by Kay Proctor
Without plan or purpose, she trips along and gives no thought to to-morrow
THE NEXT time an ambitious mother of a dancing daughter points to Ginger Rogers to prove the sterling truth of the copy-book maxim about goals and hitching your wagon to a star, she had better check up on her facts.
Ginger never set herself a great or distant goal to achieve. She still hasn’t got one. In a way she waits for the goals to come to her. That’s rather amazing when you consider all she has achieved. And certainly it is unorthodox!
Ginger has a simple explanation for it. She illustrated it for me by drawing a square and a two-sided figure on the table cloth in the studio commissary where we were having tea.
“A goal is a plan,” she said. “A plan is an outline. The minute you outline something, you limit it. Draw four sides of a square and that’s it. It never can be any bigger or any smaller. But—draw only two sides, leave two open or blank, and what happens? There is no limit to the figure you can draw.
“It is the same with a career. Set a certain goal and you limit yourself to achieving that one thing. Leave it open, match progress with self-development and the world, not just one high peak in it, is yours to conquer if you can.
“Even people’s abilities are not limited, except by themselves when they give up in the face of tough going or are content with what they have achieved. Time alone is limited—and that can be stretched to cover such a tremendous territory.
“The trouble with setting yourself a goal is that a career is like going to school. While you are in the first grade you know there is a second grade beyond it, and a third and fourth and eventually high school and college. But you must learn the lessons of the first grade before you can tackle the problems of the second. Setting a definite goal has a tendency to make you skip grades, or at least try to. If you have no goal, you are content to take each grade in its proper order.
“That’s what I mean when I say I never have set myself a goal and do not have one now. I’ve concentrated on learning my lessons as they came along. It doesn’t mean I do not look ahead. I do, eagerly. But I do not limit myself by formal plans. I never say, ‘Next year I will do such and such and three years from now I will do the other.’
“I believe in living each day as it comes, to the best of my ability. When it is done, I put it away, remembering there will be to-morrow to take its place. If I have any philosophy, that’s it. To me it is not a fatalistic attitude.”
Ginger tucked her pencil back in her kelly green suede bag and smiled. She was a trifle embarrassed. “That was quite a speech, wasn’t it?” she laughed. “I don’t know that I’ve ever tried to put it in just so many words before, but it’s true.”
Her life and career proves it.
As far as she can remember—and she has an uncannily good memory—Ginger never had any childhood idea of becoming an actress, as most little girls have. She never dressed up in Mother Lela Rogers’ high heels and long dresses and daubed on flour, strawberry juice and burnt match for make-up to play at being an actress. If anything, she wanted to be a school marm, maybe because she loved school and lessons or maybe, like most kids, because a school teacher’s authority over others seemed pretty wonderful and desirable. It wasn’t until she had her actual baptism behind footlights when she won the Charleston contest on a Fort Worth stage that the theatre held more than a passing interest for her. Even then she envisioned no great future as an actress or even a dancer. Setting such a goal for herself never occurred to her.
“I simply wanted to be the best Charleston dancer anywhere in the country,” she said. “I never looked beyond that horizon.”
When the four weeks’ tour on a small-time circuit, which she had won as first prize in the contest, led to further vaudeville engagements and eventually to a spot with Paul Ash and his orchestra, vaudeville alone held her interest. Once again, she wanted only to be a top vaudevillian. In her professional “schooling,” first grade and post graduate work alike, no position but the head of the class would satisfy her.
“Next came musical comedy on the New York stage,” she said. “Again I was fired with new ambition, but not beyond musical comedy. I worked like a demon, yes, but every hour of that work was directed at one thing only, supremacy in this new field.”
One fact stands out clearly in tracing Ginger’s steady climb to fame. Not once did she initiate the successive, changes or make the first move towards effecting them. Others brought them to her, half-way thrust them upon her. So it was with her first motion picture work in New York where she made “Young Man of Manhattan” with Claudette Colbert and Norman Foster, the ensuing call to come to Hollywood, and eventually her present enviable contract.
“From the beginning, things seemed to work out that way,” she told me. “When I was ready for something new, it seemed to happen, without my making a fuss about it. I guess that is what convinced me*that doing one thing at a time and doing it to the best of my ability without looking beyond was the right idea. Each progressive goal seemed to come to me. Finally it forced upon me the conclusion that things come to us only when we are ready for them.”
So it was with stardom. Maybe, as she looks at it, stardom came to her, but I know of no actress in Hollywood who has worked harder and more sincerely to justify and keep it. She still is following her one guiding light: the best you can do today and the future will take care of itself.
Only in one instance that I know of did Ginger deliberately alter the pattern of the present to safeguard the future. Knowing how securely she is established as the top dancing star of the screen, and knowing how fickle the tastes of fans can be, she insisted that of the four pictures she makes each year, two be dancing pictures and two be straight roles. Thus, having completed “The Castles” with Fred Astaire, her next will be a light comedy drama, tentatively titled “Little Mother,” in which she gets stuck with the rearing of a baby who belongs to someone else.
After Hollywood, what?
“There will be something, of course,” Ginger said. ” W e can never stand still. Frankly, I hope it will be the stage, but I am not worrying about it now or even particularly thinking of it. I’ll know when the time comes. Until then—Hollywood absorbs my life.”
If the stage is the answer, Ginger knows one thing. She won’t go storming that citadel in the belief she is a second Bernhardt or Duse! She expects to go to “school” there too, beginning her “lessons” where she left off when she entered pictures—with light comedies or musicals. If it becomes apparent she is ready for stronger stuff, she’ll tackle heavy dramas. But not until then.
It is interesting to trace her innate dislike of formal plans in her private life. She loves surprise parties above all other kinds and gets really angry over one thing, if someone in on the secret gives them away. She loves to take trips on the spur of the moment as she did upon the completion of “The Castles.” On a Saturday morning she learned her last scene would be shot around four o’clock that afternoon.
HER secretary was dispatched for tickets. Her maid was told to pack bags. Her household of cook, gardener and steward was given its orders for the ensuing weeks. At six o’clock that night she was on a train headed for New York! And in the meantime, besides working in five different scenes at the studio, she had managed a portrait sitting, an interview, and a little quick shopping!
Little wonder it took so long to get her house finished. The architect and builder were about ready to throw in the sponge. Every time they met Ginger she had some new idea or change to be made. The playroom was all but finished, for example, when she decided to treat herself to the one thing she’d wanted all her life—a soda fountain of her own. Unfortunately, the dimensions of the room were inadequate for the addition. Okay, Ginger told them, rebuild it. They did.
“Plans depress me,” she explained. “They are so darned final.”
She is volatile even in her hobbies. Her interest, and a tremendous interest, is caught quickly, but her enthusiasm seldom lasts any length of time. When she played badminton, she was an expert. When she went in for tennis, she became runner-up in an important Hollywood tournament. As a child she had a passionate interest in tiny dolls, but gave them up entirely for the commercial manufacture of fudge. Made it pay, too. This was followed by the piano. That lasted until she played her first public recital. Now in her spare time she’ll play parchesi like mad for one week and change the next to volley ball.
In view of that, her attitude about golf is a strange one. She owns a fine set of clubs. “But I won’t be a duffer,” she said. “So I’m not going to play at all until I have the time to learn the game and play it properly.”
There is one other thing she is not impulsive about—friendship. She endows the word with a deep and special meaning, reserving its use for the few who really hold a place in her sincere affections. But once she accepts you as a friend it is through thick and thin. Unless, of course, you betray her loyalty. That she will not forgive.
If only time were not limited, perhaps it would be a different story with Ginger and her hobbies for, basically, she wants to do everything well. Everything she cannot do well remains a constant challenge to her. But time is the one precious possession she doesn’t have and covets most.
If she had time, for instance, she could do more of the thoughtful reading with which she is attempting to make up for the college education she missed while dancing up the road to fame. If she had more time she could become an accomplished pianist, painter and sculptress, for the talent unmistakably is in her. The one recital she gave, her charcoal and pastel sketches, and the bust of her mother she is modeling proves that. If she had time she could become one of Hollywood’s loveliest hostesses, for her talent for hospitality is a great one.
BUT where other stars are given three and four months between pictures, she gets only six weeks at the longest, and that is a new concession on the part of the studio. Previously ten days or two weeks was her average rest period. It is the price she pays for box-office popularity. Rogers pictures, like the mail, must go through! When she is in production, particularly on a dancing special with its added arduous hours of rehearsal, she has precious little energy at the end of the day to do anything but fall into bed exhausted.
Happily for her peace of mind, Ginger has the faculty for sorting the important from the unimportant and dismissing the latter from her mind as completely as a wave washes footprints from a sandy beach. On important things she concentrates with a driving force until they are accomplished. Then they, too, are marked “finished” and put away with yesterday.
Perfection in whatever she is doing is the only goal Ginger ever has set for herself. It is her only goal today. And it is the one goal, she realizes, that is given none of us to achieve.
“But I can keep on trying,” she says.