Warren William Under the Stars, Part 1: Lady For a Day

Today’s post is the first in a series of reviews of the 17 films in TCM’s Summer Under the Stars tribute to Warren William, airing August 20th, 2012:

Warren William and May Robson in Lady For a Day (1933)

LADY FOR A DAY (1933) Director: Frank Capra / Screenplay: Robert Riskin

Once Upon a Time there is a superstitious Broadway Dude named Dave. The Dude is a man in the business of calculating probability and chance, who avails hisself of the services of a crooked-toothed old street peddler known to the gentry as Apple Annie. An apple bought from her, he believes, gives him a leg up on all the other local calculators; what with said apple he cannot lose in his chancin’. But herewith Annie gums up the works by findin’ herself in a predicament: after years of prevaricatin’ to her very own daughter about being a duchess, Annie is about to be exposed as the street-peddling, whiskey swilling, moth-eaten old battle-axe that she is. Said exposure will ruin the business of Dave the Dude; of this he has never been more sure than anything in his life. Therefore, Dave, with his colorful but not-so-bright cohorts of long association, set out to reinvent Miss Annie as – wait for it – Missus E. Worthington Manville; a proper lady of class and dignity. Herein humor ensues.

Lady For a Day, based on the 1929 short story Madame La Gimp by Damon Runyon, is one of the recently reclaimed treasures of early 1930’s Hollywood. Thought lost after the negative went missing in the 1950’s, it quietly re-emerged in the late 70’s as a secondary classic in Frank Capra’s filmography, and has since slowly gained in esteem among film fans. This was the director’s first major success in his career at Columbia Pictures, garnering four Academy Award nominations, including best screenplay, best actress, best director and best film of 1933. The following year Capra and company swept those same categories (plus the best actor award) for It Happened One Night, but in 1933 the Academy was not so kind; Lady For a Day was shut out by the Hollywood power base. In addition, Capra himself was publicly humiliated when he mistakenly answered the call for Frank Lloyd to pick up his best director statuette for Cavalcade. History has given Capra his revenge, however – Cavalcade has been forgotten as an old-fashioned relic, while Lady For a Day remains an entertaining confection for modern audiences.

As described above, the film is essentially a contemporary update of Pygmalion, transferred to New York, and substituting the wizened sot Apple Annie for the Cockney ragamuffin Eliza Doolittle. Runyon’s story, ably expanded by writer Robert Riskin, populates Lady For a Day with the fetchingly disparate characters he was known for: the swells, dames, dudes, gangsters and assorted hangers on of Depression-era Broadway. This meant a series of plum roles for the great character actors of the period: Nat Pendleton, Glenda Farrell, Guy Kibbee, Halliwell Hobbes, Walter Connolly, and especially the acerbic Ned Sparks as the contradictorily named “Happy” McGuire. Among this cast are nestled the mainsprings of the film, May Robson as Annie, and Warren William as Dave the Dude. Here, both actors are at the top of their form, with the 75 year old Robson giving a star making performance as the drunken street peddler, and William never better than as the gangster with a deeply buried heart of gold. On Broadway from 1919 to 1931, William lived and worked among the real-life characters – high and low – that made up Runyon’s milieu. He drew on his personal dictionary of the time to create a portrait of Dave the Dude that is both hilarious and remarkably human. And if you are a student of period haberdashery, there is no better place to ogle a smartly fitted vintage waistcoat orLondon drape suit than on the perfectly proportioned figure of the King of Pre-Code Hollywood.

Lady For a Day works best by observing the friction between cynicism and optimism, a theme that Capra returned to again and again during his career. Being indebted to Runyon’s source material, the contrast is played here mostly for laughs, luxuriating in the grudging transformation of jaded gamblers, cops, politicians and hobos to the cause of familial love. The light tone makes the film one of the director’s most enjoyable, unconcerned with the social comment of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and without the exhausting pace of Arsenic and Old Lace. Like many of Capra’s best works, Lady For a Day is a fable of the modern world seen through his eyes; one wherein reprobates make good, the fallen regain faded dignity, and cynics eventually conclude that maybe some causes are worth fighting for after all.

Lady For a Day will be broadcast at 8:00 PM (EST) on August 30th, 2012, as part of TCM’s Summer Under the Stars tribute to Warren William.

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About magnificentscoundrel
John Stangeland is the biographer of 1930's film icon Warren William, a lazy business owner and a washed-up comic book artist. He's not bitter, though.

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