Cast & Crew
Gregory La Cava
Ellie May Adams, the daughter of a prostitute mother and a drunken, weak-willed father, struggles desperately to retain her respectability amid the squalor of Primrose Hill. One day, while digging for clams on the beach, she meets hash slinger Ed Wallace and falls in love. That night, Ellie May seeks Ed out and tells him that her family has thrown her out of the house because of her love for him. When she threatens suicide, Ed agrees to marry her. Ed is unaware of the unsavory reputation of his wife's family until she takes him home and is confronted by her viperish grandmother, unruly sister, prostitute mother and drunken father. The shock is so great that Ed leaves Ellie May, and when she begs for understanding, he accuses her of lying to him. Dejectedly returning home, Ellie May finds that her father has accidentally shot her mother. After her mother's death, Ellie May is saddled with the burden of supporting her family, and just when it seems as if she will be forced to tread the same path as her mother, her mother's ex-lover reunites Ellie May with Ed, who then takes over the responsibility of the family.
Gregory La Cava
Joseph H. August
John L. Cass
Werner R. Heymann
Gregory La Cava
Gregory La Cava
Gregory La Cava
Van Nest Polglase
Vernon L. Walker
Best Supporting Actress
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. August Art 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
Ginger Rogers dyed her hair brunette for the film, but kept it secret until the film was released. She also wore no makeup in the role.
The movie was banned in Detroit, and to placate censors, the character Marjorie Rambeau, a prostitute, was killed.
According to materials contained in the file on the film in the MPAA/PCA Collection at the AMPAS Library, in January 1938, independent producer Walter Wanger corresponded with Joseph I. Breen about producing a film based on the Victoria Lincoln novel to star Joan Bennett. Although the Lincoln novel built its story around the mother, both the play and RKO film focused on the daughter. The picture was banned in Detroit and engendered protest because of its prostitute character. To satisfy the Hays Office, the mother was made to suffer an unhappy death. Marjorie Rambeau was nominated for an Academy Award in the Actress, Supporting Player category.