Lady for a Day (1933) and Pocketful of Miracles (1961) (Frank Capra)

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.

Lady for a Day 2Pocketful of Miracles 7Frank 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?

May Robson as Annie

May Robson as Annie

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.”

Warren William and May Robson

Warren William and May Robson

Lady for a Day 4

Another scene featuring the two

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.  

Bette Davis and Glenn Ford

Bette Davis and Glenn Ford

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.

Peter Falk got an Oscar nomination for his hilarious performance

Peter Falk got an Oscar nomination for his hilarious performance

Thomas Mitchell with Arthur O'Connell

Thomas Mitchell with Arthur O’Connell

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.

Annie (Bette Davis) with a picture of Louise (Ann-Margret)

Annie (Bette Davis) with a picture of Louise (Ann-Margret)

Pocketful of Miracles 5

 

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21 thoughts on “Lady for a Day (1933) and Pocketful of Miracles (1961) (Frank Capra)

  1. What a coincidence. I just did a post on May Robson after purchasing Lady for a Day last week.
    I agree with your comparisons. I found it rather sad to see Bette as Apple Annie, alongside her one time costar Ford.
    But I loved Peter Falk.

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    • Yes, he was hilarious, though I think I loved Thomas Mitchell even more. That is a coincidence, Vienna! Thanks – I’ll be over to see your piece.

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    • Thanks, Gary. I do agree the cast is great – and although I have to agree there are quite a few of those ‘Capra-corn’ moments, I still think he does a fine job too.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I prefer the first version of this film; as you note, it’s gorgeously photographed and maintains its fairy-tale aura in spite of the plot’s unbelievability. The balance of elements doesn’t seem right in the remake; and it’s too long and the rhythm is off. I also found the Dude character much less appealing in the remake, though that might have been due to Glenn Ford, who couldn’t convey any of Williams’s charm.

    As I recall, Capra in his autobiography wrote that when he was planning his remake, Bette Davis wasn’t his first choice. He had first asked Helen Hayes to play Apple Annie; but that when she then watched a print of the original film she declined, saying she could never equal Robson’s performance. As with Lady For a Day, it’s interesting to think how this film might have worked out if Capra’s original choice of actors had been cast.

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    • That’s fascinating – I can immediately imagine Helen Hayes in the role. She probably had more in common with Robson than Davis ever could. I agree it is interesting to try to imagine the other actors in the roles, although the ones we have are so good. I must admit I do rather warm to Glenn Ford in the remake, partly because Peter Falk is so spot-on as his sidekick, but I do agree that Warren William is even better in the original. Many thanks for this excellent comment.

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  3. The second bananas make “Pocketful of Miracles” palatable for me. I’m a “Lady for a Day” gal through and through. Capra’s “Broadway Bill” remake of “Riding High” worked very well so I can imagine the thinking that this re-do was a good idea. I guess too much time had passed.

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    • I really want to see ‘Riding High’, as I loved ‘Broadway Bill’ and would be very interested to see Capra’s second go at the story, plus the fact that it stars Bing Crosby. Must aim to catch up with it soon. I think you’re probably right that here too much time had passed, but as you’ll have gathered I did still like the remake, largely because of those “second bananas”! Thanks so much for the comment.

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  4. I’ve not seen either film, but have heard of them. I need to rectify this! Have been watching re-runs of the hit detective tv show that starred Peter Falk in the 1970s, Columbo. So glad he was nominated for an Academy Award-I had no idea.

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    • I used to enjoy ‘Columbo’ but haven’t seen any episodes of it for years. Peter Falk is absolutely hilarious in this – if you like him, you really need to see it! Thanks, Jenni.

      Liked by 1 person

    • This was actually Falk’s second Oscar nomination in a row. He had been up for Best Supporting Actor the previous year for his deadly serious gangster in “Murder, Inc.,” which I’d recommend as well.

      Liked by 2 people

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  6. I love Lady for a Day. Once you buy into the fairy tale it is magic. Interesting to think of Marie Dressler in the part. She might have been a better Apple Annie than a society lady. But then she pulled off her character in Dinner at Eight so beautifully!

    Can you believe I haven’t seen Pocketful of Miracles since I saw it in the theater with my mother? How’s that for dating a person? What I remember most is the theme song.

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    • Yes, she’s amazing in ‘Dinner at Eight’, even though it seems a surprising role for her at first.

      How great that you saw ‘Pocketful of Miracles’ in the cinema, and thanks for mentioning the theme song! I was a bit surprised that it is only played over the opening credits, sung by a choir – if they had used Sinatra’s version it would have really added to the film.

      I’ve just listened to his version and noticed that he was originally due to play Dave the Dude in the remake, but didn’t like the script – that was interesting to learn, as in the remake Dave reminded me quite a bit of Sinatra’s role as Nathan in ‘Guys and Dolls.’ Thanks for the comment, Bea.

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    • I’m a big Sinatra fan and I don’t recall that story about him being offered Ford’s role. It surely would have been interesting to see Sinatra acting opposite Bette Davis. Of course, he did work with Peter Falk in “Robin & the 7 Hoods” a few years later.

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  7. I’m a bit embarrassed to admit this, but I haven’t seen either. Both look terrific, though, and I will be seeking out both thanks to your post.

    You always write such thoughtful reviews. As a reader, I really appreciate that. :)

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    • Very kind of you to say so. I’d sometimes like to be a bit more snappy, though!

      Hope you get a chance to see these – I really enjoyed them both, as you’ll have gathered. Thank you.

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  8. I haven’t seen either of them as well. I started watching the Davis one but ended up stopping it. The original looks good though!

    Thanks for participating in the blogathon!

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  10. Pingback: Broadway Bill and Riding High (Frank Capra, 1934 and 1950) | Movie classics

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