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Ginger Rogers surprised her fans when she starred as Ellie May Adams, the third generation in a family of fallen women in the 1940 romantic drama, Primrose Path, her first starring role in a dramatic picture. Had she not appeared in the more popular Kitty Foyle later in the year, Primrose Path might have been her ticket to the Academy Awards. Instead, it only worked its magic for co-star Marjorie Rambeau, who won a Best Supporting Actress nomination for her role as Mamie Adams, Rogers' loose-living but big-hearted mother. At the same time, however, the film raised more than a few problems with the nation's film censors.
Already by 1940, Rogers was fondly remembered for her series of hit musicals with Fred Astaire, even though they had made their last film together.-- The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle (1939) -- only the year before. She had fought to expand her range, but despite strong reviews for her dramatic supporting role in Stage Door (1937), her bosses at RKO Studios didn't gave her a meaty dramatic assignment until Primrose Path three years later.
Primrose Path had started out as February Hill, a controversial novel focusing on the matriarch of a family whose women all worked in prostitution. Producer Walter Wanger had proposed filming the novel in 1938 but was turned down by the Production Code Administration. Instead Robert Buckner and Walter Hart adapted it to the stage, making the story more palatable by changing the title and setting (from Massachusetts to upstate New York) and switching the focus to the granddaughter forced into the family business. Still, the book was controversial enough that they never officially credited the source material. RKO optioned the play (and ultimately decided to credit the novel as well), hoping that the writers' changes would help it pass muster with the Production Code Administration. They further watered down the material so that prostitution was only hinted at (most critics got the point, but audiences, particularly in rural areas, were largely clueless) and even decided to kill off Rogers' mother (Marjorie Rambeau) to punish her for her life of easy virtue and provide a stronger motivation for Rogers' temptation to take to the streets.
Her character's on-screen death may have been Rambeau's ticket to an Oscar® nomination, making her even more sympathetic. Rambeau had been a stage star in the early years of the century, hailed as much for her great beauty as for her acting. She had attempted a move into silent films in the '20s with little success. By the '30s, however, she was back in Hollywood, where she worked steadily as a character actress, notably as Marie Dressler's alcoholic nemesis in Min and Bill (1930). With Primrose Path, she would enter the ranks of Hollywood's top character actors. Although she lost her Oscar® bid, she would follow with scene-stealing performances in Tobacco Road (1941) and A Man Called Peter (1955), and another Oscar® nomination for Torch Song (1953).Helping shape the performances was director Gregory La Cava, best known for such screwball comedies as My Man Godfrey (1936), but also renowned in Hollywood for his work with actors. La Cava had predicted great things for Rogers after directing her in Stage Door (although he had also joked to an interviewer that the only way to get her to cry "was to tell her that her house was on fire" (quoted in James Harvey, Romantic Comedy in Hollywood: from Lubitsch to Sturges)). They had teamed again for the comedy Fifth Avenue Girl (1939), a rare misfire for both director and star. Primrose Path would be their third and last film together.
The film also marked La Cava's third teaming with leading man Joel McCrea, a particular favorite of his. In fact, he had fought to cast McCrea as the young man who falls for Rogers only to reject her when he learns of her family's line of business. Studio executives had wanted La Cava to use a bigger box office star to hedge their risks on Rogers' first dramatic role and the risky subject matter. La Cava favored McCrea because the actor was one of the few true gentlemen in Hollywood. The hard-drinking director also liked working and partying with the more moderate star, using him as a designated driver long before the term came into use. McCrea's casting also offered a boon to Rogers. His height (6', 3") required most leading ladies to look up in their scenes together, which helped erase any sagging around the jaw line. This was particularly important to Rogers, who was playing a 17-year-old at the ripe old age of 29.
Rogers also defied the studio by deciding to play the role without makeup and dying her blonde hair black, thus hiding one of her most famous features. She wanted her new hair color to be a surprise and cut back on public appearances. But the premiere of Gone With the Wind (1939) during filming was too much to resist, so she had costumer Walter Plunkett design a turban to match her gown and completely cover her hair.
Primrose Path won strong reviews, though most reviewers singled out Rambeau and the other character players cast as Rogers' family, including Henry Travers, Miles Mander and, in her screen debut, 70-year-old Queenie Vassar. Variety suggested that the film's subject matter, however veiled, would limit ticket sales, and they were right. Although passed by the Production Code Administration, the picture ran into trouble with local censors, who demanded additional cuts that made it even harder to determine the real source of the Adams family's problems. In Detroit, the film was banned altogether. Fortunately for Rogers, her strong reviews, coupled with solid reviews and excellent box office for Kitty Foyle, helped establish her as a dramatic star and win her an Oscar® for Best Actress.
Producer-Director: Gregory La Cava
Screenplay: Allan Scott, La Cava
Based on the play by Robert Buckner and Walter Hart and the novel February Hill by Victoria Lincoln
Cinematography: Joseph H. AugustArt Director: Van Nest Polglase, Carroll Clark
Score: Werner R. Heymann
Principal Cast: Ginger Rogers (Ellie May Adams), Joel McCrea (Ed Wallace), Marjorie Rambeau (Mamie Adams), Henry Travers (Gramp), Miles Mander (Homer Adams), Queenie Vassar (Grandma), Joan Carroll (Honeybell Adams).
BW-94m. Closed captioning.
by Frank Miller