“I guess rich people are just poor people with money,” Ginger Rogers, playing a homeless NYC gal hired by a millionaire to masquerade as his mistress, says with resigned logic in Gregory La Cava’s Fifth Avenue Girl (1939). Class clash isn’t the only conflict in the director’s screwball comedies; the man once lauded by fellow souse W.C. Fields as “the second funniest man in America” also exposed the corrosive effects of sexual double standards in more somber works like Primrose Path (1940). La Cava drove studio heads crazy, pledging no fealty to the script and often encouraging overlapping dialogue and improvisation—tonic for actors like Rogers, Carole Lombard, and William Powell.
In Bed of Roses (1933), two ex-streetwalkers are sprung from prison and sail for New Orleans looking for rich gentlemen to snare. La Cava always sides with the fast-talking dames, no matter how venal their schemes. When the distaff protag is a genteel lady, as in Smart Woman (1931), she may not have zippy ripostes, but she’s still quick to turn the tables on her philandering hubby.
Although My Man Godfrey (1936) is the apotheosis of the screwball genre, its exhilarating chaos is fueled by a razor-sharp critique of the inanities of the leisure class. Cuckoo socialite Irene Bullock (Lombard, here at her most memorably manic) hires a city-dump-dwelling “forgotten man” (Powell) to be the butler for her family. Significantly toned down,
Fifth Avenue Girl delights as a gender-inverted Godfrey, with Rogers’s Mary Grey knocking some sense into the noggins of capitalist paterfamilias Timothy Borden (Walter Connolly) and his spoiled-rotten brood.
As hoofer Jean Maitland in Stage Door (1937), Rogers is the alpha female of a passel of tough cookies living in the Footlights Club, a theatrical boarding house whose residents include Lucille Ball, Eve Arden, Ann Miller, and new arrival Katharine Hepburn, a zillionairess passing as a nobody who bunks with Jean. Wisecracks ricochet at breakneck speed as the aspiring performers commiserate on demoralizing roles, sleazy agents, and the slop served in the dining hall. It is a wonderful vision of a sisterhood of the high-waist pants—one in which even prole poster girl Rogers and Bryn Mawr Brahmin Hepburn can share a warm embrace.