I’ve made no secret of my admiration for Ginger Rogers in the past–she’s an underrated comedienne, relegated in the minds of most moviegoers to a permanent place waltzing at Fred Astaire’s side. And while there is no shortage of entertainment to be drawn from the Fred and Ginger filmography, Ginger’s talent extends far beyond the dance floor.
In this installment of Wacky Wednesdays, we’re going to take a look at one of my favorite Fred-less Ginger Rogers roles: 1938′s hilarious screwball comedy Vivacious Lady.
Rogers plays Francey, a young nightclub singer in New York. When Peter Morgan (James Stewart) is sent to Francey’s club to retrieve his lovestruck cousin, Keith (James Ellison), Peter winds up falling for Francey. After a whirlwind night together, the two marry, and Peter takes Francey to his hometown, Old Sharon, where he is a botany professor at the local college. His father, Peter Sr. (Charles Coburn) and his former fiance, Helen (Frances Mercer) meet the pair at the train station, where Peter passes off Francey as Keith’s lover until he can find the right time to tell his father and his heart-attack-prone mother (Beulah Bondi) that he has married the girl. Cue the slapstick as Peter tries to clue in his parents, let down Helen gently, and find a way to consummate his marriage with his alluring new wife.
If this film is known for anything, it’s Rogers’ patio scrap with Mercer, a brilliantly-constructed fight that remains one of the greatest scenes in screwball history. Featuring all the hallmarks of the stereotypical catfight–hair-pulling, biting, kicking, name-calling–it builds to a chaotic crescendo as Helen, still unaware of Peter’s marriage, confronts the “interloper” in their relationship. Francey’s initial humoring of Helen is marked by Rogers’ trademarked brand of smart-assed repartee:
Helen: “Now are you going to mind your own business, or must I really give you a piece of my mind?”
Francey: “Oh, I couldn’t take the last piece.”
Helen, the self-proclaimed paragon of class, strikes first, slapping Francey across the cheek, and you know it’s on like Donkey Kong. All civilized talk gives way to a continued series of slaps and admonishments (“Shh!”) from Francey, two kicks from Helen, and, finally, a warning from a fed-up Francey to her tony opponent to “put ‘em up.” This in itself is hilarious, and yet Rogers kicks it up another notch, bringing to the scene a kind of dignified mortification at being caught in the act that makes her predicament ten times funnier. As the Morgans finally make their way to the patio, a sheepish Francey stares at Peter’s father in a brief moment of horror, then smiles, spits a rose petal out of her mouth, laughs with embarrassment, and tightens her chokehold. And when Helen decides to play dirty, poking her rival with a hatpin, Francey simply tosses the bitch over her shoulder and lays her out on the ground. Classic, feisty Ginger.
The fight itself is a blatant demonstration of the class struggle that is such a central theme to the film, as the forces of high class react poorly to the infiltration of the “common.” Peter, though deeply in love with his new wife, does not quite know how to introduce her to his family, and Francey fears she does not meet the requirements to be a professor’s wife and to fit into the Morgans’ stuffy world. Peter, Sr., repulsed by Francey’s perceived corruption and contemptible morality, almost destroys his son’s marriage due to his own preconceived biases. But as in most screwball comedies, the higher-class Morgans are shown to have just as many–if not more–issues than “average girl” Francey, and when the Morgans are brought “down to earth” (so to speak), love is allowed to win over class concerns in the end.
The solid casting of this film works heavily in its favor. Coburn and Bondi, as Stewart’s parents, are gifted comic sidekicks and stand out in their scenes on screen. Ellison, as sly cousin Keith, is a charming second banana. And Stewart, in one of his first major roles as a leading man, shows glimmers of the stalwart, capable performer he would become in the ensuing years. But make no mistake: Rogers run away with the picture. Lady is undoubtedly a showcase for its lead actress, designed to separate her from the specter of Fred in the minds of the moviegoing public.
Does the film succeed in that respect? For the most part, yes. After the initial nightclub scenes, in which we get a taste of dancing and singing Ginger, the film moves beyond the music and engrosses us in the comedy and the romance to the point that we don’t really miss the musical interludes so common in a 1930s Rogers film. And this film, combined with other Rogers solo vehicles such as Bachelor Mother (1939), Kitty Foyle (1940), Primrose Path (1940), and The Major and the Minor (1942), demonstrates that, unlike erstwhile partner Astaire, Rogers could actually craft a successful career outside the bounds of singing and dancing.
Will someone put this wonderful film on DVD already?!?!?