Monday, September 17, 2012

Lady for a Day (1933)

Columbia Pictures

Director: Frank Capra

For years Columbia Pictures would sit among the bottom feeders of Hollywood’s “Poverty Row” looking up at all the grander, flashier major studios getting all the attention. Here for the first time little Columbia throws a film into the ring and comes out a contender as one of the best pictures of the year making a small statement to the Hollywood elite that the small studios can produce pictures on par, if not better than, the big boys (MGM, Paramount, Warner Bros., RKO, and 20th Century-Fox). Directed by Columbia’s most creative and reliable filmmaker, Frank Capra, Lady for a Day would be a feature produced with little faith in the film to catch on with audiences and given even less faith in a cast with little names after failing to land, or even afford, any major stars. In the end Lady for a Day would get both the studio and the Capra their first taste of major acclaim, a stepping stone to better futures.

Lady for a Day is a comedy/drama of a New York City apple peddler who, with the help of friends and monitory backing from a big shot gambler, must convince her daughter on a visit that she, a humble peddler, is member of the wealthy social elite. As we are introduced to the small world of street peddlers in New York City, we are familiarized to Apple Annie (May Robson), a well-liked, elderly apple hawker who is even considered good luck by one of the city’s most notorious gamblers, known as Dave the Dude (Warren William). For years Annie has convinced her daughter, whom she sent to Europe shortly after birth to be raised in a convent, that she was a well-to-do lady of the city through her many exaggerated correspondence over time. The problem is Annie’s now grown up daughter Louis (Jean Parker) plans to visit her mother to introduce Annie to her fiancĂ©e and his father, an important Spanish count. Thus Annie now has the dilemma of her daughter discovering the truth about her being merely a street urchin, but Annie’s friends have other ideas.

With conviction fellow peddlers petition Dave the Dude to fund the plan of staging Annie as the wealthy lady she claimed to be for the time when her daughter is in town, so to not break Annie’s heart. Dave being a kind person to Annie, belief in her good luck apples, agrees to the ruse. By supplying Annie with a swanky hotel apartment, a complete makeover, and the hiring of the well-spoken pool hustler (played by Guy Kibbee) posing as Annie’s dignified husband, Annie is completely transformed into a lady that fools her daughter. It is a tearful reunion, but Dave must keep suspicious people from breaking the truth on the situation. With the police moving in on Dave and his mob bending the law to keep Annie’s ruse going, hope looks lost for Annie to continue the charade. However, with the help and good will of many, for one fairytale evening all of New York’s most dignified people, including the mayor and governor, surprise Annie by coming to a staged grand gala to celebrate Annie and her visitors. Though it is all a lie, the love poured out for Annie is overwhelming as for a day she is the belle of the ball, aiding in the happiness of Annie or her daughter.

It is amazing how Capra’s films seem to carry such larger amounts of heart when compared to other major studio films. Filled with touching moments, one becomes attached to these characters and the well being of Apple Annie. We know that all this is a lie and when it is all over things more or less go back to normal, Annie being a street peddler and a nobody, but for one beautiful evening she was the most important person in the city, simply because she loved her daughter. You can see-saw back and forth in your mind the ethics of the situation, but you cannot help but be touched by the moment when dignitaries enter the ballroom and greet Annie as a lady. Along with above average filmmaking and the acting of, other than Warren William, an ensemble of lesser known character actors, Lady for a Day is a film with a great charm to it, worthy of being called one of 1933’s best.

Know as one of Columbia’s most reliable and creative directors, Italian born Frank Capra brings more heart and sense of America to cinema than most directors of the time. Both he and Columbia were not large names by any means, but here he is able to produce a film that takes us on emotional journey, even though the story is clearly a comedy. Capra brings layers to the film, in story, acting, and cinematography. Take for example the scene where Annie is walking through the crowded sidewalk trying to read the letter from Louis that reveals her upcoming visit. Capra films it in a way that gets across the franticness of the city by shooting at such an angle that fills the screen with pedestrians seemingly all around Annie. This is further accentuated when he cuts to the letter, where we still see shadows crossing over the words on the paper giving us the very important plot point, but still staying in the moment of the busy, anxious sidewalk, all this leading to Annie fainting. It is details that fill those few shots that though they seem insignificant trying to describe them, they are important to an educated viewer as it keeps us still in the moment. In a lesser detailed film a director would cut to the paper and all you see are still words and a lack of surrounding, as if the word of the busy is no longer there. The atmosphere was part of the moment and Capra understands atmosphere and emotion before just getting shots done for the sake of them being done.

The funny thing about going into production of Lady for a Day is that Capra was not keen of directing the picture. He voiced his concern of making a film where the heroine was a seventy year old woman. Nonetheless producer and studio head Harry Cohn knew something was there and now we get to enjoy it as one of 1933’s best films.

To star in the picture we see May Robson, a seventy five year old actress that has experience on stage and screen totaling 50 years. Since working in movies her roles were primarily old, crotchety or overly dignified ladies. Here Robson gets the chance to play an emotion center of a picture, a person you can really care for and deeply be attached to instead of the two-dimensional roles she was usually playing.

Robert Montgomery would be the man originally thought of for the role of Dave the Dude, but MGM refused to lend him out. Similar stories would come from pursuing the likes of William Powell and James Cagney for the role. In the end we see Warren William, an actor just about to hit his peak. William’s performance is a close second of importance in the picture. Though we center on Annie, we spend more time with Dave the Dude. William brings heart as well as toughness to the role of the Dude, convincing us that he in fact cares about Annie’s well being, even though he makes a living off of preying on other people’s misfortunes on gambling. William would hit his heights in 1934 with performances with Claudette Colbert in Imitation of Life and DeMille’s Cleopatra.

Most of the remaining cast would be made up of freelance character actors, or simply men that Columbia could afford. The supporting cast is headed by Guy Kibbee, a jovial and slightly rotund actor, who can be seen in many films around this time throughout Hollywood, a popular character actor. Here Kibbee plays a slightly mischievous hustler provides laughs in time of when the story needs them. The remaining main supporting cast included the beautiful, but tough performance of Glenda Farrell as Dave’s main squeeze, and Annie’s makeover artist, the deadpan sarcasm of Ned Sparks playing the ironically named Happy, and the fresh faced Jean Parker as the innocent Louis.

Lady for a Day would go on to be a well received picture with critics who connected with the emotional core of the picture, as well and enjoying the fine comedy that lined the undertone of the storyline. The modern fairytale quality of the story would hit a cord with critics and would be recognition by both audiences and the Academy. The film would be nominated for four Academy Awards, including best adapted screenplay, May Robson for best actress (for many years the oldest actor to ever be nominated), Frank Capra’s first nomination for best director, and Columbia’s first film recognized in the category of best picture. The feature would not win any categories, though Capra was halfway to the stage until he realized that be lost to Frank Lloyd when presenter Will Rogers announced the winner with “Come up and get it, Frank!” That would be a minor embarrassment considering Capra’s best works were still to come; soon to be one of the most decorated directors ever.

Lady for a Day would be a well loved film for many. At one point the picture was almost lost as most copies were destroyed by accentes, but Capra had his copy. Years later the movie would be remade by Frank Capra in the form of 1961’s Pocketful of Miracles, starring Bette Davis and Glen Ford. It would be Capra’s last picture, and he claimed to enjoyed it more than this original. Even so, most critics and viewers prefer the original with is near perfect magical quality to the claimed superior remake. The best was yet to come for Capra and Columbia, and that would be seen the following year the surprising feature It Happened One Night.

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