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In 1933 director Frank Capra and writer Robert Riskin transformed Damon Runyon's short story, "Madame La Gimp," into the film Lady for a Day. Although Riskin made some changes to the story, it still focused on a poor street vendor trying to masquerade as a member of high society. Everyone in Times Square knows "Apple Annie," but they don't know she has a daughter going to school in Spain. Annie sent the girl away as an infant but stays in contact with her through letters. In her correspondence, Annie pretends she is a wealthy woman named Mrs. E. Worthington Manville and everything goes smoothly until Annie learns her daughter Louise will be visiting New York with her fiance and his father, Count Romero. The Count wants to meet Louise's mother before he will approve the marriage. Fortunately for Annie, one of her faithful customers, a gangster named Dave the Dude, offers to help her since he believes Annie's apples bring him luck when he gambles. Through his many sidewalk connections, Dave goes to great lengths to turn Annie into Mrs. E. Worthington Manville, even enlisting the support of the mayor and governor.
Initially Capra had some misgivings about taking on the project. According to Joseph McBride in his biography, Frank Capra: The Catastrophe of Success, the director told Columbia's studio boss, "Harry, I want you to face the fact that you're spending three hundred thousand dollars on a picture in which the heroine is seventy years old." To which the mogul replied, "All I know is the thing's got a wallop. Go ahead." Yet, despite the green light on the project, Capra had trouble with the casting. None of his top choices were available or interested; he wanted Marie Dressler for Apple Annie, Robert Montgomery, James Cagney or William Powell for Dave the Dude, and W.C. Fields for "Judge" Blake; instead he got May Robson, Warren William and Guy Kibbee, respectively, and they turned out to be perfect for their roles.
As for Damon Runyon, he was very pleased with the changes made to his original story. According to Joseph McBride's aforementioned biography, Runyon "wired profuse appreciation to Riskin for his manifold improvements in the story, and after reading press commentaries describing himself as the 'author' of Lady for a Day, Runyon went on public record in a February 1935 interview: "I wish you would quote me that Lady for a Day was no more my picture than Little Miss Marker, which, like the former picture, was almost entirely the result of the genius of the scenario writers and the director who worked on it."
Lady for a Day was one of the first pictures to team director Frank Capra and writer Robert Riskin. The two worked together on nine films, including such classics as It Happened One Night (1934), Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), and Meet John Doe (1941). Capra also made four other films based on Riskin's work and the screenwriter always received sole credit for the scripts he wrote for Capra, but the director, particularly in his later years, sometimes implied he had more to do with the scripts than Riskin. According to McBride, "Capra stated his case even more bluntly in a 1977 debate on the issue in the Los Angeles Times with screenwriter and Writers Guild of America president David Rintels. Rintels attacked Capra for spreading his 'one man, one film' theory at Riskin's expense in his writings, interviews, and college lectures, and wrote that 'it is indecent of Capra to call Riskin one of his dearest friends while doing everything possible to undermine his reputation.'"
In the beginning, Riskin didn't mind Capra taking most of the credit for their films, but over time he grew to resent it. Eventually, the two went their separate ways in the forties. But by this time, the "Capraesque" film was established, and many of the director's later films continued the same themes as those in Riskin's scripts. Philip Dunne, a screenwriter and friend of Riskin's, once said of the Capra - Riskin team, "Frank provided the schmaltz and Bob provided the acid. It was an unbeatable combination. What they had together was better than either of them had separately."
Lady for a Day was the first film for which Capra received an Academy Award nomination for Best Director and the first time Columbia Pictures scored a Best Picture Oscar nomination. The film was also nominated for Best Actress (May Robson) and Best Adapted Screenplay (Riskin). The 36-year-old Capra desperately wanted to win an Oscar and he was convinced Lady for a Day would win in all four categories. The night of the awards, host Will Rogers opened the envelope for Best Director and said, "Well, well, well, what do you know! I've watched this young man for a long timeIt couldn't happen to a nicer guy. Come up and get it, Frank!" Capra's table broke out in applause as the director made his way to the stage. Then Capra realized the spotlight didn't stop on him, but on Frank Lloyd, director of Cavalcade (1933). Capra recalls in his autobiography, "That walk back -- through applauding V.I.P.s yelling 'Sit down! Down in front! Sit down!' as I obstructed their view -- was the longest, saddest, most shattering walk in my life. I wished I could have crawled under the rug like a miserable worm. When I slumped in my chair I felt like one. All my friends at the table were crying." Lady for a Day did not receive any awards that night. May Robson lost out to Katharine Hepburn in Morning Glory. Capra was so devastated and bitter he declared he would not return to the Oscars ceremony even if he were nominated again. The following year, however, Capra did return and he made history when It Happened One Night swept the awards for Best Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, Actor, and Actress.
Lady for a Day performed extremely well at the box office, bringing in $600,000, a large sum for 1933. Columbia employees recall that after its success, pencils and paperclips were readily available. Previously they had to requisition them. Lady for a Day was followed by a sequel, Lady by Choice (1934), starring Carole Lombard and directed by David Burton. Capra later remade Lady for a Day as Pocketful of Miracles (1961) with Bette Davis.
Producer/Director: Frank Capra
Screenplay: Robert Riskin. Based on story by Damon Runyon.
Cinematography: Joseph Walker
Art Direction: Stephen Goosson
Music: C. Bakaleinikoff
Principal Cast: Warren William (Dave the Dude), May Robson (Apple Annie), Guy Kibbee (Judge Blake), Glenda Farrell (Missouri Martin), Ned Sparks (Happy), Jean Parker (Louise), Walter Connolly (Count Romero), Nat Pendleton (Shakespeare), Hobart Bosworth (Governor), Barry Norton (Carlos Romero).
by Deborah L. Johnson