Marjorie Rambeau received her first Oscar nomination for her performance as Mamie Adams in Primrose Path.
Primrose Path is a very flawed movie a girl whose relationship with a young man is jeopardized by her poor background and her troubled family. I applaud the movie for trying to deal with themes like prostitution back in 1940, but due to the restrictions of the Hays Code the movie is often forced to gloss over the real hardship of the featured characters and, in order to still arouse an emotional response, it opts for melodrama instead. The result is a rather problematic picture whose impact ends up being very muted despite its noble intentions. Even the central love story does not work and that's entirely due to the screenplay, which is in fact quite awful: it often feels hard to truly root for the two characters to end up together and that's because the writing occasionally makes Ginger Rogers' character's actions quite unbelievable and Joel McCrea's one's quite unsympathetic (if not downright cruel). The development of their relationship is never convincing and that's a shame because they have enough of a natural chemistry and they both give perfectly solid, committed performances.
Marjorie Rambeau plays Mamie, the mother of the film's leading character, Ellie May. It's not a performance that is frequently talked about (nor is the movie) and she's in many ways the forgotten nominee of the 1940 line-up as both Darwell and Anderson have a legendary reputation and also O'Neil (for reasons unknown to me) and to a lesser extent Hussey have their share of fans. Having heard almost nothing about her performance here, I went into it with little expectations and I was pleasantly surprised. Considering the nature of the role (an aging prostitute who has to support her whole family) I was not expecting to see such a laidback performance: throughout most of her performance, especially in the beginning, Rambeau is an incredibly feisty and cheerful presence and the movie's main source of warmth. Though her approach might seem a little odd at first, it ultimately makes sense as Rambeau portrays Mamie as a woman who has long accepted her profession and who does not have much hope for her future but decides to still enjoy the little things she can. There is a touching veil of melancholy in her performance, a hint of regret for how her life turned out that Rambeau manages to convey in brief looks and micro-espressions at just the right time: nonetheless, there is no bitterness in her performance and Rambeau turns Mamie into an heartwarming and tender presence whenever she pops up - and considering how dull most of the movie is, the amount of spontaneous life and energy she brings to the screen is more than welcome.
What won me over especially was how rich and textured is Rambeau's work in spite of her limited time on screen. Though there are not many scenes devoted to her character, Rambeau gives such a vivid and lived-in portrayal that you just feel like you truly know this woman: she manages to convey her character's history and background without the need for it to be addressed directly, she never falls for the opportunity of over-acting (and there were many, especially as far as the accent is concerned) and trascends the stereotype or even joke that the character could have been. She realistically portrays Mamie's lack of both education and refinement without ever looking down on the character and without ever allowing the viewer to do so. She is great in her scenes with Miles Mander, who plays Homer, Mamie's alcoholic, depressed husband: Mander's performance is not without problems but Rambeau excels at conveying the history between the two characters. Right from the start, she shows that Mamie does not love Homer (in a later scene, she explicitly admits that she always respected him for his education more than loved him) but still cares for him a lot and she is quite affecting at subtly expressing Mamie's concern behind her warm and patient behavior. Her best scenes are probably the ones with Ginger Rogers: the two actresses share a terrific chemistry that makes the relationship between Mamie and Ellie May the highlight of the movie rather easily. Rambeau is especially wonderful in the scene on the porch in which Mamie urges her daughter to go after the man she loves, something Mamie did not do in her youth and forever regretted: she is sincerely heartbreaking at showing how Mamie wants a better life for her daughter - even if this life means being away from her.
Another excellent scene for Rambeau comes later on in the movie when Ellie May introduces her husband Ed to the family: there's an especially brilliant moment in which Ed tells her he had seen her already - for a moment, Mamie's face freezes as she thinks he has found out about her profession and then returns to her welcoming, cheerful self when Ellie comes up with a good excuse. It's a pitch-perfect moment acted to perfection by Rambeau. As Ed starts to find out progressively about what truly goes on in the household, Rambeau is very moving as she portrays Mamie's attempts to keep everything from falling apart and her struggle not to ruin her daughter's chance at happiness. The only scene in her performance that does not quite work completely is her final scene which has not aged very well: with her breathless deliveries and slightly overdone facial expressions, her acting style feels a bit dated here but nonetheless she manages to find some moving moments in it and even if the scene itself might not be great it still manages to be quite touching. And after she's gone, her presence is certainly missed greatly.
This is a very good performance from Marjorie Rambeau who makes Mamie by far the most memorable thing about the movie which is an admirable but ultimately unsuccessful effort. For the most part, she effectively avoids going from melodrama and makes Mamie a realistic, three-dimensional human being that adds a lot to the film whenever she shows up. It's an unjustly forgotten nominee, and a remarkable, moving performance.