Sunday, August 30, 2015

Ginger Rogers: 'Fifth Avenue Girl'

So, where was I? LOL Once again I find myself apologizing for my long absence. Between the new house, not selling the old house yet, work and other obligations, I had taken a very long hiatus. But I just can’t bring myself to pull the plug on my blog, so it’s one more try – or should I say one more strike and I’m out!  

Did I really start a series on Ginger Rogers two years ago? That doesn’t seem possible, but apparently I did. However, I do need to finish it, which I guess is my own brand of obsessive behavior. So, two years ago, I decided to follow up my series on Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers by looking at the five films that Rogers made after the release of “The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle,” what was thought to be the last film the duo made together. Eager to make it on her own, Rogers started off with a hit, “Bachelor Mother.” 

Today I’m looking at “Fifth Avenue Girl,” her next movie, and an interesting blending of social commentary, comedy and romance. Wealthy industrialist Timothy Borden (Walter Connelly) is frustrated by the problems of both work and home. On his birthday, which only his assistant remembers, he comes home to find his wife off with her lover, his daughter off cavorting at school and his son off playing polo. Taking a walk in Central Park, he meets Mary Grey (Rogers), unemployed yet seemingly untroubled by that fact. Borden invites her to dinner at a swanky club, and the next day everyone assumes that Mary is his lover. His aghast family watches as Mary moves into their swanky Fifth Avenue home, unaware that he has hired her to be his companion in hopes of shocking them into accepting some sort of responsibility for their own lives. 

In tone, “Fifth Avenue Girl” feels like a distant cousin to “Holiday,” stripped down in presentation with no soundtrack. The social commentary hits – fairly gently – from all sides, with “personal responsibility” the key lesson for everyone. While the plot doesn’t really surprise, it’s still engaging. In fact, I watched this two years ago when I was first working on this series, and my reaction was simply OK. However, on a second viewing, I enjoyed it far more. Perhaps it’s the straightforward nature of the story, or the fact that it has a keen eye and ear for the struggles of these late-Depression characters. 

It also helps that the two stars are so appealing. While Mary Grey functions simply as a catalyst for change in the Borden family, the story really revolves around Mr. Borden, and he really is the main character. Connelly is so likeable in this role, making us feel for this good man who has lost control of his family as he simply searches for a bit of happiness. It’s too bad that Connelly would die of a stroke a year later. 

The role of Mary Grey doesn’t ask Rogers to do much except bring her own charm and comedic sensibilities to the movie, which she does well. She may be the star, but Rogers shares the wealth with the rest of the cast. (And it’s always a plus to see Franklin Pangborn in anything, here as the Borden family butler.) Rogers was also happy to work again with director Gregory La Cava, who had directed her in “Stage Door,” the first movie that proved Rogers could make it without Astaire. 

While “Fifth Avenue Girl” may not be a major movie, it’s an enjoyable one, and even in a role that doesn’t ask much of her, Rogers clearly had a smart and engaging screen presence that would be used more effectively in future films.