Primrose Path from 1940 with Ginger Rogers, Joel McCrea, Mamie Adams and Henry Travers
"We live, not as we wish to, but as we can."
- Meander, Greek Poet, 342 - 290 BC
How they somehow snuck this one past the censors is the first question. Ginger Rogers plays the daughter and granddaughter of prostitutes (that "word" is never spoken, but it is clear what they are/were - grandmother is "retired"). Why this very good movie isn't more well known is the second question.
Rogers' mother, Mamie Adams, is a decent woman who does what she has to, to put food on the table for, not only daughter Rogers and herself, but also her ten-year-old daughter, alcoholic husband, Miles Mander, and her complaining mother.
Dad, Miles Mander, is an educated man who can translate Greek, but is now a broken alcoholic. Yet, wife Adams is the philosophical one who understands without resentment that some people are put on this earth to provide for others who can't. It's a thoughtful view of a broken family living in wrong-side-of-the-tracks Primrose Path.
Daughter Rogers (who looks adorable in her tomboy clothes while she's softly grifting to augment the family's modest income) meets nice guy Joel McCrea who owns a diner/gas station with his dad, the wonderful Henry Travers. Later, she tells McCrea she ran away, so as to hide her background from him while she kinda maneuvers him into marrying her.
After they marry, all is going well with the happy young couple. Along with McCrea's Dad, Travers, they run the diner/gas station. But then, Rogers' mother just happens to pop into the station one day. With the cat out of the bag, Rogers then has to take McCrea to meet her family.
There he realizes what Rogers' mom and grandmother do/did for a living and that her dad, instead of being the scholar Rogers implied he was, is a drunk. McCrea feels duped and bolts from the house and Rogers.
Rogers desperately tries to save her marriage, but McCrea's pride is having none of it despite his really wanting to take her back. Here is where real Motion Picture Production Code subversion sets it as the prostitute stuff was just a warm up.
Dad Travers tries to get his son to see that sometimes people lie for reasons that aren't easy to understand nor should you blindly condemn them. Meanwhile, Rodgers' super-cool prostitute mom tells her daughter to denounce the family if it will help her get a truly good-guy husband back.
What? Lying is okay and not just in service to a greater good, but also because, sometimes, decent people are too weak to admit everything in their past? And it's okay to toss your sketchy family overboard if they are more of a hindrance than a help to a better life?
This is a lot of realpolitik family stuff that doesn't fit inside the usually obdurate Motion Picture Production Code, but there it is. Maybe the censors were drunk the night they approved this one. Drinking seems to be one vice the code overseers were pretty much okay with.
For modern audiences, the "shock" value of Primrose Path is tame or not even there anymore. The joy today is Roger's pitch-perfect performance as the girl from the very wrong side of the tracks trying to make something of her life.
Equally impressive is Mamie Adams as the believably not-bitter prostitute just trying to hold her family together. Rounding out the strong cast is McCrea's dad, Henry Travers, who sees what really matters amidst the messiness of everyday life.
Somehow, RKO Radio Pictures studio, in the tightly circumscribed movie world of 1940, got a movie made about a prostitute's daughter marrying a man under false pretense where the prostitute mother is portrayed as a hero and Roger's deception is dismissed as understandable. God only knows how this one made it to the theaters in 1940.