Pocketful of Miracles, from a Damon Runyan story, did not fare well with reviewers; their savaging of it convinced Frank Capra, its director, to retire from filmmaking. It is overlong, opulent and inflated, in the reigning Hollywood style of its day. Everyone agrees that its Great Depression fairy tale about Dave the Dude and Apple Annie was far better served by the spare, sensitive, black-and-white original, Capra’s own Lady for a Day (1933), nearly 30 years earlier. Whereas Lady, written by Robert Riskin, had the snap and social urgency with which contemporaneity invested it, Pocketful, a period-piece, grabs at a bucketful of nostalgia—and nostalgia for what? the Depression, because people presumably pulled together then and helped one another. Isn’t it pretty to think so?
Another problem with the remake is the studied ineptitude of Glenn Ford as Dave the Dude. Ford, who otherwise stuck to his personality in films, on this occasion attempted to act—with disastrous results.* Warren William, in the original, is vastly superior.
Can’t we say anything nice about Capra’s remake? Is there nothing to commend Pocketful of Miracles?
The two versions have identical plots. The queen of the Times Square peddlers, in her shack alcoholic Apple Annie dotes on a photograph of her daughter, Louise, who has grown up on the Continent believing her mother is a member of New York high society. Now Louise is coming to visit, along with her fiancé and his father, a Spanish aristocrat. Can Mom pass muster so that the marriage can proceed? Bootlegger Dave the Dude has taken a shine to Annie’s apples, which he believes bring him good luck; urged to help Annie by girlfriend Queenie Martin, the Dude arranges for Annie’s transformation into a sober facsimile of the society matron Annie’s letters on fancy hotel stationery have led Louise to believe her mother is. Will this deception succeed or fall apart? That is the central issue of the plot.
Keyed to the suspense attending this issue is the endearing anxiety of Bette Davis’s Apple Annie. I don’t dispute that May Robson, in the original, is the definitive Apple Annie, but Davis is wonderful also. The best performance in Lady is given by Guy Kibbee as Judge Henry G. Blake, one of those whom the Dude recruits to assist Annie in her deception; and Thomas Mitchell is every bit as good in the remake. Indeed, the remake boasts a slew of terrific performers at their best: Peter Falk, Arthur O’Connell, Edward Everett Horton, Ellen Corby—and, in her dreamy film debut, beauteous Ann-Margret. The scenes between Davis and her as mother and daughter are irresistible. One hopes for the best for both their characters.
I love Pocketful more than I do the better Lady because I always get lost in it, perhaps because I remember seeing it as a boy at the Bay Shore Theater. Call it mediocre if you like; it never fails to touch my heart.
* Apparently some felt otherwise. Ford won the Golden Globe.
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