Frank Capra (1897-1991) immigrated with his family from Sicily to the United States when he was six. He became one of the most celebrated film directors of the 1930s, and his films are remembered as heartwarming and funny celebrations of America and its common people.
Lady for a Day was based on a Damon Runyon story, set in the New York underworld we are familiar with from Guys and Dolls, a play and movie also based on a story of his. Capra called it a fairy tale, but it is one populated by gamblers and street people. The screenplay was written by Robert Riskin, who collaborated with Capra on most of his movies.
Columbia, the studio where Capra worked, had little money or prestige in 1933, when this film was made. Without any stars to trade, Columbia had to star leading players instead of stars. Warren William, who plays Dave the Dude, was one from Warner Brothers, and May Robson, who plays Apple Annie, was a seventy-year old stage star borrowed from MGM. Note Walter Connolly, who pleaded with Capra to play the Spanish count. We saw him two weeks ago in Twentieth Century. It’s a key role, because the count is the target of a hoax, but as Connolly said “One slip, and his Spanish pride will burn the wings off your fairy tale.”
Lady for a Day started a phenomenal eleven-film streak of box office hits for Capra. This movie was nominated for four Oscars – best picture, best writing, Capra for best directing, and May Robson for best actress – and it didn’t win any. His next movie, It Happened One Night, which we’ll see in two weeks, was nominated for five – all the ones this film was nominated for plus best actor – and it won them all.