Ginger Rogers: chorus girl and ensemble player

Quite unexpectedly, April 2023 turned out to be Ginger Rogers Month for me. The BFI held a retrospective of her films brilliantly titled ‘All That Sass’ and I signed up for the tie-in BFI/City Lit course as I figured it would give me something to do on Tuesday evenings and there wouldn’t be any pressure. I was already a Ginger Rogers fan but I now feel as if she’s family. I want everyone to know that she’d already been in about 20 movies before she was paired with Fred Astaire in 1933 when she was only 22 (Astaire, twelve years her senior, had only been in one). She made around 70 films in total, only ten of which were with Astaire. When the instructor asked for volunteers to give presentations, I put my hand up even though public speaking is an anathema to me. I wasn’t too nervous (in part because the stakes were low) and it seemed to go well. It’s too soon to say whether I really have turned a corner but I do feel more confident for having done it and I thought I’d share what I had to say. Disclaimer: this is a non-expert’s take.

In this presentation, I would like to talk about Ginger Rogers as a chorus girl and ensemble player in 42nd Street, Gold Diggers of 1933 and Stage Door. In the twentieth century, being a chorus girl was one way in which a young woman could support herself. Singing and dancing talent was often secondary to having the right look and shapely legs, as seen in the audition scene in 42nd Street. If you were very lucky, chorus work could potentially be stepping-stone to bit parts, featured roles and maybe even stardom. The chorus girl was an archetype on Broadway and in Hollywood who could embody both comedy and tragedy. Several of Ginger Rogers’ contemporaries started out in the chorus line, including Joan Crawford, Myrna Loy and Barbara Stanwyck. However, Ginger Rogers, despite her fame as a dancer, never worked as a chorus girl. Possibly her mother Lela saw to it that young Ginger was put forward as a solo act from the start – as seen in her success in the Charleston competition of 1925 – and not lost in the mix as one of a line of young beauties showing off their legs in revealing costumes.

If you watch 42nd Street or Gold Diggers of 1933 expecting a ‘Ginger Rogers movie’, you might be disappointed as her roles are quite small. However, neither film has an obvious main protagonist and everyone is essentially an ensemble player. In both, the de facto heroine is Ruby Keeler as the ingenue, and top billing goes to Warner Baxter and Warren William respectively as the male authority figures.

In 42nd Street, a 22-year-old Ginger Rogers plays Ann Lowell, known as ‘Anytime Annie’, a chorine with a reputation as a girl who can’t say no. She is comically trying to shake off this good-time girl image as she wears a monocle, carries a lapdog and speaks with an exaggeratedly refined accent. She and her friend Lorraine (played by Una Merkel) are experienced in the ways of the world but they aren’t jaded as they show kindness to Keeler’s hopelessly green Peggy Sawyer when the other girls try to humiliate her. Annie is offered the lead role following leading lady Dorothy Brock’s injury but despite having longed for such an opportunity for years, she selflessly refuses, insisting that the opportunity goes to Peggy, whom she claims is more talented and more deserving. This is perhaps the most unrealistic aspect of the entire film as I think most people would agree that Ruby Keeler can’t hold a candle to Ginger Rogers in terms of talent and personality, and no chorus girl would ever be so self-sacrificing.

In Gold Diggers of 1933, made in the same year, Ginger Rogers opens the film with the suggestively costumed number ‘We’re in the Money’ sung in English and pig Latin, featuring close-ups in which her beautiful face is almost rendered grotesque. The story, however, revolves around the three friends who share an apartment: the sweet Ruby Keeler, the cynical but ultimately romantic Joan Blondell, and Aline McMahon, who I think steals the show as the comedienne who is most blatantly ‘on the make’. Despite her memorable introduction, Ginger’s character Fay disappears halfway through; possibly she was needed on one of her many other films of 1933. There’s a lot to say about this film that isn’t directly relevant to Ginger Rogers – I do recommend trying to view it in full as it’s fascinating in the way in which it addresses the Depression while remaining palatable as a light comedy.

Perhaps Ginger Rogers, despite her obvious talent and charisma, would have remained underused as a wisecracking supporting player indefinitely if her partnership with Fred Astaire hadn’t come along later in 1933. Moving forward five years, Stage Door, set in a theatrical boarding house for women in New York, is my favourite of her films, and one of my all-time favourites. It features some of the snappiest dialogue ever committed to film, requiring the cast to be perfectly in synch with one another. Ginger is second-billed behind Katharine Hepburn, likely reflecting Hepburn’s status as an Oscar winner, despite her recent string of flops that had her labelled ‘box office poison’. Ginger’s character Jean Matiland is a ‘very lively girl’, a chorus girl with the smartest mouth in the whole place. The ensemble includes Lucille Ball, Ann Miller and, my favourite, the brilliantly deadpan Eve Arden with a cat draped around her neck. It’s incredibly rare for a film of any period to be led by an ensemble of women with no serious male love interest, and the function of going on a date is a free meal. Only Lucille Ball’s character is married off at the end, and rather half-heartedly too. The men in the film are essentially a means to an end and the most important relations are between the women and their work and their relationships with each other. 

Amongst the most memorable scenes are the ones between Ginger’s Jean with Katharine Hepburn, as Terry Randall, playing up to her public image as a rich girl who decides to give acting a go. She arrives with a roomful of luggage and an entitled attitude, but is also game enough to engage in a battle of wits with her scrappy new roommate and is softened by the end. In this battle of RKO divas, I’m definitely Team Ginger but they do play off each other brilliantly and it wouldn’t be nearly as effective if they weren’t so evenly matched. The articles that have been written about Stage Door as a queer film are well worth a look (see here and here)

I don’t think ‘star’ or ‘stardom’ is ever mentioned, and the emphasis is on survival and sisterhood. Even Gail Patrick’s haughty Linda, Jean’s nemesis and the most obviously ‘bitchy’ girl of the group, is just trying to survive. There is something touching about Jean’s camaraderie with fellow chorus girl Annie, played by a very young Ann Miller, who was about 14 at the time, around the age that Ginger when she won the Charleston competition. In contrast to Terry’s intellectual aspirations and especially the emotional heft of Kay Hamilton, played by Andrea Leeds, who’s considered the most talented actress in the boarding house, Jean hasn’t got any intellectual or emotional connection to her craft. For Jean and her sister chorus girls, dancing is a job, not a vocation.

The film was nominated for Best Picture, Best Screenplay and Best Director for Gregory La Cava, and Andrea Leeds received a nomination for Best Supporting Actress as the tragic Kay. However, good as she is as the part, I firmly believe that Ginger Rogers was robbed. It’s probably a case of how the Academy prefers to reward tragedy over comedy.

These three characters played by Ginger Rogers, Annie, Fay and Jean, are not aspiring stars, they are just trying to survive in a cutthroat industry in a difficult economic climate. They’re all dancers but these films aren’t showcases for Rogers’ dancing skills. None of them are defined by men and Ginger herself had five husbands and many lovers but, unlike with many other female stars, they’re a fairly minor part of her life story. For better or worse, it’s Mr Astaire with whom her name remains interlinked in the popular imagination but, by all accounts, her relationship with her mother was the most important in her life. Ginger Rogers was never a chorus girl in real life and I don’t know if she ever would have called herself a feminist, but she was a great trouper and as skilled an ensemble player she was as a leading lady who played off other women brilliantly.

Are you a fan of Ginger Rogers? What’s your favourite of her movies?