Director: Frank Capra
Screenwriters: Robert Riskin
Adapted from: “Madame La Gimp” by Damon Runyon
Cast: May Robson, Warren William, Guy Kibbee, Glenda Farrell, Ned Sparks, Nat Pendleton, Jean Parker, Walter Connolly
Nominations: Picture, Director – Frank Capra, Actress – May Robson, Adapted Screenplay
Lady for a Day is a film that is truly of and for its time. Coming in the midst of the Great Depression, there’s a feel-good quality to the story that no matter how unbelievable it is—and it is—you can’t help but smile at the goings-on. Really, no one in the film who helps Apple Annie has any reason to. For most of the characters, she’s just an acquaintance, another face in the sea of faces on the streets of New York City. But fortunately for Annie, gangster Dave the Dude believes his luck improves when he buys an apple from her. It’s a small gesture for both, but it pays off for Annie when she has to bring to life the deceptions she’s told her daughter.
And that’s where the film launches from a gritty, realistic portrayal of down-on-their-luck folks to a contemporary fairy tale that shows how good deeds can have a lasting effect. Of course, being in the middle of a huge financial downturn, it’s hard to imagine movie audiences of the 1930s flocking to see the former type of film. Think of it like this: is a hypothetical movie about COVID-19 that gets released at the end of 2020 going to be making bank at the box office? Possibly, if it takes a turn in which a vaccine is found before stay-at-home orders get dragged out for weeks and weeks. (I, for one, will be fine once the pandemic ends if it never gets mentioned ever in future movies, plays, and TV shows.)
The decency of humanity runs thick through much of Frank Capra’s filmography, and Lady for a Day might be the most blatant example of that philosophy. The optimism that permeates throughout the film is refreshing during times of stress and uncertainty. Even Happy McGuire’s cynicism and attempts to keep the growing ruse in perspective—as witty and clever as his comments are—aren’t enough to derail the plans. Seeing how everyone in Annie’s life comes together to save her from shame and embarrassment gives us hope that if we were to fall on hard times those in our community would lend us a hand. Granted, it’s incredibly unlikely anyone would need the degree of assistance that Annie requires, but that actually gives us more reassurance and credence that help would come: our misfortune can’t be as intimidating as Annie’s.