This is my contribution to the They Remade What ?! blogathon being organised by Phyllis Loves Classic Movies. Please do visit and read the other postings.
Frank Capra first made his fairy tale of New York in black and white in the early 1930s. Then he returned to it 28 years later for a more light-hearted, star-studded Technicolor remake – which turned out to be his last full-scale film. As a fan of movies from the pre-Code era, I fully expected to prefer the 1933 version of this story, starring May Robson in the lead role. And I did, yet I also really enjoyed much of the 1961 version, where Bette Davis steps into Robson’s shoes. I watched the two more or less straight after each other – but did see the 1933 version first. I was surprised to learn that there has actually been a second remake, Miracles (1989), directed by and starring Jackie Chan, which moved the story to 1930s Hong Kong – but I haven’t had a chance to see that one.
So what’s the story? Street seller “Apple Annie” ekes out a living selling fruit to passers-by on the streets of New York. But she’s embarrassed about her poverty and doesn’t want her daughter, who has been educated abroad since early childhood, to know the truth about her life. So Annie “borrows” notepaper from a swanky hotel and writes letters describing a lovely society lifestyle for herself, to delight young Louise.
It all seems to be going well, until Louise writes to say that she is engaged to the son of a Spanish Count – and the couple are about to pay a visit. Annie is in despair, until gangster Dave “the Dude”, who regards her apples as his personal lucky charm, comes to the rescue. He arranges for her to borrow a flat in the hotel and pose as a society lady for the period of Louise’s stay. But can Annie carry off such a daring deception?
The booklet included with the Inception DVD says that Capra originally wanted to cast star names including Marie Dressler as Annie, Robert Montgomery or William Powell as Dave and W.C. Fields as “Judge” Blake, the silver-tongued pool hustler who agrees to play the part of Annie’s husband. None of this came off and he had to settle for mainly character actors – but they all give wonderful performances and it’s great to see actors who sometimes get too little screen time taking the limelight for a change.
May Robson is excellent as Annie, making the character believable both as a street seller and when she is transformed into a lady. Pre-code favourite Warren William has a great time as Dave the Dude, switching between charm and comic cunning in an instant. And one of the great Warner stable of supporting actors, Guy Kibbee, always so good at creating disreputable characters, does it again with “Judge” Blake. Glenda Farrell is also well cast as speakeasy owner “Missouri” Martin. The older actors do rather overshadow the youngsters, Jean Parker as Louise and Barry Norton as her fiance, Carlos.
The story is never realistic, but there is no point in worrying about that, because it isn’t meant to be. It is, as one of the characters describes it, a fairy tale. The achingly beautiful black-and-white cinematography of Lady for a Day, by Joseph Walker, often has a soft focus, and so does the story. There’s a feeling throughout that things are bound to work out for Annie, just as they did for Cinderella. Based on a tale by Damon Runyon from 1929, the 1930s film has a strong Depression-era flavour about it. It’s suggested that Annie was once in better circumstances – when she is dressed in her finery, one of her nameless friends says wistfully “I remember when Annie dressed like that every day.”
The film has a screenplay by Robert Riskin, who also worked with Capra on many other films, including the following year’s smash hit It Happened One Night. Lady for a Day has a similar theme in some ways, as people from wildly different backgrounds are thrown together by circumstances and play out a complicated charade. And it also has the same blend of comedy and underlying poignancy. A very characteristic Capra element is the way that the whole community, including down-and-outs, rallies round to support Annie and hold her world together.
After enjoying Lady for a Day, I wondered if Capra’s remake could possibly live up to its dream-like quality and pack the same emotional punch. It doesn’t, quite… and yet it is still moving and enjoyable in its own right, and has a fantastic cast. A noticeable difference is that the second film appears to be set around Christmas, the season so closely associated with Capra as a result of It’s a Wonderful Life.
I can’t get away from the feeling that Bette Davis is somewhat miscast as Apple Annie. It’s much easier to believe in her as the lady than it is in the scenes where she is supposed to be down and out and, where May Robson delicately underplays, Davis sometimes goes over the top. But she’s an actress I can never get enough of and, even in a part which may not be quite right for her, it is always interesting to see her interpretation. However, my favourite performance is probably by Thomas Mitchell as the Judge – this was his last film, just a year before he died, and he is wonderful, urbane, witty and with that great voice which I could listen to all day. Edward Everett Horton, who featured in so many Astaire and Rogers films, also has a good part as a comic butler. Seeing these three Hollywood greats of the 1930s starring together in 1961, in the last film of a great director from the same era, does in itself give a poignancy to their scenes.
Glenn Ford also gives an enjoyable spin on the Dude, who in the remake has a love relationship of his own, with speakeasy owner Queenie Martin (not Missouri this time), played by Hope Lange. Dave’s whole relationship with Queenie really reminded me of Nathan and Adelaide in Guys and Dolls, which was also based on Damon Runyon stories. Dave is much more of a heavy-duty gangster in this version, and there is a whole sub-plot involving the turf war between him and a visiting crime bigshot from elsewhere. Peter Falk is also hilarious as Dave’s gangster sidekick, Joy Boy – I wanted to laugh every time he says anything. He even got an Oscar nomination for this joyously comic performance.
So what are the problems? The screenplay, by Hal Kanter and Harry Tugend, often feels a bit wordy and laboured compared to the original – whenever a Riskin scene turns up unchanged, it’s noticeable how the pace speeds up for a moment. This is partly because, where the first film was a contemporary piece, by 1961 it was a period drama, and so chunks of somewhat clunky dialogue keep having to be stuck in to explain events such as the repeal of prohibition. There is also quite a bit of broad humour which isn’t particularly funny, such as scenes where Queenie and Dude fall out and engage in some slapstick antics. By contrast, the young couple, Ann-Margret, in her first film, and Peter Mann, are just too sweet to bear as Louise and Carlos. The scene where she sings him a nursery rhyme is cringe-making.
The main difficulty, though, is that this story rooted in the Depression can’t have quite the same resonance in a glossy colour film, where all the apples are bright red and look as if they are made out of plastic. Also, all the supposedly 1920s costumes and sets have a strangely 1960s feeling about them.
So, all in all, my verdict is that I found both films thoroughly enjoyable, but Capra’s first take on this story was by far the best. However, I’d definitely recommend seeing both.