Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Lady for a Day

Format: Turner Classic Movies on rockin’ flatscreen.

Oh, boy. This is going to be interesting. Lady for a Day is a film that takes a hard turn. Unlike most films, this one takes that turn in the first half hour rather than at the end. There’s no real indication at the start of the film that this is going to turn into a screwball comedy, but that’s precisely where we end up going. Lady for a Day seems to have its heart in the right place, but how it gets there is completely backwards.

We start with Apple Annie (May Robson), a destitute and seedy apple peddler working the streets of New York. The vision we’re given of Annie is not a pleasant one. She spends a good deal of her time two-fisting a huge bottle of booze. She’s got two things going for her. First, she has an in with Dave the Dude (Warren William), a local gambler. The Dude is convinced that he only has luck if he buys one of Annie’s apples. The other thing she has going for her is her daughter Louise (Jean Parker). She hasn’t seen Louise in years since the girl was raised from infancy in a Spanish convent. When she’s not hawking apples, Annie writes letters to her daughter on stationery stolen from a classy hotel.

Annie has constructed a vivid fantasy world to present to her daughter. In this world, she’s not Apple Annie, but Mrs. E. Worthington Manville, society matron. According to the letters, Annie lives a life of parties and receptions, something that will prevent Louise from being embarrassed by her mother. This is all terribly tragic, of course, and it becomes more tragic when the next letter from Louise says that she will be coming to New York with her fiancé Carlos (Barry Norton) and Carlos’s father, Count Romero (Walter Connolly). This sends Annie into a tailspin, because her ruse will suddenly be discovered.

And this is where the turn takes place. Suddenly, Apple Annie becomes a cause celebre among the criminal class and drifters of New York. Realizing that if Annie implodes mentally that his luck will drain away, Dave the Dude takes up her cause. He manages to secure her a room in the fancy hotel and arranges for local pool shark Judge Blake (the great Guy Kibbee) to act as her husband. The ruse works for a bit. When society reporters show up to interview the Count and with questions about the sudden appearance of the unknown Mrs. E. Worthington Manville, Dave has his henchmen kidnap them to keep up the ruse. He then arranges for his girlfriend Missouri Martin (Glenda Farrell) to turn Annie into something presentable, and then arranges for his extended crew to act as society members to pass off to the Count at a reception.

Since this is a film from 1933, and the second two-thirds of it are a straight comedy, the actual ending and whether or not the ruse succeeds shouldn’t be much of a surprise. There are naturally complications with the police along the way, but everyone who is a little bit shady gets what they want because in this case, they were all doing it for the right reasons. The moral structure of the film seems to suggest that lying is a good policy if you’re lying for a good reason. I’m not too sure I’m cool with that.

The Best Actress nomination for May Robson seems out of place as well. There are huge chunks of the film where she is nowhere to be found. Additionally, while this is absolutely a comedy for a large part of the film, Robson is never funny and never a part of the comedy at all. Everything she does in the film is on the dramatic side. My guess is that she got the nomination for her work toward the end of the film, when the ruse is about to be discovered and everything gets pretty weepy. Warren William is much more the heart of this film, and he’s pretty great all the way through. He deserved a nomination far more than May Robson did. So did Guy Kibbee, who, as usual, steals every scene he’s in.

Lady for a Day has a ton of problems beyond this. We learn toward the end that Annie was never married and there’s no real mention of Louise’s father. We have no explanation of how Louise wound up in a Spanish convent. We have no explanation from Annie why she abandoned her daughter in Spain or why her daughter even gives a shit about the mother who abandoned her. Louise and Carlos are complete non-entities and we have no reason to care about them at all. Annie starts the film as a complete train wreck of a human being, but with her hair done and a new wardrobe, everything about her changes—her voice and demeanor change. Essentially, the film says that anyone with the right clothes and coiffure also gets a personality transplant. Perhaps the makers of Pretty Woman watched this, too.

Ultimately, Lady for a Day is a big “so what.” I didn’t hate it, but I can’t claim to have liked it at all.

Why to watch Lady for a Day: Fast-talking crooks and an insane scam.
Why not to watch: The moral of the story is that dishonesty is the best policy.

4 comments:

  1. I liked this far more than you did. Is it predictable? Absolutely. But it's also a really fun movie.

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    1. We'll disagree on that. There are parts of the back half I enjoy, but I dislike the heart of it.

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  2. I don't know if the film was really meant to have a moral since it pretty much encapsulates the whole Damon Runyon/Capra Corn ethos of a lovable bunch of gangsters who are really just softies at heart. Being a pre-code crime didn't yet have to be shown to pay in a negative light. The characters are shady but really just a bunch of the fellows. It not perfect, and I prefer Capra's '61 remake Pocketful of Miracles, but I can see how it would appeal to depression weary audiences.

    A nomination for Warren William would have made more sense for this particular film. I love May Robson and she was an excellent comedienne, a nomination wouldn't have been out of bounds for her brilliant turn in Bringing Up Baby, but you're right that Apple Annie requires more damp sentiment than anything else. One interesting tidbit that resulted from her nomination, though she hailed from Australia she's the only person ever nominated for an Oscar that was born during this country's Civil War!

    I don't see Annie so much abandoning her daughter as trying to do the best she could for her considering her circumstances. After all it's made clear that Louise is illegitimate, a fact that would be a huge stigma at the time and one that Annie makes sure no one knows. It's also made clear that aside from drinking everything Annie does she does for Louise's future. She invents an entire history of quality, makes sure Louise has the best education her ill gotten gains can provide and keeps her far enough away that the subterfuge isn't exposed while staying in touch explaining her absence as ill health.

    I really like Warren William in this and most of his films. He's pretty much forgotten today and that's a shame, he could slide easily from hero to villain owing to his somewhat hawkish appearance and be believable in both. He was a smooth actor rarely resorting to the overblown theatrics of many early performers opting for underplaying. Perhaps that's why he isn't better known, he wasn't flashy and while he had a certain charisma he was no Gable. From what I've read he was a shy, retiring man off-screen who did little publicity and died relatively young, all of which factors into his lack of long term recognition but I've liked him in everything I've seen him in.

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    1. Warren William was, for me, the best thing in the film. I don't specifically dislike May Robson, but I don't really understand her in this. The film itself is a comedy, but she isn't comedic at all--she's like the film's straight man and all of this comedic stuff happens around her, pretty much without her even knowing that it's going on.

      I get the point about Apple Annie not so much abandoning her daughter as making the decision that will give her daughter the best life possible. But that still goes back to the same point I made earlier--that the ultimate message of the film is that the ends justify the means. Sure there isn't a "moral" in the sense of a purpose--that message seems to be a byproduct of the film. But it's still there--cheating, lying, etc. is all fine if your intentions are good.

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