Continuing my very slow look at the five films Ginger Rogers made after striking out on her own following her ninth pairing with Fred Astaire, “Primrose Path” is an intriguing movie for charting the growing maturity of Ginger Rogers as an actress.
Following the lighter “Bachelor Mother” and “Fifth Avenue Girl,” “Primrose Path” gives Rogers a more substantial role and she succeeds in the part, even if the movie isn’t quite up to her performance.
“Primrose Path” is adapted from a book and play (which Rogers called “trashy” in her autobiography) and directed by Gregory La Cava, who had previously directed Rogers in “Stage Door.” Rogers plays Ellie May, who lives on the wrong side of the tracks with her alcoholic father Homer (Miles Mander) and flamboyant mother Mamie (Marjorie Rambeau). While the script never calls Mamie a prostitute, it’s clear that she is and it’s her income that keeps the family fed.
Ellie May idolizes her father, who went to college and studied “The Greeks.” His career as a writer clearly is going nowhere as he spends most of his time in a drunken stupor. Grandma (Queenie Vassar) and her acid tongue remind all of his condition, while Ellie May’s younger sister Honeybell (Joan Carroll) seems to have inherited her grandma’s wicked ways.
In fact, Homer advises his daughter early on, “Run away, dear. What will happen to you here in this horrible environment?”
After this speech, Ellie May decides her father needs some clam soup to help ease the discomfort in his stomach, eaten away after years of drink. She heads to the beach and accepts a ride with kindly Gramp (Henry Travers). He believes the pigtailed Ellie May to be younger than she is. She explains that her immature look keeps men from hitting on her.
Gramp owns a gas station/diner, where Ed (Joel McCrea) works. Ed helps Ellie May dig up clams and takes her home on his motorcycle. For the first time, Ellie May finds herself attracted to a man and dresses up to visit him at the local bar later that evening. However, she lies about herself and claims she’s run away because her family doesn’t want her to be involved with a lower-class man like Ed.
It’s this lie that fuels the rest of “Primrose Path.” I wish I knew more of the original play to see how it was changed for film. I do know that the original material focused more on the mother and grandmother, while the screen adaptation changed the location from Boston to California and shifted the story to Ellie May. It’s a frustrating film because there are some wonderful moments that unfortunately are interspersed with others that jar the viewer out of the film’s spell.
Take the sequence along the beach when Ellie May and Ed are digging for clams. They really are at the beach and not on a soundstage. There’s no soundtrack in most of the film, which gives scenes like this a much more realistic feel. McCrea and Rogers clearly have chemistry together, and this first encounter between them has Ed fooled by Ellie’s younger dress and believes her to be younger. She’s clearly smitten by him and awkwardly tries to get away, particularly when she decides to swipe his wallet for the money.
The scene is followed by a long trip home on his motorcycle, with her in the sidecar. He’s trying to get a rise out of her and they swerve all over the road in comedic fashion. The rear projection shots then change from a long stretch along the highway to a neighborhood back to the long stretch along the highway. This sudden shift in tone and inconsistent rear projection clashes with the realistic beach scene before it.
Such juxtapositions happen throughout the movie. Another sequence comes when Ellie May invites Ed to dinner at her parents’ house. Now, isn’t it clear to everyone that this is a bad idea, considering Ellie May has yet to come clean about her family? And yet their arrival at the house is followed by an eager Ellie May introducing everyone to Ed. This is a silly plot maneuver that makes viewers question Ellie May’s intelligence. And the whole scene unfolds predictably, which carries through to the end of the movie.
This is also a script that liberally sprinkles “aint’s” and improper English usage to denote that these people are from a lower class. I supposed today it would be four-letter words, but in “Primrose Path” it’s ladled on a little too thick.
Thank goodness for the cast, starting with Rogers. She actually dyed her hair brunette for the role, knowing this was not a glamorous part, and wore as little makeup as possible. Rogers has always been a likable presence on screen, and it’s nice to see her hold her on in the many combative moments with her family. Rambeau grabbed a supporting actress Oscar nomination for her fine work here. McCrea, always appealing, creates a good romantic partner for Rogers. Only Vassar seems rooted in an acting style that came about a decade earlier when movies converted from silent to sound. With one hand on her hip, she overacts as she spits out her venom.
What “Primrose Path” did for Rogers was give her yet another leading role that allowed her to display versatility as an actress. When you watch her films from this period, you can see it all building toward a long career as a leading lady.