner, Walter Pidgeon, Van Johnson Dir: Robert Z. Leonard BW-130 min.
8:00am First Traveling Saleslady, The (1956)
A corset designer takes a job selling barbed wire in the wild West.
Cast: Ginger Rogers, Barry Nelson, Carol Channing, David Brian Dir: Arthur Lubin C-92 min.
9:45am It Had to Be You (1947)
A runaway bride meets her match in a handsome fireman.
Cast: Ginger Rogers, Cornel Wilde, Percy Waram, Spring Byington Dir: Rudolph Maté BW-98 min.
11:30am Tight Spot (1955)
A district attorney tries to get a hardboiled woman to testify against the mob.
Cast: Ginger Rogers, Edward G. Robinson, Brian Keith, Lucy Marlow Dir: Phil Karlson BW-96 min.
Ginger Rogers is back on Turner Classic Movies on Thursday, March 24, with 11 films. Of those, I particularly recommend two: George Stevens' Vivacious Lady (1938), with James Stewart, and Gregory La Cava's Stage Door (1937), with Katharine Hepburn. (See Ginger Rogers TCM Schedule below.)
In Vivacious Lady, Rogers plays a nightclub singer who tries to tone it down for the sake of her professor husband's reactionary family. The part of the saucy singer is perfect for Rogers, who's very funny in the role. And so is Charles Coburn as her father-in-law, a role he'd play once again – to even better effect – in Bachelor Mother.
Adapted from Edna Ferber and George S. Kaufman's play, the dramatic comedy Stage Door features a nearly all-female cast led by Rogers and haughty Katharine Hepburn as two struggling actresses at a boarding home. Both the film and director Gregory La Cava were nominated for Academy Awards.
La Cava's use of overlapping dialogue was remarked upon for its “naturalistic” feel – except that there's nothing natural about the very witty and at times very funny repartee among Rogers, Hepburn, Ball, Eve Arden, Ann Miller, Constance Collier, Gail Patrick, Lucille Ball, and Oscar nominee Andrea Leeds.
Garson Kanin's Bachelor Mother (1939, right, with David Niven) is also enjoyable, but I'd heard so much about this romantic comedy that I was somewhat disappointed when I finally got to see it. (Charles Coburn, however, is superb.) I gotta check it out again.
Photos: RKO Pictures
5:00pm Vivacious Lady (1937)
After a whirlwind courtship, a nightclub singer has to adjust to her professor husband's conservative family.
Cast: Ginger Rogers, James Stewart, James Ellison, Beulah Bondi Dir: George Stevens BW-90 mins
6:45pm Bachelor Mother (1939)
A fun-loving shop girl is mistaken for the mother of a foundling.
Cast: Ginger Rogers, David Niven, Charles Coburn, Frank Albertson Dir: Garson Kanin BW-82 mins
8:15pm Stage Door (1937)
Women at a theatrical boarding house try to make their big break happen.
Cast: Katharine Hepburn, Ginger Rogers, Adolphe Menjou, Gail Patrick Dir: Gregory LaCava BW-92 mins
10:00pm Having Wonderful Time (1938)
A New York girl finds love at a summer resort.
Cast: Ginger Rogers, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Peggy Conklin, Lucille Ball Dir: Alfred Santell BW-70 mins
11:15pm Fifth Avenue Girl (1939)
To annoy his family, a millionaire hires an out-of-work girl to pose as a gold digger.
Cast: Ginger Rogers, Walter Connolly, Verree Teasdale, James Ellison Dir: Gregory La Cava BW-83 mins
12:45am [Musical] In Person (1935)
A movie star runs off to the mountains for an incognito vacation.
Cast: Ginger Rogers, George Brent, Alan Mowbray, Grant Mitchell Dir: William A. Seiter BW-87 mins
2:15am [Musical] Twenty Million Sweethearts (1934)
A promoter neglects his wife to make a singer a radio star.
Cast: Pat O'Brien, Dick Powell, Ginger Rogers, The Four Mills Bros. Dir.: Ray Enright BW-90 mins
4:00am Upper World (1934)
A wealthy man escapes his wife's social pretensions in the arms of a burlesque queen.
Cast: Warren William, Mary Astor, Ginger Rogers, Andy Devine Dir: Roy Del Ruth BW-73 mins
5:15am [Romance] Romance In Manhattan (1935)
A New York chorus girl helps an illegal immigrant build a new life in the big city.
Cast: Francis Lederer, Ginger Rogers, Arthur Hohl, Jimmy Butler Dir: Stephen Roberts BW-77 mins
6:45am [Suspense/Mystery] Star Of Midnight (1935)
A New York lawyer tries to track down a kidnapped actress.
Cast: William Powell, Ginger Rogers, Paul Kelly, Gene Lockhart Dir: Stephen Roberts BW-90 mins
8:30am Perfect Strangers (1950)
A divorcee finds love with a married man while they both sit on a jury.
Cast: Ginger Rogers, Dennis Morgan, Thelma Ritter, Margalo Gillmore Dir: Bretaigne Windust BW-88 mins
Photos: RKO Pictures