5th Avenue Girl (1939)

Film Review

5TH AVENUE GIRL

Release Date: 22 September, 1939

Studio: RKO

Director: Gregory La Cava

Starring: Ginger Rogers, Walter Connolly, Verree Teasdale, Tim Holt, Kathryn Adams, James Ellison

Screenplay: Alan Scott; Frank R. Adams: story

Cinematographer: Robert De Grasse

Special Notes: TCM Classic Film Festival, 2014

5th Avenue Girl was shown as part of the Discoveries theme at the 2014 TCM Classic Film Festival. The guest speaker was Cari Beauchamp, Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences Film Scholar, author of numerous articles and books including Without Lying Down: Frances Marion and the Powerful Women of Early Hollywood (1998) and Joseph P. Kennedy Presents: His Hollywood Years (2009).

Synopsis

On his birthday, Timothy Borden Sr. (Connolly), forsaken by his family, sits on a park bench. Also sitting on the bench is poor, jobless, but cheerful and friendly, Mary Grey (Rogers) whom he takes to dinner. He brings her home and when she appears the next morning (after sleeping in the guest room), his family, shaken by her presence, fears the (unspoken) worst. Border asks Mary to stay and help him regain the consideration and respect due him from his wife (Teasdale) and children (Holt and Adams). The understanding and intelligent Mary not only helps Timothy Sr. reform his family, she also advises his daughter (Adams) about the way to win her love, the communist-spouting chauffeur (Ellison) and gains for herself the love of Timothy Jr (Holt) despite his initial fears about her relationship with his father.

Discussion

This enjoyable comedy has an unusual plot in which a neglected father teams up with a sympathetic young woman to teach his family about gratitude, thoughtfulness, and responsibility. The screenplay goes about as far possible, post the production code, with suggestiveness; Rogers and Connolly encourage his family’s suspicions that he has moved his mistress into the house. Her presence forces each member of the family to admit personal shortcomings and make improvements.

Rogers easily handles the role of a sympathetic, resourceful, saucy, and worldly-wise young woman. Released a few months after the very successful Bachelor Mother (1939), the film confirmed Rogers' capabilities as a comedienne and demonstrated her ability to carry a film and draw an audience.

Two accomplished comedians support Rogers. Walter Connolly was a Broadway veteran (from 1916) whose film career began in 1932. His chubby and mobile face and portly figure fit nicely with his frequent roles as bluff and blustery, but understanding and likable, fathers and bosses, as in It Happened One Night (1934) and Nothing Sacred (1937). Verree Teasdale also came from Broadway (from 1924). She specialized in silly society women but also successfully played the other woman in romantic dramas. Teasdale made only four films after 5th Avenue Girl. In the late forties, she and husband Adolphe Menjou hosted a syndicated radio program.

Tim Holt, son of actor Jack Holt and star of programmer westerns from 1938-1952, periodically had substantial supporting roles in grade-A features, including The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), My Darling Clementine (1946), and The Treasure of Sierra Madre (1948). The role of Timothy, Jr., of 5th Avenue Girl was an atypical romantic part. Although Holt was eight years younger than Rogers, her youthfulness matched with his sober demeanor and mature features produce an agreeable pairing.

Director La Cava began his career making animated comic shorts for the Hearst Corporation (1916 -1923). After 1923, he made features, mostly comedies. La Cava specialized in examining troubled families, in films such as Gallant Lady (1933), What Every Woman Knows (1934), She Married Her Boss (1935), and Primrose Path (1940).

The reformation of a selfish, inconsiderate family in 5th Avenue Girl is similar to the central plotline of My Man Godfrey (1937, starring William Powell and Carole Lombard), La Cava's finest film. In addition to 5th Avenue Girl, La Cava directed Ginger Rogers in Stage Door (1937) and Primrose Path (1940), showcasing her personal warmth and nuanced acting. La Cava's career stalled in the early forties, and he completed only four films after 5th Avenue Girl.

Scenarist Allan Scott had written screenplays for six of Rogers' musicals with Fred Astaire, most notably Carefree (1938) in which he provided Rogers with a fine comic role and advanced her transition from dancer to star comedienne.

Dell Henderson, pioneer director and silent comedian, continued his career in uncredited bit parts and appeared as a waiter. Read our articles about Henderson's silent films with Marion Davies, The Patsy (1928) and Show People (1928).

Guest Introduction

Guest speaker Cari Beauchamp discussed the actors and director. At age 14 Ginger Rogers was in (and won) a Charleston dance contest, by age 18 she was in the chorus, and at 19 she was on Broadway. In 1933 she made 10 films and achieved her name above the title. Her mother, Lela Rogers, worked relentlessly to get her ahead. Lela, a society dame, was a friend of Hedda Hopper, who shared her conservative views. Beauchamp told a story about a lunch that Lela attended for J. Edgar Hoover at which she became convinced that Hoover was her soul mate. They attended public events together.

Walter Connolly's career began on the stage and moved to film. He produced three-dimensional characters and was in demand as a character actor. Verree Teasdale was a talented comedienne. Director Harry Beaumont said of her that she was the same woman whether playing witless with wealth or witless with a nickel in her pocket and an apple to eat. Director La Cava, although talented, was a drinker and did not have a studio contract. He produced this film through RKO.

Cari Beauchamp