Ginge Binge: The Pre-Code Years

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

From "Baby Face" to "Flip Daly" to "Pony Ferris," Ginger Rogers played a wide range of unique characters throughout her pre-code film career. If you aren't familiar with what exactly pre-code Hollywood is, I recommend you check out immediately to learn everything you need to know. You aren't going to find a more informative site than Danny's that celebrates this segment of film history so impressively!

What I've been attempting to accomplish this July is watching all of Ginger's films in chronological order of their release. In this little series, I'll be documenting my journey through blog posts and discussing some of the characters she played and how I view her growth as an artist. As I'm writing this post, I've completed her pre-code filmography with the exception of the incredibly rare Hat Check Girl (1932).

with Norman Foster in Professional Sweetheart (1933)

So far, this journey has truly put into perspective how much Ginger was working during this time and how many films she had under her belt before she was paired with Fred Astaire, creating the most legendary dance duo of the 1930's. As I explored these films chronologically, and as more time passed and more movies were crossed off the list, I frequently found myself thinking "I'm still not at Flying Down to Rio yet??" Ginger mentions in her 1991 autobiography that she had completed over 20 films before her first vehicle with Fred, so we all knew that, but it's an entirely different experience when you sit down and watch her films one by one leading up to Rio. You gain a new perspective and a new appreciation. Her musicals with Fred are timeless and a real escape for audiences today just as they were back then, but it's important to commemorate her other works, and his too, as the Astaire-Rogers musicals make up only 10 of the more than 70 feature films Ginger made over the course of her career.

Ginger in Flying Down to Rio 

Ginger's body of work in the pre-code era is especially intriguing to me simply for the fact that Ginger, in real life, was very conservative in the way that she was not a fan of risque themes. Throughout her life, she was outspoken against suggestive films, music, and dances as the decades progressed and the code diminished. But if you seek out her work in the early 1930's, you'll witness her dancing around in the money with no coverage except for giant costume coins, wearing silky negligee and being spanked by Norman Foster, and throwing a temper tantrum when her character's radio contract doesn't allow her to drink, smoke, or swear, and I find it fascinating. This element alone has helped me gain even more respect for her as an artist than I already did. To me it shows her dedication to her work and is just another testament to how talented an actress she was to be able to don clothing she wouldn't be caught walking around wearing in public and behaving in ways that clash with her true personality.

When Ginger first began on film in her late teens, she quickly became typecasted as a "baby vamp" with her childlike, flirtatious yet innocent nature, dark hair and dark lips. She had a small voice, but a memorable presence. Her characters were endearing and her acting ability consistent. She was a natural born entertainer and this is easy to tell from the earliest stages. In one of her first short films, A Night in a Dormitory (1929), she already exhibits wonderful control over her young vocals. She had never taken a professional singing class in her life, but she had gained immense success in the legendary Broadway musical "Girl Crazy."

Ginger in A Night in a Dormitory 

Two lesser known pre-code films of hers that stick out to me are The Thirteenth Guest (1932) and A Shriek in the Night (1933). These are some of the only times you'll see Ginger placed in a thriller type picture. If you're into pre-code mysteries with a spooky twist, definitely check both of those out. You can find them both in full on YouTube.

While Ginger's pre-code appearance remained consistent (dark, short hair and dark makeup) her characters did not. In one film she could be using her innocent but calculated charm to sweep a married man off of his feet, and in another she could be refusing a rich sugar daddy in favor of becoming a working girl. It wasn't until her first big film break in 42nd Street (1933) that we get a glimpse of her signature sassiness that would become more prominent throughout the later 1930's. In 42nd Street, she portrays "Anytime Annie," her brilliant comedic timing in full force with memorable one liners such as "Must have been tough on your mother, not having any children." She carries this wisecracking element into a few films that follow, including Broadway Bad (1933), Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933), and Finishing School (1934).

Ginger the "baby vamp"

The year 1933 saw the first official Astaire-Rogers vehicle, Flying Down to Rio. Although the dancing team does not receive star billing and only plays supporting characters, these days most audiences watch the film specifically for Fred and Ginger's whimsical dances and effortless chemistry. What's interesting about this first installment is that their characters are already established as a couple. This will not happen again until their last picture together, The Barkleys of Broadway (1949). In a couple of films later on, their characters allude to having been together at one point in the past, but in Flying Down to Rio they are a solid couple from the beginning.

This brings us to the second installment of the Astaire-Rogers musicals, The Gay Divorcee (1934). Is it a pre-code? Not exactly. It was released just shortly after the enforcement of the production code. Do I like to consider it a pre-code?  ... I think if there's an opportunity to call a picture even "a little pre-code ish" then it should be taken. But I will save that for the future when I can delve into the topic much deeper in a separate post. To read my overview of 1935-1939, click here.

with Fred Astaire in The Gay Divorcee (1934)

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