Lady for a Day represented a watershed in the career of Frank Capra. The young director had been laboring at Columbia Pictures’ Poverty Row Studio, churning out 18 films in less than six years. He had moved from low-budget programmers (That Certain Thing) to A-pictures (or what passed for A-pictures at Columbia, like Submarine) . . . to the critically respected Platinum Blonde and American Madness.
But, despite good reviews and an almost unbroken string of financial successes, Capra couldn’t get any respect from that bastion of official Hollywood—the Motion Picture Academy. Even though the Academy Awards were only a few years old at the time, they were already established as the ultimate imprimatur of quality in the industry.
In his autobiography The Name Above the Title, Capra admits to being obsessed with the Oscars. The Miracle Woman and The Bitter Tea of General Yen had been passed over. It was clear that the major studios wouldn’t dare admit that quality might arise from the slums of Poverty Row.
Lady for a Day was the breakthrough: although it got left out of the final awards, it garnered four nominations—for Best Picture, Director, Screenplay, and Actress. Real recognition would have to wait until next year, when It Happened One Night won in the five most important categories—Picture, Director, Screenplay, Actor and Actress—a feat that would not be duplicated until One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest years later.
It’s no accident that Lady for a Day put Capra over the top, for it also represented an aesthetic breakthrough. It’s the first of his films in which all his trademark themes came together, and all the lessons he had learned in his low-budget apprenticeship jelled into a polished personal style. The struggle between head and heart—the conflict that underlies all his work—had its first full expression in this slight fable of camaraderie among the outcasts.
Capra had purchased the rights to Madame la Gimp—one of Damon Runyon’s earliest stories about the guys and dolls of the Broadway demimonde. The story probably predates Runyon and has proven supernaturally durable: it has been purloined for TV sitcoms time and again, and was remade (as A Pocketful of Miracles) by Capra himself as his final feature. The central idea couldn’t be simpler. Apple Annie (May Robson) is an apple-peddling, gin-soaked bag lady who harbors a deep secret. Though she appears to be the lowest of the low, she has for years been putting her illegitimate daughter through a convent school in Spain. Ashamed about her real identity, she writes letters to the daughter posing as Mrs. E. Worthington Manville, a respectable society matron.
One day the daughter announces that she will be arriving in New York with her fiance and prospective father-in-law in tow. The latter (Walter Connelly) is a Spanish count who wants to be sure that his son is marrying well.
The old lady’s world appears ready to collapse: she might be able to take the personal humiliation, but she would literally rather die than see her social position destroy her daughter’s chances for happiness. Luckily for Annie, Dave the Dude (Warren Williams) organizes his gambler/gangster buddies and they go to absurd lengths to put up a front that will impress the Spaniards. Like most of Capra’s major films, it’s a story of people discovering the value of doing good deeds with no personal material payoff—a forerunner to Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Meet John Doe, and of course It’s a Wonderful Life.
We can see, in fully developed form, all the devices that became essential of the director’s style. Capra had learned to exploit the beauty of the average face: as Annie plays Tchaikovsky on the phonograph, he presents a poignant series of close-ups of her neighbors, just listening. He had discovered how to get away with the most outrageous sentimentality: just have one totally cynical character on screen—in this case, Ned Sparks as Dave’s right-hand man—to let us know that Capra knew he was getting too sappy.
Capra, raised with the myth of the American and educated to be an engineer, was half-Pollyanna/half-realist. His greatest movies all express arguments between the optimist, who knows that miracles can happen, and the hardheaded pragmatist, who knows that they don’t. The optimist always wins out: it is a sign of Capra’s technical genius that his movies make the toughest cynics believe (even if only briefly) in the very things their intellectual faculties tell them aren’t real.