Being this is the holiday season, the movie IT"S A WONDERFUL LIFE gets discussed often. What doesn't get discussed nearly enough is what happened to the career of that film's director, Frank Capra, after it was made.
Capra is one of my favorite movie directors of all time, and in the 1930s he made an incredible string of hits, a series of comedic, touching stories about ordinary Americans and American life in general. One of those films was LADY FOR A DAY, which was written by Capra's frequent collaborator, Robert Riskin, and based on a story by Damon Runyon. LADY FOR A DAY concerns a Depression-era street peddler named Apple Annie (May Robson), who has been secretly using what money she has to raise her daughter in Europe. Annie finds out her daughter is going to marry into nobility, and the girl wants to come and visit her in New York. Annie is desperately afraid her daughter will find out what she really is, so she enlists the help of a gangster named Dave the Dude (Warren William) to help her out of her predicament. Dave and his streetwise friends turn Annie into a duchess, and they manage to get New York's most powerful people to pay homage to her and her daughter.
LADY FOR A DAY is a great film, with plenty of sentimentality and humorous performances. Years later, Capra, who felt left out in 1950s Hollywood, decided to remake it, hoping it would put him back in the limelight.
The result, POCKETFUL OF MIRACLES, made in 1961, would up being the last full-length theatrical film Capra would direct. The movie only showed how out of touch Capra was.
Capra had spent most of his career as a powerful producer-director at Columbia Pictures. In his later years, Capra was not associated with any studio, and he had to get major help to get any movie made. For POCKETFUL OF MIRACLES, Capra teamed up with actor Glenn Ford and his production company. Ford would play Dave the Dude in the remake. Capra wasn't happy with this casting, but Ford was the only star at the time willing to be involved in the project.
In his autobiography, Capra mentions a number of actors he wanted to play the Dude, including Steve McQueen, who would have been an intriguing choice. Just about anyone would have been better than Glenn Ford, who is totally miscast as a 1930s bootlegger. Dave the Dude is supposed to have a rough attitude, but be a softy at heart--and Ford doesn't play him that way at all, he's just all bluster.
What was worse about Ford for Capra is that the actor had as much say over the production as the director did--something Capra could not stand. Capra wanted Shirley Jones to play the pivotal role of Dave the Dude's girlfriend, but Ford demanded that Hope Lange, who he was having a relationship at the time, be cast instead. (Despite what they were in real life, Ford and Lange have no chemistry together in this movie.)
Bette Davis, who at the time was as much of a Hollywood outsider as Capra, took on the role of Apple Annie, after several other actresses turned it down. May Robson was perfect as Apple Annie in LADY FOR A DAY, while Davis just hams it up. (It didn't help that Davis didn't get along with Capra either.)
For a time Capra considered setting the remake in contemporary times, but when actually making the film he kept it in the early Thirties timeline. He also had Robert Riskin's brilliant original script re-written (a big mistake).
LADY FOR A DAY has a big advantage, in that it was made in 1933, so all the sets, costumes, and characters are true for the period. POCKETFUL OF MIRACLES is in widescreen, in color, and it has huge sets. Other than some old cars that the viewer sees, the movie doesn't look--or feel--like it is set in the 1930s at all. Dave the Dude and his cronies act like they're trying out for a mediocre version of GUYS AND DOLLS.
LADY FOR A DAY runs about 96 minutes, while POCKETFUL OF MIRACLES runs 136 minutes....or should I say, drags. What's shocking is that Capra's sense of pace, timing, and rhythm are not in evidence here. Capra's masterful editing techniques are absent as well (the movie seems to be made up of master shots). There's plenty of great supporting actors here (as there are in every Capra movie), but none of the characters are very appealing, or all that funny. This is one of those movies where everyone shouts a lot at each other to try to get a cheap laugh. Spending over two hours watching Ford and Lange fail to be funny is not an enjoyable experience.
Peter Falk, who played Dave the Dude's right-hand man, got a Best Supporting Actor nomination for his performance, although I honestly can't see why. Ann-Margret made her big screen debut as Apple Annie's daughter, and she even gets to sing a little. She's by far the most likable person in the movie (Capra should have focused more on her).
POCKETFUL OF MIRACLES was released by United Artists before Christmas, 1961. The film had a large budget, but it went on the become a financial and critical disappointment. Frank Capra never made another film.
In his autobiography Capra claimed that he had major, painful headaches during the making of POCKETFUL OF MIRACLES (were these psychosomatic?). Considering the pressures of remaking one of his best films, his problems with Ford and Davis, his disillusionment with modern Hollywood, and his age (he was in his early 60s), one has to come to the conclusion that Capra's heart was not in the effort. All the ingredients for a great film are there in POCKETFUL OF MIRACLES, but in my opinion it is flat and lifeless. It was a sad ending for one of America's greatest filmmakers.