Fifth Avenue Girl (Gregory La Cava, 1939)

by Douglas Buck December 30, 2018 4 minutes (932 words) 16mm Cinémathèque québécoise, part of the Gregory La Cava rep series

‘I’m not a capitalist. I’m a victim of the capitalist system… All I wanted was a family and some fun’– lonely millionaire Alfred Borden (Walter Connelly)

‘We servants enjoy the luxuries of the rich with none of the responsibilities.’ – Higgins, the butler (Franklin Pangborn)

Neglected by his philandering wife (Verree Teasdale), playboy son (Tim Holt) and impulsive daughter (Kathryn Adams), Alfred Borden hatches a plan as he comes across a struggling, down-on-her-luck pretty young thing Marcy Grey (Ginger Rogers) in the Central Park Zoo as he mopes about alone on his birthday; he’ll bring the initially wary and bemused girl into his home as his pretend mistress, in the hopes of regaining the attention of his ungrateful family.

The Gregory La Cava film series continues (brought to blurry life on a tattered 16mm dupe, but, hey, as I always tell myself in these cases, it’s likely the only way it’s getting on my viewing list before I reach my personal expiry date) with this gender (and some other things which I’ll get to) reversing and re-tooling of a similar story he’d told just three years preceding – and that I saw the night before at the CQ for the first time – titled My Man Godfrey.

While I wouldn’t call My Man Godfrey a great film (or example of screwball comedy), it’s still amusing and clever (if conservative-leaning) fun, with some awareness of social inequity (even if it ultimately affirms the position of the rich). It was a huge box office success… making it all the more surprising to see how La Cava, with Fifth Avenue Girl approached the same material of the poor yet proud straggler (even if she isn’t quite downtrodden enough to be retrieved from the pier dump as Godfrey was) brought into Fifth Avenue decadence to ultimately find love as well as teach those self-centered rich folk a lesson or two on life, and yet crafted it into something far different; less successful, though perhaps more fascinating.

It’s a surprisingly somber film, with less attempts at humor than expected (especially considering the set-up and the time the film was made) and little on-screen action (with the scenes offering the greatest high-comic possibilities taking place off-screen and the characters more often facing away from each other as they speak than actively engaging in the witty banter usual to the screwball comedy), to the point of even feeling dark and critical (with the most startling example being Grey’s line, as she brandishes a kitchen knife at the righteous chauffeur who she’s grown weary of with his constant lectures on communism, ominously considering ‘I think I’ll cut you a new mouth’), but it’s an anger that – while fascinating to see in a film that I was expecting to see as another screwball effort — is entirely conflicted, which perhaps reveals a bit about La Cava’s own ambivalence about success and his place in the financial hierarchy.

While obsessing over the general selfishness and unhappiness of the rich (as the Ginger Rogers’ character consistently points out), the film’s resolution ultimately – as did La Cava’s My Man Godfrey before it – sides with them. Change isn’t necessary, or greater equality, just a little of that lower class practicality and sense of gratitude mixed into their lives. It’s the privileged liberal fantasy that feels good about itself by subscribing a value to the less fortunate, yet gives little question to the unfairness of a system that’s privileged them over the others. Even the stridently communist chauffeur, played as mostly absurd (even as he makes surprisingly trenchant observations, speaking again to the conflicted nature of the entire enterprise) is ultimately revealed to embrace capitalism when given the opportunity (revealing a commie as nothing more than a frustrated capitalist down deep).

I haven’t seen many films of the female half of the famous filmic dancing Astaire/Rogers duo, but was surprised how glum Rogers is in the main role (matching her character name, perhaps?). I assume it’s not really her fault, as her dialogue isn’t particularly witty or clever (again, a surprise for the time). Then again, none of the performers particularly stand out this time.

Tim Holt, whose thespian presence has been almost universally derided (though I’m admittedly a little more forgiving of him in that one) as the worst element of the tragically-truncated yet still brilliant Orson Welles’ sophomore effort The Magnificent Ambersons, as the playboy of the family herein who – like the much more engaging socialite Carole Lombard with Godfrey – finds himself falling in love with Grey, after resenting her presence in the household as an intruder, is confirmed for me as a bland performer.

Fifth Avenue Girl is kinda morose and definitely conflicted… yet, it’s not a terrible film, it’s just surprising more than anything that it isn’t even really attempting to be a comedy. It is fascinating to witness the sense of underlying unhappiness of the uber-wealthy (the Bordens may share the same sense of irresponsibility and indulgence as the Fifth Avenue Bullock family in “Godfrey”, but little of the sense of their silly joy or adventure), especially in a time where the screwball romance genre were sweeping up the audiences into their fantastical, almost fairy-tale, indulgent pleasures and ironic perspectives… and then equally as interesting to watch the tenets of conservative, capitalism win out by the end so unequivocally (as if in apologia for the initial distaste the filmmaker’s show to the rich).

Fifth Avenue Girl (Gregory La Cava, 1939)

Douglas Buck. Filmmaker. Full-time cinephile. Part-time electrical engineer. You can also follow Buck on “Buck a Review,” his film column of smart, snappy, at times irreverent reviews.

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