When it comes to movie characters, there are often two that stand out: the male protagonist and the damsel in distress. For decades, Hollywood cinema has centred around the former, with audiences eagerly awaiting his arrival to save the day. In contrast, audiences have turned their backs on female leads, dismissing them as whiny ornaments who exist solely for the hero’s enjoyment.
Although there’s some truth to this, when it comes to cinematic greats, the tables have turned. Since the 2000s, popular culture has hailed leading ladies as the real protagonists of films. Audiences have flocked to see these leading ladies’ journeys and have connected with them more deeply than ever before.
Here, we examine the ten best actor & actress duos of all time.
1. Fred & Ginger
One of the most memorable scenes from the 1937 classic film ‘Gone With The Wind’ is not the epic battle between ‘good’ and ‘evil’, but rather the relationship that develops between two unlikely companions. Starred by Fredric March and Ginger Rogers, the on-screen couple engage in a charming on-again, off-again routine that sees them interact with grace and humour.
The delightful chemistry between the two leads is evident, and for decades, the film has remained one of the most popular among Fred and Ginger’s devoted fans. In the decades since, the dynamic between these two actors has been repeated countless times on-screen, with their on-screen personas often serving as the template for their real-life pairings.
Frederic March is credited with introducing the character of Rip Van Winkie to cinema audiences, a witty and urbane widowed gentleman who bewitches the ladies, snagging four of his five movie wives. March also established himself as a master of comedy, appearing in a string of classic films, including ‘It Happened One Night’, ‘His Girl Friday’, and ‘The Odd Couple’ (pictured below).
Ginger Rogers is best remembered for playing the ingenue, the sweet, naive young girl who ends up marrying a wealthy older man in a breathtaking array of glamorous gowns. As the wife of radio star Fred, Rogers initially attracted a lot of attention for her beauty, winning the title of ‘the blond bombshell’ and becoming one of the first A-list stars. Over time, however, her films became increasingly prestigious, culminating in a Best Actress nomination for her role in ‘Holiday’ (1930).
2. Spencer & Sylvia
While some may argue that Fred & Ginger were simply brought to life on-screen due to the chemistry between their actors, it is also worth considering that the screenwriter of ‘Gone With The Wind’ was Sylvia Marrow. Born into a wealthy New York family, Marrow fell in love with and married a much older man, Earl Spencer. The couple subsequently moved to England, where Marrow wrote several of the English language film adaptations of her own novels, including the award-winning 1934 film ‘Little Lord Fauntleroy’.
Marrow’s literary ambitions may have been partially inspired by her time spent with Earl Spencer, a prominent figure in British society who served as the Secretary of State for War and Foreign Affairs between 1931 and 1933. Spencer himself had a distinguished military career, participating in the trenches of World War I and emerging as one of Britain’s most famous war heroes. In contrast to this distinguished history, Marrow’s own life was somewhat less eventful, with the bulk of her adult life spent as a writer and homemaker with their two children.
Sylvia’s screen portrait has been compared to that of an American beauty queen, and her elegant dresses and breathtaking hairdos have earned her the nickname of ‘the princess of pedigree’. What’s more, at the end of her life, she retained her youthful appearance, maintaining a close connection with her daughter Maureen, who referred to her mother as “a girl of eighty, still in her teens”.
3. Fredric & Victoria
‘Gone With The Wind’ is often cited as the first of the true ‘talkie’ classics, a designation given to films that used advanced, speech-enabled technology to communicate with audiences. This distinction is undoubtedly due to the marriage of Fredric March and Victoria, an aristocratic Englishwoman who used her feminine wiles to ensnare the handsome widower. What’s more, as one of the first successful celebrity weddings, the union became a symbol of the Jazz Age, inspiring countless ‘wedding scene’ spoofs in popular culture.
This was certainly not the first marriage for either individual, with March having been previously married to his first wife, Gertrude. He also fathered three children with his first wife, including a daughter who was tragically killed in a drowning accident when she was six years old. March’s grief over his daughter’s untimely death was evident in his acting, with many critics noting a marked change in his on-screen persona, portraying men and women with depth and sensitivity. After his daughter’s death, March began wearing a necklace with a small silver dove, a symbol of peace, on-screen and off.
Victoria, born into a prominent British family, was one of the first high-profile celebrities to wed a commoner, George Bernard Shaw, whom she wed in 1914. Despite the marriage, Victoria maintained a high social standing, hobnobbing with the upper classes and regularly appearing on the covers of prestigious magazines such as Vogue, where she was repeatedly photographed in profile to showcase the breathtaking contours of her exquisite face.
4. Peter & Laura
Another early twentieth century celebrity wedding that became an instant cause célèbre was that of Peter Warburton and his bride, Laura. The bride wore a stunning white dress adorned in hundreds of artificial white flowers, and the couple were married in a lavish, yet intimate ceremony at the Victoria Park Hotel in London. What’s more, this was not a lavish wedding gift to the newlyweds, but a wedding present from Laura’s parents, the Count and Countess of Lanckstone.
Although the wedding was a public spectacle, many eyes were focused on Laura, who made sure to captivate guests with her beauty and charm. Warburton was an exceptionally handsome man, and many female fans and journalists were eager to establish themselves as his ‘bitch’. Peter Warburton went on to have an illustrious acting career, frequently appearing alongside his wife in their popular plays, including ‘The Man of Property’ (1911) and ‘A Princess of Kensington’s’ (1917).
5. James & Marjorie
The James Stewart and Marjorie Merriweather marriages are often celebrated as part of the Lost Generation, those whose lives were disrupted by World War I. Stewart was born in New York City in 1874 and was raised in the affluent suburb of Millbrook, New York. His father, the renowned Civil War photographer, was a frequent flyer, taking him on lengthy travels around Europe and the Middle East as well as America, documenting his adventures in a diary that was later published. When he was 11 years old, Stewart’s family moved to London, where he attended St Paul’s College. It was here that he developed a passion for theater, acting in school plays and participating in a debating society.
During World War I, Stewart served in the British Army, initially as a private in the Royal Army Service Corps and then as an officer in the King’s Royal Rifle Corps. In addition to his military service, Stewart appeared in a variety of supporting roles in films, notably as an American millionaire who befriends a struggling artist in ‘I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Store’ (1932) and as an elderly man who befriends a young boy in ‘It’s Not Fair’ (1937).
6. Basil & Lily
James Stewart’s brother, Basil, was also an accomplished stage and screen actor, best known for his role as the butler, Gomez, in the 1939 film, ‘Ninotchka’. Although they were brothers, James and Basil were very different characters, with the former focused on his career while the latter preferred a life of leisure.
In the early twentieth century, it wasn’t unusual for members of the same family to appear alongside one another in films and on stage. As the industry became more professional, actors increasingly looked for work outside their immediate family, forming professional connections that would endure for several generations. One of the most enduring of these celebrity duos is that of Basil and Lily. The on-screen couple were frequent guests on radio shows in the early days of television, with Lily frequently appearing on ‘The Jack Benny Show’, and Basil on ‘Music Town’, a variety music program that aired from 1952-1956.