The Primrose Path gives us a blueprint of Jazz Age rendering of cinematic crime. Diamonds are the currency. In its event-packed screenplay, the bosses frame the foot soldiers when the authorities start snooping. There’s a hierarchy of big-time cheats and small-time hustlers, feds and nightclub racketeers, and chorus girls who know too much. There’s also plenty to tug at the heartstrings. Young Jimmy worships his reprobate brother Bruce, whose drunken folly led to an accident that puts Jimmy in a leg brace. Bruce is guilt stricken and seeks redemption. There’s a love story, family strife, manslaughter, courtroom suspense, a lenient prosecutor, and unlikely savior. And somewhere in there is a major endorsement for the Boy Scouts of America, then just fifteen years old. All in a running time barely longer than an hour.
The Primrose Path was blessed with talented hyphenates. The film’s scenario came from Leah Baird who was better known as an actress but was a successful scenario writer and producer as well. She starred in and wrote the serial Cynthia-of-the-Minute from 1920 to 1925 and churned out nearly two dozen other scripts, predominately melodramas centered on women’s lives. Her producing partner and husband, Arthur Beck, was president of Embassy Pictures where Primrose Path was made.
Producer Hunt Stromberg came to Hollywood in 1919 by way of an early stint as reporter for the St. Louis Times. His film career began as publicity chief for Thomas Ince, but he was soon a successful independent producer-director of low-budget comedies, dramas, and westerns. Immediately after making The Primrose Path, he signed as in-house producer at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, where he later oversaw The Thin Man series, as well as films for Greta Garbo, Jean Harlow, and Joan Crawford.
Minneapolis-born director Harry O. Hoyt came to make movies by way of an education at the University of Minnesota and Columbia. He wrote original stories for the screen while studying law at Yale and continued after starting a practice. Moviemaking won him over. Hoyt was a full-time screenwriter by 1916 and made his directorial debut in 1919. He continued to write scripts throughout his career, primarily melodramas. Even so, he is best remembered for the film he directed just before taking on The Primrose Path. Hoyt’s dinosaur epic The Lost World (1925) from First National is a triumph of early stop-motion animation and other special effects and an inductee into the Library of Congress’s National Film Registry.
Stuart Holmes as Primrose’s sleazy Broadway producer Tom Canfield logged in more than five hundred acting credits, mostly villains, over a career that stretched into the 1960s. Somehow he found time to become an accomplished sculptor, too. Square-jawed, cleft-chinned Wallace MacDonald as the troubled Bruce was a handsome actor the camera loved. He started in comedies, excelled at westerns after sound arrived, and became a story editor and producer at Columbia.
Though the plot revolves around MacDonald’s hard-drinking gambler, Clara Bow is the star attraction. Born in Brooklyn to parents of English-Scottish-Irish ancestry, Bow survived an objectively awful childhood. Her father was often unemployed, while her mother suffered acute mental illness from a head injury, endangering Clara’s life with her violent attacks. Childhood rape, incest, and hunger marked her for life.
Bow escaped at sixteen, winning magazine acting and beauty contests. The ebullient young actress made her screen debut in a minor role in the 1922 drama Beyond the Rainbow. From there her rise was swift, and she was a movie star by 1925. In The Primrose Path, Bow plays chorine Marilyn Merrill, the name no doubt a wry reference to popular Broadway musical star Marilyn Miller. Thanks to shrewd marketing of the 1927 Paramount comedy-romance It, Bow is forever remembered as the “It Girl.” Essentially a coy euphemism for sex appeal, Bow’s appellation obscures her very real talent as an actress. She commands the screen. Blessed with an expressive face and radiant presence, there’s never a moment’s doubt what Marilyn is thinking and feeling. Bow’s bobbed hair, bee-stung lips, and fashionable wardrobe came to define the modern young urban woman of the 1920s.
Bow’s star power was growing, but The Primrose Path was no prestige outing. Distributed by a small outfit based in New York, it was a so-called “daily changes” film; a print was moved from one theater to the next every day. “On a double picture day at the [Loew’s] New York, it’s get ’em in and out,” noted Variety in its Primrose Path review. As such, it was made more for a quick profit than artistic achievement. It was the kind of low priority film that would have been shelved and neglected once its commercial potential had been assumed to be exhausted. Over the years, as companies change ownership and memories fade, a title like The Primrose Path would have been left to rot or be incinerated at a studio spring-cleaning.
As luck would have it, The Primrose Path avoided such a fate. It’s much better than its pedigree suggests, surviving as a stellar example of the unpretentious late silent melodrama. Variety noted it has a story “without mush,” and though “there are a couple of laughs,” it is ultimately “a velvety melodrama.” It’s also suspenseful, brisk, and engaging. Hoyt adds fine touches to Baird’s ripe and rich scenario. A dockside scene involving an exchange of walking canes is deftly choreographed and filmed. When a mercenary character is killed, he is visualized as a fallen bird of prey. His right hand contorts like a talon in death, and his mouth an open beak. And when Bow cries, she deposits a single sparkling diamond-like teardrop just below her eye.
The Primrose Path is even more significant as a template for genres and conventions to come. Its storyline of vice and crime foreshadows cautionary Warner Bros. gangster films of the 1930s and film noir of the 1940s. Its commitment to the suffering families of errant sons evokes The Public Enemy (1931), Scarface (1932), and Dead End (1937). But for all of its film harbingering, The Primrose Path can also be enjoyed today as a surprisingly entertaining diversion, made by gifted collaborators in front of and behind the camera.
Presented at SFSFF 2022 with live musical accompaniment by Wayne Barker