Sunday, March 18, 2012

Vivacious Lady (1938) - Ginger Rogers at her Brightest

Vivacious Lady 1938 Ginger Rogers James Stewart poster
"Vivacious Lady" (1938).

The real star of George Stevens' screwball comedy "Vivacious Lady" (1938) is Ginger Rogers. I believe this is the last time James Stewart took second billing, though I may be wrong about that. Ginger, however, really deserved top billing. Rogers dazzles with her singing to start the proceedings, but even more so when she dukes it out with her rival for her beau's affections toward the end of film. Make no mistake, "Vivacious Lady" showcases Ginger Rogers' talents and appears tailor-made for her. While not nominated for her performance, she well deserved the Academy Award she won later for "Kitty Foyle."

Vivacious Lady 1938 Ginger Rogers James Stewart cat fight
Uh oh, there be a cat-fight brewing between Ginger Rogers and Frances Mercer in "Vivacious Lady."

Given all that talent, there are some who question why Ginger Rogers was not billed ahead of Fred Astaire in their numerous films together, as in "Ginger and Fred" rather than "Fred and Ginger."  I'm not one of those folks. Astaire was the better dance, and not just by a little bit. He would do solo dances and excelled at them, whereas she almost never did.  I do believe that Ginger was better at just about everything else that appeared on screen - singing, acting, fighting (as in "Vivacious Lady") - but not at dancing.  At dancing, it wasn't even close. Anyway, tired of taking second seat to Fred, Ginger Rogers intended "Vivacious Lady" to be her breakout role. It almost worked out that way.

Vivacious Lady 1938 Ginger Rogers James Stewart Ginger Rogers
Wait, let's see that cat-fight again!

I bring up the Fred Astaire situation because Ginger does have a dance or two in "Vivacious Lady." She dances "The Big Apple."  It is done for laughs, and Charles Coburn walks in on it and drops his monocle not once, but twice!  It indeed is a funny dance, with a humorous outcome of sorts, but it is nothing like a Fred and Ginger dance. The dancing itself is more of an extension of acting, and Ginger is quite amusing with her reactions during it.  With it, she is in her natural element - which is not pure dancing, but comic dancing. As an acting scene, it is stellar, but as a dance, it is nothing. And, to wrap up my earlier point, that is why it is "Fred and Ginger" and not "Ginger and Fred."

Vivacious Lady 1938 Ginger Rogers James Stewart Big Apple
Ginger doing "The Big Apple" with Beulah Bondi.

James Stewart, meanwhile, plays a timid college professor who somehow finds and woos "vivacious" nightclub singer Ginger Rogers, marrying her out from under the nose of his predatory cousin, played by James Ellison. Returning to Stewart's small hometown with Ellison, they face the formidable task of easing the news to Stewart's conservative father, "fainting" mother and Stewart's thuggish fiancé (Frances Mercer). Steeped in as much sexual tension as the Hays Code would allow, this is a phenomenal screwball romantic comedy that is well worth viewing.

Vivacious Lady 1938 Ginger Rogers James Stewart
Ginger and James in the chemistry lab.

Legend has it that Rogers and Stewart had been involved prior to shooting "Vivacious Lady," and Rogers specifically asked for Stewart to star opposite her. Her thinking was strategic: Stewart was a minor star who would not cause her any issues, they got along well, and she would dominate the film. However, things went a bit awry because Stewart excelled in "Vivacious Lady" so much that director Stevens upgraded his role and billing. While "Philadelphia Story" is considered Jimmy Stewart's breakout role, in fact it was "Vivacious Lady" that vaulted him to the top ranks in Hollywood - thanks to Ginger.

Vivacious Lady 1938 Ginger Rogers James Stewart
Ginger Rogers and Frances Mercer in "Vivacious Lady."

The real stars of "Vivacious Lady" are the women, and no doubt this was characterized as a "women's picture" at the time. The film requires a certain suspension of disbelief, such as seeing the radiant Rogers fall for the bumbling Stewart, Stewart being so spineless as to be unable to tell his parents and fiancé he's married, and so forth. However, there are so many knowing comedy bits and full-blown comic set pieces that it's impossible not to love this if you are any kind of fan of classic screwball comedies.

Vivacious Lady 1938 Ginger Rogers James Stewart
James has two women after him, time for a drink!

Some scenes just have to be seen to be appreciated, describing them doesn't do them justice. A brawl between Rogers and Mercer starts with awesome catty dialog ("I might just give you a piece of my mind." "Oh, no, I wouldn't take the last piece."), continues with Rogers shushing Mercer every time she smacks her, and winds up with Rogers finally losing patience and telling Mercer to "Put 'em up." Rogers, Ellison and Stewart's mother, played wonderfully by Beulah Bondi, lose their reserve upon Bondi learning of the marriage and dance the "Big Apple," a typical '30s dance of the moment that primarily requires all concerned to shake their rear ends at the camera, only to have disapproving patriarch Charles Coburn walk in on them, causing comic reactions from all concerned. Grady Sutton and Franklin Pangborn are around in their typical comic character roles, and don't blink or you'll miss Jack Carson in an early role as an aggravated waiter.

Vivacious Lady 1938 Ginger Rogers James Stewart
This is a star turn for Ginger Rogers.

Hattie McDaniel is even around to do a classic double-take. There is a wonderful scene on the train back to New York, when Rogers and Bondi are in adjoining compartments crying their eyes out, and Floyd Shackelford has a meaty role as an overly sympathetic porter who brings them together. It's the supporting roles like this that make this such a wonderful film. There are also many corny '30s touches that fans will appreciate, such as, after all the men have done wolf whistles at Rogers, an owl does the same, and a recurring bit with Murphy beds falling at inopportune (and ultimately opportune) moments.

Vivacious Lady 1938 Ginger Rogers James Stewart
Ginger Rogers wowing the crowd in "Vivacious Lady."

The whole film ultimately revolves around Stewart working up the courage to finally stand up to his old man, which he does in a wonderful drunk scene with Ellison and Coburn. But Rogers is the reason to watch - she really startled me with how lovely she looks and her earthy mannerisms. "Vivacious Lady" was nominated for Best Sound Recording and, most notably, Best Cinematography. A forgotten gem, any fan of old films needs to see this one, and more than once.

Below is the famous "slapping" scene with Ginger Rogers and Frances Mercer from "Vivacious Lady":

And here is a clip including of the famous "Big Apple" dance from "Vivacious Lady".


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