Primrose Path (1940)
I’ve wanted to watch this movie for a while–Ginger Rogers and Joel McCrea directed by Gregory La Cava? Yes, please! And after recently visiting an Astaire-Rogers dance film, The Gay Divorcee (1934), I thought it might be fun to take a look at one of Rogers’ dramatic films.
Although most people know Rogers as Astaire’s dance partner, she had a great career quite separate from Fred. She was in an astounding 73 movies (only ten of which paired her with Astaire), and she won an Academy Award for Best Actress for Kitty Foyle (1940), which was filmed several months after Primrose Path.
Rogers and Astaire kept busy, making nine of their ten films between 1933 and 1939 (the tenth, The Barkleys of Broadway, came in 1949). Rogers wanted dramatic parts, and although she did well in Stage Door (1937), which was also directed by La Cava, it wasn’t until Primrose Path that she was really able to show her range.
Fun fact: “Primrose Path” is an old-fashioned term for “the easy way which actually ends in disaster,” or an untroubled, pleasureful life.
Another fun fact: Shakespeare has Ophelia use the phrase in Hamlet when she is talking to Laertes:
“Do not, as some ungracious pastors do,
Show me the steep and thorny way to heaven,
Whiles, like a puff’d and reckless libertine,
Himself the primrose path of dalliance treads
And recks not his own rede” (Act 1, Scene III).
Anyway, this was the fourth film made with this title, though they don’t relate more than sharing a title and sometimes prostitution themes.
Fun fact: The Primrose Path was also the title of the first novel by Dracula author Bram Stoker!
Our Primrose Path was based on a novel called February Hill by Victoria Lincoln. The novel concerned a family whose female members work in prostitution; unsurprisingly, it was very controversial. When producer Walter Wanger tried to make a film adaptation in 1938, the Production Code Administration told him it would never be approved.
The novel was turned into a play and toned down a little, and when RKO bought the story it toned it down still further in order to get it past the Production Code. Prostitution was a no-no in movies, you see.
The script watered the story down so much that although most critics understood the veiled implications about the film’s “fallen women,” many audiences, particularly those in rural areas, didn’t get it.
This was Gregory La Cava‘s third film with both Ginger Rogers and Joel McCrea, who was one of his favorites. Throughout this review, I will be drawing on unpublished interviews Joel McCrea’s son Peter conducted with his father. I’ve been very fortunate to talk with Peter, and he was kind enough to give me access to this treasure trove of material and memories. Thanks, Peter!
La Cava really liked McCrea and enjoyed working with him (McCrea later said that “La Cava used to give me hell all the time. He loved me like a son, but he didn’t want me to think so”). According to McCrea’s interviews, La Cava wanted him for the lead in this film, but the studio had already offered the part to Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.
RKO wanted a bigger box office draw than McCrea in order to hedge its bet on this controversial film and their musical star in a dramatic role. But La Cava wanted McCrea, and McCrea wanted to work with La Cava. As McCrea remembers: “…La Cava was so easy for me to work with. The other guys like [Fred] MacMurray would ask, “How does he always happen to ask for you?” I said, “You never know.”
At lunch with La Cava and Rogers soon after hearing about Primrose Path, McCrea asked La Cava what happened with Fairbanks, Jr. La Cava said, “‘They’re going to pay Fairbanks Jr. off or else put him in something else. He came to see me and he asked me for a script. Leo McCarey and I don’t have a script. We just have nine pages of what it is all about and that’s what we are going to make a picture of.'” Fairbanks, Jr. wasn’t too hot on that idea, and since La Cava didn’t want him anyway, he didn’t try to persuade him to take the part. So McCrea got it, and off they went!
They started production in November of 1939 and shot part of the picture on location in Monterey and Carmel. We begin the film with these wise words from Greek playwright Menander as we pan over a sad section of town called Primrose Hill, ending on an extra-sad rambling shack.
Inside the dilapidated house is Grandma (Queenie Vassar) and Honeybell (Joan Carroll). Carroll would play Agnes (the pre-teen sister) in Meet Me in St. Louis a few years later, but in this movie she’s young, spoiled, and amoral like her grandmother. When we meet her, she’s just been stealing tamales from a neighbor. Her older sister Ellie May (Ginger Rogers) comes downstairs in pigtails and a shapeless sweater, for which Honeybell and Grandma mock her.
This movie often feels earlier than 1940 to me. One reason for this are the sets. Ellie May’s house has that obviously-a-set, flat, theatrical look that you’ll see in many silent and 1930s films. Often, the house is filmed from this angle, too, instead of swooping around within the room, which flattens it out even more. You feel a little bit as though you’re sitting in a theater watching a play.
Anyway, Ellie May is upset to learn that her father Homer (Miles Mander) is feeling sick. Her grandmother and sister don’t seem to care about Homer at all, but Ellie May does. Homer isn’t exactly sick, he just has a bad hangover, as usual, but Ellie May takes him some hot coffee and tries to help. Fun fact: She never just says “coffee,” it’s always “hot coffee” with an emphasis on the “hot.” No idea why.
When Ellie May takes her dad some hot coffee in his sad little room, we learn that Homer is smart and college-educated, that he’s writing a book about the ancient Greeks, and that he’s a raging alcoholic.
He speaks to Ellie May about dreams and how terrible it is when they’re gone, and begs her to get out of this place before she becomes like the rest of the family.
You know, your typical, optimistic, father-daughter chat. You can watch this opening scene here.
Fun fact: Although RKO didn’t want her to, Rogers refused to wear makeup for this movie and dyed her famous blonde hair dark for the role. (You can see in the posters and lobby cards that RKO advertised the film with images of a blonde Rogers despite her brunette locks in the movie!)
Another fun fact: Rogers wanted to keep her dark hair a secret before the movie was released, but she also really wanted to go to Gone with the Wind‘s premiere in Atlanta on December 15, 1939. So costume designer Walter Plunkett designed a turban that completely hid her hair.
That’s Rogers in the turban with Plunkett at the premiere. (Plunkett also designed the costumes for Gone with the Wind.)
Just as Ellie May is leaving for the beach to get some clams to make broth for her dad, the last member of the family arrives home. It’s Mamie (Marjorie Rambeau), Ellie May’s mom.
Rambeau was a renowned beauty and a Broadway star who’d made an unsuccessful attempt at the movies in the late teens. She tried Hollywood again in the 1930s and found better results as a character actress.
Fun fact: It was Rambeau who “discovered” Esther Williams‘ older brother Stanton in Salt Lake City. Rambeau was in a touring production and noticed Stanton watching during rehearsal. She was dissatisfied with the child actor cast in a part, and brought Stanton on stage on a whim. But he was so wonderful that she got him cast in the show, and later in the silent film version of the play!
Rambeau encouraged Williams’ parents to bring Stanton to Hollywood. The family moved to California, which is where Esther Williams was born. So in a funny way, it’s thanks to Marjorie Rambeau that Esther Williams the swimming movie star became a reality! Billy Rose and MGM may not have come calling as frequently or as insistently to get Miss Williams into show business if she was living in Utah, not Los Angeles!
Anyway, Rambeau would be nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her role in this film. She and Queenie Vassar are two more reasons that this film feels earlier than 1940 to me.
Vassar was born in 1870 in Scotland, and she went on the stage at the ripe old age of four. She came to the United States and became a stage star in the 1880s and 90s, and appeared in three films in the 1940s. For me, Vassar, but especially Rambeau, have an old-fashioned beauty and acting style that harkens back to earlier 1930s films, early talkies, or even silents. Of course, Grandma’s floor length flounces don’t help bring her into the modern 1940s!
So Ellie May’s mother is back, but it’s unclear exactly where she’s been and what she’s been doing. We’ll find out that she is a prostitute, not the stand-on-street-corners kind, but the find-a-wealthy-man-and-hang-out-with-him kind. Grandma was in the same profession in her day, too.
Ellie May seems saddened by the whole thing, but Honeybell is just excited about the presents that her mother brought her. Off Ellie May goes to the beach, while Mamie tells Grandma about her new man, Mr. Hawkins, who is very generous and even wants to marry her!
Grandma curses Mamie’s useless husband Homer, but Mamie says, “Leave him be” and goes to check on him. Homer knows what Mamie does to support the family, and he brandishes his pistol and says that one day he is going to kill himself to escape the dishonor and shame. Mamie calms him and explains that she bought him that gun for burglars. So now we know that there is a gun in the house–surely nothing bad will come of that!
The lighting is pronounced and dramatic throughout this film, and especially marked on faces. Cinematographer Joseph August was not going for unobtrusive realism. Keep an eye out for it.
As Ellie May walks down the dirt track by her house, three boys starts whispering and dare each other to yell something about her mother. Ellie May scoops up some rocks and as soon as the boys begin their cruel jabs, she lets some stones fly. She can take care of herself! This little scene also shows us that Mamie’s profession is well-known throughout the town, and that Ellie May has grown up under its shadow.
As Ellie May kicks a can down the road, a kind stranger pulls up beside her and invites her into his truck. She hops in; this is how she meets Gramp (Henry Travers, who you might recognize as the angel Clarence in It’s a Wonderful Life (1946). He also plays Esther William’s uncle in Thrill of a Romance and Bette Davis‘ doctor in Dark Victory.) Fortunately for Ellie May, he is as good and gentle as he looks.
Gramp is kind to Ellie May, a type of behavior she isn’t really used to. He even gives her a free sandwich when they arrive at his gas station/restaurant. Gramp also employs a very handsome and very tall man named Ed (Joel McCrea) with a gift for corny repartee (pronounced repar-tea in this film) with the customers. Ed seems amusedly interested in the tomboy in pigtails. She’s certainly different from the brassy, obvious women who work in the canneries nearby.
When Ellie May heads to the beach, Ed follows and helps her dig for clams. She resists his assistance at first, mostly because she is suspicious of anyone who is kind or helpful, but she relents.
She also steals his wallet when it falls out of his jacket and onto the sand, though. So we’re not completely sure about Ellie May.
Once her bag is full of fresh clams and Ed’s wallet, she tries to make her getaway. But Ed wants to drive her home in his motorcycle sidecar, and he won’t take no for an answer. You can watch the clam-digging scene here.
Here is Rogers on the beach between takes:
Ed keeps trying to “get a rise” out of Ellie May with his dumb jokes or repar-tee, but she’s too smart for his tired routine. So he resorts to almost killing her with stupid stunt driving.
Watching him almost kill himself and Ellie May, we don’t feel so badly about Ellie May stealing his wallet.
When even his wild driving fails to elicit the desired response, Ed kisses Ellie May full on the mouth! That gets a rise out of her and she slaps his face.
He feels rather badly when he finds out that it was her first kiss, but he can’t take it back! He feels worse when a policeman spots the careening motorcycle and pulls them over. He feels worse still when he can’t find his wallet and is about to be arrested for driving without a license. Ellie May bails him out by asking if the wallet she “found” on the beach happens to be his. He’s grateful and not the least bit suspicious.
Here is the cast with Gregory La Cava filming this scene:
Fun fact: McCrea remembers that this movie was very enjoyable to make, and he especially enjoyed riding the motorcycle: “We were having fun doing the picture. I rode a motorcycle around Monterey and Carmel–I should have done it for nothing.”
While Ed is busy with the cop, Ellie May goes home. But Ed is on her mind. Suddenly pigtails and saddle shoes just won’t do anymore. She puts on her grandmother’s patent leather high heels, and borrows her mom’s hat and purse (it has an old-timey car on it!).
Ellie May is going out! Grandma mocks her for a while, but her mom seems thrilled that Ellie May has a fella!
Mamie fetches her fox fur wrap and sits with Ellie May on the stoop for a while. She tells her daughter that she once was in love, but her mother broke it up because the boy didn’t have any money. As she remembers that doomed affair, she says, fiercely, that if this Ed guy really is her fella, not to let anybody dissuade her! But she admits that maybe Ellie May shouldn’t bring him round to meet the family…Mamie says goodbye to her girl and goes back in to cry at the table.
It’s a very poignant scene.
Ellie May had heard some “Portugee” (Portuguese) cannery women tell Ed that they would see him at the Blue Bell that night, so that is where Ellie May goes in all her finery. She is unsure and self-conscious as she watches Ed in the bar. He is right on the edge of smarmy with his ready-grin and salesman-esque air, but he seems very popular! He doesn’t notice Ellie May.
Sidenote: Ginger Rogers is so good at playing young! She was twenty-nine when she made this movie, but she’s completely believable as a naive seventeen-year-old. She went even younger in The Major and the Minor (1942), when she masquerades as a twelve-year-old, and I love her in Monkey Business (1952), when a miraculous youth potion turns Rogers and her husband Cary Grant into wild kids in middle-aged bodies.
McCrea’s height (6’3), only helps with the illusion. McCrea’s co-stars had to look up at him during their scenes together, which “helped erase any sagging around the jaw line,” which was particularly important for an actress trying to look twelve years younger.
McCrea’s nickname in the film is “Big Boy,” and sometimes it seems as though the casting department purposefully stocked the film with short people to make McCrea look even taller by comparison.
Ellie May loses confidence as she watches Ed watch Carmelita (Carmen Morales) dance. Maybe that’s the kind of girl that he likes? When Carmelita has finished, she takes out her mirror and puts on a fresh coat of lipstick. So Ellie May copies her. It is funny and sad all at the same time. I love Rogers’ expression when she sees the final product:
With her lipstick slathered on, Ellie May attempts to catch Ed’s eye with a sultry walk. Instead, she trips on the step and sprawls on the floor. Everyone laughs, except for Ed.
He is astounded at the change in Ellie May, and she is mortified:
He asks her what she is doing in a joint like this, and takes her outside on the pier where he insults her makeup and outfit in an attempt to uncover the girl he met that afternoon:
And thus their big dramatic scene begins in comedy. Amid the darkness of the pier, (though their faces remain beautifully and clearly illuminated), Ellie May startles Ed by telling him that she loves him and that she wants to be with him. He scoffs and says he’s not ready to get married. He doesn’t add, “Plus, I met you five hours ago,” but he could have.
So Ellie May begins a big lie. She says that she ran away from home because her strict parents wouldn’t let her see him again, and now she can’t go back because they have disowned her or something. If he won’t marry her, she has nowhere to go. He still says no.
So she asks him to kiss her one more time. She whispers “thanks” and moves away.
And then she walks to the edge of the pier, sets down her purse and hat, and starts to climb as if to jump. I don’t know if this is part of the plan to get Ed to marry her, of if she really wants to kill herself…
We don’t find out, because Ed stops her, she faints, and we fade out. It’s terribly dramatic. Look at how perfectly the “lamp” light shines on Ellie May’s unconscious face as she droops beautifully in Ed’s strong arms!
Cut to Gramp’s gas station. He’s got a new waitress, and she’s even better at repar-tee than her husband! Yup, husband! They’re married and very happy, and kindly Gramp watches it all with delight!
Ellie May is not the same quiet, sad, prickly girl from before. Now she is confident, quick, and happy, and she adores Ed. And during their breaks they get to flirt and kiss!
Rogers and McCrea have wonderful chemistry in this film, and they really enjoyed working together. The two stars had been friends for years, and became even closer while making this movie. McCrea, who was married to Frances Dee, said that he and Rogers never went too far, but that there was definitely an attraction there.
He recalled: “[Rogers] was just great to me and we got along real great. When we’d play our love scenes together we both liked it, really enjoyed it. I would have given the money back. So would she. It was curious that no one ever thought about Ginger and me. We were old friends. When she was about to marry Lew Ayres and I was about to marry Frances, the four of us used to go out together to Ciro’s, Trocadero and big parties.” (Rogers married Ayres in 1934 and divorced him in 1940, though they were separated long before, and McCrea was married to Frances Dee from 1933 until his death in 1990.)
After separating from Ayres, Rogers dated Howard Hughes and even became engaged to the eccentric millionaire. According to McCrea, during production of this film, Rogers was attempting to break up with Hughes, who kept trying to win her back. She seemed to much prefer McCrea’s company to Hughes, and McCrea later commented on this amusing situation: “It’s so funny when you think of it. I’m competing with Howard Hughes. He’s sending emeralds and stuff and I never bought her a box of candy.”
Anyway, back to the film! Ed is painting a surprise on his small boat, (hence the paintbrush in the previous image), and there’s a very sweet moment when he finally shows his work to his wife: he’s named his boat the “Ellie May!”
She cries into his shoulder and says she never thought she’d be so happy, and she doesn’t deserve it. So you know that something is coming to mess everything up!
Back on Primrose Hill, no one knows what happened to Ellie May. She never went back after that night at the Blue Bell. Her grandmother thinks, somewhat gleefully, that something awful must have happened to Ellie May, but her mother isn’t worried. She’s hoping that everything worked out with Ellie May’s fella.
Meanwhile, Honeybell prances around in her mother’s hat, to the delight of Mamie and her “colleague” Thelma. Honeybell is really cute and awful at the same time.
During this scene, Mamie receives a package containing her fox fur and a letter from Ellie May.
Mamie’s eyes shine and she tells the room that Ellie May is doing just fine, but she tears up the letter so no one else can read it. She seems to know that Grandma or even Homer might mess things up for Ellie May if they knew where she was. Then Mamie retrieves her hat from her precocious daughter and goes with Thelma to meet their “dates.”
Guess where Mamie’s date decides to stop for gas? Why, Gramp’s station, of course! Do you think that Mamie will stay primly in the car so that no one even notices her? Naturally not!
Mamie hops out, calls Ed “Big Boy,” and starts squirting everyone with the water hose. Soon everyone in the restaurant is staring out the windows, including a stunned Ellie May. When one of the customers starts telling his neighbor what that “Mamie Adams” woman is, Ellie May snaps and warns him to shut his mealy-mouth.
With tears welling in her eyes, she tells the man that he has no right to talk about her, and that she might be a wonderful, kind woman! Gramp is by her side at once asking what’s the matter, and all her loyal customers and even the cook with his huge knife come to Ellie May’s defense. It’s lovely how all of Ellie May’s friends rally to her. One man even takes his jacket off in case he needs to fight the man!
When Ed finds out that someone upset Ellie May, he gets mad, too!
This is one of those times when McCrea is surrounded by much shorter people–look at how absurdly tall he looks looming over that tiny man! (I also love the signs posted all over the diner: “Lobster salad: 25 cents,” “Hot Cakes: 15 cents,” “$5 Meal Ticket: $4.50!”)
No one is quite sure why Ellie May got so upset, as no one knows that she is the notorious Mamie Adams’ daughter! She doesn’t want to talk about it, though Gramp and Ed try. You can watch the scene here.
Ed finally does worm (some of) the truth out of Ellie May. She tells him that the woman with the water hose was her mother, but she lies and says the man with her was Uncle Fred. Ed is sweet and understanding, and he says he’d like to meet her folks. Ellie May decides to risk it. Maybe Ed would be okay with the situation!
Next thing we know, we’re back on Primrose Hill. Grandma, Honeybell, and Mamie are in a tizzy trying to get the house ready for Ed and Ellie May’s visit. When the newlyweds arrive, Grandma is mean and sour, as usual. Look at how squeaky clean Ed looks! How could Grandma be mean to that face?
But Mamie is delightful, and Honeybell always enjoys a chance to show off. She recites her “piece” that Grandma “learned her,” called “Don’t Swat Your Mother, Boys.” Homer is not there, but Ellie May shows Ed his desk and his manuscript. Ed is confused though, asking “Who works in this family?” When he asks about Homer’s activities, Honeybell pipes up with embarrassing honesty:
Out of the mouths of babes! Yet another reason that this movie feels older to me is all the slang. There are lots of “ain’ts” and double negatives and “nothing” instead of “anything.” It’s not cartoonish 1930s gangster talk, but the dialect feels old and Depression-era or something.
Ellie May takes a moment to freshen up, and of course it is then that a very intoxicated Homer arrives. He assumes that Ed is Mr. Hawkins, Mamie’s man of the moment, and drunkenly stumbles towards him while Mamie says over and over again that Ed is Ellie May’s husband!
It’s not a great first impression. Homer finally realizes who Ed is and breaks down while Mamie leads him to his room. Compassionate Grandma slings, “Let him cry! Maybe some of the gin will run out of his eyes!”
Ed is shocked by what he has seen, especially because Ellie May persuaded him to marry her by telling him that her parents were very strict and threw her out when they learned that Ed had kissed her! Ha!
Ed seems to be okay, just surprised, by the whole family situation, but then Grandma starts talking to him and he finds out that Ellie May wasn’t thrown out of the house at all, and actually lied to him about most everything! It’s a very pleasing step-arrangement from Honeybell up to Grandma up to Ed, isn’t it?
That’s an awful lot for Ed to process, and he leaves the house without seeing Ellie May. She comes out of Homer’s room to find Ed gone. Grandma lies and says that he left because he was horrified by her family.
Ellie May’s fears have come true, but she doesn’t give up. She goes to the Blue Bell to find Ed, who didn’t waste any time. He’s drunk and he’s dancing with his old girlfriend, Carmelita.
Ed laughs about Ellie May’s “classy” family to all his friends and works very hard to humiliate her. Then he kisses Carmelita and complains that he doesn’t like her new raspberry lipstick, and that he preferred her vanilla-flavored one! When he wants to be cruel, Ed is very cruel. McCrea doesn’t often get to be the bad guy, so this is a fun scene in that respect.
Ellie May barely keeps it together, trying to remain rational and calm despite Ed’s drunken meanness. McCrea enjoyed these dramatic scenes: “I had some pretty good scenes where I balled her out and thought she was a loose dame and would sleep with other guys. It gave her a good scene where she could cry and be mad. Then, of course, we make up and spent time making up.”
They don’t make up quite yet, though. Ed follows a sobbing Ellie May to the pier where they had their first intense scene that almost ended with Ellie May’s suicide. He tells her that he never wants to see her again, and she agrees to go. She doesn’t blame him for not wanting to be married to Mamie and Homer’s daughter. More lovely lighting spices up this very intense moment, which is extra-dramatic because it takes place where they first talked about getting married.
There is hope, though, for as Ed watches her leave, he pushes Carmelita away from him and his face softens slightly.
Meanwhile, back at Primrose Hill, Homer has gotten his gun out of the drawer and mutters that he’s finally going to end it all. We don’t see him with the gun, but we hear his drunken rambling and we see Mamie’s face as she enters the room and begs him to “put it down.” This won’t end well.
And it doesn’t. When Ellie May makes it back to Primrose Hill, she arrives to find something horrible. Her mother has been shot, though Mamie claims that she shot herself by accident. But we know the truth, and Ellie May suspects it.
Ellie May nurses her mother like a champion and hardly sleeps or eats.
Back at the gas station, Ed scrapes off Ellie May’s name from his boat, despite Gramp encouraging him to be sensible and remember how happy he was with her.
A little while later, Ed comes to his senses, shaves, and goes to Primrose Hill to talk with Ellie May. She is in the back room on nurse duty when he stops by, though, so her grandmother talks to him, instead. She tells him that Ellie May went to San Francisco with a rich man and won’t be back for a while. He believes her, idiot.
It’s not a surprise when Mamie dies from her injuries. It makes everything sadder and pushes the plot forward, but it is also pretty typical for a prostitute or other criminal to be killed off so as to “punish” her. The Production Code allowed movies to refer to or sometimes to show crime and indecencies, but it had to be punished or the criminal redeemed so as not to glamorize a life of crime. (It’s easier to kill characters than to redeem them, it seems.) This is yet another reason that the movie feels older than 1940–the “fallen woman” storyline was incredibly popular in silent films and in the 1930s.
We learn that Mr. Hawkins paid for Mamie’s funeral, and that Thelma offers to help Ellie May get set up in the family business. Of course it’s raining as the family returns from the funeral.
Ellie May says “no, thanks” and goes to look for work anywhere else. But she can’t get a job, and soon Honeybell is hungry and Grandma is furious. She accuses her granddaughter of being too “high falutin'” to take up her mother’s profession. Poor Ellie May! She’s got a hungry little sister, an alcoholic father who has started selling his books to buy gin, and a mean grandmother who says things like this when Honeybell whines about eating potato soup, yet again.
Grandma is terrifying!
Honeybell’s tears push Ellie May over the edge. She calls Thelma who invites Ellie May to her swanky apartment, outfits her with clothes and jewelry, and arranges a double-date.
Ellie May is a shadow of that former happy girl, but she does have one request. She asks if she, Thelma, and their dates can stop by the Blue Bell on their way to San Francisco. She wants some closure with Ed.
Ellie May saunters into the seedy cafe in her sparkly dress with a rich man on her arm, ready to show Ed that she is exactly what he thinks she is, and that she’s doing great!
Unlike the first time that Ellie May shyly entered the bar in her mother’s hat and her inexpertly applied makeup trying to be pretty and desirable, this time she’s confidently decked out and looking glamorous! Plus, she’s got a rich, paying client on her arm proving that she is pretty and desirable! And unlike the second time that Ellie May despairingly entered the Blue Bell searching for her husband after their disastrous trip to Primrose Hill, this time she is smiling and in control! She won’t be bullied, now.
This movie has some lovely repetition with strong variation (the pier scenes, the BlueBell scenes, the boat scenes) that emphasize how things have changed for our characters and add depth of meaning to each location and event.
Anyway, Ed is unpleasantly surprised to see his estranged wife in her sparkles with a client on her arm.
Ellie May says her piece while her date begs her not to start anything with that big man! She wins the exchange and they leave, but not before her date has a quick chat with Ed.
Once in the car, we find out that Ellie May’s date is Mr. Hawkins, and he’s arranged for Ed to follow them and retrieve Ellie May. So on the one hand it is very kind of Mr. Hawkins, who does seem to have cared deeply for her mother, to help Ellie May, but on the other hand, he was on a “date” with her, and who knows what would have happened if they hadn’t found Ed at the Blue Bell! Creepy!
Soon we are back on Primrose Hill. Grandma hears the distinctive sound of Ed’s motorcycle, and says, “You might know something would go wrong with Ellie May doing it!” Oh, Grandma!
Ed and Ellie May stride into the house with a big basket of groceries and the news that Ed is taking care of the family from now on. Honeybell is going to go to school, and Grandma is going to be nice! Grandma is not too excited about this turn of events, but Ed is twice as tall as she is, and he brought food, so she concedes.
Ed and Ellie May take off for a short belated honeymoon in San Francisco, and we know that all will be well! The end!
McCrea later said of this film: “It was an interesting picture. Everybody liked that picture, talked about it. Capra saw it. Ginger should have gotten the Academy Award for that instead of for Kitty Foyle.”
This film may have helped Rogers win that Oscar, though, because she got great reviews for her performance in Primrose Path, and was accepted by the public and the critics as a dramatic actress. So when she appeared in Kitty Foyle months later, the audience was primed for a great performance.
The Production Code granted this film a seal of approval, but it still remained controversial. As sometimes happened even with PCA approval, a few local censors hacked away at the film to remove offensive bits, which made the prostitution even less clear and the movie more confusing. Detroit banned Primrose Path completely!
Thanks to Peter McCrea for allowing me to draw on his father’s interviews about this fascinating film!