October 15, 2019

Primrose Path (1940)
Grade: 60/100

Director: Gregory La Cava
Stars: Ginger Rogers, Joel McCrea, Queenie Vassar

What it's about. Based on a Broadway play that ran for 166 performances at the Biltmore in early 1939. Ellie May (Ginger Rogers) is a beautiful young woman from the wrong side of the tracks. She lives with her mother (Marjorie Rambeau), a professional escort; her father (Miles Mander), an alcoholic and unemployed Greek scholar; her precocious younger sister (Joan Carroll); and her sharp-tongued maternal grandmother (Queenie Vassar).

Because it is a movie, Ellie May will soon meet a guy, who is tall, handsome, and unattached, despite the close attention of vivacious Carmelita (Carmen Morales) and her two equally cute girlfriends. The guy is Ed (Joel McCrea), who runs a bustling diner and gas station with his benign father (Henry Travers).

Ellie May makes quick work of Ed. They are wed in the literal blink of an eye, but Ellie May makes the big mistake of revealing that her family lives nearby. Ed pushes to meet them, but the visit proves disastrous due to Granny's machinations. Granny plots to turn Ellie May into an escort, since that will put bread on the table.

The marriage dissolves. Ed goes clubbing, and Ellie May returns home, where she is compelled to follow in her mother's footsteps. Yet a crowd-pleasing happy ending is somehow extracted.

Primrose Path marked the film debut of Queenie Vassar, who was a celebrated stage actress during the 1890s. Charles Lane, who as Mr. "Smith" is the subject of wise cracks among the ladies and McCrea on account of his age, was only 35 in 1940, born the same year as McCrea. He would live for another 67 years. It is interesting that his character is more interested in returning Ellie May to her husband, than in bedding her himself.

How others will see it. As in Bachelor Mother (1939) and Kitty Foyle, Ginger Rogers is poorer than her love interest. Her social class works against her, but her feminine charms ultimately win out.

As familiar a face as McCrea may be, this is Roger's movie. Yet the film's only Oscar nomination went to Marjorie Rambeau, whose character's sacrificial devotion to her family warmed the hearts of Academy voters.

Primrose Path was a box office success. It drew generally favorable reviews, more for its players than the story, which is only kept from total darkness by the restrictions of the Production Code.

Today at imdb.com, the movie has 1K user votes, a respectable number for an obscure romance drama. The user ratings average 7.0 from viewers over 45, and a slightly lower number from those under 45. The user reviews are predominately positive, with great interest expressed in the unseemly plot, the less-than-stellar characters, and to what degree the film was hampered by the Production Code.

How I felt about it. Regarding the title: a primrose is a flower. The phrase "primrose path" originates in Shakespeare's play "Hamlet", and refers to a life of dissipation. In this movie, Primrose Hill refers to the disreputable neighborhood of Rogers' family.

Ginger Rogers had only recently been emancipated from a string of films as Fred Astaire's dance partner and love interest. RKO rewarded her with a few desirable leading dramatic roles. Though she is miscast here, pushing thirty when her character is pushing twenty.

But no matter, Rogers does just fine, as always. She would win her only Best Actress Oscar for a 1940 movie: Kitty Foyle. The present film is probably better, and undoubtedly contributed to securing Rogers' gilt trophy, but it is morally problematic. It seems that the only character who acts honorably throughout is Ed's genial father.

Rogers' Ellie May steals Ed's wallet. She lies about her family to Ed. She has a brief turn as an escort to the unromantic Charles Lane. Meanwhile, Ed nearly kills them both with his reckless driving. Later, he kicks her out of their home, and spends his nights drinking and dancing at the local nightclub.

One can argue they deserve each other, but Ellie May's family is undeniably worse, so she merits greater sympathy. True, her mother is nice, and the bratty girl is entertainingly selfish, but grandma is a witch, and father is a pathetic drunk. No wonder she is eager to leave home to live with Ed and his agreeable father.

At this point, the movie should end, with Rogers' happily slinging hash while Ed banks the daily till. But no such luck: Rogers and McCrea are instead put through the wringer, motivated by Ed's pride and immaturity, as well as Rogers' cursed family. All of this is unpleasant to the viewer, even though we suspect that Rogers and McCrea will return to each other, as it is the only acceptable ending.