Thursday, April 15, 2010

Bette Davis Month: Pocketful of Miracles (1961)

Frank Capra's final film, a remake of his 1933 movie Lady for a Day, is almost unbearably corny, without any of the insight into social conditions that makes Capra's best movies more than just silly sentiment. Glenn Ford (who also produced) owns the film as Prohibition-era New York City gangster Dave the Dude, who's obsessed with the good luck he believes he gets from the apples sold by scraggly beggar Apple Annie (Bette Davis). The Dude's belabored turf war with a rival gangster from Chicago takes up the first 45 minutes or so of this bloated 137-minute film, until we finally get to the meat of the story: Apple Annie has been writing letters for years to her daughter who lives in Europe, pretending to be a refined New York City society lady. Now her daughter (Ann-Margret, insubstantial in her first role) is coming to town with her Spanish nobleman of a fiance, and Annie doesn't want her illusion to shatter.

So, enter the Dude and his goons, who repay Annie for years of luck by giving her a movie makeover (suddenly she goes from bag lady to ... Bette Davis!), setting her up in the same hotel whose stationery she's been stealing, rounding up a fake husband and putting on a whole charade for the visiting daughter, fiance and his father. Naturally, things don't go entirely to plan, and the Dude has to juggle his impending showdown, plus the cops being hot on his tail, with teaching a bunch of the least dangerous gangsters in the world how to pretend to act like nobility for Annie's sake. It is, of course, preposterous, but it's also not very amusing, and it's maddeningly slow-paced. Ford has plenty of energy as the Dude, but Davis seems to be kind of sleepwalking through this one after she gets her makeover and loses her opportunities to wail and whine as the unlucky beggar.

The movie is absurdly sunny, to the point where it's just distracting how many unsavory elements (gangsters, bootlegging, homelessness, physical disabilities) Capra can turn into smiles and sentiment. And there's a weird sort of moral bankruptcy to the story's outcome, in which (spoiler alert for 50-year-old film) the Dude succeeds in maintaining the charade, and Annie's daughter and future son-in-law head back to Europe still thinking she's a rich socialite. So then instead of getting the money she desperately needs from her daughter's wealthy new in-laws, she gets to go back to being borderline homeless and selling apples? Hooray? Everyone hugs and laughs, but I was just glad for it to be over.

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