Lady for a Day - 1933

Lady for a Day - Released September 13, 1933. Directed by Frank Capra

Street-beggar "Apple Annie" has been filching stationary (via doorman Forrester Harvey) from a posh New York City Hotel and sending letters and money to her daughter (Jean Parker) raised in a convent in Spain. The letters that she writes on the stolen stationary detail a completely fictional life in which "Apple Annie" is a wealthy member of New York high society under a different name.

This ruse runs into a shattering moment of truth, though: the daughter is now older and is leaving Spain with a fiancee in tow, along with the boy's father, a member of the Spanish aristocracy, and they mean to visit with Annie as a prelude to the coming marriage of the girl and boy.

Distraught (and angry) Annie is determined to force the hotel where she has been supposedly living to join in her lie and to pretend that "Mrs. Manville" (Annie's fictional alter-ego) has died so that she won't have to face her daughter and expose the truth (we learn later the issue is more than just the faked lifestyle, but also that the daughter was born illegitimate). The hotel refuses to play along and instead calls the police.

Meanwhile, Dave the Dude (Warren William) is searching for Annie, who has gone missing from the streets. He treats the old woman as a good luck charm, always buying an apple off of her before going into a new (and probably criminal) deal. When he finds her, drunk and on the verge of suicide, he is ready to walk away and let the matter be, but with a new "investment" hanging over his head, he is slightly terrified of pursuing the deal unless he gets Annie back on her feet and can obtain the requisite 'good luck' from her.

But how can he get Annie out of the mess her lie has created?

Director Frank Capra was starting to come into his mature style with Lady for A Day, and many of the elements that went into his later films like Mr. Deeds Goes to Town and It's A Wonderful Life are on the screen. Robert Riskin (who scripted the bulk of Capra's best films) is on hand adapting the Damon Runyon story, and the dialogue from the many side characters adds a lot of the fun to the film, but also the unusual sight of a Hollywood movie inspecting the faces of denizens from the gutter with something like respect (or even moments of admiration).

The superstitious element that fuels Dave the Dude's determination to save Annie shows up in a few other places in the film, but probably the most overt is when Annie has been gone over by a gay hairstylist (Capra signals this so hard to the audience the only thing lacking is a blinking neon light over the character's head) and his team of cosmetologists brought in by Dave's girlfriend "Missouri Martin," played by Glenda Farrell. Then the disheveled, drunken Annie re-emerges as the stately, sweet and dignified Mrs. Worthington Manville, a gleaming white image (under Joseph Walker's glowing cinematography) of sentimental motherhood. She walks slowly across the plush carpet of the deluxe apartment that Dave has procured for her, and Dave and his two main henchmen ('Happy', played by Ned Sparks, and 'Shakespeare', played by Nat Pendleton) react like they're seeing a ghost, presumably intended by Capra (and Walker) to be the spectre of their own character's mothers. Simultaneously Capra makes the scene a little goofy (the extreme change in appearance) but also a bit shocking, as if to say, you mean there was a human being under all that dirt on that foul-mouthed street beggar?

This being Capra (and 1933), we know that the problems are all going to get ironed out and the daughter and the boy will be able to marry. It's a funny series of unexpected turns that makes it happen, though, with Dave the Dude trying to get his gang of low class ruffians and dance-hall girls transformed by rented clothing into something like members of upper crust society, and more importantly, taught to talk like they know proper English (which they don't). All of Lady for A Day takes it for granted that class distinctions (and lying about them) is just a reality to be accepted and subverted, not rejected (you might as well reject the weather).

May Robson and Guy Kibbee make an effective older and respectable Mr and Mrs. Manville. Kibbee is actually a pool hall shark with a talent for flowery speech called 'Judge Blake' who is forced into the charade by Dave, and this pool shark's talent at billiards comes in handy when the visiting Spanish aristocrat (Walter Connolly as Count Romero) wants to gamble over the the bride's dowry (which the destitute Apple Annie, of course, has not a penny).

Capra uses a motiff that shows up in many other of his films, a flowing stream of water in which a boy and girl converse (flowing water, even if it is just rain on a window, often signals intimacy or personal revelation in a Capra movie). But in Lady for a Day, a flowing sheet of water (which Walker shoots straight through which shows the images of the people undulating on it's surface) has the two figures of the boy and girl, but then Capra suddenly adds a third person, the figure of Mrs. Manville, who is then become as intimate a partner in the coming nuptials as these two lovers, as if Riskin and Capra want to say, every Mom matters, even street beggar Apple Annie.


Original Page October 2017

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