Saturday, April 19, 2008

150 Candles

Cast of Lady For a Day

April 19th marks the 150th birth anniversary of May Robson (1858-1942). Obviously, having been born in 1858, she didn't get into the movies until and advanced age, and played older women in smaller roles in a lot of her movies: mothers, grandmothers, elderly aunts and so on. One of those smaller roles shows up overnight tonight on TCM, when they show Wife vs. Secretary at 12:30 AM ET on April 20 (that's still the evening of the 19th outside the Eastern Time Zone). Other notable supporting roles include Janet Gaynor's grandmother in the original A Star is Born; Katharine Hepburn's aunt in Bringing Up Baby, and Billie Burke's cook in Dinner at Eight. However, I'd like to talk about a movie that gave her one of her starring roles, the movie that earned her an Oscar nomination: Lady For a Day.

In Lady for a Day, Robson stars as Apple Annie, a down-on-her-luck woman hit by the Great Depression who's now selling apples to scratch out a meager existence. Unfortunately, she's got a daughter living in Spain, about to become engaged to a count's son. Annie doesn't want her daughter to know she's destitute, so she's been living a lie by sending her daughter letters on pilfered hotel stationery. But that lie is about to be exposed when her daughter informs her she's engaged, and the groom's family would like to meet her parents.

Enter gangster Dave the Dude (played by Warner's stalwart Warren William). Annies been something of a good luck charm to him, and so Dave's associates inform him of her predicament and ask if there's anything he can do for her. It's not until he reluctantly accepts that he realizes just how many strings he's going to have to pull to make Annie a "lady for a day" for her Spanish in-laws-to-be: finding a man to play her husband (pool shark Guy Kibbee); getting her a fancy hotel room, and pulling off a society party -- and when the guests include character actors like Nat Pendleton and the brassy Glenda Farrell, that's quite a task! Eventually, though, Annie's transformation to a lady is made complete, and stunning and moving too. Robson richly deserved her Oscar nomination. Watch also for the Spanish count; that's Walter Connolly, who would later go on to play Claudette Colbert's father in It Happened One Night.

One very interesting to note is that Lady for a Day was made at Columbia Pictures. Much of the cast were contract players at Warner's, and Columbia were at the time considered one of the lesser studios. (As I understand it, Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert were both sent to Columbia to make It Happened One Night as punishment for not wanting to do whatever projects MGM and Paramount respectively had for them.) Frank Capra directed. In fact, he would later go on to remake Lady For a Day in the early 1960s as Pocketful of Miracles, with Bette Davis in the Apple Annie role and Glenn Ford as Dave. Both versions are available on DVD.

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