Proof That It’s Pre-Code
- Our main character and eventual hero is a gangster, though he’s not much in the Jimmy Cagney way.
- There’s a makeover required, and a male hairdresser, Pierre, is requested. The gangster denies him entrance until he’s convinced that the guy is… well, okay to be around all those women being made over.
- It’s a timeless story, but one that very much reflected on The Great Depression and an optimism towards the future. But I’ll get more into that below.
The Particulars of the Picture
|Dave the Dude…
Lady for a Day: All the good things we could do
“Fine mess you got everyone into.”
I’ve always felt kinda bad for director Frank Capra. He’s remembered more by people who’ve only seen a handful of his movies– usually his feel-good films like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and It’s A Wonderful Life— than anyone who’s examined his filmography.
Capra was a deeply cynical filmmaker. Even in Lady for a Day, which is essentially an oddly retold Cinderella story for the Great Depression, the film revels in just how selfish people are. That it ends up reawakening their sense of decency and goodness is treated as a minor miracle.
Here we’ve got the story of Apple Annie, a woman who makes her way with the street urchins by selling the fruit for five cents on the street. We see the urchins, who all have a range of physical and mental disabilities, being a hardy bunch. They gossip, trade info, and work together– essentially, Capra perpetuating the cliche that the poor are the ones that are truly happy.
Well, that’s well and good, but no one believes it, and certainly not the people actually in the film. We get quite a bit of upper crust society which is filled with backbiters, idiots, and cynics. The worst of the lot is Dave the Dude (Williams), a mobster so rich that he gets his kicks making completely frivolous bets– like which pile of sugar a fly will land on.
Annie’s unhappy with her station in life but only in how its perceived on the outside. For example, she’s been stealing away with stationary from a local hotel to send to her grown up daughter in Europe, spinning fanciful stories about a rich husband and elegant parties. But when daughter wants to come home and visit mom, along with a potential husband and a nosy father, it could spell disaster.
Luckily, Annie has one shot: Dave the Dude gets his lucky apples from her. On this threadbare connection, Dave realizes he’s going to have to help Annie get herself out of the mess, and to do so he enlists the rest of his unruly gangster cohorts and a whole nightclub to help. He hires a man named Judge to play the husband, but the man– a pool shark by trade– finds the idea of being married to an apple peddler unappetizing.
But she grows on him, and everyone else. As the criminals and lowlifes begin to work hard to make the illusion Annie needs come true, they come to an uncomfortable recognition that making her life better makes themselves happier.
Which, hey, in the Great Depression, is an interesting conclusion for a filmmaker to be pushing. I was serious when I said it was Cinderella story earlier, with the police and other government heads getting involved in the proceedings. They, too, discover their hearts underneath their selfishness.
Most would view this as Capra’s sentimentality overtaking a film, but the ending, as sweet and happy as it is, ignores everything that comes before it, and potentially everything that could come after it. He ends it on the perfect note of unity and joy, but knows that this isn’t how the real world works. During the Depression, you wanted the fantasy. Needed it.
Lady for a Day is light and funny and staffed by an outrageously talented cast, but the movie understands that even in the worst of times we’ll still always function in our best interests. It’s only when those interests align, when we see what everyone can accomplish when they put their heads together, that miracles really do occur. And that, kids… that’s what dreams are made out of.
Trivia & Links
- A big ouch from IMDB:
When Frank Capra was nominated for his first Best Director Oscar in 1933 for Lady for a Day, presenter Will Rogers merely opened the envelope and said “Come and get it, Frank!” Already halfway to the stage, Capra realized that Rogers wasn’t referring to him, but to Frank Lloyd, who was getting the Oscar for Cavalcade.
- This blog called Battleship Pretension has a pretty good review of it, and they talk about the loveliness of the film’s blu-ray presentation.
- Hahaha, oh God. This review complains about the movie’s lack of believability. Are you kidding me? Jesus Christ, if all you look for in movies is ‘believability’, stop watching movies. Go stare at grass, you loon.
- Lady for a Day has recently been remastered and released on both Blu-Ray and DVD. You can order them from Amazon or rent them from Classicflix.