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Feb 7, 2010

Style Wars: Ginger vs. Marlene


After digging around the vintage sewing blogs lately, I've noticed a surprising appreciation for the style of Ginger Rogers.

Casey's article last month about Thirties film fashion is an excellent example.

While Ginger is best remembered as Fred Astaire's dancing partner, she was a tremendously popular dramatic and light comedic actress in the late Thirties and early Forties, winning an Academy Award in 1940 for "Kitty Foyle." 

During Ginger's heyday, she embodied a classic film type: the shopgirl Cinderella -- tough, hardworking, no-nonsense, quick-witted.  Audiences connected -- and still connect -- with Ginger's ability to project both strength and vulnerability; there's a Depression-era weariness and, I believe, woundedness that lurks just below the surface that feels very real. 

Although she was sharp-tongued, Ginger wasn't brassy, like Lucille Ball; sarcastic and desexualized, like Eve Arden; or willing to play "the girl" or the sidekick, like Joan Blondell and Una Merkel (the latter playing the same types Ginger did in the early-Thirties but never getting promoted).

Oddly, Ginger's star began to descend relatively early, after a dreary performance as Liza Elliot in "Lady in the Dark," which I wrote about here.  Ginger never completely faded, however, and she was still turning up well into the Eighties on "Love Boat" and the celebrity talk show circuit. 

You see Ginger's persona best in "Stage Door," where as a working class dancer living at the Footlights Club,  she's forced to share a room with wealthy aspiring actress Katherine Hepburn.  Ginger gives a wonderful, wholly credible performance as tough-on-the-outside, soft-on-the-inside Jean Maitland.


Ginger wore clothes beautifully, and a lot of the costumes she wore in the late Thirties look almost contemporary today: the sporty rehearsal outfits, the tap pants, the day clothes, the soft, shoulder-length hair.

It's unfortunate that as her star ascended, Ginger became increasingly shellacked and mannered; less accessible and less loveable.  Compare Penny Carroll from "Swing Time" to Irene Malvern of "Weekend at the Waldorf."  Two very different Gingers!

The anti-Ginger was Marlene Dietrich.

Where Ginger was all-American, Marlene was exotic: the foreign accent, the langorous body, the seductive, sophisticated air, the decadent opulence.  Where Ginger worked as a dance instructor, shop girl, or radio actress, Marlene was an empress, an international jewel thief, a gypsy.


Ginger always looked modern; Marlene looked like a fetish object.  Marlene's style seems inaccessible today: the endless feathers, beads, and veils, the half-moon eyebrows and softly-shadowed facial contours.  The early films she made directed by Josef von Sternberg must be seen to be believed.  The art direction and costuming stun.

One of my favorite Marlene Dietrich films is Ernst Lubitsch's sophisticated comedy "Desire," co-starring Gary Cooper.

The gowns, by Travis Banton, with whom Marlene worked closely to create and maintain her glamorous image, are other-worldly.

One highlight below:



You can wipe me up off the floor now!

What makes both actress's images so powerful and enduring is that these women played to type, again, and again, and again.  They worked for major film studios dedicated to maintaining a star's image for as long as the public would buy it.  When they left their respective image-defining studios (RKO for Ginger, Paramount for Marlene), they often struggled.  Times changed, too, and interest in their types either waned (as in Marlene's case) or shifted to younger actresses (as in Ginger's).

In closing, do you agree that Marlene is the anti-Ginger, or am I comparing apples and oranges?

Who, if anyone, are their modern descendents?

I'd love to hear from you.

8 comments:

  1. Well, Gary Cooper did not exactly break from type, though at this point in his career, he still very much had the same figure, manner and appearance he had when he was modeling clothing and hats. As for modern descendants - I'd point to Sandra Bullock, who plays to type almost constantly (though if she's given some leeway, she can show her range; my favorite movie is actually '28 Days').

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  2. I agree about Sandra Bullock. She definitely has a lot of Ginger Rogers-like qualities, though I think of her (Bullock) as a sunnier type. Never did see "28 Days".....

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  3. Fantastic post and thanks for the link shout-out! ;) I agree with your assesment of Ginger and Marlene; both were the extremes of their era as portrayed on the big screen. It's funny: when I was little, I was obsessed with Marlene and wanted to look like her when I grew up (I spent hours in front of the mirror, trying to figure out how I could make my cheekbones more pronounced like her's! ;). The sophistication she portrayed on screen seemed like such a far-cry from what I saw in 1990s pop-culture and something exotic and to be emulated. But as an adult, I find Ginger's 30s-era (I agree that she became too manicured in the 40s/50s, loosing her original appeal), rough-and-tumble frankness more attainable. Funny how things change! ;)

    ♥ Casey
    blog | elegantmusings.com

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  4. The only actress I can think of as a Marlena descendent is Angelina Jolie (minus the five billion kids). IMHO she gives off an exotic, mysterious, independent, dangerous sexual vibe that Marlena did. I'm not a fan, but she's the one that popped into my mind. I'll second Sandra Bullock as Ginger. Sandra seems so down to earth.

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  5. I can't think of anyone who comes close to Ginger. She was a great actress, dancer and not too shabby of a singer. Then again, I'm a huge Ginger fan. I was thrilled to see her hand and foot prints at Grauman's (though I don't see how she danced so well in those tiny feet!) I'm just a huge fan of the Golden Age of Hollywood and I'm thrilled to see this post. So would fancy yourself more a Gary Cooper or a Cary Grant? Maybe even a Peter Fonda?

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  6. Angelina Jolie...yes, I see it.

    Jacqui, I saw Ginger at Radio City Music Hall once...she was short, very short.

    Someone once said I reminded them of John Cassavetes. I was like, who?

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  7. Hmm...not sure I am seeing it (John Cassavetes)
    but mayby on profile

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  8. I am totally a Marlene fan...spent the 80's trying to find male enspired clothing to wear and look as fabulous as she did (much prefer her off screen gender bending style to her on screen diva)

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