Sunday, November 30, 2014

POCKETFUL OF MIRACLES: Blu-ray (UA 1961) Kino Lorber

Frank Capra dusted off an early classic, Lady for a Day (1933), tricked out with all the glittery star power, Panavision, Technicolor and stereophonic sound one could hope for in Pocketful of Miracles (1961). Alas, it proved too weighty a concoction for this light soufflĂ©. Publicly, Capra professed to prefer the remake to his original. What else could he do? He had purchased the rights to produce it from Columbia president, Harry Cohn for a whopping $225,000, and deferred his usual salary for a meager $200,000, roughly $150,000 less than what his star, Glenn Ford was being paid to play Dave ‘the Dude’. In retrospect, Pocketful of Miracles is a picture of compromises; each concession contributing to the overall sense of ennui permeating its warhorse of a plot and occasionally anchoring it to the point of tiresome predictability. The best performance within, arguably, belongs to Peter Falk given the plum part of Dave’s right-hand stooge; the long suffering, and smack-talking Joy Boy. Falk’s one liners are all zingers and he effortlessly delivers them with his usual panache for playing the loveably befuddled thug.   
Capra, who had initially aspired to an entirely different tale, one more timely and set in the present – all about Korean War orphans and an apple farm in Oregon - eventually reverted back to the original’s Damon Runyon roots; a clever gangster-land milieu of enchanting obtuse and laughably lowbrow reprobates, bumbling and bungling their attempts to make one of their own – the street peddler, Apple Annie (Bette Davis) – queen for a day. While the original had been set within in the context of then contemporary ‘society’ – or lack thereof, if one so chose to regard it – the remake became a ‘period piece’ by default and seemingly out of step with the ‘then’ current strain of film-making: also, more importantly, with audiences’ shifting tastes. Perhaps, Capra was inspired by Billy Wilder’s monumental success with Some Like It Hot (1959); ironically, another flapper-clad comedy that managed to ring registers across the country.
But Pocketful of Miracles has the unhappy circumstance of being slightly miscast; Capra populating even his backdrop with easily identifiable faces, virtually all having seen better days (and better parts, for that matter) in their earlier careers: Thomas Mitchell as ‘Judge’ Henry G. Blake; Edward Everett Horton, as mildly adorable butler, Hudgens; David Brian, New York’s governor; Jerome Cowan, the city’s mayor, and, Arthur O’Connell, brutally miscast as Spanish Count Alfonso Romero. (Where the hell is Cesar Romero when you need him?!?) Capra was also somewhat forced into accepting Hope Lange as Dave’s nightclub gal pal, Queenie Martin. Lange, who had shown great promise in 1957’s Peyton Place – though precious little elsewhere – also happened to be Glenn Ford’s girlfriend du jour.
With deadlines drawing near, Glenn Ford was foisted upon Capra, who would have preferred Frank Sinatra, Kirk Douglas, or even Jackie Gleason as his star. Capra had already forged a promising relationship with Sinatra, with whom he had recently made A Hole in the Head (1959). Sinatra was, in fact, hired for Pocketful of Miracles before the self-appointed ‘chairman of the board’ bowed out, citing his disapproval of the screenplay. About this: Capra had been unable to convince Abe Burrows or Garson Kanin to update the original’s plot. Frustrated by his reoccurring stalemates, Capra began work on the revamp himself, though sincerely struggling to find cohesion.  At this juncture, Harry Cohn lowered the boom – twice; first, insisting Capra take on a collaborator, then, by refusing to finance the picture outright after the working screenplay by Harry Tugend equally failed to fire up his interests.
Now it was Capra who switched horses in mid-stride, buying up the property outright and pitching it to United Artists. There was some interest there, though not enough to completely finance the picture; hence Glenn Ford’s lucrative proposal to produce the film under his own company; thus, rescuing Pocketful of Miracles from turnaround purgatory. Tragically, Ford had definite ideas about how to proceed, as did Bette Davis; the pair’s frequent bickering leaving Capra with chronic headaches and a strong desire simply to get the damn thing done. By comparison, Lady for A Day had featured mostly second tier contract players Capra could command at will; May Robson as ‘Apple Annie’ giving a tenderly warm-hearted performance that had helped to anchor Robert Riskin’s screenplay in a sort of middle-aged sentimentality. ‘Miracles’ unfortunately became a vehicle for Bette Davis by default; Capra first considering Shirley Booth, Helen Hayes, Katharine Hepburn, and Jean Arthur. Pocketful of Miracles really ought to have been Booth’s picture; Paramount producer, Hal B. Wallis vying to remake it. Evidently, Harry Cohn felt the project would be better served by Capra; a move that caused Wallis to refuse his loan out of Booth – contractually committed to Paramount. But the other aforementioned actresses all turned Capra down flat, leaving the door open for Bette Davis, desperately in need of money during this fallow period in her career.
Alas, Davis is too grand a star for the empathetic Apple Annie; her gestures reeking of scene stealing in a way that almost completely belies her supposedly modest and downtrodden heroine. When first her Cinderella-esque transformation occurs - made complete by an army of beauticians and couturier specialists – Davis, approaching Dave the Dude - and looking resplendent, arms outstretched - to recreate the moment of gratitude from the original, alas, cannot help but pale to Robson’s more matronly frump.  Part of what made Lady for a Day click so well was May Robson’s unassuming presence; her ability to effortlessly morph from drunken hag to stately matron, seemingly from nothing greater than a puff of magic smoke and mirrors. By contrast, Bette Davis sheds her awkwardly dowdy garb to assume the mantle of quality we already know she is capable of achieving. There’s no surprise to this transformation. It’s expected and rather a relief to see Davis finally looking like the star she is, rather than the beleaguered and gin-soaked harridan she has pretended to be.  
Budgeted at $2.9 million, Pocketful of Miracles was rescued from the capital infused into its production by Glenn Ford’s company. Capra trudged on, enduring Davis’ frequent meddling along the way. But she and co-star Glenn Ford also did not get on. Capra was just as soured on Hope Lange, whom Ford had insisted be given the dressing room next to his – a top spot usually reserved for the ‘A’ list talent. Davis was perfectly willing to acquiesce to this request, adding “dressing rooms are never responsible for the success of a film”. But Capra had had enough of compromises and ensconced Davis in the dressing room adjacent Ford’s, causing a pettiness to stir between Ford and Davis. From that moment on, Ford treated Davis with a sort of menial contempt, even insisting in an interview that Davis’ casting had been his idea, artistic remuneration for his being cast in her 1946 smash hit, A Stolen Life, and meant to help Davis revive her ‘sagging career.’ Davis, who could overlook just about anything when she wanted to, never forgave or forgot this insult.
Owing one of its stars her due, Pocketful of Miracles opens with Bette Davis’ prophesizing street peddler, Apple Annie selling her wares to the hoi poloi on Broadway. When she deliberately plants a crisp apple into the open hand of a passerby, only to be given a plum nickel for her efforts, she proudly cocks her head to one side, shouting after him, “Thank you, Mr. Rockefeller!” Unlike May Robson’s benevolent beggar, Davis’ reincarnation is more belligerent than grateful, and devious than sly; contributing to a Salvation Army Santa’s kettle, but snapping at him to “Shut up!” when he benevolently acknowledges her contribution. From this inauspicious debut, Frank Capra has a little trouble getting into the meat of his story, segueing to the narration voiceover from Joy Boy, soon to be jettisoned as we enter an abandoned nightclub, its safe being cracked with some disastrous explosives as Dave the Dude and Joy Boy look on. The Dude has just paid for the burial of a well-known underworld racketeer who, curiously, died penniless and owing Dave $20,000.
Just how he is to collect what is owed him now remains a temporary mystery; that is, until the sudden and unexpected appearance of the deceased’s daughter, Queenie Martin, who promises to make good on her father’s losses. She even makes a modest down payment to prove her intentions. Dave is no fool. He can recognize this kid has definite assets worth exploiting. So, Dave decides to open a flashy bootlegger’s nightclub, making Queenie its proprietress and top-flight musical attraction. Two years pass and Queenie proves herself a success. Too bad with the end of prohibition Dave’s fortunes are set to dry up. Queenie becomes Dave’s long-suffering gal pal; he, seemingly stalling her repeated attempts to land him at a wedding chapel. Dave, alas, has bigger fish to fry; the biggest, in fact – his latest scheme to join Chicago kingpin, Steve Darcey’s (Sheldon Leonard) bigtime mafia.  Darcey is on the lam and Dave firmly believes he can control and roll this one-time fat cat for some quick cash; also, to get the gangster to play ball on his terms.
Dave never makes a move without consulting Annie for a ‘lucky apple’ first – a superstition that, so far, has worked wonders on his enterprising lifestyle. In the meantime, Annie has been sending her estranged daughter, Louise (Ann-Margaret) letters from a swank hotel with stationary pinched from its front register by the doorman, Herbie (Tom Fadden). It seems Annie sent Louise – an illegitimately born child – away to a convent in Spain to be raised by the nuns; having used practically every penny she’s earned in the interim to pay for Louise’s comfortable lifestyle abroad. Louise thinks her mother is the wealthy socialite, Mrs. E. Worthington Manville, who operates in New York’s circles of high society. It’s been a convincing ruse thus far, until Louise elects to return to America with her handsome fiancĂ©, Carlos (Peter Mann) and his father, the wealthy Count Alfonso Romero (Arthur O’Connell – who couldn’t be a swarthy Latin Lothario on his best day). Naturally, the trio expects to find Mrs. Manville living in the lap of luxury.
Queenie encourages Dave to help Annie out. How? Why, by helping to perpetuate her lie for the brief forty-eight hours Louise, her husband to be and father-in-law are in town.  Under Queenie’s guidance Annie is transformed from drunken derelict into dashing dowager. Dave arranges for the cultured pool shark, Henry Blake to pose as Annie’s husband, installing Annie in his out-of-town friend’s hotel suite, complete with Hudgins, the butler, in tow. In the meantime, Darcey grows increasingly frustrated by Dave’s inability to commit to a meeting that will solidify their ‘business’ partnership. Dave wants more than Darcey is willing to give. But Dave has Darcey over a barrel. In fact, the Police Commissioner (Barton Maclane) has already made it clear that, as public enemy #1, if Darcey shows his face in New York he will be sent immediately to jail. To this end, the commissioner puts Police Inspector McCrary (John Litel) on the case; quietly tailing Dave’s every move and making it virtually impossible for him to contact Darcey.
Dave and Queenie have a knockdown/drag out brawl in his hotel suite; she demanding he forgo the arrangement with Darcey to start a ‘quiet life’ with her on a little farm in Connecticut she has already bought with her hard earned monies. Dave is marginally receptive to the idea. But now he’s embroiled in a panicked attempt to make over Annie and give the Count and Carlos a lavish reception. Gathering together a clan of his best mugs and their low class/low brow dames, Dave endeavors to have Blake teach them all how to behave like ladies and gentleman. He uses Queenie’s shuddered nightclub as ground zero for their makeovers and tutelage, drawing McCrary’s interest and surveillance.  McCrary is certain ‘the Dude’ is up to no good and decides to arrest the whole lot before they can hurry off to the hotel where Annie’s party is to take place. At the hotel, the Count and Carlos begin to grow suspicious. Where are the guests? And Annie too has become very nervous, pushed to the brink of making a bittersweet confession to everyone mere moments before Dave arrives with an entourage of New York’s ‘legitimate’ finest citizenry, including the police inspector, the mayor and the governor; all of whom carry on the ruse to Annie’s shock and amazement.
Providing the Count, Carlos and Louise with a police escort to the docks, Annie sees everyone off to Spain. The trio departs, Louise and Annie exchanging tear-stained, heartfelt goodbyes; presumably never again to meet; Annie, knowing she has secured the future happiness of her daughter.  The ending to Pocketful of Miracles, like Lady for a Day, doesn’t make much sense. After all, won’t Annie be invited to her own daughter’s wedding? And if so, how will she be able to attend? Fair enough, both movies set up the fact Annie’s alcoholism has ruined her kidneys, thus, her stake on life is tenuous at best. But what if she does live a few more years? Are we to fathom her own daughter, having been given such a lavish send off, will never desire to see her mother ever again? And what of the anticipated dowry, or – after Annie’s death – inheritance – that can never come to Louise? Perhaps, a Hitchcockian metaphor will suffice here: “It’s only a movie!” Yes, even Damon Runyon’s original story is a fairytale. Pocketful of Miracles is not to be taken seriously, but rather, merely at face value.
This, alas, is difficult to do. Whereas Lady for a Day retained the effervescent charm of Runyon’s original tale (also, a good portion of the author’s flair for backwardly phrased pig-English), Pocketful of Miracles attempts to streamline both the lure and the dialogue to pedestrian effect. Glenn Ford’s performance is manic at best; his Dave generally frantic, impatient and unable to deliver the rapid fire interchanges with Queenie without making them appear as scripted negotiations. And Bette Davis’ Annie is too caustic, too grating on the nerves in her beggary incarnation; too gentile and emotionally torn as the dowager of New York society. May Robson’s Annie relished this transformation, affording her some precious time with her daughter in which a maternal bond could evolve. Davis’ treatment is more panged, less genuine somehow, struggling to make inroads into this relationship with her own flesh and blood. She’s an observer at best; seemingly afraid to approach from the sidelines, even as she quietly observes the romance blossoming between Louise and Carlos on the hotel terrace. 
Somewhere along the way, director Frank Capra has rather insincerely mislaid the crux of the story – its heartwarming centerpiece unceremoniously discarded, or rather, replaced by frenetic dumb show comedy meant to buoy the piece to its inevitable conclusion. Part of the problem with Pocketful of Miracles is that it has been conceived long after the gifted technicians responsible for making expert ‘screwball comedies’ have departed the sound stages. Pocketful of Miracles is an obvious throwback to the heady, hearty and thoroughly unhinged comedy milieu of the 1930’s, but without the thirties verve for slick and stylish wit. In its place, Capra gives us some sharp-shooting repartee between the principles, but it never amounts to anything more, or better, than simply that; the actors involved in its delivery unfamiliar with the particulars of how to make the material click as it should. And then there is the cloying James Van Heusen/Sammy Cahn title song, briefly heard under the main titles and interpolated elsewhere; sung by a children’s choir and thoroughly grating on the nerves. In the end, Pocketful of Miracles is a wan ghost flower of its predecessor; cleverly dressed in elegant trappings, but miserably missing its mark on just about every occasion.
Kino Lorber’s Blu-ray is, thankfully, not the disaster so many of their MGM/Fox acquisitions of more recent times have been. Right off the bat we get the revived Leo the Lion platinum gold trademark – usually the forbearer of better things. Sure enough, Pocketful of Miracles has been given consideration and some restoration efforts to ready it for this 1080p release. The visuals are fairly smooth with a modicum of film grain naturally represented. Overall, color fidelity is impressive; particularly the scenes taking place in Queenie’s nightclub, flooded with garishly rich and ultra-saturated tones. Flesh too looks very natural. Contrast is, at least in spots, a tad weaker than anticipated; blacks registering more tonal deep gray than black. And color too waffles from vibrant to slightly faded, perhaps even hinting at the first signs of vinegar syndrome during the movie’s last third. Transitions are mostly smooth except, again – and curiously – during these last reels when they tend to suffer from a momentary lapse in both refinement and clarity. Overall, the visual presentation will not disappoint. There is, in fact, quite a lot to recommend it. But Kino has encoded this disc with a disappointingly weak bit rate and this appears to have impacted both the overall softening of the image and coarsening of its grain structure. On smaller monitors, Pocketful of Miracles will likely impress. In projection it doesn’t quite live up to expectations and, in spots, falls apart. Minor compression noise is glaringly obvious.  Kino lossless DTS mono is competent, but unremarkable. There are no extras, save a badly worn theatrical trailer.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)


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