Tuesday 20 January 2009

Pocketful of Miracles (1961)

Director: Frank Capra
Stars: Glenn Ford, Bette Davis, Hope Lange and Arthur O'Connell

This one was always going to be interesting. It's Frank Capra's last film, after a long career full of classics. Surprisingly it's a remake and even more surprisingly it's a remake of one of his own films: Lady for a Day, made 28 years earlier in 1933. Now remakes generally suck. After all if a story is watch watching again it's really worth watching first time round, and the originals are often so defining that anything copying becomes just that: a poor copy. Any remake of something as powerful as Lady for a Day would seem to be a pretty bad idea, given that May Robson and Warren William were the original stars. Who could Capra find to follow them in 1961?

And while you're thinking about it, realise that May Robson wasn't just good as Apple Annie, the old lady who sells lucky apples on the streets of New York, she was simply perfect. As Dave the Dude, the powerful gangster who has a superstition of always buying one of Annie's apples a day (and happily paying over the odds for it), Capra originally had Warren William in the part. Now, for those of you who don't know who Warren William was, he was the epitome of the precodes and the only actor to ever better a part that he played was Humphrey Bogart in The Maltese Falcon.

Given that this was 1961, Bette Davis may have been the only actress who could have even attempted both halves of this character, which makes it a good job that Capra hired her for the part. She's pretty decent too, though there's a little too much makeup in play. It's certainly not her best role, and there isn't enough of her, but she's excellent. But Glenn Ford as Dave the Dude? That didn't sound like a good idea, though given that Glenn Ford was co-producing, even Capra himself didn't argue, even when he wanted his girlfriend Hope Lange cast as his on screen sweetheart, and he got the top credit too over Bette Davis!

To be fair, Ford does a pretty good job. He patently isn't Warren William, but then nobody was. He may not be great but he's better than I expected and he provides a decent point for the many joyous character actors in support roles to act around. Unfortunately he's also apparently the reason why Frank Capra retired from the movie business: they clashed on everything.

The story is pretty basic. Apple Annie is a lady of the streets: she lives in a run down basement, drunk on gin most of the time, and she's hardly a major name in any circle except the panhandlers of Brooklyn. However she has a daughter in Barcelona who thinks she's the rich and established Mrs E Worthington-Manville, because Annie has been sending her mail on purloined stationery from the Hotel Marberry and exaggerated everything she could to hide who she really is. She's even been sending her money, year after year, but everything's safe at such a distance. The problem comes when Louise, her daughter, replies to say that she's going to marry a Count and they're heading to New York to see her.

It's the support that does the best job here. Apple Annie and Dave the Dude are the pivots around everyone else acts and they're played by a lot of people who are more than happy to steal every scene they can. Peter Falk is great as a thirties style hood called Joyboy, Dave the Dude's right hand man. Mickey Shaughnessy as Junior, the Dude's dumb sidekick, is very reminiscent of the old days of Frank McHugh and Allen Jenkins. While they're playing thirties characters in the sixties, many of the rest were playing thirties characters in the thirties. Capra certainly assembled a gift of a cast. He even introduces Ann-Margret in her first role as Annie's daughter.

Edward Everett Horton may be the best of the bunch as an elderly but characterful butler, though as with the others he looks scarily old here given that I'm used to seeing him a couple of decades younger. Thomas Mitchell could be the biggest natural scene stealer the cinema ever saw, and here he's the judge and pool shark who Annie picks to be her 'husband'. There's Barton MacLane as a police commissioner, Jack Elam as a hood, John Litel as a police inspector. There's even Snub Pollard, proving that Capra certainly went back a way to select his actors. I just wish I could have found George E Stone. I'm pretty sure he's the blind panhandler but I never got the shot I wanted to clinch it.

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