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The 1931 action film The Tip-Off, a mindless trifle about a boxer and his girl who play cupid for a brash radio repairman who falls for a gangster's moll, would be nothing but a footnote to Ginger Rogers' career if studio management hadn't made a mistake. Without their apparently ill-advised actions, the film would have been of note only as Rogers' first at RKO, the studio that would one day make her a star. But almost by accident, the picture also helped create the visual image that would contribute to her '30s star image.
Rogers had started her film career in New York City, making most of her early films there while also appearing on Broadway, most notably as the leading lady in George Gershwin's Girl Crazy. While introducing such standards as "Embraceable You" and "But Not For Me" in that show by night, she was making films by day at Paramount's Astoria studios. Worn out by the schedule, she asked for a contract release, which studio head Jesse Lasky reluctantly gave her. At the time, he prophetically stated, "I'm afraid the day will come when I shall regret this." (Lasky quoted in Homer Dickens, The Films of Ginger Rogers)
None of Rogers' early films, however, would have given him any cause for regret. When Girl Crazy finished its run, she accepted a contract from Path, a subsidiary of RKO, that required her to relocate to Hollywood. For her first assignment, studio head Charles R. Rogers put her into an action film, a studio staple, teaming comic actor Eddie Quillan with he-man character star Robert Armstrong. As Armstrong's girlfriend, Rogers would get to drop wisecracks at key moments while also proving that, when necessary, she could keep the big lug in line. But the film's real focus was on the relationship between its male stars, which capitalized on the popularity of buddy films like What Price, Glory? (1926) and its sequels.
Producer Rogers took leading lady Rogers to lunch before production started to help prepare her for Hollywood filmmaking. He also introduced her to the various studio personnel who would be working on the film. But he didn't prepare her for her first day in hairdressing. When Rogers arrived to have her hair done, the hairdresser handed her a pile of magazines to read, then went to work. Before long, the young actress felt a burning sensation in her scalp, then discovered that the boss had decided to make her a blonde without consulting her.
Rogers immediately called her mother, who threatened to sue. After all, her daughter had done perfectly well on Broadway and in early films as a brunette. How dare they change her look without permission! The fight with the studio went on for days. They even consulted an old friend, actor Herbert Rawlinson, who had worked with Rogers in vaudeville. But as the discussions continued, Rogers realized that the new color was actually rather flattering. When Rawlinson finally calmed her mother by suggesting it was probably an innocent mistake, that they had just forgotten to consult her, Rogers took the opportunity to insert, "Mother, I like this color on me, and I want to keep it." Her mother replied, "Frankly, baby, I'm beginning to like it myself." (Ginger and Leela Rogers, quoted in Ginger Rogers, Ginger: My Story)
The energy Rogers and her mother spent worrying about her hair color, might have been better spent re-thinking their place at Path. Her routine assignment in The Tip-Off was hardly a star-making role. Nor was her performance as a dime-store dolly named Baby Face much threat to such established stars as the patrician Ann Harding or the ultra-glamorous Constance Bennett. The New York Times spent most of its review on the film's male stars, but at least credited Rogers with being "a clever foil" to them. Other reviews didn't even get her role right, erroneously describing her as a gangster's moll.
The Tip-Off did very little for the young actress' position in Hollywood. In fact, after only one more film, Path would drop her contract. It would take free-lance work in the first Busby Berkeley musicals, 42nd Street and Gold Diggers of 1933 (both 1933) to convince RKO's new head, Merian C. Cooper (by that time Path had been totally absorbed into RKO). Within a few years, she would be one of the studio's biggest female stars.
Producer: Charles R. Rogers
Director: Albert S. Rogell
Screenplay: Earl Baldwin
Based on a story by George Kibbe Turner
Cinematography: Edward Snyder
Art Direction: Carroll Clark
Music: Arthur Lange
Principal Cast: Eddie Quillan (Thomas 'Tommy' Jordan), Robert Armstrong (Kayo McClure), Ginger Rogers (Baby Face), Joan Peers (Edna Moreno), Ralf Harolde (Nick Vatelli), Mike Donlin (Swanky Jones), Luis Alberni (Scarno), John Quillan (Scared Man at Scarno's).
by Frank Miller