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A Capra Classic Made Whole

Leonard Maltin By Leonard Maltin | Leonard Maltin April 2, 2012 at 1:00AM

A year before 'It Happened One Night' famously swept the Oscars, Frank Capra and screenwriter Robert Riskin made 'Lady for a Day', which earned four Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture—but because it was withheld from TV and 16mm distribution for years, it never attained the widespread awareness and residual affection that other Capra classics have always enjoyed.
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A year before It Happened One Night famously swept the Oscars, Frank Capra and screenwriter Robert Riskin made Lady for a Day, which earned four Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture—but because it was withheld from TV and 16mm distribution for years, it never attained the widespread awareness and residual affection that other Capra classics have always enjoyed. A new, beautifully restored DVD and Blu-ray from Inception Media—with a sequence that was missing from an earlier dvd release—may help to remedy that injustice.

Oddly enough, it was Capra himself who pulled Lady for a Day from circulation, so that it wouldn’t be compared to his 1961 remake, Pocketful of Miracles. (The same thing happened to Capra’s Broadway Bill, the film that followed It Happened One Night: it wound up buried and neglected in Paramount’s library when he remade it for that studio as Riding High.) Because no studio owned the picture, it wasn’t cared for, and the original negative disappeared.

Timing is everything: the belief that It’s a Wonderful Life was in the public domain enabled so many people to broadcast it and sell videos that it became a permanent part of the public consciousness in the 1970s and 80s. I remember channel-surfing one Christmas eve and finding it playing on four different cable channels! If only that had been true for Lady for a Day.

Original Film Element Main Title Card - 'Lady For A Day'
Original Film Element Main Title Card - 'Lady For A Day'

In 1977, a negative and new prints of the film were struck from Capra’s personal 35mm print; finally, the movie was made available for retrospectives, and eventually released on DVD with an introduction and commentary track by Frank Capra, Jr. I will never forget the first time I got to see the film, at the fondly-remembered Regency Theatre on Broadway in Manhattan. My wife and I left the show walking on air: this is the kind of movie that genuinely lifts your spirits. That was the kind of magic that Capra and Riskin created at the height of their powers in the 1930s.

'Lady For A Day' Main Title Card - Restored Element
'Lady For A Day' Main Title Card - Restored Element

There are hints of that magic in Platinum Blonde (1931) and American Madness (1932), but it fully blossoms for the first time in Lady for a Day (1933), which is based on the Damon Runyon story “Madame La Gimp.” May Robson (who earned an Oscar nomination) plays Apple Annie, a frumpy woman who sells flowers on the street. Slick gambler Dave the Dude (Warren William) considers her a good-luck charm, which is why, when Annie needs help, he’s willing to pitch in, albeit reluctantly. She has told her daughter, that she is a member of New York society, and now the girl is coming to New York with her high-born fiancée. Annie is bereft…but Dave’s girlfriend Missouri Martin (Glenda Farrell) persuades him and his cronies that it’s worthwhile to help Annie pull off a near-miraculous masquerade. In time, every crook, bum, and political figure in town gets yanked into the proceedings.

This Depression-era fable still resonates because Capra and Riskin allow us to indulge in a wish-fulfillment fairy tale. They ask us to believe that anybody, from a beggar to a governor, has some good in him, and will do the right thing when given the opportunity.

The original DVD release of Lady for a Day was a good, sharp transfer of Frank Capra’s 35mm print, with all of its inherent wear and tear intact. For the new release, video wizards at ADS (Advanced Digital Services) have gone through it frame by frame, repairing tears and flaws, removing dirt and scratches, and best of all, adjusting the contrast so that Joseph Walker’s luminous photography looks the way it originally did, with true blacks and whites, and every shade of gray in-between. Walker was a master and it’s a shame to see any of his films looking less than perfect.

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This transfer also includes a 4½ minute scene at about the 55-minute mark that, for some reason, doesn’t exist in the earlier copy. It’s a continuation of a conversation between Barrie Norton, Apple Annie’s future son-in-law, and his father, played by Walter Connolly, followed by a longer version of a scene with Warren William and Guy Kibbee as they discuss who should be invited to Annie’s party.

This article is related to: DVD Reviews, Blu-ray, Journal, Frank Capra, Robert Riskin