Alfred Borden (Walter Connolly) is having a bad day. His business is in trouble; his wife, Martha (Verree Teasdale), is cheating on him with another man; his son, Tim (Tim Holt), would rather play polo than work; and his daughter, Katherine (Kathryn Adams), is in love with Mike (James Ellison), the family’s disdainful, Communist-sympathizing chauffeur. Oh, and it happens to be Alfred’s birthday–which everyone but his secretary has forgotten.
Alfred takes a walk to Central Park and comes across a young woman named Mary (Ginger Rogers), who has lost her job. As a result of her troubles, Mary has a somewhat bitter outlook on the world. When Alfred realizes that Mary has nothing more to eat for dinner than a single apple, he asks her to accompany him to a fancy nightclub to celebrate his birthday and get a good meal. But things do not go exactly as planned–the pair gets roaringly drunk, and Alfred ends up with a black eye and his evening escapades plastered in the newspapers.
Martha is irritated by Alfred’s carousing–even though Martha herself had been at the club the night before with her lover–and becomes infuriated when Mary emerges from the guest room. Alfred decides to take advantage of his wife’s reaction to incite her jealousy further, and convinces Mary to pretend to be his mistress, inserting her into the household against the will of his family. Nothing at all could go wrong with that plan … could it?
Fifth Avenue Girl is not exactly what you would call a “memorable” entry in the list of films released during the storied year of 1939. It has been called a gender-reversed My Man Godfrey (1936), in that a virtual stranger is brought into the lives of a wealthy family, eventually changing things for the better. The thematic similarities in the film should come as no surprise, considering both were directed by Gregory La Cava, who also had a hand in writing both screenplays (though he was uncredited for these contributions). But while Godfrey is an undoubtedly classic screwball comedy with genuine heart and wit, Girl is a pale imitation of its predecessor, lacking that film’s warmth and humor. Rogers’ Mary is a dry, brittle counterpart to William Powell’s shrewd Godfrey, and the Borden family is not nearly as interesting as the clueless, careless Bullocks (with the possible exception of Connolly’s Alfred, who at times is almost on par with Godfrey’s fantastic patriarch Eugene Pallette).
Rogers is the center of the film–the character on which practically every element of the plot hinges–and yet she is perhaps the most lackluster character in the entire movie. Herein lies the problem with Fifth Avenue Girl. While part of Rogers’ charm as a comedic actress comes from her unparalleled ability to wield a tart tongue, that sharpness is typically paired with an innate vulnerability and a winking sense of humor that makes her standard characters appealing rather than off-putting. In this movie, however, there is nothing to blunt the edges of the character, and Mary comes across as wholly unpleasant and strangely drab in her utter unhappiness.
Though Mary indulges in snappy comebacks throughout the film, there is no spark to it. At times, her sense of humor even comes across as almost cruel and vaguely threatening (as when she tells the obnoxious Mike, “I think I’ll cut you a new mouth,” while picking up a knife). Rogers does her best with what she’s given, but in the end, there’s a kind of standoffishness to Mary, something beyond mere silent judgment of the other characters, that makes one wonder why La Cava and fellow writers Allan Scott and Morrie Ryskind ever thought she could be a sympathetic-enough figure to anchor the film. Compared to Rogers’ other major comedy that year–Garson Kanin’s delightful Bachelor Mother—Fifth Avenue Girl is relatively colorless, and the actress’ performance as Mary is completely overshadowed by her lovely turn as Mother’s equally poor, yet hopeful and exuberant Polly Parrish.
The problem with Mary is not the only issue here, however. Ultimately, it feels as though La Cava and company could not decide what they wanted this movie to be. Is it a romance? There’s not much that is strictly “romantic” about it–the film’s plot is based on falsehood and deceit, and the characters are (by and large) too selfish and lack self-awareness enough to really make the audience want to root for the couples. Is it a screwball comedy? The movie is missing a true element of slapstick-y humor that would anchor it firmly in that column. Is it an attempt at honest social commentary, contrasting Mary’s poverty and chauffeur Mike’s Communist leanings with the indolent Bordens? If so, it’s an ineffectual statement, because both characters are “rescued” (in the loosest sense) from their station by becoming members of the establishment–Mike marries into the family, easily abandoning his political principles in the process, and we are left to imagine that Mary, too, will find greener pastures as a member of the Borden family (at least, if Tim has his way).
And yet, with all of its problems, there is still something entertaining about the movie–and as I indicated earlier in this post, it all comes down to Walter Connolly. He was a noted character actor who began his Hollywood career with roles in a couple of silent movies in the 1910s before turning to Broadway, where he starred in a number of well-received productions. Connolly returned to film in the 1930s and went on to appear in more than fifty pictures during that decade, starring in some of the most notable and frenetic comedies of the period–movies such as It Happened One Night (1934), Twentieth Century (1934), Libeled Lady (1936), and Nothing Sacred (1937).
Girl presented Connolly with one of the actor’s rare leading roles. Here he plays a somewhat befuddled pater familias dealing with headstrong offspring and an inattentive (read: unfaithful) wife. In many ways, Alfred Borden is a more beaten-down–yet equally sly–version of Connolly’s Alexander Andrews from It Happened One Night. Both men eventually manage to manipulate their children into doing what they want them to do–while Andrews finally got his Ellie (Claudette Colbert) to marry the man he thought was best for her, Borden attains a simpler–though no less important–goal of merely getting his children to acknowledge his existence.
Fifth Avenue Girl was one of a handful of films Connolly made in 1939. Earlier in the year, he starred in MGM’s production of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, playing the “King,” one of the con men whom Huck encounters during his travels (incidentally, his partner in crime, the “Duke,” was playing by William Frawley of I Love Lucy fame). He appeared in two more films after Girl, the last of which, 1939’s The Great Victor Herbert (a musical in which Connolly played the title role) was released five months before his death from a stroke in May 1940.
Fifth Avenue Girl was a commercial success for its studio, RKO, though critical reception at the time ranged from dismissive to admittedly “charitable,” as film critic Frank S. Nugent stated in his 1939 review for The New York Times. He calls the movie “cheerful and cheerfully unimportant,” clarifying that while it “may not be a strikingly good comedy,” Girl “isn’t militantly bad either.” Nugent’s somewhat damnable praise gets it exactly right. Girl is not a “bad” movie. It’s a middling one, at best. But slight though it is, it remains a mildly entertaining farce, and its redeemable elements (Connolly, the occasional witty rejoinder, a brief appearance from a ukulele-playing Jack Carson, and a welcome and amusing turn by Franklin Pangborn as the family butler) far outweigh the bad.