Sunday, January 27, 2013

A Tale of Two Chauffeurs: “Fifth Avenue Girl” and “Downton Abbey”

One of the great screwball comedies of 1939 was Gregory La Cava’s Fifth Avenue Girl starring Ginger Rogers. La Cava directed the better-known classics My Man Godfrey (1936) and Stage Door (1937). But as I’ve said before, 1939 was such an amazing year for classic films, it’s hard to keep track of them all. And like many other great films released that year, it’s been mostly forgotten.

Political drivers
What I find interesting about Fifth Avenue Girl is a similar plot point that seems to have been “borrowed” by the writers of Downton Abbey. The second season of the high-rated British TV drama featured the romance between Lady Sybil (Jessica Brown Findlay) and Downton chauffeur, Tom Branson (Allen Leech). Branson, is an Irish Republican, very political and interested in among other things, rights for women and freedom for Ireland. He objects to the class hierarchy he sees and experiences at Downton. But he’s drawn to Sybil and encourages her burgeoning independence, especially when it comes to her political views. Branson has socialist tendencies, which play out in the course of the series.

The Chauffer is a socialist!
“The nocturnal meanderings of the upper class do not interest me!”
In Fifth Avenue Girl, Rogers finds herself in the home of a wealthy New York City industrialist, Alfred Borden (Walter Connolly) who has a socialist chauffeur named Mike (James Ellison). Mike is constantly complaining about the inequities between the rich folk he works for and the servant class.

Upstairs and Downstairs
Instead of the chauffeur pursuing the industrialist’s daughter in Fifth Avenue Girl, Katherine (Kathryn Adams) pursues the chauffeur. She doesn’t quite agree or understand all of his political philosophy, but finds him irresistible nonetheless. The rich daughter falling for a servant is hardly a new plot point. But what I found fascinating was the similarities between Mike, the chauffeur in Fifth Avenue Girl and Tom, the chauffeur on Downton.

“I’m a socialist, not a revolutionary and I won't always be a chauffeur.”
On the backs of the poor
Mike criticizes Mr. Borden and all he stands for. Tom is a little less harsh, although he thinks Robert Crawley, Earl of Grantham and all his class has built their lives on the backs of the poor and less fortunate.

Both characters highlight the inequities in life, one (Mike) in a humorous way, the other (Tom) in a more serious manner.

What do you think, classic movie fans? Did Julian Fellowes see Fifth Avenue Girl? Do you think it may have influenced the story line of Downton Abbey?

Backstory on Fifth Avenue Girl : La Cava directed Ginger Rogers in three consecutive films: Stage Door, Fifth Avenue Girl, and Primrose Path (1940).


  1. who knows whether it was a direct influence or possibly just an easy depiction of the familiar "opposites attract" formula. Easy to set that one up in political terms, especially in that period when plot depends on such vastly different classes living so closely together. Side note: love James Ellison, rarely see anyone write about him. cheers

    1. I just thought it was fun to compare the two. I had just recently watched 5th Avenue Girl and then when I watched Downton, the fact that both chauffeurs were socialists or had socialist leanings, really struck me. As noted daughters running off with stable boys or chauffeurs is hardly a new plot device, but the political sensibilities of both I found interesting. James Ellison was underrated and underused as an actor. Stuck as a second lead in A films, but got the occasional lead in some good B films like "I Walked With A Zombie."


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