Capra-Corn in Austin, Texas

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by Leonard Maltin
May 28, 2013 3:15 AM
3 Comments
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I just returned from Austin, Texas, where I had the pleasure of presenting Frank Capra’s Lady for a Day (1933) to an enthusiastic audience at the historic Paramount Theatre, as part of its annual Summer Film Classics series. The evening was made even nicer for me by my old friend Louis Black, editor and co-publisher of the Austin Chronicle, who brought me onstage with a beautiful introduction. Then film programmer Stephen Jannise, who interviewed me after the picture, as we both fought back tears from watching the final scene of Capra’s beautiful movie.

What impressed me most was how perfectly Capra’s finely-tuned picture still worked with an audience, eliciting every laugh that was built into it—from a sardonic reaction by Ned Sparks to a climactic cutaway of stoic butler Halliwell Hobbes. Capra loved those character actors and knew his audience, which hasn’t changed as much as some people might think in the 90 years since this film was made. (I witnessed the same response when I showed his State of the Union to my class of 20-somethings at USC.) The only gag that fell flat all night was when Sparks whistled “The Prisoner’s Song” as a response to one of Warren William’s ideas (“If I had the wings of an angel/Over these prison walls I would fly…”). Those lyrics would have been familiar to every moviegoer of 1933, which is no longer the case.

Because it was withdrawn from circulation for decades, so as not to compete with Capra’s own remake, Pocketful of Miracles (1961), Lady for a Day has yet to take its rightful place among the great American movies. It was certainly appreciated in its time, earning four Academy Award nominations, just one year before Capra and his screenwriting colleague Robert Riskin swept the Oscars with It Happened One Night.

Stephen Jannise does a wonderful job booking vintage films at the Paramount—everything from Charlie Chaplin to The Wild Bunch—and he writes excellent program notes for each screening. He and his projectionist John do their best to screen everything in 35mm, with old-fashioned reel changeovers. (When I took a tour of the projection booth John Stewart proudly pointed to a platter machine that’s never been used.)

Yes, that’s a 35mm print of "Casablanca" in the projection booth at the Paramount
Several hundred people turned out on Friday and, to my amazement, they stayed for my q&a after the film. I met a number of them in the lobby afterward, including parents who had heard me on the local news station KUT that afternoon and decided to bring their 11-year-old daughter and give her a new and different experience than she was accustomed to. She told me she loved Lady for a Day and the experience of seeing it with an audience on a theater screen. She doesn’t know it, but that youngster made my day.

You can check the Paramount’s summer schedule HERE.  

To read my conversation with Louis Black about our boyhood moviegoing adventures, click HERE. 

 

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3 Comments

  • Chuck Mathias | May 30, 2013 5:40 PMReply

    This comment is actually inspired by the poster illustrating your article; more precisely, an actor on the poster. As a fellow baby-boomer, surely you remember those weird, early WB cartoons often shown on afternoon TV that included caricatures of their stable of live actors (other studios', too, if their stars were too big to ignore). Being an old-time movie nerd even then, I usually recognized most of them. W. C. Fields, Clark Gable, Greta Garbo, even obscure ones like Hugh Herbert and the Ritz Bros. But there were two that stumped me. Male and female, nearly always shown as a couple, probably because they resembled one another, skinny with long, unattractive faces. Even when the guy spoke, in a thin, nasally voice, it didn't help. Was that whine supposed to be a catch phrase: "Never go anywhere, never do anything, never have any fun"?? I also collected catch phrases (did I mention I was a nerd?) and that definitely wasn't in the database. It wasn't until the 80's, when I finally saw "42nd Street" that I became 95% certain HE was supposed to be Ned Sparks (the other 5% leans toward Fred Allen). But HER? Who her? I'm thinking maybe Edna May Oliver, but was she ever popular enough to be included with the likes of Barrymore, Cagney, etc. etc.? Come to think, was even Sparks that well-known--or did the two of them just happen to tickle the cartoonists' funny bone? Guess if nothing else, this comment proves I truly believe you have all the answers!

  • Nat Segaloff | May 28, 2013 4:22 PMReply

    "Lady for a Day" is one of the very few films made from a Damon Runyon story, and the changes that Riskin made so it would work on screen demonstrate the value of a screenwriter, as there is no indication that Capra had any hand in writing this terrific film (according to Joe McBride's meticulous Capra book and my own, ahem, "Final Cuts"). If the Runyon literary estate wasn't so balled up, this would make a terrific Broadway music. I'm sure you did it justice, Leonard, and you gave me a tear, too, when you wrote about that 11-year-old who was given the gift of joy.

  • Jim Reinecke | May 28, 2013 7:05 PM

    Although I would never denigrate the talents (or achievements) of such a talented screenwriter as Robert Riskin I still have difficulty swallowing anything that McBride says regarding the subject of Frank Capra. His belligerent, petty and (let's face it) vicious hatchet job on Capra was obviously the work of a vindictive jerk who, apparently, had some personal vendetta against the director. (That being said, I will offer the disclaimer that I'm well aware that Capra's autobiography, "The Name Above the Title" was littered with egomanical flights of fancy--and fantasy.) If McBride was so eager to boost the career of Mr. Riskin, why didn't he choose him as the subject of his book as opposed to Mr. Capra? Could it be that a volume on the director would be more beneficial to his bank account, considering that Mr. Capra was more well known? Throughout his smug 700+ pages of ill-concealed hate for his subject, McBride seems like a self-serving anal cavity who gets his rocks off by ripping to shreds the memory of a man who had become so respected and revered. (As you can tell, I'm getting madder and madder as I write this, but justifiably so!) Despite his fine works on Ford and Welles, I still consider McBride nothing more than a contemptible cholostemy bag, worthy only of extermination. If the self-impressed slimeball would like to discuss this further, I grant Leonard permission to forward him my Email address.

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