Highest Paid Movie Actress
Ginger Rogers gives her recipe for success in Hollywood.
It is intelligence, adaptability, capacity for hard work.
By S. J. Woolf
New York Times Magazine, December 5, 1943 page 18 and 45
It is not often that anyone has a chance to
make a portrait of one of the ten highest salaried people in the country.
Yet anything can happen in Hollywood, and this very thing happened the
other day when I went to see Ginger Rogers. For Miss Rogers, blond-haired,
blue-eyed and full of fervor and enthusiasm, was last year the highest
paid movie actress in the land.
She posed for me on a bleached-wood sofa in her modernistic dressing
room, wearing a soft blouse and dark skirt, legs tucked under her, blond
tresses falling about her neck. She looked less like the possessor of one
of moviedom's fabulous incomes and more like the personification of what
we like to call the typical American girl. For in repose, Miss Rogers'
features are not, according to both Hollywood and classic tastes, beautiful,
her nose conforms to no Grecian line, her mouth is a bit large.
Yet, as she speaks there is an exciting joy of living about her which
is contagious. There is a freedom of gesture that charms, and a realness
that make-up cannot conceal. Miss Rogers reflects the spirit of her time,
of the American girl of to-day, as much as the great damosels [sic] of
the past reflected theirs. In the shapely vivacious screen star, the young
woman behind the counter in the five-and-dime store and the society debutante
shopping in the smart luxury of Fifth Avenue salons both recognize something
of themselves. So do suburban housewives and city office workers. Mothers
fondly see something of their youth in her and admire the wholesomeness
they look for in their own daughters. Men in the audience find in Ginger
Rogers all those charms they seek in the other sex, making her the movie
favorite of the whole family, as popular in England's cinemas as in America's
Miss Rogers is now working on a picture in which
she plays the part of the young wife of a naval cadet. She labors in an
airplane factory and lives in a boardinghouse with other girls whose husbands
are at war. The part appeals to her, she said, more than any other role
she has been called upon to play. Possibly because she herself is a war
"Up to the time that I started working on Jo in 'Tender Comrade,'"
she told me, "Kitty Foyle was my pet part. If you saw that screen
play, you must have realized that the authors had created a well-rounded
character which they developed logically. But as much as I loved Kitty Foyle, for some reason or other Jo gets a little more under my skin. She's
a little more real. You can feel her with your fingers and your heart."
As she spoke it was evident that she is a much more serious-minded
young woman that one would imagine from seeing her on the screen. I asked
her what a girl needs to make good in Hollywood. She looked up and said:
"Intelligence, adaptability and talent. And by talent I mean capacity
for hard work. Lots of girls come here with little but good looks. Beauty
is a valuable asset, but it is not the whole cheese."
Miss Rogers' non-meteoric rise to the top the
traditionally hard way, via night club and vaudeville hoofing, certainly
qualifies her as an authority on this subject, yet she does not preach.
She merely reports Hollywood from her experience with it.
"One of the saddest things here in Hollywood," she continued,
"is to see the disappointment of thousands of youngsters who hope
to crash the movies. They little realize the tough going that even those
who have made good have had to suffer. Comparatively few of the people
who have been successful in films got their start here. Still from all
over the country youngsters look toward this place and think that if they
could only get here everything would be okay. They have never seen hundreds,
even thousands, of attractive young girls try out for twenty-five openings
as extras. Anyone who has been around when this has happened will never
forget the expressions on the faces of those who did not make good.
"This does not mean that opportunity is dead here. I don't like
giving advice, but I know for a fact that in many a small town a girl has
more chance of getting an opening wedge into pictures that she has here.
Then there are school theatricals, dramatic schools, amateur plays, where
experience could be gained. A newcomer with some such experience is a step
ahead of the crowds that sit around casting offices waiting for a chance
to be an extra."
The white telephone on the kidney-shaped desk rang and there was
a catch in her voice as she said, "Hello." A cryptic conversation
ended with "Hold the wire" and she excused herself to me and
went into a rear room. A maid came out in a minute and replaced the receiver.
Without her telling me I knew who the caller was-- Corp. Jack Briggs, Miss
Rogers' husband whom she met for the first time while appearing at a camp
show. He is now stationed not far from Hollywood. It was some time before
she came back.
"Now don't write me up," she said,
"as if I were a school teacher, even though I wanted to become one
when I was a kid. It's hard, though, not to base your ideas on your own
experiences. I was lucky. I always had hobbies, and for some reason or
other every one of them has helped me along. People say I am flighty, that
I like to start things and never finish them. I don't think that's true.
"First of all, when I was about 6 or 7, I started in taking
piano lessons and while still a youngster gave a recital. Then came the
Charleston craze and it was dancing which led me to give up the idea of
becoming a school teacher to go on the stage. Then I took up singing as
a hobby and that came in handy when I drifted into vaudeville.
"Later when I got my chance in pictures I became an amateur
photographer. Before I knew it I was not only making home movies but also
writing and directing scenarios in which my friends acted. I don't have
to tell you that this helped me a lot in my professional work. Now I go
in for drawing, painting and sculpture. I suppose you are wondering how
this applies to acting. Well, it does, because what I have learned about
line and design helps me in choosing my costumes."
Intensely serious as Miss Rogers is when she
speaks of her acting, she is equally serious when it comes to her painting
and sculpture. Mixed up with her life story and the other topics of conversation
that arose while I sketched her, was a discussion on the merits of charcoal
and the relative difficulties of oil and water-color painting.
"I am not sure," she said, "whether I prefer painting
or sculpture. Neither is as different from acting as most people imagine.
After all, art-- no matter what form it takes-- is a creative urge, a desire
to express one's self. It does not matter whether you do this in line,
in paint, in clay, in music, in words or in acting.
"Of course, some are successful at it, some are not. But even
those who fail in the eyes of the world, although in some ways they may
suffer, nevertheless have a heap of fun trying."
Notwithstanding her hobbies, Miss Rogers encountered many setbacks
on her way to Hollywood from Independence, Mo., where she was born Virginia
Katherine McMath. Her mother and father were separated and she went to
live with her grandparents in Kansas City. By the time the Charleston craze
struck the country, her mother had been married to John Rogers and was
the society and dramatic editor of a Fort Worth Tex., newspaper. By this
time, too, there was a dancing enthusiast known as Ginger Rogers. She won
a contest sponsored by a couple of vaudeville actors and vaudeville offers
Had not the newspaper changed hands and Mrs. Rogers lost her job,
chances are that Miss Rogers would never have gone on the stage, for at
first, Mrs. Rogers opposed her daughter's desires. But with no job of her
own she capitulated and became a "stage mother." There were tours
and engagements in night clubs and "Leelee" and "Geegee,"
as they call each other, spent a lot of time sitting in chairs in agents'
offices. Old clothes were refashioned in small rooms in theatrical boarding
houses, and the price columns on bills of fare in cheap restaurants were
of more importance than what was served.
Mrs. Rogers was determined that if her daughter was going to be an
actress she was going to be a good one. There were offers which Mrs. Rogers
turned down, a musical show was their goal. At last a chance came in Brooklyn,
and learning a sixty-page part, the young hoofer and singer, who up to
that time had never spoken a word on stage, went ahead in "Top Speed."
Since that time Ginger Rogers has not only sung and danced herself to fame
but also won the Academy award for straight acting.
Although she has a 1,000-acre ranch in Oregon, where she grows corn,
wheat, oats, pears, plums and apples, Miss Rogers spends most of her time
in what she calls her "stylized farmhouse" perched high on one
of the Beverly hills. Here she has let her ideas on interior decoration
run the gamut. She has a swimming pool, a toy theatre and a soda fountain,
and a hideaway where she reads and draws, paints and sculpts. Heads of her
friends stand on the high brick mantel, and straight portraits and caricatures
by her hang on the walls. There is a phonograph and loads of records, ranging
from Gershwin to Brahams. The one, however, which bears the most signs
of use is "I Can't Give You Anything but Love, Baby."
There is probably no more popular actresses
among stage-hands and electricians and others employed on the sets than
Miss Rogers. Her fellow-players are keen about her, too. As I walked with
her from the dressing room to the scene they were shooting, "Hello,
Ginger" greeted her almost continuously. And each greeting was acknowledged
by a wave of her hand and a cheery "Hello."
But the thing of which she is most proud is the dance she gave for
President Roosevelt. She went to the White House to participate in one
of the Birthday Ball broadcasts. While the President and all the radio
cast were waiting in the Oval Room for the program to start, someone suggested
that she show Mr. Roosevelt some of her steps. She was in evening dress
but this did not stand in the way. The radio was tuned to dance music and
Ginger went though her paces to the memorable sound of Presidential applause.
© 1943 The New York Times