Saturday, May 23, 2009

A Pair of Ladies

Warren William and May Robson in Lady for a Day. Thanks to Cliff at Warren William dot com for the still.

Lady for a Day (1933) is an early example of classic Frank Capra fish out of water comedy. May Robson plays a boozing old apple peddler who poses as a society dame in order to fool her daughter's fiancee and his family. Warren William plays the gambler Dave the Dude with an irrationally strong attachment to Annie's apples as good luck charms. Dave gets completely consumed by the plot, borrowing an apartment, convincing his girlfriend to give the old girl a makeover, pressing his gang into posing as dignitaries and eventually getting himself deep into a kidnapping charge. So deep, that only a last act, Frank Capra style miracle could pull him out. For a pre-code film, this was pretty tame and even Missouri Martin's (Glenda Farrell) "I need a Man" dance number probably would have made it through the censors later in the decade. Why this film got lost, I'll never understand because it would have perfect for revival. I guess the studios had enough current Frank Capra product to deal with in later years.

William and Robson are quite fun together, but he always hangs back and the movie skillfully avoids getting mushy. You know Dave's motivation is more than just needing her luck, that there is also real affection there as well, but he never lets it out of the bag for more than a moment. That's one of the things I appreciate about William as an actor. Dave is an unrepentant scoundrel who may or may not get roped into making an honest woman out of Missouri Martin, but he is still likeable. Annie for her part gives up the sauce and becomes infinitely less fun. Robson is great when she's embarrassing herself with her nails on chalkboard shriek in a posh hotel lobby or when she's penning letters to her daughter while slugging back an entire bottle of gin. She's just perfunctory and proper when she becomes a society lady and she has too few moments where you think she might slip a little. The characters are probably too numerous and those that should have center stage, get the short shrift in the second half of the movie as Capra's jauggernaut plot steams along to its conclusion despite them. I would also like the relationship between Missouri and Dave to be fleshed out a little more, or at all.

Building on the success of its first Lady, Columbia knocked off Lady by Choice, less than a year later with the same star (May Robson) and several of same supporting players including the always-excellent Walter Connolly. This time Robson plays a boozing bag lady who gets adopted by a fan dancer (Carole Lombard) as a Mother's Day publicity stunt. Despite being derivative, this rehash is actually just as entertaining as the first "Lady." Where Capra delights in heaping more characters and complications into his plot, director David Burton hangs back and concentrates on the relationship between Lombard and Robson. Robson actually gets to explore this character and really bring her to life in this second film. Robson and Lombard are very good and they work wonderfully well together, skillfully cranking out comedy and playing just enough sentiment, but not too much. There is a weak love story (we really could have used a Warren William here!) with Roger Pryor and Lombard. Of course, Lombard is luminous and charming as always and manages to carry those parts of the picture despite not being particularly well matched.

Lady for a Day is a busy picture that will probably reward repeat viewing and Lady by Choice may be a pleasant surprise, a knock-off that is every bit as good as the original.


kda0121 said...

I love Lady for a Day. A great early Frank Capra vehicle and the casting of Warren William was a stroke of genius. I like May Robson as Apple Annie and think this version is far superior to Capra's remake, Pocketful of Miracles.

Cliff Aliperti said...

I agree we could have used a little more w/Dave the Dude and Missouri Martin (maybe they felt such scenes would rob focus from Apple Annie though?). Enjoyed Guy Kibbee and Ned Sparks quite a bit here, though Walter Connolly, who I otherwise always like, seemed miscast. I'd complain about Jean Parker too, but she may as well have been a ghost.

Great feel for the Depression, especially in the early scenes. Wonder if they've had to retouch the fly from Dave's early bet as years have gone by.

Have yet to see Capra's remake with Glenn Ford and Bette Davis (Pocketful of Miracles), but have a feeling it may be partially responsible for lack of revival. Either that or it had its revival in '61 with the remake!

Thanks for the post, Cliff
(PS: Just so you know, I did answer you on your original post to the About page of the WW site. And yes, no prob.)

Jennythenipper said...

I've never seen Pocketful of Miracles. That would explain why this was never revived.

I just learned today, Cliff that Warren William was from Aitkin, Minnesota. A local boy. Aitkin is a bit of rural backwater, even now. I imagine when he was born it was little more than a few lumber mills and some log cabins. I was once visiting a friends cabin up there and a guy came in wearing a coon skin cap and carrying a bottle of Jim Beam.