Primrose Path (1940)

Ellie May Adams (Ginger Rogers) is hardly living the high life.  She lives in a run-down house with her prostitute mother Mamie (Marjorie Rambeau), her former-prostitute grandmother (Queenie Vassar), her alcoholic scholar father Homer (Miles Mander), and her younger sister Honeybell (Joan Carroll).  Her father can’t hold a job so it’s up to her mother to support the family.  It’s not the best situation, but her parents love her very much and her father wants her to have something better out of life.

While on the way to the beach one day, Ellie May gets a ride with Gramp (Henry Travers), who runs a gas station and restaurant.  Ellie doesn’t have any money for lunch, so Gramp lets her have a sandwich.  While at the restaurant, Ellie meets Ed Wallace (Joel McCrea), a quick-witted waiter.  Sparks begin to fly when Ed realizes  that Ellie has no problem keeping up with his wisecracks.  Ed offers Ellie a ride home and kisses her along the way.  After that, Ellie can’t get Ed out of her head.  She goes out to see him one night, and to avoid bringing him home to meet her family, she tells him that her parents threw her out for being in love with him.

Ellie and Ed get married and wait tables in Gramp’s restaurant together.  All is going well until Mamie comes by the gas station one day with one of her “dates.”  When she gets upset over a customer’s comment about her mother, she doesn’t give the Ed the real story about why she’s upset.  Ed decides he’d like to finally meet her family, but when she takes him to their house, he quickly realizes just how many lies Ellie has told him and leaves her.  Things get even worse later that night when Homer shoots Mamie by mistake.  She doesn’t survive, leaving Ellie to support the family.  Unable to get a job on her own, she has to take her grandmother’s advice and turn to prostitution.  While out on a “date” with “Mr. Smith” (Charles Lane, uncredited), she not-so-accidentally runs into Ed to confront him.  After she leaves, “Mr. Smith” has a few words with Ed and lets him in on what’s really going on with her.

Primrose Path was a pretty darn good drama.  The writing is good, the direction by Gregory La Cava is good, and Ginger Rogers and Joel McCrea are both excellent in it.  It was definitely interesting to see Rogers in such an un-glamorous role for a change.  The supporting cast is wonderful, Marjorie Rambeau absolutely deserved her Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination.

The most surprising thing about Primrose Path is that it somehow got made with the production codes being enforced at the time.  The word “prostitute” is never actually used, but the movie isn’t subtle at all about it.  Not only is prostitution central to the storyline, but Mamie is a very sympathetic character.

All in all, it’s a very enjoyable movie.  Definitely keep an eye out for this one.

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6 comments

  1. I love it when movies under the code take risks and challenge the Hays Office. It sounds like this movie did just that. Another one I like with similar themes is “Waterloo Bridge,” the word “prostitute” is never used, but it’s clear that’s what she’s doing. I missed all of Ginger day because of a family reunion in Nevada this weekend, but I have an entire DVR full of Ginger to come home to!! So excited!
    -Lara

    1. Oh I know, I love seeing production code era movies that really push the limits of the code. I’d say Primrose Path was even less subtle than Waterloo Bridge was about prostitution. Ellie’s mother and grandmother are completely unashamed of their careers.

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