Lady for a Day seemed like just another Best Picture nominee when I first had a glance at it. Then I saw that it was directed by Frank Capra, who would go on the following year to make It Happened One Night, the first film to win the Big 5 Academy Awards, so my expectations for this one were that much more elevated. Did it live up to those raised expectations? I’m not sure; it probably met them, but I wouldn’t say it went any further than that. Now, I’m just as flummoxed as you that I’d have as tepid a reaction to this film as I did, especially since every Frank Capra film on the 1001 List I loved to different degrees, so where does Lady for a Day not go as far as those other films? Really, I’m not certain; maybe it was the short length, or the overly-sweet ending, but whatever it was, it made this film not a clear winner. It was still a winner, mind you, but not to the level I’ve come to expect from this director.
Frank Capra once said about filming in Hollywood that “the only rule in filmmaking is that there are no rules”. Right from the get-go in Lady for a Day, he proves how much of a rule-breaker he is by taking on a film where the lead character is a 70-year-old woman. Played by May Robson, Apple Annie makes a meager living selling fruit on street corners. One of her regulars, Dave, goes by the name The Dude, a young gambler who’s convinced Annie’s apples bring him good luck. Whatever money Annie makes, she sends overseas to her semi-abandoned daughter Louise, who (thanks to letters written by Annie) believes her to be a high society lady. This charade, however, is threatened when Louise becomes engaged to a Spanish count, whose father wishes to meet Louise’s parents, and thus Louise’s letter that they are already in transit to New York finds its way to Annie. Seeing Annie in the state she’s in (since she doesn’t want her daughter to find out she’s nothing but a street peddler), The Dude decides to repay the good luck she’s given him and sets her up to be the lady her daughter and her fiance’s family believe her to be, complete with fashionable clothes, a stately husband, and friends in high places; of course, expanding the charade means expanding the chances that things could go wrong, and I’m sure you can imagine the shenanigans that are bound to erupt to keep everything on the up-and-up. As in-depth as that plot summary was, there’s even more to it than that, so if you’re worried I’ve spoiled too much already, don’t be. This is the first Capra picture nominated for the big one at the Oscars, and while I haven’t seen too many of his earlier films, I can certainly see why this one was tapped for the award, as well as Best Director for Capra; this film wouldn’t be nearly what it is if it weren’t for Capra’s handling of the film and structuring it the way he does, as well as some fine camerawork to boot. Also, cheers to May Robson as Apple Annie, who was immediately captivating in her role even despite (or maybe because of) her rough edges in it.
I’m not sure what else to say about this one; it’s a Frank Capra picture, so there’s charm and wit and schmaltz for days on end, so if that’s your thing, this will make you more than happy, and frankly, it will probably make you just as happy even if it’s not your thing; that’s how effective it is. Add to that the deftly-handled direction by Capra, the on-point script, and the excellent May Robson, and there’s not a whole lot to dislike about Lady for a Day. Even still, though, I felt that I hadn’t gotten enough from this film, of whatever I had wanted from it. The ending, while satisfying in a creampuff sort of way, didn’t really feel legitimate, and the film felt like it was shorter than it should’ve been. I liked this, but neither do I see any real need for me to ever see it again. Capra films seem to be like that; either they’re endlessly rewatchable classics, or they’re just as good but not as rewatchable, and this falls into the latter category. I still liked it, though, and I’d be surprised if it ended up below the line in my ranking of the nominees.
Arbitrary Rating: 7/10