Apart from the music and dancing, the canonical movie musicals of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers are almost unwatchably cloying and ridiculous. Then again, saying that is like saying that, apart from the flavor and the coldness, an ice-cream cone is pointless and impractical. I didn’t learn to appreciate musicals until I was in college and took a course on the subject taught by the late film historian William K. Everson at NYU. He held Ginger Rogers in special esteem and demonstrated how much she contributed to the Astaire-Rogers musical numbers by screening, in its entirety, Kitty Foyle, the drama for which Rogers won an Academy Award for Best Actress in 1940. Everson followed this by screening Swing Time, the Astaire-Rogers musical from 1936 with a score by Jerome Kern. I realized then that Astaire looks better with Rogers than he would ever again look on film, because of the way Rogers looked at him while they sang and danced. There is a feeling of ecstasy in their numbers because Rogers seemed ecstatic. That is to say, she was so skilled an actress that she took the audience in her arms as she fell into Astaire’s.
That very skill has ended up devaluing Rogers in the minds of later audiences. Unfairly, I think, she came to be acknowledged almost solely for her ability to enhance Astaire, particularly by bringing much-needed sex appeal to their partnership. (Before he teamed up with Rogers at RKO Studios, Astaire had danced for years on Broadway in a carefully sexless partnership with his sister Adele.) Rogers, seen largely as a helpmate and a sexualizing influence, became associated with discredited pre-feminist values. She came to be thought of, when she was thought of at all, as an outmoded kind of performer favored by aesthetically conservative critics like Arlene Croce.
On July 16, the centennial of her birth came and went virtually without notice, and that was a shame. The bountiful evidence of her many performances, musical and dramatic, with and without Astaire, stand as reminders that Rogers was not just a skilled actress, but a terrifically appealing and versatile singer and dancer. Her reputation suffers mainly for its failing to foreshadow the modes of our own present, but that’s not a failing at all. In her time, in her way, Ginger Rogers swung.