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Fifth Avenue Girl (1939), something of a reverse-gender version of My Man Godfrey (1936), is a comedy about a Manhattan millionaire (Walter Connolly) whose family has forgotten his birthday, even though he roams his mansion humming "Happy Birthday." He wanders into Central Park, meets the jobless but common-sensical Ginger Rogers, and hires her to come home with him and pretend to be his gold-digging mistress. As she showers him with attention, she acts as a catalyst for the family to finally start coming to its senses, and various characters pair off in love.
Both this film and My Man Godfrey -- in which a millionaire posing as a hobo is brought home by a screwball heiress and ultimately brings her family closer together -- were produced and directed by Gregory La Cava, an experienced and talented filmmaker who had started in the silent era (originally as a cartoonist) and was perhaps now at his peak; Godfrey and Stage Door (1937) had recently brought him Oscar® nominations.
Fifth Avenue Girl is not as well remembered as My Man Godfrey. It certainly wasn't as critically well received at the time either, though it did become a surprise hit and one of RKO's biggest moneymakers of the year. The New York Times thought it a mere trifle, saying it was "too slight an entertainment to be held other than lightly." Variety, on the other hand, called it "good, substantial fun" with "smart appeal for the sophisticates," and raved about Ginger Rogers, whose previous film Bachelor Mother (1939) had opened months earlier and been another non-musical hit for her: "[It] confirms that Rogers holds something more than dancing prowess... [She] demonstrates major league ability as a comedienne for the second successive time... A cleverly devised comedy drama, expertly guided by Gregory La Cava, and having as foundation one of the best scripts of socko dialog that has come out of Hollywood in several months."
Film historian James Harvey, in his book Romantic Comedy in Hollywood, has taken another view on Rogers' and La Cava's creative approaches. La Cava, Harvey argues, tended to design his films around his actors' temperaments and performing styles such that the films themselves became overall extensions of those qualities. Fifth Avenue Girl, Harvey writes, heightens Rogers' own natural deadpan tone, but that is ultimately a weakness, making the film too "straight" and lifeless: "La Cava is taking conscious risks, trying for a kind of bristling, cranky amiability, for example, in the exchanges between the heroine and the millionaire, a mock irritability concealing interest and affection. But...in the Rogers character only the bristle and irritability seem real."
La Cava directed Rogers three times -- in Stage Door, Fifth Avenue Girl and Primrose Path (1940) -- but according to Harvey, he didn't especially admire her. During production of Stage Door, La Cava told an interviewer that the only way he could get Rogers to cry "was to tell her that her house was on fire."
Producer: Gregory La Cava
Director: Gregory La Cava
Screenplay: Gregory La Cava (uncredited); Morrie Ryskind (uncredited, story outline)
Cinematography: Robert de Grasse
Art Direction: Van Nest Polglase
Music: Russell Bennett
Film Editing: William Hamilton, Robert Wise
Cast: Ginger Rogers (Mary Grey), Walter Connolly (Mr. Borden), Verree Teasdale (Mrs. Borden), James Ellison (Mike), Tim Holt (Tim Borden), Kathryn Adams (Katherine Borden), Franklin Pangborn (Higgins), Ferike Boros (Olga), Louis Calhern (Dr. Kessler), Theodor von Eltz (Terwilliger), Alexander D'Arcy (Maitre d'Hotel)
by Jeremy Arnold