Apple Annie (May Robson) is, quite fittingly, the Times Square apple seller. She has a reputation for being a good luck charm among the likes of Dave the Dude (Warren William) and his merry band of gamblin’ gangsters, and they all love her. Dave the Dude refuses to make a deal without buying an apple from her first, as a good luck charm.
Though she has many friends, Annie doesn’t have any family in New York. Her daughter lives in Spain. Through letters, Annie has convinced her daughter that she’s a member of the city’s high society, so as not to disappoint her or embarrass her with the truth.
So when Annie’s daughter writes that she plans to visit her mother in New York City, Annie is sent into a bit of panic. How can she pull together the lavish lifestyle and a schedule full of fun parties that her daughter expects?
Luckily, after a bit of convincing from Annie’s fellow beggars, Dave the Dude is willing to come to the rescue and turn Annie into a Lady for a Day, giving her a makeover and allowing her to stay in a ritzy suite.
Frank Capra directs the dramatic comedy Lady for a Day, adapted from Damon Runyon’s short story Madame La Gimp, which was originally published in a 1929 issue of Cosmopolitan. The film was nominated for four Academy Awards: best performance by a lead actress, best director, best picture and best adapted screenplay.
The film follows interesting lead characters. Annie in particular is not your usual, glamorous leading lady of the early 1930s. She doesn’t live in an art deco palace or sip champagne constantly. Instead, she sells fruit on the street and lives in a small, cluttered room. She’s also no pretty little showgirl of the type often seen in this era of film – she’s an elderly, somewhat raggedy woman.
This is pretty great to see, because it gives the film a somewhat more realistic edge that the audience can relate to. I love to see characters living the high life and wearing pretty gowns as much as the next person, but seeing an older lead character who is just an average, struggling American during the Depression era is refreshing. Even when characters are down-and-out, they’re still usually pretty, young ladies who have an air of glamour to them despite their lack of financial stability. The film still has glamour, with the higher-class characters and Annie’s transformation, but it feels much less like watching the pursuits of the rich than most of the films that come to mind when I think of the 1930s.
Lady for a Day is a very sweet and funny film, but the film doesn’t go so far with the sweetness as to be too sappy or too melodramatic. It has a witty script with quotable one-liners, moments of hilarity and dramatic scenes.
The film’s lead performances are both subtle and believable. Most of the cast is comprised of Capra’s second-choice actors (since most of his tops couldn’t get out to Columbia on loan), but they’re all amazing regardless. The film is carried well by them as a group, with May Robson standing in the lead. Her performance is sometimes heartbreaking, sometimes heartwarming but always completely solid.
The overall mood is heartwarming. It’s nice for the viewer to see so many people come together to help Annie, even though most of them don’t have much to share. Annie’s friendliness and “good luck” are rewarded by these people not letting her down in a time of need. And so, in a fashion typical of some of Capra’s work, the film showcases the inspirational side of things (such as in It’s a Wonderful Life). This an seem a bit corny to the jaded modern viewer, but is lovely to those of us who still have a smidge of faith in some of our fellow humans.
On top of the heartwarming “people helping people” premise, the film has the message of “don’t judge a book by its cover.” Be considerate, because you never know what someone is truly dealing with. How you see others is often not how their life is. Annie appears rich to her daughter, but isn’t; the beggars may seem like simple, poor folks who fit the stereotype of being lazy or unfit for real employment, but in reality they’re a strong community of people struggling to make ends meet and help each other.
Lady for a Day spins a bit of an improbable tale, but a charming and hopeful one. It’s worth a watch or two. The score: 3.5/5