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.