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Appellate Judge Amanda DeWees's Blog
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Fantasy Box Set #8: Ginger Rogers solo
The release of the new Astaire and Rogers boxed set is long overdue, and Iím happy for the many, many moviegoers who have been eagerly awaiting it. But my favorite Ginger Rogers movies are not, in fact, the musicals she did with Astaire; they arenít even musicals. Rogers was far more than a musical star, as the diversity of her resume shows, and she made many terrific movies that deserve to be more widely known -- and available on DVD. She was particularly expert at the wisecracking, wised-up heroine, the hard-working girl who personified Depression-era resilience and pluck. Itís unfortunate that as she aged she tended to lose that down-to-earth naturalness, which is what made her so appealing; she becomes affected in films like the bizarre wartime comedy Once Upon a Honeymoon with Cary Grant and the historical misfire Magnificent Doll. But she also won an Oscar for her fine performance in the romantic drama Kitty Foyle, and at her best sheís an irresistible and irreplaceable screen presence.
A few of Rogersís nonmusical roles are already represented on DVD, including the enjoyable Roxie Hart and one of her finest nonmusical performances, in Stage Door (opposite Katharine Hepburn). Thereís also a public-domain edition of Heartbeat, a pleasant trifle in which she plays a waif who becomes a pickpocket under the sinister tutelage of Basil Rathbone but falls in love with a suave diplomat. Sheís too old for the role, and plays youth a little broadly, but itís still a sweet romance with some fun moments. But there are so many good Rogers films that deserve DVD release that itís the work of only moments to think of enough to fill a hefty boxed set. I hope devoutly that we'll see these titles come to DVD.
1. The Major and the Minor, 1942. This comedy gem was scripted by the wonderful duo of Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder, so you know itís going to be good. Ginger decides sheís fed up with New York and is going to retreat back to her home in Iowa. Trouble is, she can only afford a half-fare train ticket--which means that she has to masquerade as a 12-year-old. Short-sighted military man Ray Milland takes her under his wing, and in order to protect his reputation she is forced to keep up her masquerade--even when it means getting hit on by all the adolescent cadets at Millandís military academy. A terrific performance by Rogers makes this work. For some reason, critics tend to treat it as if itís a tasteless, inappropriate flick about a dirty old man, but itís actually very innocent; the paternal attitude of Millandís character keeps it from ever being tasteless. Donít miss this one--and donít settle for the remake with Jerry Lewis, Youíre Never Too Young.
2. Bachelor Mother, 1939. Another great film from Hollywoodís golden year, this is one of my favorite classic comedies. Ginger is a shop girl whoís mistaken for the mother of an abandoned child, and in order to keep her job she has to acknowledge the baby as her own. David Niven is the young man about town who takes an interest in the fallen woman, and his father (the wonderful Charles Coburn) begins to suspect that the child is his grandson. Misunderstandings abound, and Coburn has the immortal line: ďI donít care who the father is; Iím the grandfather!Ē Niven is terrific as a rom-com lead, and Gingerís gift for deadpan humor has never been put to better use. This one was remade with Debbie Reynolds as the musical Bundle of Joy.
3. Kitty Foyle, 1940. This ambitious soap opera, based on the Christopher Morley novel, attempted to realistically portray the life of the ďwhite-collar girl.Ē Ginger won the Best Actress Oscar as the titular Kitty, a spunky girl from the wrong side of the tracks who falls in love with Dennis Morgan, who belongs to the world of old money and prestige. Sometimes the movie is a bit self-important, but Gingerís compelling portrayal of Kittyís struggle to find love while keeping her self-respect keeps me hooked every time. One of my favorite parts is a comedic scene in which Kitty entertains a cheapskate suitor in the tiny apartment she shares with two other girls (who obligingly retreat to the bathroom to give the couple some privacy). I believe this film will make its DVD debut next year, and not a moment too soon.
4. Romance in Manhattan, 1934. This virtually unknown film is a real charmer. In this Capra-esque story (directed by Stephen Roberts), Ginger is a chorus girl whoís down on her luck and in danger of losing custody of her kid brother, the only family she has in the world. Nevertheless, she canít resist helping out a penniless immigrant (Francis Lederer) whoís on his own in the big city. How these two lost souls manage to make a go of it together makes an appealing and heartwarming romantic comedy. Fans of Capra ďlittle manĒ stories should definitely seek this out; you can sometimes still find the out-of-print VHS release if you look hard. I really canít understand why this title hasnít seen wider distribution.
5. Vivacious Lady, 1938. This early George Stevens romantic comedy is sometimes a little sluggish, but itís still fun--and seeing Ginger teamed with Jimmy Stewart is enjoyable in itself. Heís a young professor who impulsively marries Ginger, a nightclub singer, and then realizes he canít break the news to his parents, stern Charles Coburn and frail Beulah Bondi. With their marriage a secret, he and Ginger have to sneak around to try to find moments of privacy; itís the classic Delayed Fooliní-around movie device, and sometimes it wears on a bit too long. But be sure to stick around for the scene where Ginger teaches Beulah Bondi how to dance the ďBig Apple.Ē
6. Chance at Heaven, 1933. In one of her first leading dramatic roles, Ginger is the sensible fiancee of Joel McCrea, a small-town gas station attendant who dreams of better things. When a ditzy rich girl falls for him, Ginger sets him free so he can marry her and move up in the world. Despite the dismissive write-up in Leonard Maltinís movie guide, I find this to be an engaging romance, earnest and rewarding (and, at only 70 minutes long, it doesnít wear out its welcome). Rogers and McCrea teamed up again in 1940 for Primrose Path, in which Gingers had the challenging role of a tomboy whose coming of age is complicated by her love for pal McCrea and the expectations of her prostitute mother. These two little-known movies, as different as they are, would make a good double-feature disc.