Home Video Hovel- Lady for a Day
Lady for a Day is a really good example of how they do still, indeed, make them almost exactly like they used to, at least on the surface. The story of an old panhandler who has to pretend to be a much wealthier woman when her daughter comes to town trying to impress her Spanish suitor and his upper-class father, Frank Capra’s 1933 film has all the elements we love in a classic picture but hate in anything made after 1970. Which is to say it’s a rather contrived plot that relies solely on the charms of its performers, and if anything has diminished in mainstream filmmaking since the fall of the studio system, it’s the concept of having performers at all.
In 1933, Capra was on the verge of success, just a year away from releasing It Happened One Night and two from winning all the awards for same. He would enjoy a twelve-year high that consisted of some of the finest films ever made before collapsing in the postwar years, and steadily losing favor ever since with an audience increasingly too cynical for solid entertainment. Lady for a Day is no great shakes as either entertainment or art, but it’s a perfect example of what the studio system did best when it was really doing it (and in the 1930s, the machine was at full force) – it assembles a group of compelling, diverse performers and sets them loose on a good-natured, if slightly ludicrous, story. Obviously a woman of meager means would have difficulty passing herself off as high society on her own, so who better to turn to than gangsters? That she can count on them to construct and maintain the ruse is one of many hurdles a viewer must overcome, but oh what characters those gangsters are and how they do know the most interesting people.
The film’s great failing is steadily losing track of its ostensible protagonist in favor of the mob of mobsters, even though she has a lot to still offer the story, and the actress, May Robson, has talent to spare. When we meet Apple Annie, as she’s known, she’s battling a drinking problem. Capra and screenwriter Robert Riskin perfectly set up the stakes with a doctor’s promise that she’s not long for this world should she continue. Yet as soon as the gang boss, Dave the Dude, sets forth the condition of his services that she “lay off the gin,” she never so much looks at the stuff. Furthermore, the continued effort to pass as high-society seems to be no trouble to her at all, slowly negating our investment in her predicament to the point that, when things inevitably come to a head (or threaten to), we have to actively remember what the big deal was.
Yet it is still quite an enjoyable film, in the way that these golden age “let’s put on a show!” pictures were almost reflexively. The whole troupe couldn’t be more game – Glenda Farrell plays the stock fast-talking, fun-loving gal from the early talkies in your imagination (she’s even named Missouri Martin!), the great Guy Kibbee plays a well-spoken pool shark, and any time you get to see Ned Sparks in anything is a good day at the movies.
B2MP’s new Blu-ray release (distributed through Inception Media Group, and restored by Advanced Digital Service) provides a welcome avenue by which to discover it. Classic black-and-white studio films seem, on the surface, like they’d benefit least from a great Blu-ray transfer, but as soon as you see that classic three-point lighting in high-definition, you need never question it again. Transfers like these remind us why it was once called the silver screen – the picture genuinely seems to to shimmer and sparkle. Beyond that, an appropriate level of grain is allowed, reminding us it’s still film, the picture is so crisp and clear, and contrast is very well balanced. Once thought lost, the print used for this release was a dupe negative that Capra himself made in 1977 from his personal print, so they don’t come much better than this. Some damage is still present, but one look at the restoration demonstration on the Blu-ray shows how far they’ve come. There’s still some hiss on the audio track, but overall that’s clear and crisp as well.
On the special features side, they lean pretty heavily on Frank Capra, Jr., who provides both an introduction and a full-length commentary track. Your interest in it will greatly depend on the amount of insight you feel family members can offer. They typically lean pretty heavily on anecdotes and well-worn history, and while Capra does get in some interesting tidbits, on the whole it’s not a terribly dynamic track.
Other than that, it’s just the restoration demonstration, which is always nice, a stills gallery, which is always…present, and some weirdly-formatted liner notes (hint: start reading at the first page you open to; it’s more complicated than it sounds) that are nonetheless perfectly suitable.
But the disc has it where it counts – the presentation of this charming, entertaining film is spectacular, which I’d highly recommend to any classic film fan (so in other words: film fans).