Primrose Path (DVD Review)21 Mar, 2011 By: Mike Clark
Available via WBshop.com’s Warner Archive
Stars Ginger Rogers, Joel McCrea, Marjorie Rambeau.
Golden-Age Hollywood portrayals of squalor are usually scrubbed too well for the material, as if someone sent out for the fumigators and a little whitewash before shooting commenced. Comedy director Gregory La Cava’s movie of a once semi-notorious property is a little different, and that’s even before we get to its tangential subject matter, which ends up being the elephant in what passes for the story-central family’s living room. No one is going to say the result has scuzziness of say, some modern-day urban crime meller, but it’s obvious that the characters here are living close to the edge.
Adapted from a long running-play which in turn had been based on a Victoria Lincoln novel (February Hill), Path predated by nine months the release of same-studio RKO’s Kitty Foyle, which ended up winning Ginger Rogers 1940’s Oscar for best actress. This was a watershed year in Rogers’ career because 1939 had marked her ninth and final RKO teaming with Fred Astaire, not counting a one-shot reunion at MGM a decade later. It was also a reunion for her with both La Cava and future “Hollywood 10” Blacklistee/screenwriter Allan Scott, with whom she’d made the previous year’s more comic 5th Avenue Girl — a movie that has its moments but not as many as this one.
Path’s Pacific coastal setting looks to be John Steinbeck cannery row territory, what with one specific reference made to canneries and a scene where hamburger joint counter-hop Joel McCrea teaches Rogers the right and wrong way to dig for clams on the beach (while she’s debating whether or not to steal a wallet that has fallen out of his jacket). Leaving aside this momentary temptation, Rogers is the closest thing to a well-adjusted adult (or close) in a family of no-counts. If there’s one kid sister on whom it’s too soon to pass judgment, there are early indications that she might turn out to be trouble.
The aforementioned elephant is the chosen means of support employed by mom, who’s played by Marjorie Rambeau in one of the lesser known performances to have gotten an acting Oscar nomination (Jane Darwell’s immortal Ma Joad in The Grapes of Wrath was the year’s winner). To a degree that surprises, given the iron hand of the era’s yahoo-pandering Production Code, the script is notably up-front about letting us know she’s a prostitute — a style of living that got the movie banned in Detroit (a city that found a way to tolerate Ty Cobb’s personality) and was apparently responsible for getting her character knocked off halfway into the story. The dispatching is regrettable because Rambeau is very entertaining and down-to-earth — an interesting contrast to her performance in 1955’s A Man Called Peter as a rich Washington, D.C., biddie who is outraged to walk into a semi-public room where a couple is making out (at least until it’s explained to her than they’re man and wife, and he is about to be shipped out in World War II).
Rogers and McCrea become man and wife, too — for genuine love on her part but also, one senses, to escape her family. The rest of that array includes a dreadful putdown artist of a grandmother (stage actress Queenie Vassar, one of just three movies she made) and an alcoholic father (Miles Mander) with enough education to give Rogers home schooling. Unfortunately, he looks something all those later sunken-cheeked pictures of Bob Fosse you’ve seen where he looks as if he just washed down four packs of Luckies with a tumbler of Old Crow. McCrea senses this too, and it precipitates a split, even though there’s a wonderful scene just before a key narrative turning point where they’re making out under a land-docked boat and obviously enjoying it. They’re further in synch entertaining customers at the beachside eatery that employs them, and McCrea even introduces Rogers to a new word: “repartee.” They’re obviously in love, but too many people are poisoning the well, including the rowdy and borderline randy Portuguese women who like to party with McCrea at a nearby nightspot.
W.C. Fields is said to have regarded My Man Godfrey’s La Cava as the second greatest comic genius in Hollywood next to himself. But he was good with actors in general, and 1937’s comic/dramatic Stage Door (with Rogers and Katharine Hepburn) is as good as the best Astaire-Rogers pictures and got La Cava the New York Film Critics’ award for direction in the year Leo McCarey directed The Awful Truth and Make Way for Tomorrow. The actor interplay is first-rate here, and I like the outdoor material — some of which is devoted to McCrea’s motorcycle with sidecar (fun for dates, though the passenger has to have a good disposition). The movie just ends as it should, but I always wonder about movie romances set in the late ‘30s or very early ‘40s. Most of the young principals in them will soon be just like that couple in A Man Called Peter.