Sunday, May 15, 2022

LADY FOR A DAY (Frank Capra, 1933)


Annie is a small apple in the Big One, carrying good luck in a wicker basket for Dave the Dude but wearing her own misfortune like a funeral shroud. Frank Capra’s drama is “melo” in all the right places, a Depression-era fantasy that wears its heart on its tattered sleeve. Watching this, I was thinking of Steven Spielberg's often trite ho-hum fantasies that can be discarded without much effort and how Capra’s have always been superior. Specifically, in this film Capra creates a drab and realistic world for his characters to inhabit, suffering and bad luck are as ubiquitous as the crowds on the city streets. He doesn’t romanticize suffering, it fucking sucks for Annie and her street-smart cohorts yet he doesn’t condescend either. Capra only offers his character a temporary reprieve from torment, not a permanent “everything will be alright” fix. In fact, after the tearful denouement one wonders what the future has in store for Annie: it sure doesn’t seem pleasant. Capra gives us a hint visually: Annie, standing on the crowded dock holding onto a thin paper streamer thrown from her daughter, who holds the other end as she departs on the steamship. Annie’s connection to Louise is fragile and twisted about, a moment of celebration later becomes trash to be swept up from the dock. 

The plot is rather simple: Annie is a poor street vendor who has been deceiving her daughter Louise, who lives in Europe and is about to be married to a Count’s son, by stealing stationary from an exclusive hotel and writing her about her high society lifestyle. Of course, her fiancée’s family wants to meet Annie and they set sail for NYC! But gangster Dave the Dude needs Annie’s apples for good luck so when she is down and out, his luck becomes rotten: and he needs good luck for an upcoming big business deal. So, he gets his gang and Annie’s downtrodden friends together to fake a cotillion while trying to keep reporters away (as in locked away!). Hilarity, suspense and good old fashioned kindness ensue. 

The cast is excellent! Mary Robson as Apple Annie wears the role like her drab and tattered clothing, and even when she’s haunting the role of a socialite one can just peer under the deception to see the scared and tender mother who so loves her daughter. It’s such a genuine performance and the film wouldn’t work without our sympathies squarely on her side. This is done by a solid script but Mary Robson breathes life into inanimate typeface. Warren William is the classy Mob Boss Dave the Dude who imbues his character with the requisite amount of charm and dangerous sincerity. Guy Kibee plays penny-ante pool shark Judge Blake (called Judge because he’s erudite, not because he’s formally educated) who masquerades as Annie’s wealthy husband. It’s another funny and selfless performance from Guy Kibee whose character is a hustler with a heart of a golden apple. But it’s Ned Sparks as the incongruously named Happy McGuire that steals the film in a secondary role, his droll and often loud pronouncements hilariously monotone with a wide-eyed kind of disbelief at the circumstances. He’s the voice of reason, the boy who never believed in Santa Clause and doesn’t mind telling his Boss. We also get a solid performance from Halliwell Hobbes as the butler whose reactions are restrained yet always on the verge of hysteria. 

Once again Director of Photography Joseph Walker elevates what could have been a humdrum story (even with great acting) to a cinematic classic. His camera movements and deep focal points especially in crowded scenes is exemplary, the blocking and choreography of movement must have influenced Akira Kurosawa in his formative years. Kurosawa watched every Hollywood film he could see in his youth and Walker’s camerawork must have been influential! 

Though we get the essential happy ending it is still one of hard knocks, fleeting like the steamship that carries the daughter away. Thus, it weighs heavier on our heart. 

Final Grade: (B)