Primrose Path gets fun fast. Given the film opens with nine year-old Joan Carroll stealing a neighbor’s tamales (instead of buying them) for her and her grandmother, Queenie Vassar, it sort of needs to be fun. Vassar’s the maternal grandmother, not related to despondently alcoholic dad Miles Mander. Ginger Rogers is the older daughter, who we soon find out has forced herself into a kind of functional naïveté about her family’s situation. See, Mander’s a drunk because wife Marjorie Rambeau is out as a professional mistress. But he can’t work because he’s a complete drunk. Vassar trying to break the two up doesn’t do any good for their relationship either. Meanwhile Rambeau lives in a somewhat forced naïveté of her own, at least as far as Mander’s concerned.
Path opens about this family barely surviving—with Carroll apparently already lost, Vassar poisoning all the fresh water—and then there’s Rogers, who’s figured out a way to navigate herself through it. Until she takes a ride from kindly and silly old man Henry Travers when she’s on her way down to the beach. Path takes place in a small city (or large town) on the California coast. Closer to San Francisco than L.A. The contrast between Travers’s beachfront hamburger diner and Rogers’s regular life is striking inside and out. But definitely out. Path’s first half is full of fantastic location shooting, with director La Cava and cinematographer Joseph H. August delivering some fantastic scenes.
So once Travers and Rogers start bantering and she realizes he’s not an old pervert, she agrees to let him forward her a lunch. Once in the diner, she meets banter-master Joel McCrea, who works the counter. Except Rogers doesn’t like McCrea’s banter so he tries to get a rise out of her, which continues for a sequence of scenes, culminating in McCrea kissing Rogers. Well, once he’s kissed her, she’s smitten, leading to her telling a few small lies to get out of her life and into his.
For a while Rogers is able to avoid her past, but it’s not too far away, just on the “other side of town.” There’s never a “wrong side of the tracks” remark, but there are a couple audible train whistles. La Cava can be subtle and La Cava can be obvious. He can also be subtly obvious. He saves the straight obvious for the romance between McCrea and Rogers. It doesn’t take long for him to get just as smitten.
Unfortunately, neither character is being entirely honest. While Rogers’s lies don’t have any further repercussions after she and McCrea are joined at the hip, McCrea’s kind of been on holiday. Path gets away with a lot during the Production Code—there’s adultery, there’s sex work, there’s drunken Mander, there’s the thieving kid, whatever—but it’s most impressive moves are with Rogers and McCrea. They never get their big blowout scene, which is simultaneously disappointing and understandable–Path has got to keep light on its feet before the realness can grab it. Vassar’s downright evil at times and McCrea’s got a hideous mean streak. The film plays the former almost for laughs (as well as keeping Vassar’s understandable despondence and her unforgivable cruelty separate) while the latter just sets up La Cava’s third act commentary on people. The film’s very focused on the family. Rogers shares time with McCrea more than he gets the time to himself. Same goes for Travers. It’s a long time before he gets anything to do separate from Rogers (and then it’s just to talk about her with McCrea). It’s Rogers’s movie. Then Rambeau’s. Then Vassar’s. Then McCrea’s. McCrea still gets a full character arc, he just doesn’t get it on screen. So when La Cava opens things up—pretty much for the first time (the diner scenes are all about Rogers and McCrea’s salad days)—it’s for the finale. And the finale is really subtle and amusing, but it also informs some earlier plot points. Allan Scott and La Cava’s script is incredibly patient. The film’s a stage adaptation but never feels stagy; quite the opposite. It’s hard to imagine the story told any other way.
The music from Werner R. Heymann’s excellent. Sound is important in Primrose Path and La Cava and editor William Hamilton are careful how they reinforce the narrative with it. The film’s full of echoed moments, with only one of them being at all obvious. La Cava keeps the rest of them submerged and they more reverberate than sound off. So Heymann’s music has to fit perfectly and it always does, not just the scenes content but in place among the echoes. Path runs just over ninety minutes but it never skimps, never rushes. La Cava, in direction and script, is casually deliberate. He does excellent work here.
Great performances from Rogers and McCrea. He doesn’t get the lead role but he does have some breakout moments. For a while it seems like he’s going to be most successful for his toxic male behavior stuff but it turns out there’s going to be more to his character arc and McCrea keeps excelling. Meanwhile Rogers has to keep a lot mildly submerged too and she gets to go full bloom at finish to great success as well. The parts are good. Better than than the showier ones like Mander or Vassar. Vassar’s character is just a little too hurtful for the performance, but she’s still good. Mander is great. Rambeau is great. Rambeau’s part is far less showy as the film progresses.
Primrose Path is an outstandingly nimble romantic drama. La Cava, Rogers, and McCrea can keep it loose enough for sincere and affable romance, while still getting into the hard family drama stuff. It can’t go either way fully because, well, it wouldn’t be a vehicle for Rogers and McCrea then, but La Cava finds an ideal balance.
Directed by Gregory La Cava; screenplay by Allan Scott and La Cava, based on the play by Robert L. Buckner and Walter Hart; director of photography, Joseph H. August; edited by William Hamilton; music by Werner R. Heymann; released by RKO Radio Pictures.
Starring Ginger Rogers (Ellie May Adams), Joel McCrea (Ed Wallace), Marjorie Rambeau (Mamie), Miles Mander (Homer), Queenie Vassar (Grandma), Joan Carroll (Honeybell), and Henry Travers (Gramp).