Lady for a Day was an original which established a long-running Hollywood genre, and its theme seems so familiar to us today because its storytelling style was widely imitated for many years. It offers a look into a pivotal time in American film history, only six years into the sound era. It also foretells the successful career of one of Hollywood's most charismatic directors, Frank Capra, whose own life story had the same fairy tale quality as the films he made.
In 1933 Capra was a rising star in Hollywood, directing pictures for the upstart Columbia Pictures studio, whose home neighborhood was derided by other studios as "Poverty Row". A Sicilian immigrant, Capra was self-driven to achieve the American Dream, and to do so he created it on film in picture after picture. Lady for a Day was crafted specifically to earn an Academy Award, which neither Capra nor Columbia Pictures had ever won. Utilizing a story by Damon Runyon, Capra and his frequent collaborator, screenwriter Robert Riskin, wove a tale of an impoverished Depression-era apple seller working the streets of the Broadway district in New York City. Apple Annie was also weaving her own tales in letters to her daughter in Europe, chatting about Annie's fanciful life of wealth and success. Typical of Damon Runyon, the story is replete with soft-hearted gangsters, flummoxed cops, and politicians capable of grand and magnanimous gestures.
The impending visit of Apple Annie's daughter from Europe, with not only her suitor in tow, but his aristocratic Spanish father as well, pitches Annie (Broadway actress May Robson) into despair, and the gangsters into action to make Apple Annie into a lady for a day. "Dave the Dude" (Warren William) orders his henchmen to pretend to be the high-society types with whom a grand lady would associate, just long enough to convince the Count that Annie's daughter is worthy of marriage into his family. Comic relief is provided by pool-shark "Judge" Blake (Guy Kibbee) who is to portray Annie's wealthy and influential husband, and Dude's wise-cracking sidekick Happy (Ned Sparks).
Lady for a Day was Capra's breakthrough picture, and he filled it with the teary-eyed pathos and whimsical comedy that became his trademarks. It was nominated for four Academy Awards: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress and Best Screenwriting. At the awards ceremony it lost all four, and in the most humiliating way imaginable. Host Will Rogers opened the envelope for Best Director, and in his typical folksy way, drawled that he had "known this boy for many years". Not mentioning either the full name of the director or the title of the winner's film, Rogers said "come on up and get your award, Frank". Unfortunately there were two "Franks" nominated for 1933, and both started toward the stage. But it was Frank Lloyd who had won for his film Cavalcade. Capra had to slink back to his table, calling it the worst experience of his life. But it set the stage for the 1934 Academy Awards, when Capra's It Happened One Night swept all five major awards, including Best Director.
The beautiful Blu-ray restoration of Lady for a Day was made from a print owned personally by Frank Capra, and provides a luminous and nearly perfect look at the film techniques of the 1930s. It is certain to be enjoyed by any fan of Capra, or of the films of a bygone era.