1933 was a good year for Frank Capra. His comedy-drama Lady for Day, a sentimental tale about a woman called ‘Apple Annie’ and a group of gangsters who help her to pass off as a rich society lady, was a success with critics and the public alike and became the first Columbia Pictures release to be nominated for Best Picture. But what probably remains the most famous bit of trivia in Oscar history is the famous incident when, during the Awards ceremony, Oscar host Will Rogers opened the envelope for Best Director and said ‘Come on up and get it, Frank!’ which made Frank Capra jump up with joy and run to the stage until he realized that the winner was Frank Lloyd for Cavalcade.
This little incident, probably the most embarrassing in Oscar history, even outshines the fact that 75-year old May Robson became the oldest acting nominee at this point and would also hold that record for quite a while (later, she would support the woman who beat her at the Oscars, Katharine Hepburn, in the classic comedy Bringing Up Baby). May Robson had mostly acted on the stage up to that point and Frank Capra, who actually wanted Marie Dressler for the part, later appreciated the fact she was a stranger to the public and so easier to accept as a poor woman who sells apples on the streets.
Lady for a Day is a movie with that unmistakable Capra-touch, especially in the second half of the story. This Capra-touch will later harm May Robson’s performance in many ways because she spend the first half of the picture to craft a believable and, despite her rough appearance and behavior, charming character who unfortunately gets lost during the run of the movie – in more than one ways. The supporting players of the story all do nice work but none of them stands out and at the end, Lady for a Day is a nice, harmless and entertaining story that could have given its leading lady a better part overall but at the same time gave May Robson a lot of opportunities to shine in little moments.
Right from the beginning, May Robson disappears into the part of Annie and shows with a strong voice and a decisive body language that she is a real survivor on the streets of New York, a tough, no-nonsense woman who knows her way around and who knows how to take care of herself (and probably would reject any help that came her way). At the same time, she can change between furious outbursts and being a nice, little lady is just a few seconds – probably without noticing it herself. May Robson demonstrates that Annie has completely adjusted herself to this life and she knows how to get the most advantage out of every situation. And May Robson also thankfully never tries to turn Annie’s true character into this nice, little lady – this is only a way for her to get what she wants but in her heart, Annie is a stubborn, rough and often downright rude woman who doesn’t want anyone to love her, or even like her. It’s an intriguing characterization by May Robson who constantly chose to avoid the easy route and found a perfect way, unlike Katharine Hepburn in Morning Glory, to create a woman who almost bursts of unlikable characteristics but becomes strangely fascinating and, yes, likeable at the same time. In her hands, Annie becomes the kind of woman who pushes everyone away and doesn’t let anybody come to close to her, physically and emotionally, but one can’t help but like her anyway. This is also thanks to the fact that May Robson found the right amount of comedy and drama in her performance – she doesn’t want to be funny or charming but her way of acting her angry outbursts or snotty remarks is still very entertaining and sometimes wonderfully humorous. On top of that, there is also a constant feeling of drunkenness in her performance which not only underlines the true character of Apple Annie but in the work of May Robson also adds to the three-dimensionality of this woman. So, in her first scenes, May Robson does some wonderful work and adds a lot of different emotions and characteristics into the character of Apple Annie which helps to provide either the necessary comedy – or the heartbreaking moments of reality in the following scenes.
The main storyline of Lady for a Day begins when Annie learns from the letter that her daughter is engaged and finally wants to visit her mother in New York. Again, May Robson displays some very heartbreaking scenes, especially her little breakdown at the sidewalk and it becomes even more clear that she is always knowing how to use her scenes – some are to create heartbreaking moments, some are for laughs (especially when she is drunk and her achievement in these scenes becomes even more laudable when compared to most other performers in these early years who would use drunk scenes either for over-the-top comedy or over-the-top drama while May Robson finds a surprisingly subtle way to express them). She also shows that Annie has never been proud of lying to her daughter and feels rather ashamed for it. In these scenes she allows Annie to show a weaker side of her character, a helplessness and the recognition that she can’t deal with this problem alone.
Up to this moment, May Robson has done some very beautiful, moving and funny work and while she never truly needed to carry the picture herself because Lady for a Day also gave various scenes to her gangster-friends, she still managed to become the most interesting aspect of the story. If anything has been working against her so far it’s the limitedness of the character which didn’t allow her to fully display all the possibilities of her talent but she nonetheless did the best she could with the material she was given.
But what follows now is maybe the most shocking case of a movie almost completely dropping its central character that can ever be seen in a motion picture. After Annie’s friends decide to help her and make it possible for her to get a room in the hotel and get her new cloths and turn her into a lady for a day, the character of Annie gets pushed so far into the background that she almost stops to exist. From this moment on, the movie almost completely focuses on the gangsters and how they have to work very hard to keep the charade alive – the movie now gets the famous Capra-touch and shows the importance of friendship and how a group of people that would normally never be expected to be kind and gentle, do their best to help a stubborn, old lady. It’s as if Gone with the Wind would only be about Ashley and Melanie in the second half and let Scarlett drop in from time to time.
During the scene in which they all discuss how to help Annie, May Robson gets to deliver some very moving close-ups that combine a feeling of desperation, shame, fear and disbelief but she isn’t allowed to say a single word and it will be quite some time before May Robson gets to open her mouth again. The unfortunate thing from now on this that not only Lady for a Day seems to forget about its central character – even May Robson loses her connection to her. The transformation of Apple Annie into a sophisticated society lady could have provided endless opportunities for both comedy and drama but in Lady for a Day, the process takes place off-screen and happens apparently in a few hours. In these few hours, not only Annie’s exterior has changed but also her complete character. Suddenly, her loud voice and temperamental behavior are gone and what remains is a true lady. Sure, May Robson does find some moments to show the insecurity in this transformed Annie but overall, she finds no way to connect these two extremes of her character and her earlier interpretation also never would have suggested that such a classy lady was hidden somewhere inside Apple Annie. It’s very unfortunate that both the movie and May Robson so totally forget the old Annie – Lady for a Day now only focuses on the gangsters while May Robson focuses on the new Annie. And while she does these new scenes with a wonderful mixture of grace and loveliness, they are a disappointment nonetheless because they came simply too sudden and are too extreme.
May Robson does use her remaining scenes to shine – only in a different way. Her quiet thankfulness after she has been turned into a lady is very moving but it would have been a more consistent performance if she hadn’t let her exterior influence her acting choices too much and that way lost the spirit of Annie. This, combined with her disappearance in the second half of the picture, make it impossible for her to live up to the great moments at the beginning of her performance. From this moment on, it became a performance of wasted opportunities, both by Capra and by Robson. Even the scenes with her daughter, which are after all the main reason for the whole storyline, feel very rushed and apart from a moving meeting at the piers and a short conversation later in the hotel they never truly share the screen or show any true connection between them. May Robson shows a lot of dignity and quiet strength, especially at the end when she almost confesses her lies, but she mostly feels misdirected in these moments since all these characteristics had never been visible before. May Robson is good in these moments, no doubt about that, but it doesn’t feel right.
It’s hard not to be moved by Apple Annie or feel happy for her in the end, but the character was changed too radically by May Robson and Frank Capra and the whole movie basically forgot about her in the second half. What could have been a wonderful and challenging role that way turned into a mixed performance that still impresses with its early scenes. Overall, May Robson gets