Picture of "aloof" as seen in the dictionary.

What? She kind of looks like Grace Kelly there.

The first time I saw Ginger Rogers in a film I was maybe five years old. My mother was sitting at her sewing machine and had the tv on. I sat down with my toys and watched the movie. Later (I’m talking years) I’d learn that the film I watched was Swing Time. It’s generally considered the best of the films Rogers appeared in with Fred Astaire. It’s funny and witty and beautifully filmed.

But at five all I saw was this woman in a pale dress with pale hair and moving across the screen with the kind of grace I could barely understand. For years I’d confuse her with Grace Kelly because of that moment. Both gorgeous blonds and both completely unapproachable. It was only in college that I learned how very different the two women were.

Grace Kelly embodied her name. Ginger Rogers, a red head from my home town (Fort Worth represent!) was something else. A gifted dancer, an able singer, an Oscar-winning actress and an endearing comedienne. Sure Fred could dance like nobody else, but it was Ginger who carried their films together.

In Vivacious Lady she’s once again charged with carrying a film on nothing but charm and comedic talent. And man, does she do so ably. This is a film that succeeds purely on the basis of how good a performer Rogers is. Most actresses would be weighed down by the sophomoric script and the hokey comedy beats director George Stevens traded in in the 30s. Rogers rises above them giving us a romantic comedy heroine that is refreshing even seventy years later.

What’s the hallmark of a romantic comedy? What is it that appears in nearly EVERY romcom? No not Hugh Grant. Jealousy. It’s EVERYWHERE in romcoms. Nine times out of ten the crux of the film is one romantic lead being jealous of a relationship another romantic lead is engaged in. The thing is jealousy is very easy to use as a writer. It’s instant conflict. But the problem (besides how terribly overused it is) is that jealousy has a very real psychological root. People are jealous because they’re insecure. And insecurity, despite also being very popular in modern heroes and heroines is just not that interesting.

That doesn’t stop filmmakers from hanging their heads and coming back to the wells of jealousy and insecurity over and over again. And the absence of these two traits is what makes Vivacious Lady remarkable. Ginger Roger’s Francey is a secure woman. She’s lived in New York a long time and she’s seen a lot of the world and she’s climbed to the top and become a very successful nightclub singer. And when she falls in love with James Stewart’s Peter she falls hard. They have a whirlwind engagement and are married less then twenty four hours after first spotting one another.

Then they head straight for the little town in Ohio from which Peter hails and set out to break the news of their marriage to his sheltered friends and family. Including his fiance. But guess what? Ginger Rogers never eyes the other woman as an equal out to part her from her husband. When the two women fight (and it’s an actual fight with kicking and punching and flips) it’s not jealousy that fuels their antagonism, but genuine dislike.

Someone done messed with Texas.

Best fight scene of 1938.

Jealously, when it does appear in the film, is immediately seen as a negative. As is insecurity, something James Stewart’s Peter has in spades. He’s been browbeaten by his overbearing father for years, and its his relationship with Francey that finally pulls him up and forces him to act with confidence.

There are problems in the film and they largely stem from two very racist charactatures portrayed by Hattie McDaniel and Willie Best. They’re offensive moments in the film and the one featuring Willie Best is particularly prolonged and actually involves the resolution of the story. They’re almost so bad that I hesitated on featuring this film.

Except Ginger Rogers is playing as strong a feminist character as I’ve ever seen and her work in the film is refreshing. If you can stomach sitting through the scenes featuring Hattie McDaniel and Willie Best you’ll be pleased to find a very funny film.

 


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