Joan Blondell: A Life Between Takes

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Rose Joan Blondell learned many things growing up as a child of vaudeville.  She learned to make friends easily, to fit in, and to adapt to ever changing surroundings and circumstances. She learned how to tend to a crew, learn her lines and enhance the performances of others. She learned to smile on cue and to place the act before everything else.  Most importantly she learned discipline, hard work and perseverance.  The one thing she wasn’t taught was how to value herself, her gifts, and her own feelings.  And that is a lesson lost that cost her much personal happiness.

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Joan Blondell: A Life Between Takes gives us a chronological accounting of the actor’s life.  Beautifully researched, it benefits tremendously from the full cooperation of her surviving relatives, including her children.  It was her son who suggested that such a book be considered.  He approached author Matthew Kennedy as the two were working on another project.  It is a gift that he did so.

As expected the most compelling section is the first third when Blondell is working frantically and furiously at Warner Brothers.  Her swift climb towards being an invaluable player in the studio’s talented stable make for heady reading.  She arrives in Hollywood almost simultaneously with the advent of talking pictures with a young Jimmy Cagney, both fresh off a Broadway play that lands on the screen with the racy title of Sinner’s Holiday.  While compelling in their debuts, Cagney’s magnetism is undeniable.  The studio recognizes their hot property for what he is and quickly places him in starring vehicles with compensation to match.  Cagney achieves this with some savvy and negotiation.  Blondell’s compensation doesn’t achieve his, nor is she given those starring roles; her negotiation skill and representation is weaker and she is frequently used to bolster others’ work or enliven sagging pictures. Nevertheless, her presence in tight, rapid-fire pre-Code films is almost unmatched.  It is only those women that truly reached the upper tier, such as Barbara Stanwyck, a friend of Blondell’s, that have greater presence.  Some of the most memorable films of the era such as Night Nurse, Three on a Match, Blonde Crazy and the Busby Berkley musicals Dames and Gold Diggers of 1933 would be unrecognizable without Blondell’s presence.  The latter’s finale number, Remember My Forgotten Man, with Blondell as its centerpiece, is arguably the most significant musical sequence of the Great Depression.  The actress herself was taken aback by the critical and public response to its social significance.  She was working so fast its impact had eluded her.

In a life filled with contradictions, Blondell frequently referred to herself as a workhorse, many times denigrating her own accomplishments while struggling for the recognition and roles she rightfully deserved.  Toddling onto the stage at fourteen months, she entered vaudeville as a regular in her parent’s act at the age of three.  The Blondell’s travelled the globe, rarely stopping to establish roots, a pattern Blondell found difficult to break. She longed for a house and home yet this was sometimes as elusive as the roles she sought.  When Blondell found personal stability, she used this security to bolster her career, seeking and taking risks that then undermined her domestic happiness. This strategy of zig-zagging from coast to coast, seeking substantial roles, was ill-tolerated by the men in her life who married a people-pleasing petite blonde and somehow ended up with a real woman with needs.  Husbands George Barnes, Dick Powell and Mike Todd ranged from distant and controlling to financially irresponsible and emotionally and physically abusive.  Blondell only achieved marital bliss intermittently and fleetingly.  Professional success similarly had its rich yet transient moments.  Her finances followed her marriages and her performances, rising and falling with their shifting fates.

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As Aunt Sissy in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, with Peggy Ann Garner

Blondell was nominated for an Academy Award for The Blue Veil, however one of her most memorable performances of her post-Warner years was that of Aunt Sissy in Elia Kazan’s adaptation of the best-selling novel A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.  It was her favorite role. Yet some of her best moments were left on the cutting room floor due to their adult nature and the restrictions of the Production Code, an editorial necessity she found upsetting.  If she is remembered by some as the matronly former star who cameos in Grease it may be because she is only one of a handful of women whose career lasted her entire adult life; she worked almost continually. And while she tended to scoff and discount her own artistic needs, her drive to pursue roles appears to have been motivated by more than money.  Blondell trusted her talents to provide for her but ached for more; she craved fulfillment on a personal and professional level.  She ultimately gave up dating but continued to work, even while seriously ill, until the age of 73, when she succumbed to leukemia.

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Joan Blondell with husband Dick Powell

This well-researched biography covers all phases of this actor’s busy and tumultuous life, almost so much so that the larger arcs are elusive.  Her marriage to Dick Powell lasts eight years but the ups and downs and moves are so frequent, and the intermingling of professional and personal so complex, that the longevity is almost lost.  This is the most significant intimate relationship in Blondell’s life.  Powell is the father of her two children, with her eldest being adopted by him in the early happy years.  Yet this aspect of the book is a minor quibble and perhaps unavoidable given its sweep. It is enriched by numerous interviews, archival research, family memories and haunting recollections.

Blondell’s story spans much of the twentieth century and carries within it the tremendously complex changes occurring in the entertainment industry. Blondell adapts and sashays these changes with skill and sacrifice, working in not only vaudeville and movies, but theater, radio, summer stock and television. Consequently, she is sometimes missing from home for months at a time yet is a devoted mother; many times her children travel with her. More often, her struggles and heartaches, both professional and personal, are due to male attitudes than her own choices; as a woman I ached for her.  When she died I cried.  Through it all she retained the generosity of spirit that made her an audience favorite.

I knew Joan Blondell was something special when I was a small child.  Sitting on the floor staring up at the television screen, watching Here Come the Brides, I took notice when she was introduced in the opening credits with her own solo title card, “and Joan Blondell as Lottie”.  She was charming and warm, still beautiful but comfortingly maternal.  She was the proverbial heart of gold in that series but she was more.  She radiated something unmistakable, the charisma of a movie star, a Hollywood survivor.  When Blondell appeared, she owned the screen.  I tuned in week after week not just for teen heartthrob Bobby Sherman but for her.  Her warmth was something I sorely needed in my life and I adored her for it.  Imbued with the same spirit, this rendering of Blondell’s life is highly recommended.

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This post is the fifth in the 2017 Summer Reading Challenge hosted by Raquel Stecher of Out of the Past.  For more book reviews please check her blog throughout the summer!!

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Sophia Loren: Movie Star Italian Style

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“Sophia Loren, aside from being extremely beautiful physically, is one of the most exciting, witty women on this planet.”

Tippi Hendren, costar in A Countess from Hong Kong

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Sophia Loren did two notorious things in her life.  The first was to have a romance with Cary Grant, one that elicited a proposal of marriage.  She declined, leaving him in despair.  The second scandal is more significant.  Loren carried on a long-time affair with married producer Carlo Ponti, one that led to an eventual marriage with admirable longevity but was nonetheless quite shocking in its time.  Loren met Ponti when she was only fourteen years old.  He was twenty-two years her senior. Initially he provided her with professional advice and friendship but it didn’t take long for their relationship to blossom into romance.  Divorce was not yet legal in Italy and Rome was having none of their liaison.  Hollywood provided a welcome refuge and Mexico a ‘legal’ means of marrying,yet one that branded Ponti a bigamist in his home country.  The couple opted to become French citizens, with the Italian producer finally obtaining an elusive divorce, allowing for their longed-for marriage.  The addition of children, and later grandchildren, only made it that much sweeter.

If Loren had any further dalliances with her co-stars, a stunning array of men that included Gregory Peck, Clark Gable, William Holden, Peter Sellers and Richard Burton, among others, she hasn’t breathed a word of it. However such speculation seems doubtful.  Her lifelong love affair with Ponti appears to be one of several constants in her life, the others being her creativity, her love of family, and the simple joi de vivre of being Sophia Loren.

Sophia Loren: Movie Star Italian Style by Cindy De La Hoz conveys this joy for living nicely.  A photographic journey through the actor’s life and movies, it stuns with literally hundreds of gorgeous photos, the majority in the glorious technicolor of many of her films.  A breezy biography fills in the specifics of Loren’s life beginning with childhood struggles of living in war-torn Italy and continuing to the present day.  Almost two-thirds of this coffee table worthy book consists of a synopsis of each of her films, providing the Loren aficionado with a comprehensive compendium of her work.  This is especially helpful as many of her films, even those that have been translated from the original Italian, remain in limited distribution.  Her most familiar Hollywood successes are highlighted too including Houseboat, It Happened in Naples, Arabesque and The Millionairess.

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Two Women (1960)

Yet Loren differs from many of her Hollywood peers due to her significant contribution to Italian cinema.  For her portrayal of a mother trapped in WWII Italy in a gritty, heartbreaking turn in Two Women (1960), she became the first actor to win an Oscar for a foreign language performance.  She has won five special Golden Globes, mostly for World Film Favorite. Her partnership with fellow countryman Marcello Mastroianni was the kind of rare collaboration that is seen only with the likes of Tracy and Hepburn, Powell and Loy, and Allen and Keaton.  The duo made an impressive seventeen movies together, working with Italian luminaries such as director Vittorio de Sica and producer Ponti, lifting Italian filmmaking to new heights of popularity and artistry. She is considered Italy’s most celebrated female actor of all time.

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With Mastroianni in Sunflower (1970)

Truly an international movie star, Loren is known for her staggering beauty, yet she has an acting legacy that spans over six decades.  That this is not widely known in not the fault of the star but rather the overwhelming seductiveness of her presentation and the breadth of her film catalogue, one that crosses continents.  Loren is an iconic sex symbol, an actor whose curvaceous presence signifies sexual nuance and allure the moment she enters a scene. Her statuesque beauty perfectly fit her debut era, one marked by swing dresses that celebrated the female form.  Just as America was tiring of the blonde bombshell, along came Loren, with an exotic mystique enhanced by big brown almond eyes and voluptuous lips and hips.

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Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow (1963)

If there is one quibble with the book it is that it ends too soon.  Loren is described as possessing incredible warmth, vitality and an enduring presence that is rare among female performers who too often are not permitted to age gracefully or choose to bow out of their own accord. One hungers for more of Sophia the woman, the survivor. What is clear is that her apparent pragmatism, emotional stability and business acumen are additional assets that have contributed to her longevity and her mystique.

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Loren remains riveting when attending red carpet events. She has shown a remarkable ability to retain her beauty and to age with stunning grace.  The many quotes from Sophia regarding her life philosophies, experiences in filmmaker and from those who have worked with her are a treat in this new work.  The book ends with a final quote from Loren speaking to a belief that has served her well:

“There is a fountain of youth: it is your mind, your talents, the creativity you bring to your life and the lives of people you love.  When you learn to tap this source, you will truly have defeated age.”

She may yet gift us with future endeavors springing from her own overflowing creative spirit.

De La Hoz’s new pictorial biography is a glorious introduction for newcomers to Loren’s life and career that should also prove satisfying to devoted fans due to its respectful treatment and multitude of photographs.  It is a worthy addition to the field and to any film lover’s collection. I am quite pleased to add it to mine.

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Thank you to Running Press/Turner Classic Movies for providing me with an advance review copy of this lovely book. It is available for Pre-Order through Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Shop TCM or your favorite bookseller.  This book will be available on September 26, 2017 in Hardcover or E-Book.

This post is the fourth in the 2017 Summer Reading Challenge hosted by Raquel Stecher of Out of the Past.  For more book reviews please check her blog throughout the summer!!

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Loren in her teens and turning heads

 

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Sensible Cinderella: Kitty Foyle (1940)

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A RKO Production ~  Director: Sam Wood,  Screenplay: Dalton Trumbo with additional dialogue by Donald Ogden Stewart, based on a novel by Christopher Morley,  Art Director: Van Nest Polglase,  Costume Designer: Renie

In a year filled with phenomenal films, Kitty Foyle is a good and satisfying movie, but not necessarily a great one.  And yet it was nominated for five Academy Awards, with Ginger Rogers receiving her only nomination and win for this melodramatic woman’s picture, based upon the best-selling 1939 name-sake novel.

The movie begins with an opening sequence that brings us up to date on the state of womanhood in 1939.  Depicted as single, hard-working and man-seeking, the ‘modern ’woman , “a comparative newcomer to the American scene”,  is shown struggling to make her way in a world that does not always make that way easy.  She lacks the protections of a male embrace, her place as a homemaker and the respect that the roles of wife and mother have traditionally bestowed upon her.  Suffragettes, hoping for better, have apparently gotten more than they bargained for now that the Great Depression has thrown them in among the wolves.

This episodic and unfortunately dated opening sets up the quandary of our heroine, Kitty Foyle.  She is strong and independent and yet she struggles.  Seemingly bereft and without family support, she looks to love and finds herself at a crossroads between her desire for the romantic idealized prince of her youth, and the pragmatic considerations of her situation.  Kitty must choose between an adventurous life as an unwed partner to a man she adores, a man who is affectionate and charming but lacking in strength and endurance, and another who is earnest, but frugal, plodding but loyal; he is also definitely not her first choice.

This latter point is brought home by the efficient casting.  Dennis Morgan as Wyn Strafford is dazzling as the man of her heart’s desire.  His smile lights up the screen.   Radiating personal warmth as he sweeps in and out of Kitty’s life, he even takes her out for a night to envy Cinderella’s ball, complete with chimes in the form of an alarm to end the reverie.  Meanwhile, her pragmatic prospect tests her to the point of rudeness, blackmails her into a first date and persists despite her love for another man.  He is patently devoid of charisma.  There is little to no chemistry between Miss Foyle and Dr. Mark Eisen, played woodenly by James Craig.  That is just the point however; it may take better acting than might be first apparent to make a handsome doctor this much of a bland second choice.

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In early scenes, Kitty is supported with a home and wisdom by her father, played with long-suffering pluck, Irish cheer and humor by Ernest Cossart, echoing Thomas Mitchell in his portrayal.  His presence is key to understanding Kitty’s determination and sense of spirit.  Long after his departure his influence upon her choices and ultimate decision is felt.

Her quandary is presented early in the film, and elucidated during a debate Kitty conducts with herself via a talking mirrored image.   This was a unique device at the time and pulls the viewer into the film; her dual personas are intriguing.  Kitty’s impetuous, spirited and fancy-free self has literally come face to face with her mature, and wiser woman; it’s a little harder to fool herself than it once was. Rogers plays this well and immediately gains our sympathy.  This was not the only time she was to play herself at multiple ages and levels of maturity.  Here she has a scene where she is just fifteen years old, and similarly to her work in The Major and The Minor, where she plays just twelve, as well as her own mother, she is able to handle the age range convincingly.

Rogers is warm and heart-breakingly human, yes even flawed in this story.  The many close-ups in the film display the subtlety of her work, as her emotions run the gamut from dizzying happiness to devastating disappointment and grief.  She never fails the audience or the intent of the lovely screenplay. Watch her face as the slow realization of the loss of her son washes over her to see the reason for this nomination. Rogers shines without overshadowing Kitty’s story.

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This story, which is primarily shown in flashback, is told from a woman’s perspective, an interesting point given all the men that were involved in its creation.  In fact the film is subtitled ‘The Natural Story of a Woman’. Imagine the audience of women at the time, still struggling with the shocks of the worst economic crisis this country had known.  And here is Kitty Foyle.  She is portrayed by the beautiful Ginger Rogers, she of all the glamorous RKO fantasy films where she paired with Fred Astaire, dancing his dances and following his choreography, brought down to earth and living in a small two-room apartment with two other young struggling women.  There is no public safety net, no assurance that it might not be your boss who blackmails you to revel in your attractiveness and not the handsome yet unknown stranger, albeit doctor. Kitty’s choices are of course that of a movie star, a bit of a princess. She chooses between the dashing offspring of a wealthy scion of society and a good-looking smitten physician.  Not much less could be expected of anyone as glamorous as Rogers, yet these dilemmas were very much like the choices being made by women everywhere. Pragmatic cautious decisions were more important than ever.  Her dilemma is relatable and understandable.

The script by Dalton Trumbo walks some delicate lines in blurring a novel that was written without a Production Code to abide by.  This makes the film a bit of a puzzle at times.  Kitty has a hasty marriage and an even more impulsive and spontaneous divorce.  Her marriage results in pregnancy and the subsequent loss of this child through stillbirth (a woman’s heartbreak not all that uncommon at times both then and now).  In the book, Kitty has a dalliance with Mr. Dazzling that results in an unwed pregnancy and an abortion.  Trumbo cunningly sticks to the major plot points while adhering to the Code. Of note is a very romantic, moving scene in the Poconos that fades to black and helps us to understand Kitty’s love for Wyn. While the film plays fast and loose with the time frames, audiences were well aware of both the restrictions of the Code as well as the shocking circumstances and sadness that Kitty endures through familiarity with the novel.  Its raciness had done much to make it a best-seller.

It was this very raciness that had first made the project unpalatable to Rogers.  But ultimately she made a shrewd decision.  The public knew that she was a talented entertainer.  She could dance with the absolute best and sing too.  She had shown a wonderful way with comedy and endeared audiences to her as she helped them to escape the dreariness of their everyday realities with music and laughter.  But 1940 was the year she made her first forays into serious roles.  Kitty Foyle was recognized by the industry but Primrose Path, a romantic confection filled with realistic grittiness from director Gregory LaCava, also starring Rogers, and  co-starring Joel MacCrae, was released just nine months ahead of this one.  Kitty Foyle was the bigger film, a hit for RKO and subsequently nominated for Best Picture.

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The field was crowded that year.  There were ten films nominated for the top Oscar, several undeserving and others perhaps that should have won; Hitchcock’s Rebecca beat out a challenging field.  Additionally, there were many others that, in any other year would have been nominated.  Numerous women were also deserving of recognition.  Rogers faced stiff opposition from Katherine Hepburn, Bette Davis, Joan Fontaine and Martha Scott for her award.  This was also the year of Rosalind Russell’s career-defining turn in His Girl Friday, Irene Dunn’s snappy performance in My Favorite Wife and a heartbreaking portrayal by Vivien Leigh in Waterloo Bridge that was a far cry from her Scarlett O’Hara. There has always been a sense of upset, that Kitty Foyle was a minor film and a not particularly worthy performance.  But Rogers, in depicting an everywoman, while remaining her glamorous self, grabbed hold of audiences and apparently Academy members, who not only wished to honor her performance here, which is quite moving, but seemingly the body of her work and the incredible range of her talent. From the time she delivered her famed pig-Latin rendition of “We’re In the Money” to her sashays with Astaire, Ginger Rogers had done her part to help a nation through the tough years of the Great Depression and the Academy and movie-going audiences were grateful.

Recommended for its moving story, the chemistry of Rogers and Morgan and its Oscar winning history.

This post is a part of the 31 Days of Oscar Blogathon 2017 February 17-19, 2017 hosted by Paula’s Cinema Club, Once Upon a Screen and Outspoken and Freckled. For more please click the image below:

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Notes and Extras

  • Bosley Crowther of The New York Times describes this one as “a boy-girl drama which tugs cruelly on the heartstrings but never snaps them.”  He seemed to like it quite a bit, rightly predicted its popularity and noted significant deviation from the novel, some of it necessary to “conform with the moral code”.  He’s kinder to Craig’s doctor who he feels is no less attractive than Morgan and seems to agree with the film that Kitty makes a wise choice, perceiving Strafford as cowardly.  Perhaps….
  • This was a break-out role for Dennis Morgan, cowardly though he might’ve been.  Morgan began his Hollywood career in a favorite of mine, Piccadilly Jim (1936) with a small uncredited part as a nightclub singer.  And a singer he was, having studied voice at the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music and the American Conservatory in Chicago.  His lovely singing voice made him useful as both a bit player and singer until he was established.
  • Some of you may recognize Morgan for his role in the holiday perennial Christmas in Connecticut (1945) where he displays beautiful chemistry with Barbara Stanwyck.  He is charming (what else?), commanding and gets to use his golden pipes in that one too. When Stanwyck as housekeeping expert Elizabeth Lane questions his character Jefferson Jones by asking “Are you making love to me?”, we’re pretty sure he is, and that’s exactly how she wants it.
  • Early in his career Morgan appeared in The Great Ziegfeld (1936) in the famous Wedding Cake musical number.  Cast due to his voice, you might assume it’s him singing the famous “A Pretty Girl Is Like A Melody”, but you’d be wrong (as I was)!  In fact Morgan himself didn’t find out that his voice in the number was dubbed until he watched it at the premiere.  Imagine that…
  • Morgan made five films in 1936 another of which was Suzy with Jean Harlow, Franchot Tone and Cary Grant.  That’s an awful lot of good looks for one picture.
  • Speaking of good looks, Morgan is a bit of a Prince Chaming in this picture and that’s not the only fairy tale suggestion you’ll get here.  Watch for soothing rhythmic imagery in this film: a snow globe containing a child’s sled, Cinderella references with time-ticking deadlines, a speakeasy with a special bottle of liquor, seemingly bottomless.  Interestingly enough, Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane was in production, also at RKO, when this film was released.  For Kitty the snow globe and the sled within represent her “little girl”, ties to her father, childhood and lost innocence.  This snow globe also makes for a unique transitional device during short interludes of voice over-narration, spoken by the much wiser Kitty.  Interesting the way one artistic endeavor can influence another. As well as awards…
  • Rogers was probably pretty happy she accepted this role.  It first went to Katherine Hepburn who turned it down.  Hepburn was subsequently nominated that same year for The Philadelphia Story, which she considered her “comeback vehicle”, in a role she created for the stage, but lost the Oscar to Rogers.  Funny how things turn out…
  • In fact Kitty Foyle was nominated for five Academy Awards:  Best Picture, Best Director for Sam Wood, Best Actress in a Leading Role, Writing – Adapted Screenplay for Dalton Trumbo and Best Sound.  This was Wood’s second nomination; he had three altogether but never won.  But Trumbo, who was also nominated three times, won twice, both times under a pseudonym due to Hollywood blacklisting.  The record was subsequently changed to reflect his unique contributions.  Roman Holiday, a true American classic, is the best known of these two winners.
  • Besides winning Rogers her award, this film has another mark of distinction:  the subsequent donning of little white collars by secretaries and women in the workforce by the droves.  As noted prophetically by film critic John Mosher in The New Yorker, “I am inclined to think that it’s Miss Ginger alone who makes ‘Kitty Foyle’ a better-than-average film and Kitty herself a proper model for those hundreds of thousands of young things who will now be adding a touch of white to their neckline.” What is it with these film critics and their ability to foresee trends?  And so the phrase “White Collar Girl” became a part of the vernacular.  Life magazine did a photo essay on the life and times of such a girl, modeled after Rogers’ Kitty.  One caption reads “The Five p.m. feeling is awful. Finished with work, she is sure of meal and a bed. But she suffers the dreadful loneliness of the White Collar Girl because she has nothing to do between work and bedtime. Here is the five p.m. feeling in Times Square”. Cue dismal-looking  model.  This is pretty heavy stuff and gives some insight into the cultural context of this film.  I’m getting that five p.m. feeling just reading about it.
  • RKO, knowing its audience and the appeal of both the film and the novel, arranged for Rogers’ to attend an annual stenographers’ ball in New York just two weeks after the film’s opening.  Rogers donned her little white collar but ever the movie star, and good PR person, she decorated it with a  generous diamond broach and wore a mink coat, matching mink-trimmed hat and gold earrings. She was met at Grand Central Station by 1,500 cheering fans and was given a special scroll by that year’s Queen of the Stenographers.
  • Ginger Rogers is listed in the AFI’s 50 Greatest Screen Legends, coming in at number 14.

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