Posted by David Kalat on May 16, 2015
Gregory La Cava’s 1939 comedy Fifth Avenue Girl is an excellent example of the 1930s style of romantic comedies, and possibly my favorite Ginger Rogers film of all. It is also a decidedly deviant 1930s romantic comedy that breaks more rules than it follows, and uses Ginger Roger’s natural downtrodden deadpan persona to tamp down the usual screwball shenanigans in favor of something altogether more quiet, and bitter. And if that doesn’t quite sound like comedy to you, then read on…
Fifth Avenue Girl is another Cinderella story, superficially very similar to ones I wrote about a couple of months ago: Easy Living and Midnight. Like those films, it’s about a down-on-her-luck young woman who crosses paths with a deeply unhappy rich man. Turns out the grass isn’t greener on the other side after all. Thanks to their chance encounter, the woman becomes the center of a series of mistaken identities and presumed romances, as she is suddenly escalated into a new life of wealth and luxury.
Yes, in broad strokes, it does resemble Easy Living and Midnight, but let’s look past the similarities and focus on where this goes veering off in its own unique direction.
First, and crucially, we have to realize that the protagonist of the thing isn’t Ginger Rogers, but Walter Connolly. He plays a successful industrialist whose fabulous wealth and life of accomplishment are shaken by a mid-life crisis. He realizes his family is alienated from him and see him only as a money spigot; his wife is actively courting the attentions of younger suitors and living a high life focused on social status; his business is struggling to stay profitable without ruining the lives of his workers. On his birthday, it all comes to a head—especially when he happens to meet Ginger Rogers in Central Park.
She’s unemployed and just a few weeks away from being homeless, but you wouldn’t know it from her demeanor. Instead of giving in to fear or despair, she just takes each day as it comes, with the grim stoicism of a condemned woman, maybe, but that’s a form of equanimity.
Connolly hires Rogers to pretend to be his mistress—maybe if everyone thinks he’s tossing out his family for a pretty young second wife, at least their sense of self-preservation will prompt them to pretend to be nice to the old guy. It’s a bit of a cynical plan, and so naturally the cynical Rogers goes along with it.
But here’s the thing: the movie gives Connolly’s character a purpose to his actions—he has something he wants, and a plan of how to get it. The narrative flow of the movie follows his plan to its conclusion. But there’s no such sense of Ginger Rogers’ character. She has plenty to lose out of this arrangement, as we shall see, but very little to gain. She can help out a brand-new friend, yes. She can temporarily live the Fifth Avenue life (butler Franklin Pangborn sagely notes that servants get the benefit of living a life of borrowed luxury). She also gets to stave off financial ruin for a while—quite a long while, at that, since her fake sugar daddy has every reason to pay her well for the fake affair.
But she has a lot more at risk here than he does. If Connolly’s plan goes wrong, he’s not likely to be much worse off than when he started. But the best case scenario, if everything about Connolly’s plan goes perfectly, is going to end up with Ginger Rogers thrown back into the streets, humiliated and hated. And that’s just the end game—along the way she gets the daily drudge of having to live in the same house with people who despise and resent her.
Now that we’ve identified this peculiar narrative design, let’s see its consequences. I called this a “romantic comedy” and it is certainly treated as such, but what exactly is that supposed to mean in practice? You’d probably presume that it means this a comedy in which Ginger Rogers falls in love, right? One in which the finale finds her swept off her feet by the love of her life, right?
So let’s pause a second and jump back to my other two frames of reference. Easy Living got Jean Arthur and Ray Milland together early, and let their romance bloom while comic chaos spun out around them. Midnight thrust Claudette Colbert into Don Ameche’s arms in the opening scene, and then spent the remaining 8 reels working out what form their relationship ought to take. But Fifth Avenue Girl treats Ginger Rogers’ romance as an absolute afterthought.
There’s no serious possibility that she and Walter Connolly will end up together—setting aside the unsavory May/December aspect of the pairing, the whole point of their fake affair is to provoke his wife into returning to him. So what prospects does Ginger have? Well, there’s the old guy’s rotten son (Tim Holt). And sure enough, he does sweep her off her feet at the end—but the process of getting there is anything but straightforward, and the emotional effect of that finale is anything but wholly satisfying.
Ginger Rogers and Tim Holt have essentially two and a half meaningful scenes together. That’s it. And the first of those occurs a whole hour into the film! The second occurs with the movie 10 minutes away from its conclusion. The final “half” scene is the moment when their hostilities finally give way to… well, OK, let’s address that.
Bear in mind that Ginger Rogers is being paid to pretend to be Connolly’s mistress. She plays her part well. Tim Holt believes she is a gold-digging home-wrecking hussy. And she believes him to be a lazy, entitled brat born with a silver spoon in his mouth who doesn’t even have the decency to be thankful for that. So, their initial hostility isn’t the usual garden variety romantic comedy prickliness. They genuinely hate each other.
The first scene is staged as a mockery of her first encounter with Walter Connolly—they go to the same place and see the same sights, but in place of the gentle humanity and shared appreciation of the absurd that she found with Connolly, Tim Holt just offers up condescension and rudeness.
And that second scene? Well, he plants an unwelcome kiss on her lips—twice—despite her objections. Because he believes her to be nothing more than his dad’s whore, and therefore makes cruel assumptions about her sexual availability.
Now, that rapey moment occurs within minutes of the final fade-out. And, finally unable to endure any more of this, Ginger breaks character and admits that this has been a ruse. That admission is enough to change Tim’s mind—he’s apparently been fighting his feelings for this girl while he thought she was loose, but as soon as he learns she isn’t he can admit his love. Why, how gallant of him.
But it’s to the movie’s great credit that this unsettling undercurrent is part of the point. I said I thought this was arguably Ginger Rogers’ best performance, and if it sounds like I’ve spent a thousand words arguing the opposite, let me clarify: the essential Ginger Rogers character had an earthiness, a world-weary resignation. It’s in her smoky voice, her sleepy eyes, her dry Midwestern delivery. And this movie is designed to emphasize and exploit those qualities to their best.
She starts the movie at a low point, and then with subtle inflections takes us through her additional degradations. But she does it while remaining charming, adorable, lovely. She cracks a bit at the end, but who wouldn’t? Here’s a person who is a survivor. Pardon me if I choose to stand next to her—when the apocalypse comes, she’ll still be standing.
And that’s the truest link to the other Cinderella stories. Like Jean Arthur in Easy Living and Claudette Colbert in Midnight, Ginger Rogers is a reverse Cinderella. She’s the poor girl who comes to the rescue of the rich man.
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