Excitement is building for the first screenings of the Fest later tonight and at 7:00 in the Chinese Multiplex, the first film of the “discoveries” theme will be showing in glorious 35mm: 5th AVENUE GIRL (1939), starring Ginger Rogers and Walter Connolly. (Incidentally, it will be the first of three Rogers films shown at the Fest; the others are Bachelor Mother  and Hat Check Girl ). TCM regulars know, even if the general public does not, that Rogers not only had a career apart from Fred Astaire—her “solo” films in the ‘30s were often hugely popular top box-office attractions.
The screwball comedy 5th AVENUE GIRL (seen onscreen as 5th AVE GIRL and also known by FIFTH AVENUE GIRL as spelled out on the movie posters) was profitable in 1939—one of RKO’s top moneymakers of the year, but has since fallen through the cracks given the enormous slate of famous films in “Hollywood’s greatest year.” Comedic character actor Walter Connolly is given a rare leading role as a rich industrialist who feels neglected at home by his partying playgirl wife and self-absorbed children. He asks a pretty “commoner” (Rogers) to escort him out in public to clubs on his birthday and after waking up with a hangover and his name in the papers, he decides to keep the young lady around the house, cast in the role of gold-digger, to set his family back in order.
British critic Graham Greene called the film “a curious and sometimes witty variant on the old theme of ‘pity the poor rich,’” and gave something of a contemporary view of the film when he wrote that “the appearance of a Fifth Avenue mansion, all statues, stairways and majolica, is magnificent. It is the first time I have heard laughter in the cinema at the sight of a set.”
Ginger Rogers received mostly good notices for the film; Variety gushed that it “…confirms that Rogers holds something more than dancing prowess… [She] demonstrates major league ability as a comedienne for the second successive time.” Variety also called the movie “a cleverly devised comedy drama, expertly guided by Gregory La Cava, and having as foundation one of the best scripts of socko dialog that has come out of Hollywood in several months.”
The set-up for the story is ideal for a few class-conscious observations of human nature and if it seems to be a variation on My Man Godfrey, keep in mind that the same director (Gregory La Cava) helmed that film three years earlier. (La Cava also directed Rogers in Stage Door in 1937 and would help mold one of her best performances the year after 5th AVENUE GIRL in Primrose Path (1940), co-starring Joel McCrea). Don’t believe those who feel that 5th AVENUE GIRL is merely an inferior retread of the My Man Godfrey themes, however. Certainly there is a bit of social satire and a few stray political overtones (the boyfriend of the household’s rich daughter is a very vocal Communist, for starters!), but the major charm of the film is Water Connolly’s lead role as the sympathetic Mr. Borden. A Lux Radio Theater broadcast the following year featured Ginger Rogers reprising her role but it also cast Edward Arnold as Mr. Borden—it’s difficult to imagine Edward Arnold pulling off a charm that would have matched Connelly in the part, but anything is possible!
One last note: there’ll be no spoilers here, but keep in mind that a preview audience demanded that the ending to 5th AVENUE GIRL be changed and the film did indeed go back in front of the cameras. The original ending was deemed too somber and inconclusive, apparently.