Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Primrose Path

While TCM is celebrating the centenary of Vivien Leigh today, it's also the birth anniversary of Joel McCrea, who was born on this day in 1905. TCM will be spending tomorrow morning and afternoon honoring McCrea, with movies including Primrose Path, tomorrow at 12:30 PM.

The star of the movie isn't McCrea, but Ginger Rogers, who plays Ellie May Adams. Ellie is the eldest daughter in a family that by the 80s would have been called dysfunctional. Dad Homer (Miles Mander) is at heart a good person, but he's an alcoholic who can't keep a job and depends on his wife to support him. That wife, Mamie (Marjorie Rambeau) has been making a living as a prostitute, something that's been going on in the family for over a generation, since Grandma (Queenie Vassar), who lives with them, was a prostitute herself -- and you get the feeling that she encoraged her daughter to become one.

Ellie wants a better life for herself, so one day when she's at the seashore digging for clama and meets a man, she takes her chance. That man, Ed Wallace (the aforementioned McCrea), works at a short-order diner on the beach. She falls in love with him, and seeing a way out of her family in the bad neighborhood, charmingly horns in on Ed's life in such a way that he eventually agrees to elope with her. Of course, Ellie hasn't told Ed about her family.

This is a problem for multiple reasons. First, as in a movie like The Mating Season, the spouse who has been kept in the dark is understandably rather displeased about not having been told the truth in the first place. You get the impression that if only Ellie had told Ed the truth, he might have loved her anyway, but lying to him is a big problem. Primrose Path, however, is not a comedy; not by a long shot. If you had any thoughts about it being a comedy, those will be disabused once Ellie introduces Ed to her family. It's here that Ed leaves Ellie. But her family hasn't reacted well, either. Mom and Grandma seem to think that they're going to lose their meal ticket for retirement if Ellie goes off with Ed and marries him. Just as Grandma had encouraged Mom to become a prostitute, now they're encouraging Ellie to follow in their footsteps.

It's here, though, that Primrose Path starts to develop some problems. The melodrama that gets piled on top of melodrama strains credulity, and the way the problems are resolved between Ellie and Ed don't seem realistic either, but forced to provide an ending that won't have the audience screaming at the movie screen. The writers probably also had to do quite a lot of contortions with the script to satisfy the Production Code: even though it's clear that prostitution runs in the family, that's never explicitly stated. That having been said, the cast members playing the folks in Ellie's family, as well as Rogers herself, are all excellent. The dysfunction in the Adams family is somewhat reminiscent of the family structure in A Patch of Blue, except that Ellie's supporting herself is more realistic. Both movies have an excellent portrayal of family dysfunction. McCrea is more than adequate, but he's not the center of attention here. Although the plot does have some problems, the movie as a whole more than overcomes those problems.

For whatever reason, Primrose Path doesn't receive quite the attention that many of Ginger Rogers' other films -- even the ones without Fred Astaire -- do. That's a shame, because it's really quite good, especially in those supporting performances. Primrose Path has at least received a DVD release from the Warner Archive Collection, so you can catch it any time you want.

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