Friday, September 12, 2008

Lady for a Day (Frank Capra, 1933)

From a Damon Runyon story—that’s where the snappy under- world dialogue comes from. Apple Annie (May Robson) has been writing to her daughter for years using borrowed hotel stationery, letting the girl think she’s a society dame. Meanwhile, she sells apples on the street, where Dave the Dude (Warren William), an investor and gang boss, thinks his luck depends on buying an apple from her when something’s developing. Annie’s daughter writes that she’s arriving with her fiancé and his father, a Spanish count, and the Dude swings into action, borrowing a huge, luxurious apartment and inviting nightclub owner Missouri Martin (Glenda Farrell) to superintend Annie's makeover, and gentleman pool hustler Judge Blake (Guy Kibbee) agrees to play the part of her husband. Of course things get terribly complicated and almost go wrong, but when the Dude tells his “fairy tale” to the mayor, the governor, etc., they all flock around to support the scene, and all ends well. Though William gets top billing, he’s not really the most interesting figure. Both Robson and Kibbee are delightful—the Judge handles the problem of coming up with a dowry by betting double or nothing with the Count at billiards, and he doesn’t even stay in the room to watch as his near-impossible shot drops into the pocket. The big cast is filled with guys and dolls of various stripes, including the ever-faithful Nat Pendleton as the genial, muscleheaded sidekick Shakespeare, and especially Ned Sparks as Happy McGuire, the Dude’s manager. Sparks has cornered the market on the sharp-featured raised-eyebrow and startled look, the purely facial double-take, and he gets nearly all the great snappy lines. Even when he’s not talking, he’s great to watch—as things get more and more unlikely, he takes to whistling snatches of “The Prisoner’s Song” to let the Dude know his plan is not as simple as he’d thought it would be, so he's likely to wind up with jail time. Sentimental and populist (the street people and gangsters and politicians with hearts of gold) and very funny.

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