Capra-Corn in Austin, Texas

Capra-Corn in Austin, Texas

I just returned from Austin,
Texas
, where I had the pleasure of
presenting Frank Capra’s Lady for a Day (1933)
to an enthusiastic audience at the historic Paramount Theatre, as part of its
annual Summer Film Classics series. The evening was made even nicer for me by
my old friend Louis Black, editor and co-publisher of the Austin Chronicle, who brought me onstage with a beautiful
introduction. Then film programmer Stephen Jannise, who interviewed me after the
picture, as we both fought back tears from watching the final scene of Capra’s
beautiful movie.

What impressed me most was how perfectly Capra’s
finely-tuned picture still worked with an audience, eliciting every laugh that
was built into it—from a sardonic reaction by Ned Sparks to a climactic cutaway
of stoic butler Halliwell Hobbes. Capra loved those character actors and knew his audience, which hasn’t changed
as much as some people might think in the 90 years since this film was made. (I
witnessed the same response when I showed his State of the Union to my class of 20-somethings at USC.)
The only gag that fell flat all night was when Sparks whistled “The Prisoner’s
Song” as a response to one of Warren William’s ideas (“If I had the wings of an
angel/Over these prison walls I would fly…”). Those lyrics would have been
familiar to every moviegoer of 1933, which is no longer the case.

Because it was withdrawn from circulation for decades, so as
not to compete with Capra’s own remake, Pocketful
of Miracles
(1961), Lady for a Day
has yet to take its rightful place among the great American movies. It was
certainly appreciated in its time, earning four Academy Award nominations, just
one year before Capra and his screenwriting colleague Robert Riskin swept the
Oscars with It Happened One Night.

Stephen Jannise does a wonderful job booking vintage films
at the Paramount—everything from
Charlie Chaplin to The Wild Bunch—and
he writes excellent program notes for each screening. He and his projectionist
John do their best to screen everything in 35mm, with old-fashioned reel
changeovers. (When I took a tour of the projection booth John Stewart proudly
pointed to a platter machine that’s never been used.)

Several hundred people turned out on Friday and, to my
amazement, they stayed for my q&a after the film. I met a number of them in
the lobby afterward, including parents who had heard me on the local news
station KUT that afternoon and decided to bring their 11-year-old daughter and
give her a new and different experience than she was accustomed to. She told me
she loved Lady for a Day and the
experience of seeing it with an audience on a theater screen. She doesn’t know
it, but that youngster made my day.

You can check the Paramount’s
summer schedule HERE.  

To
read my conversation with Louis Black about our boyhood moviegoing adventures,
click HERE. 

 

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Comments

Chuck Mathias

This comment is actually inspired by the poster illustrating your article; more precisely, an actor on the poster. As a fellow baby-boomer, surely you remember those weird, early WB cartoons often shown on afternoon TV that included caricatures of their stable of live actors (other studios', too, if their stars were too big to ignore). Being an old-time movie nerd even then, I usually recognized most of them. W. C. Fields, Clark Gable, Greta Garbo, even obscure ones like Hugh Herbert and the Ritz Bros. But there were two that stumped me. Male and female, nearly always shown as a couple, probably because they resembled one another, skinny with long, unattractive faces. Even when the guy spoke, in a thin, nasally voice, it didn't help. Was that whine supposed to be a catch phrase: "Never go anywhere, never do anything, never have any fun"?? I also collected catch phrases (did I mention I was a nerd?) and that definitely wasn't in the database. It wasn't until the 80's, when I finally saw "42nd Street" that I became 95% certain HE was supposed to be Ned Sparks (the other 5% leans toward Fred Allen). But HER? Who her? I'm thinking maybe Edna May Oliver, but was she ever popular enough to be included with the likes of Barrymore, Cagney, etc. etc.? Come to think, was even Sparks that well-known–or did the two of them just happen to tickle the cartoonists' funny bone? Guess if nothing else, this comment proves I truly believe you have all the answers!

Nat Segaloff

"Lady for a Day" is one of the very few films made from a Damon Runyon story, and the changes that Riskin made so it would work on screen demonstrate the value of a screenwriter, as there is no indication that Capra had any hand in writing this terrific film (according to Joe McBride's meticulous Capra book and my own, ahem, "Final Cuts"). If the Runyon literary estate wasn't so balled up, this would make a terrific Broadway music. I'm sure you did it justice, Leonard, and you gave me a tear, too, when you wrote about that 11-year-old who was given the gift of joy.

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