Primrose Path (1940)

(Image via Doctor Macro)

Ellie May Adams (Ginger Rogers) has had a rough life. Her father (Miles Mander) is a Greek scholar but is unemployable because of his dependence on alcohol. Her mother (Marjorie Rambeau)  and grandmother (Queenie Vassar) work in “the world’s oldest profession,” supporting the family by going out with rich men. Ellie May is determined not to follow in the footsteps of her mother and grandmother.

One day, Ellie accepts a ride to the beach from Gramp (Henry Travers), who runs the beachside restaurant and gas station. Gramp offers Ellie lunch from the restaurant, where she meets wisecracking waiter Ed Wallace (Joel McCrea), who she begins to fall for even though he makes jokes at her expense.

Desperate to get away from her family and their problems, Ellie tells Ed that her family threw her out and gets him to marry her. Their marriage is happy and she works at the restaurant with him, becoming well-liked by the regulars.

Things take a turn for the sour when Ellie finally agrees to let Ed meet her family, and the truth is revealed of the lies that she told him in order to convince him to marry her. Will Ellie May ever be able to win him back, or will he leave her for good?

Gregory La Cava directs 1940’s Primrose Path, an RKO drama based on the play of the same name by Robert L. Buckner and Walter Hart. The censors tried pretty hard to hide the prostitution plot of this film and make it more of an implied idea, but it’s still very obvious to the viewer.

Gramp, Ellie and Ed get to work in the kitchen (Image via Doctor Macro)

Having viewed quite a few of her films, both musical and non, I have a hard time understanding how Ginger Rogers was so damned good at everything. She plays this dramatic role in a way that’s quite understated, but also does a great job of carrying off all of the dimensions of the character. The viewer gets a true sense of Ellie’s disillusionment, sadness, kindness and determination all at once, even though Ginger’s performance doesn’t come close to being over-exaggerated.

I’ll take one of each! (Image via Doctor Macro)

Joel McCrea is also wonderful here. His character is a bit off-putting at first because of his rude cracks at Ellie, but eventually he wins the audience over, thanks in large part to McCrea’s talent and appeal as an actor. The character may have been a bit too forward with Ellie at first, and he certainly has his personality flaws, but it shows subtly through McCrea’s performance that Ed truly cares for Ellie and has her best interests in mind. As a result of meeting in the way that they did, the characters have an odd chemistry that is a mix of sweet and tension-filled.

As for the story itself, the plot takes quite a few unexpected turns and gets more dramatic as it progresses. After the events at Ed’s meeting with Ellie’s family, things take a turn for the very, very frustrating. The story becomes even more engrossing than before, and high on emotional impact.

A lot of my personal frustration came from the character of Ellie’s grandma, who infuriated me more than just about every other character I’ve encountered in my avid movie-watching. Queenie Vassar deserves an award for carrying off the role of that insufferable beast so successfully. The viewer becomes completely immersed in the story, and very emotionally invested in what happens to Ellie, due to the grandmother’s un-likability and less-than-kind sabotaging actions. Marjorie Rambeau was nominated for the Best Supporting Actress honor at the Academy Awards for her role as Ellie’s mother, and while she was great as well, I think that nomination really should have gone to Queenie.

The ending of the film comes a bit suddenly, but is very satisfying. The film overall is amazing – an instant favorite. This underrated classic offers a melodramatic but highly impactful look at one nearly doomed marriage, bolstered by seriously top-notch performances, both lead and support. The score: 5/5!

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3 thoughts on “Primrose Path (1940)

    • Lindsey says:

      I become more impressed with her with every film I watch, even when it seems impossible to love her more! She was immensely talented. Thanks for reading :)

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