Wholly improbably, delightfully obtuse and completely charming, Frank Capra’s Lady for A Day (1933) represents the director’s prowess firmly situated behind the camera and at the cusp of his greatest artistic flourish. Throughout the early 1930s Capra had been evolving his cinematic style at Columbia Pictures on various melodramatic projects (The Bitter Tea of General Yen, The Miracle Woman, American Madness, et. al) that the poverty row studio had sincerely hoped would bring both prestige and profits so desperately needed. While the movies were often meticulously crafted and illustrated Capra’s inimitable flare for the visual, none had made much of a splash with audiences.
Initially, Capra balked at making Lady for A Day, but then began to have daydreams about acquiring such top notch talent for the project from MGM as Marie Dressler, Robert Montgomery, William Powell and W.C. Fields. In the final analysis Capra had a bevy of bargain basement thespians foisted upon him by studio chief Harry Cohn, who had neither the time nor the money to negotiate contracts for any of the aforementioned. Lady for A Day is basically the Cinderella story in reverse; its protagonist a 70 year old indigent alcoholic who is destined to return to the dustbins of life after she has effectively fooled her daughter’s fiancée and his father into believing that she is a lady of leisure. Robert Riskin’s screenplay is loosely based on Damon Runyon’s short story Madame La Gimp, first published in Cosmopolitan Magazine in 1929. Riskin retains Runyon’s affinity for the loveably low-class and gangster set, but jettisons just about everything else from the original.
Our story is of Apple Annie (May Robson), a senior living in a rundown one room basement apartment, who gets by on peddling fruit to the idle rich. One of her regular customers is Dave the Dude (Warren Williams); a charming underworld scoundrel who has come to regard Annie as his good luck charm. He never makes a move without first buying an apple from her. The Dude is flanked by a pair of loveable cons, the sardonic Happy McGuire (Ned Sparks) and easily confused, Shakespeare (Nate Pendleton). He also has a girl, Missouri Martin (Glenda Farrell) who currently entertains the masses at a swank uptown nightclub in Manhattan.
Despite her destitution, Annie is well connected and equally respected in the community – at least, within her circle of friends. Annie’s daughter, Louise (Jean Parker) has been raised inside a Spanish convent these many years and has never been to America, her only contact with her mother through Annie’s glowing – and utterly fabricated – letters of correspondence where she has assumed the identity of Mrs. E. Worthington Manville; an uptown swell permanently ensconced inside the fashionable Hotel Marberry. But when Louise writes that she has become engaged to Carlos (Barry Norton), son of the wealthy Count Romero (Walter Connelly), and furthermore, that the three are planning to visit New York before the Count will give his consent to their marriage, Annie’s world of make believe suddenly falls apart. To ease her woes over this impending disaster, she succumbs to the power of strong drink.
In the meantime, The Dude has sent Shakespeare and Happy to find Annie so that he can buy an apple from her for good luck. Learning of Annie’s predicament, The Dude decides to help her live up to all her fanciful expectations. To this end he borrows a suite of rooms at the Marberry from old friend, Rodney Kent (whom we never see), and employs Kent’s butler (Halliwell Hobbes) to address Annie as the lady of the house. Missouri shows up with a small army of fashionistas who transform the dowdy apple seller into a regal socialite. The transformation is so startling, that at first even The Dude does not recognize his protégée. The Dude hires Judge Henry G. Blake (Guy Kibbee) – a fraudulent pool shark, to play the part of Annie’s beloved husband, Mr. Manville, and thereafter calls in every last marker he has to gather an assortment of reprobates, redressing them as awkward mimics of society swells for a planned reception given in Count Romero’s honor.
The Count, however, is not so easily fooled. In fact, he smells a rat but cannot quite place his finger on what is wrong with this glowing picture. Unfortunately for Annie, all does not go according to plan. A nosy cub reporter (Sherry Hall) poking around for a scoop on the mysterious Mrs. Manville is kidnapped by Shakespeare and Happy, leading Police Capt. Moore (Edward LeSaint) to place twenty-four hour surveillance on The Dude and his men. In fact, the police are barking up the wrong tree, but that doesn’t stop them from arresting The Dude and his entire pack of society wannabes en route to the Count’s reception. Forced to divulge the truth to Capt. Moore, The Dude strikes a bargain that has both Moore and the Governor (Hobart Bosworth) attend the reception in Annie’s honor. Duly impressed, the Count sanctions the marriage between his son and Louise. A police escort takes everyone to the docks where Louise, Carlos and Count Romero catch their luxury liner back to Europe, as Annie says her tearful goodbyes from the pier.
From a narrative perspective, Lady for A Day makes absolutely no sense at all. There are too many loopholes to discuss at any length herein. For example: how will Annie stave off freedom of the press once The Dude has released his kidnap victim? Annie’s love has perpetuated a fraud that must – and arguably – will be exposed at the first possible light of day. Even if the Count and Louise fail to read the local papers, surely an exposé of such monumental proportions will reach them ahead of their European port of call. And let’s just say, for argument’s sake that it never does. How will Annie maintain her lavish facade should Louise ever return to America with Carlos for a visit in years to come?
No, none of the machinations in Robert Riskin’s screenplay make any sense at all in the real world. However, in movie terms, it all functions magnificently. We completely buy into this elaborate sham; hook, line and sinker, and are well rewarded for our suspended disbelief by superb performances that quite simply sell this absolute silliness as high art. May Robson delivers a poignantly affecting performance; first as one of society’s degenerate poor – then later, as its equally believable, sympathetic rich. Warren Williams, whose movie career never went beyond playing disreputable cads, herein is given the opportunity to play a charismatic charlatan and he does the part proud. Guy Kibbee is his usual effacing self, capable of charming the wings off a butterfly – or in this case – the Count right out of his money during a fixed game of billiards.
In the final analysis, Lady for a Day is a text book example of style triumphing over substance. It is a film that could only have been made in the 1930s, and remarkably, one that still continues to weave its sentimental spell into our hearts to this day. Nominated for four Oscars, it won none, but set up Capra and Columbia for even greater success the following year with It Happened One Night. In 1961, Capra tried in vain to recapture Lady for A Day’s success with A Pocketful of Miracles, co-starring Bette Davis and Glenn Ford. The elements for another winner were all in place but box office success eluded this production – Capra’s last before retiring. For many years Lady for A Day was thought to be a lost Capra classic. Columbia’s original nitrate negative was ‘misplaced’ while en route to a film lab in the 1950s. But Capra had had the foresight to make a 35mm print for himself and later, a dupe negative from this print for preservation purposes. It is this dupe negative that Inception Media Group has utilized for their Blu-ray release and, I am happy to report, that the results in 1080p are quite astounding indeed.
The B&W image is remarkably clean, with few age related artifacts to speak of and a superbly balanced gray scale that captures most of Joseph Walker’s evocatively soft focus cinematography – a visually arresting style of photography held over from the silent era. Transitions and dissolves are still quite grainy, but otherwise the image is very smooth and refined with a remarkable amount of fine detail evident throughout. The audio is mono and exhibits minimal hiss and pop, but is otherwise in very fine shape. Inception also carries over Frank Capra Jr.’s introduction to the film, as well as his audio commentary and the theatrical trailer that accompanied a DVD release of the film from some years before. However, unlike the DVD, the Blu-ray also integrates 4 ½ minutes of additional footage thought to be missing – including a scene where The Dude and the Judge discuss plans for Annie’s reception.
Bottom line: Lady for a Day is a gem in the canon of ‘Capra-corn’ that hopefully will receive much more playtime now that we finally have the film in such quality on home video. It is a movie rich in vibrant performances that needs to be revived and revered more than it has been in the past. Highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)