Of all the major directors whose names have taken some form in the parlance of film culture, “Capra-corn” is the only one that strikes an unequivocally sour note. The term suggests stories of plucky, slightly deranged underdogs thumbing their noses at the System in all manner of plausibility-flouting ways, ultimately in the interest of affirming traditional values of home, America, and hard work. Although his reputation tends to form around populist blockbusters such as Mr. Deeds Goes to Town and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (I’m leaving aside his deceptively schizophrenic classic It’s a Wonderful Life), that wasn’t always the case. There was a time, the pre-Code period to be exact, when Capra’s style was closer to the spirit of the era, examining and sometimes celebrating disreputable, lowlife types, who speak only in wisecracks. Such was the purview of Damon Runyon, whose short story Madame La Gimp forms the basis of Capra’s Lady for a Day.
The premise depends on a slightly fantastical view of Depression-era urban America, consistent with the ex-newspaperman’s affection for gamblers, hustlers, and other skid-row city dwellers. At the core of the story is the idea that an illusion must be made into reality: Apple Annie, a poverty-stricken apple seller learns that her daughter, who has always lived overseas, and has always believed her mother to be a rich society matron, is coming to New York to show off the count she’s getting ready to marry. Annie’s dignity may not amount to much in the grand scheme of things, but gambler Dave the Dude (Warren William) is superstitious enough—he never lays down a bet without first buying one of her apples—that it’s worth setting in motion a chain of events that will eventually require the participation of those in high office.
It’s generally the film that’s cited as Capra’s first real classic, if one ignores early triumphs such as Platinum Blonde and The Miracle Woman; during the pre-Code era, films that were less accomplished and/or prestigious than Lady for a Day, especially across town at Warner, tended to have more vitality, more sass, and more indelible imagery. Lady for a Day generally boils down to a lot of outstanding character work from the best in the business (William, Guy Kibbee, Ned Sparks, Walter Connolly, Glenda Farrell, Halliwell Hobbes), in order to fill in the dead time between two scenes of undeniable, irresistible charm: the introduction of Judge Henry Blake (“How much longer must I toy with this benighted son of Providence?”) and the debut of May Robson’s made-over E. Worthington Manville. It’s during such scenes that we see the full dawn of Capra’s genius for working an audience’s pleasure centers—a genius which would, in subsequent decades, become fully grown, overgrown, and ingrown.
The fairly unknown Inception Media Group seems to have used the same transfer as the 2001 DVD from Image Entertainment. The print has no major damage, just a few lines here and there. Contrast levels are boosted slightly to deepen the blacks, but on the whole it's done with good judgment. Grain is a little on the soft side, and there's a faint shimmer in some shots. I felt like the bass was also boosted just a tad on the mono soundtrack, but it's a clean sound with little hissing or crackling. Subtitles would have been nice, given the heavy use of multi-accented, Runyon-sourced vernacular in the dialogue.
A few shekels at the bottom of a cup. The director's son, Frank Capra Jr., provides a terrible commentary track; he's clearly nervous and emits nothing but verbal Styrofoam, describing the action, praising his dad, or talking about how they don't make pictures like they used to. When he runs out of things to say, voices in the background prompt him with questions. Also included is an essay by critic Scott Eyman, a gallery of stills, and a restoration demo.
Neither the best nor the worst of Capra's most celebrated films, Lady for a Day is an odd pre-Code tent pole to get the high-def makeover challenge.