Close Up #4: Venus on a Clam Shell in Primrose Path (’40)
In Gregory La Cava’s sensitive coming of age picture, Ginger Rogers watches Joel McCrea demonstrate how to find clams as a grand romantic gesture, one more arresting than a moonlit walk in a rose garden. Among familiar opportunities for seduction, woman’s pictures found new ways to reinvent girl-meets-boy. Their beach encounter occasions Ginger’s sexual awakening. Delivered by way of clam shell, like a modern-day Venus, she decides to abandon a childish disguise and embrace womanhood. La Cava selects a bit of shoreline adjacent to a dusty California road for the scene and anchors his picture in a grubby realism that resists flashy aesthetics to stylise character growth. Instead, he pares down costume and scenery to underscore a dazzlement of human response. La Cava may overemphasise his version of working class virtue in shabby backgrounds punctuated by scripted double negatives and inelegant syntax in a story that presents sexy poses (for women) and university education (for men) as routes down a less than ideal path, but those objections seem begrudging in an otherwise heartfelt film.
McCrea’s Ed Wallace coaxes Ginger Rogers’ Ellie May Adams through the basics of clam digging. McCrea doesn’t know that she’s scrounging a hangover cure for her resigned alcoholic father, but he admires her pluck and verve. He schools her in foraging arts as a compliment to her wit, which always signals a man above the crowd. They meet for the second time on the beach. The first time they met, in the previous scene, she was a hitchhiker eating a free meal at his lunch counter.
Unlike the ‘Porta-gee’ girls (the script’s colloquialism for Portuguese girls working in the local sardine cannery) who giggle at his behind the counter repertoire (McCrea pronounces it rep-ar-tee), Ellie criticises his banter with customers. In a startling rejection of age-old courtship advice that compels women to laugh at any man’s jokes, Ellie refuses to feign passive delight with Ed’s humour and blisters his cornpone lines. She challenges his cock ‘o the café status and in doing so, she highlights their dynamic with word play and alternate punchlines from the first moment. He may have repertoire, but Ellie turns his solo act into an improvisational duo. As she steals the spotlight with wisecracks, she positions herself as equal partner before they have traded names. While Ellie waits for Gramp (Henry Travers) to make her a sandwich, she critiques his stale routine. No wonder McCrea’s head snaps around in a reaction shot. Barely a minute at the counter and this so-called kid he had joked about playing truant bests him at his own game. Gramp pushes a plate in front of Ellie, suggesting she ignore Ed’s jokes:
Gramp: Don’t pay attention to him. His mind wanders
Ellie Mae: Maybe it never came back
Viewers watch McCrea’s character sizing her up: young, tiny, hungry, poor, dressed to hide from men—what could she do with a little encouragement? Ed pays attention to Ellie’s sharp retorts. He marvels ‘she ain’t so bad on the comeback’. Compared to the Portuguese girls, Ellie lacks any display of femininity that’s supposed to compel his notice. Bare faced, flat cap, childish braids, shapeless jumper, zip-front jacket, A-lined skirt, and flat lace ups do not produce a ‘come-hither’ countenance. Yet he’s intrigued by the sass mouth dame tucking into a ham sandwich, which explains why he follows her to the beach after she announces her plan to go look for clams.
He parks his motorbike and approaches her slowly on the sand.
Ed: Getting any clams?
Ellie: There ain’t any. I told ‘em some of your jokes and they ran away
McCrea embodies an ideal man in woman’s pictures because he’s attracted to her brain rather than appearance. Instead of sulking or scowling in a typical automatic masculine reaction against a woman with the audacity to be funnier, he’s captivated by her sharp tongue. He’s drawn to her wit, so he attempts to prove himself worthy and show Ellie something useful. McCrea’s Ed wants to earn her regard. First, he watches her poking around rocks in the sand, and says she ought to have a clam rake. He may as well observe that someone fishing with a stick and piece of string needs a proper rod. Whenever a man remarks over the futility of a woman’s endeavour, devotees of woman’s pictures know she’ll dig her heels in for the duration. Next, Ed tells Ellie that she won’t find them under a rock, that she needs to search within the high-water mark. Clams don’t run off, as she had joked earlier, after all—they can only go as far as the tide (although McCrea refrains from making the point directly). Ellie begins to listen. Maybe he’s knows what he’s talking about.
Ellie flinches when Ed picks up a chunk of rock during his lesson, suspecting a caveman overture to knock her out and have his way. He doesn’t recognise his behaviour as threatening, as men rarely do, but continues without interruption toward the tideline before he drops the rock with a thud on the beach. The result, for anyone unfamiliar with the peculiarities of shellfish, produces thin jets of spray from the sand that he calls ‘clam spit’. A loud noise prompts them to give themselves away, he explains.
You don’t have to be a Freudian to acknowledge clam digging as a metaphor for her latent sexuality. Although Ginger’s hoyden costume looks adorable, it’s also a clear sign that her character refuses to grow up. She’s hiding out in schoolyard disguise mainly as a form of self-protection from a shrieking harpy grandmother (Queenie Vassar) who hectors Ellie to hurry up and join the family tradition of women in the world’s oldest profession. Ellie’s pre-pubescent sister Honeybell (Joan Carroll) already responds to the family matriarch’s grooming for the sex trade, toward the far from titular primrose path all women in the family tread. Down that route, Ellie quickly susses no reward in dating men to pay bills. Except on the beach, for the first time, she discovers desire that has nothing to do with marketplace transaction. Tall drink of man-water Joel McCrea beckons Ellie to realise what pleasure she might have for her own.
When a man’s agenda involves sex, conversation usually takes a back seat, or reduces to a minimum. On the beach, though, Ed tries to draw Ellie out, to prolong talk because he’s interested in what she says. He tells her that she’s harder to open than a clam, and that she’s as closed as one of the clams they dug up. He sneaks a kiss while taking her home in his motorbike sidecar. One kiss and she’s gobsmacked. What began on the beach syncs when their lips touch. He’s ruined everything. She ditches the tomboy costume and next emerges from the ramshackle house in full womanly array, following him to the Blue Bell nightspot to compete with the cannery gals for his attention.
Along with his appreciation of Ginger’s comic lines, McCrea proves swoon-worthy because he’s unimpressed by Ellie’s attempt at seductive turnout. Instead of the customary makeover reveal in film, where a man appears overcome with desire at the sight of newly polished style, Ed wipes her lipstick off and asks her if she wants to be a freak. He objects to the lipstick, rakish hat and tatty fur stole as affectations that fail to suit Ellie. She’s putting on a playact of what she thinks men find desirable, based on the commodified version taught at home. Once she pares back the embellishments, including a hideous automobile purse, borrowed along with the other accessories, and she’s just in a buttoned blouse and pleated skirt, she’s feminine but herself, no longer hiding behind the tomboy duds she wore on the beach or the seductive gear.
Ginger’s Ellie throws caution under a bus. While telling a massive whopper about being kicked out of the house for declaring her love for him, she asks for kisses and then lets him think she’ll jump from the pier if he rejects her. Ellie finds him so desirable that she claims homelessness and pretends to consider death her only option—that’s how much she liked Ed’s kisses. Without finesse or experience, she hurtles full speed into his arms. Viewers know she’ll have hell to pay for insisting they marry. In the meantime, Ginger looks adorable in a polka dot uniform installed behind the lunch counter. She commands centre stage with ‘repartee’ about their bad food, weak coffee but free bicarb for customers. Even better, viewers witness Joel McCrea admire her rapid-fire retorts and cutting remarks. He’s content to be an audience for his hilarious wife. Business is hopping, thanks to the sass mouth dame in charge.
I almost hesitate to mention what happens once reality confronts the honeymooners. As Gramp points out, Ed didn’t marry Ellie’s family and if you look far enough into anyone’s family tree you’re sure to find a horse thief. But when Ed meets the family for dinner, with a menu that includes a soggy carton of takeaway chow mein and a store-bought cake, the table’s set for a feast of family dysfunction. Ellie’s mother Mamie Adams (Marjorie Rambeau) makes the best of life with a feckless, drunken husband through sex work to pay rent. Gin-soaked patriarch Homer (Miles Mander), busts in the house bladdered, looking suitable for an autopsy table, and assumes that McCrea has money burning a hole in his pocket. Granny rates as a sour hellcat. Sexually precocious Honeybell raises further alarm. It’s all a bit much for Ed to digest, along with proof that Ellie wasn’t put on the street by a family who would be there after one week of bad luck.
Ed’s predictable response to hideout in the Blue Bell isn’t the worst of it. Ellie arrives to bring him home but sits anyway when he magnanimously invites her to the table, seated with a friend and the Portuguese ladies. He wears an affable demeanour while he demeans his wife. First, he encourages the group to mock Ellie for ordering milk and then he kisses Carmelita (Carmen Morales) and scores her raspberry-flavoured lipstick as less pleasant than her usual vanilla. At the table, Ginger-as-Ellie falls in stature to just another hanger-on rather than his wife. Ed’s scorn and derisive comments about the Adams family land blood curdling blows. Outside the Blue Bell, as she’s trying to escape, he even ridicules Ellie’s previous suicide gambit by telling her she’s heading in the wrong direction, that she should walk off the pier. Ellie had scaled the heights of desire with McCrea’s rangy physique and then was cast out against the rocks and driftwood, humiliated and alone, in what seems like pure agony. A scene like this in woman’s pictures leads us to the brink of what she or we can endure and then carries us over the abyss. Ginger Rogers was always a survivor; women in the audience know she’ll show us the way to recover from love’s rebuke.
Academy voters must have blanched at the idea of handing Ginger Rogers a gold statue for playing a character in a family line of sex workers. I’ll take hardscrabble Ginger in La Cava’s pictures Stage Door (1937) Fifth Avenue Girl (1939) and Primrose Path over sanitised films like her Oscar win for Kitty Foyle, the same year as the infinitely superior Primrose Path. The Academy’s pick was a safe one, but not the best performance from Ginger in Kitty Foyle, a film so mild, it might be symbolised by the prim Quaker ensemble she dons to meet Main Line Philadelphians. Ginger’s Kitty, a working-class girl from Havelock Street, uses a typewriter to springboard from poverty. Kitty conceives a faint outline for modern womanhood: work in an office before marriage to an upwardly mobile professional, such as a doctor, not a blueblood. None of the plot developments seem risky or ground-breaking, it’s as hushed as a Quaker meeting. Kitty has dignity in capitals and zero chemistry with Dennis Morgan and James Craig, in a love triangle that has less spark than a campground during a spring downpour. Nice and affable as they may be, no one ever went weak at the knees for Morgan or Craig. And Craig’s character rates as an awful cheapskate who won’t even treat a hungry lady to dinner. Miserly never makes for swoon-worthy. The film’s most important contribution was the Kitty Foyle fashion trend, of starched white collars and cuffs popular in work wardrobes of the era. Although I rarely engage in the quibbling about Oscar wins, in this case, Ginger won for the wrong film. Primrose Path is your gateway intoxicant to the heady elixir contained in the best woman’s pictures from the 1940s.