Have you ever been surprised by the work of a director whose style you thought you knew well? Last weekend, Rebecca Deniston of Taking Up Room hosted a blogathon dedicated to the exploration of filmographic surprises. Maybe there is a movie which you avoided for years but loved when you actually saw it! Maybe you were looking forward to seeing a movie, only to see and hate it. On December 7-9, Rebecca hosted The Unexpected Blogathon. It was a chance for writers to talk about their biggest film surprises. I joined this clever blogathon with an article about the last feature film Frank Capra directed, Pocketful of Miracles from 1961. Due to the holiday rush and my illness, I have gotten sorely behind on my article publication. I was unable to complete and publish this article during the days of the blogathon, and I couldn’t publish a Breening Thursday article this week. However, I have now recovered, and I am submitting a shamefully tardy article to this blogathon. I apologize for the lateness and hope that Rebecca will still include it in the blogathon.
This movie is set in New York in 1931. It tells the story of a superstitious gangster named Dave the Dude. He is a bootlegger who is convinced that his good fortune is based on the apples he buys from a good-hearted, haggard, and brash apple seller, Apple Annie. The old lady is a good friend of Dave, who generously pays her for her apples every day. Dave’s girlfriend is Queenie Martin, the daughter of a deceased gangster. She has been running a nightclub for a few years to earn the money to pay her father’s debts to Dave. Queenie was a very sweet, simple-looking girl when she first came to Dave after her father’s death. Now, she is a hardened, blonde chorus girl. Neither Queenie nor Dave’s lead henchman, Joy Boy, understands why the Dude is so devoted to Annie and her apples. However, his faith in the apples’ luck can’t be shaken.
Annie is the leader of a well-organized federation of beggars in New York City. She supervises the collection of funds, strategizes for the highest earnings, and distributes the funds. Little does Dave the Dude know that she uses her apple-earnings for more than to pay the rent on her dingy flat. With the earnings that she and the other beggars make, Apple Annie has been paying for the expenses of her daughter, who has lived in a Spanish convent since she was a baby. The young lady thinks that her mother is a society dowager whose health will not permit a sea voyage to Europe. Annie is determined that her beloved girl, now an eighteen-year-old young lady named Louise, must never find out the truth about her ragged, sottish mother.
Apple Annie is plunged into despair when she receives a letter from her daughter announcing a visit to New York City! Louise, her Spanish fiancé, Carlos, and his father, Count Alfonso Romero, are coming to New York to meet the wealthy Mrs. E. Worthington Manville and her second husband. They believe that the society couple lives in an expensive hotel where Annie has been receiving her letters for years. Annie is horrified at the thought that Louise will find out the truth about her. One day, Dave comes to visit her to buy an apple before a meeting with a notorious Chicago gangster. He finds her drunken and depressed because of the news of her daughter’s arrival. He coldly cares only about the apple. However, Queenie, who previously was very rude to Annie, suddenly feels compassion for the wretched old woman. While they are driving to Dave’s appointment, she throws his apple out the window, forcing him to go back to help Annie.
Queenie demands that Dave do something to help Annie. Because of her insistence, Dave reluctantly agrees to make Annie’s elaborate fantasy a reality. He puts her up in a friend’s suite at the hotel where she has pretended to be living. A staff of cosmetic professionals gives her a complete makeover, turning her into a beautiful lady. Finally, a well-mannered but shifty pool shark who calls himself Judge Henry G. Blake is hired to play Louise’s stepfather. The setting is completed by Hudgins, the refined English butler who works for the owner of the suite. Dave and Queenie pose as Louise’s aunt and uncle. Louise arrives, and everything is wonderful. The reunion is joyfully viewed by the other beggars, who have considered Louise to be their foster-child for years. However, members of the press are getting snoopy, and the Spanish consul is suspicious of the arrangement. Meanwhile, Dave the Dude is receiving pressure from the impatient Chicago mobster, and Queenie is losing patience with Dave’s unscrupulous ways. Will Annie remain enshrined in her daughter’s eyes, or will the whole deception be revealed? Watch the movie to find out!
Apple Annie is played by Bette Davis. Dave the Dude is played by Glenn Ford. Queenie Martin is played by Hope Lange. Louise is played by Ann-Margret in her film debut. Joy Boy is played by Peter Falk. Judge Henry G. Blake is played by Thomas Mitchell in his final film appearance. Count Alfonso Romero is played by Arthur O’Connell. Carlos is played by Peter Mann. Hudgins is played by Edward Everett Horton. Junior, Dave’s other henchman, is played by Mickey Shaughnessy.
As the director of perfect Code films such as You Can’t Take It with You from 1938, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington from 1939, and It’s a Wonderful Life from 1946, Frank Capra is one of the directors whom I consider to be a friend of the Code. He was a Catholic and a personal friend of Joseph I. Breen, so he didn’t usually try to make movies which were in direct violation of the Code. During his career, Mr. Capra brought many controversial stories to the PCA, but he didn’t gravitate toward romantic scandal. He liked the “tough nut to crack” stories which disturbed big businesses, politicians, and other large organizations. He was a spokesman for the common man, sending little individuals such as Mr. Deeds, Mr. Smith, John Doe, and George Bailey up against ruthless tyrants and misers. He did his best work in that vein during the Code years, painting dramatic, heartfelt portraits which praised Americanism and loyalty over greed, corruption, and selfishness.
The only Frank Capra film which I have seen outside of the Breen Era is It Happened One Night from 1934, his Academy Award-winning film with Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert. One of the last pre-Code films, It Happened One Night is quite mild for its time. Although this early example of the screwball comedy genre is a tribute to the common man, it doesn’t contain the standard “David and Goliath” situation which is so important in most of Mr. Capra’s films, the style which has been identified with the adjective Capraesque. I wasn’t surprised. I knew that he really developed this famous touch during the Code years, beginning with Mr. Deeds Goes to Town in 1936, for which he won Best Director.
Before I watched Pocketful of Miracles, I had never seen a Frank Capra film from the Shurlock Era (1955-1968). During August, we were observing #AMonthWithoutTheCode, and we struggled to continue finding films outside of our favorite time period, the Breen Era (1934-1954). One evening, we were looking through our film collection, and we found a cassette of Pocketful of Miracles. Rebekah and I didn’t remember ever seeing it before, and neither did our mother. Our father recalled seeing it years ago and being unimpressed, but we decided to give it a try. We were impressed by the cast of great actors such as Bette Davis and Thomas Mitchell, and we always like Frank Capra. We thought, “With a director like Frank Capra, how bad can it be?”
We soon found out that it was worse than we ever imagined it would be. Although it does have artistic weaknesses, I am primarily referring to its problems from a Code point of view. After over five years under the ineffective leadership of Geoffrey Shurlock, the PCA was floundering very badly. The moral standard of films was at a low point and getting lower every day. However, the Code was still officially in place, and the self-regulators were flimsily attempting to review and improve films. Because of that, I thought that a director such as Frank Capra, who made such good films during the Code’s glory days because he supposedly agreed with its principles, would continue to make Code-compliant films even during the weakening Shurlock Era. I was surprised to realize that that was completely untrue.
Pocketful of Miracles has an average amount of Code violations for a film made in 1961. There are multiple uses of profanity. Queenie and the dancing girls who work for her wear indecent costumes and perform indecent moves. Forbidden expressions are used. In regard to the illegal activities of Dave the Dude and the other gangsters, graphic and distasteful references are made to violence. In addition, there was one scene which was so blatantly indecent that I was really surprised. It seemed a little too pointed for 1961! When Dave the Dude makes it clear to Queenie that he doesn’t want to get married, settle down, and have children, she decides to leave him. He is outraged, since he has been waiting for years for her. He declares that he is going to get that for which he has waited all these years. He begins to aggressively pursue her around the room, obviously bent on forcing himself upon her. He even tears her top. Ultimately, Joy Boy interrupted the scene, preventing the inevitable from actually happening. It was so blatantly over-acted and filled with slapstick violence that I almost wondered if it was supposed to be funny. I’m not sure. However, whether comedic or serious, the scene was shocking, distasteful, and very offensive.
I was very surprised by all the unnecessary offensive content which was included in the film. All the elements I mentioned, particularly the unacceptable scene, made the film’s general tone very cheap, which is a shame. It seemed unlike Frank Capra’s usual style. It Happened One Night did contain forbidden expressions, dressing scenes for Claudette Colbert, and some cheap humor, but what director didn’t make films with those elements in the pre-Code years? That was the way that scripts were being written then, since filmmakers really didn’t know how to do better yet. Even the well-meaning ones made films that way to draw audiences during the height of the Great Depression. However, in the Shurlock Era, films were still supposed to be made according to the Code’s standards. By then, filmmakers knew how to make films properly, having had twenty years to learn with Mr. Breen. The industry knew better. It was just falling away from its glory days of purity. I was very surprised and disappointed that Mr. Capra was doing that like so many other filmmakers.
Frank Capra wanted to remake his Academy Award-nominated 1933 film Lady for a Day for years. He attempted to arrange an update of the script in the 1950s, but he couldn’t stir sufficient interest. He approached several actors for the leading roles, including Frank Sinatra for Dave the Dude and Shirley Booth for Apple Annie, but all were uninterested or too busy. Eventually, Mr. Capra received a tempting offer. Glenn Ford would put up some of the money for the production and act as co-producer if he could play Dave the Dude. Mr. Capra did not see Mr. Ford in the role, but he was so eager to finance the remake that he agreed. Mr. Ford insisted on his girlfriend, Hope Lange, for the role of Queenie. In addition, he did not get along well with leading lady Bette Davis, who was making a comeback in this film after five years of absence from films. She was not eager to make her comeback as a frumpy hag, but she needed the $100,000 salary. Glenn Ford wanted Hope Lange to have the dressing room which was to be Miss Davis’s, since it was right next to his. Bette Davis agreed, but the dressing room arrangement wasn’t changed, leading to animosity between the two leads. Mr. Capra never became involved in his stars’ disagreements, but the antagonism between them created such stress for him that he suffered blinding headaches during the filming. Perhaps Mr. Ford, as co-producer, influenced the content of the film, dictating some of the rough material in his scenes. Obviously, Mr. Capra was tired and strained during this filming. Although he officially stated that he preferred the remake to the original, in his autobiography he said that this “miserable film” was “shaped in the fires of discord and filmed in an atmosphere of pain, strain, and loathing.”
Pocketful of Miracles is the weakest Frank Capra film I have ever seen. All its weaknesses are not Code violations. A lot of my criticisms are directed toward the actors. I think that Bette Davis was perfect for the role of Apple Annie. She is rough yet lovable, filling the role with spirit, heart, and depth. As always, she was marvelous at making a visual transformation, whether it be for the better, as in this film and Now, Voyager from 1942, or for the worse, as in Of Human Bondage from 1934 and Mr. Skeffington from 1944. However, I can’t say the same about Glenn Ford. I think that he overacts shamelessly in many of the scenes. I have never been very fond of his acting, although I must admit that I haven’t seen him in many movies. I find this character’s progression to be a little unconvincing. One minute, he seems fond of Annie. The next, he is happy to leave her in a drunken stupor in her apartment as long as he has his apple. I don’t know whether another actor would have been better in the role. Perhaps the character was just poorly written. However, Dave the Dude’s sporadic behavior is nothing compared to Queenie’s. She starts as a sweet young brunette who is so innocent, kind, and gentle in her first scene. Just one scene later, two years have passed, and she is a hardened chorus girl and gangster’s moll. She is complete uncompassionate toward Annie, whom she seems to resent. Then, when she learns about the old woman’s daughter, she becomes so sympathetic toward her that she wants to make her fantasy come true, despite the huge hassle and expense. What made her change? I think that the switch is too sudden. I don’t like the way Hope Lange plays the role, either. I think that she allowed the character to be very shallow. I would have liked to have seen the actress bring more depth to the role. I think that the supporting actors are very good. Joy Boy and Junior, Dave’s gangster sidekicks, are very funny. Thomas Mitchell is excellent in his final film appearance. The beggars are very touching and believable. The rest of the cast is good, too, including Ann-Margret who is sweet and pretty as Louise.
This film is often called a Christmas movie. It begins at Christmastime, but I don’t think that the rest of the movie takes place during December. Nonetheless, the theme of dreams coming true gives it a holiday atmosphere. I would say what affiliates it most with the Yuletide spirit is the frequent use of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite as background music! I found this rather odd at times. It is first introduced in the earliest scene between Dave and Annie, when the latter tells the gangster about the little sprites in her apples, who bring good luck. The magical tale is accompanied by “The Dance of the Sugarplum Fairy,” which seems appropriate there. At other times, the music seems out of place, such as when Annie makes her appearance after the makeover to the accompaniment of the “March.” That aside, if you feel like watching a holiday gangster film with some heart-warming Capra flavor, you may want to look for this picture this holiday season.
Some critics refer to Frank Capra’s style as “Capra-corn.” I have never thought of his style as “corny” in any film aside from this. The Code violations cheapen the tone of the picture, so it seems that Mr. Capra’s usual sentiment is just thrown in to sway the emotions. It seems a little forced. As my father said, he even throws in “Polly Wolly Doodle,” a song from You Can’t Take It with You, for nostalgia and good measure. I think that it is a shame that this picture has many of the problems that it does, since they were so unnecessary. This movie just shows me once again that even the best directors, such as Frank Capra, needed the Code to make them marvelous. Without the Code, there can be no movie miracles.
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