Saturday, December 18, 2021

This Day in Film History (‘Pocketful of Miracles,’ Capra’s Lesser Yule Tale, Opens)

Dec. 18, 1961—Pocketful of Miracles opened in American theaters almost 15 years to the day that It’s a Wonderful Life premiered, and likewise failed to meet expectations at the box office. But, while veteran director Frank Capra’s earlier film went on, through countless repeat TV showings, to become a holiday classic, his later production—also containing Yuletide elements—has never gained similar popular traction.

It’s not that Pocketful of Miracles is completely unknown: The comedy has, after all, been shown numerous times over the years on TCM, and its stars included the very recognizable Bette Davis, Glenn Ford, and, in her big-screen debut, Ann-Margret.

But even many fans of older movies don’t recognize it, as was borne out for me a few days ago, when another fan of such fare could not bring it to mind when I spoke to her. And lines from the film have not entered popular memory, as they have with It’s a Wonderful Life or a much more recent movie, A Christmas Story.

Making the movie, Capra admitted a decade later in his autobiography, The Name Above the Title, was a “miserable” experience. It soured him so much on how the industry had changed since his heyday at Columbia Pictures in the 1930s that it turned out to be his swan song.

Part of the reason why the production turned out to be so joyless and disappointing was that Capra had begun it with such high hopes. It was, after all, a remake of Lady for a Day, which had earned him the first of six Oscar nominations for Best Director back in 1934.

Among Capra’s generation of older directors, the idea of remaking their own black-and-white films of more than 20 years before had a certain appeal, as evidenced by Alfred Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934 and 1956), and Leo McCarey’s Love Affair (released first in 1939, then redone as An Affair to Remember).

The logic behind their reasoning seemed overpowering, even inescapable: If Hollywood was going to remake these (and it would), who better to do so than the original creative force who knew not only what aspects of it were worth preserving but also what could be corrected and what could be added that wasn’t around a generation before (notably, color and bigger screens)?

There were only a couple of problems with this in Capra’s case, but they were significant. First, although he was eager to adapt Damon Runyon’s Prohibition Era tale “Madame Le Gimp” for a later generation, Hollywood executives did not feel similarly, believing audiences would find it dated.

Second, Hitchcock and McCarey had, in James Stewart and Cary Grant, stars not only well-cast but also uninterested in throwing their weight around. But Capra had as his male lead Glenn Ford, who, as associate producer, had helped finance the film and was not shy about determining its direction.

In particular, Ford insisted that, as gangster moll Queenie Martin, his girlfriend Hope Lange should replace Shirley Jones, a recent Oscar winner for Elmer Gantry whom Capra had already promised the role. The reluctant director acceded to his star’s cast-her-or-I-quit threat, but it rankled.

One of the few fundamental deviations that Pocketful of Miracles made from Robert Riskin’s script for Lady for a Day was a larger presence for Queenie  (whom 1930s audiences would have recognized as a fictionalized stand-in for nightclub hostess Texas Guinan). It is hard not to see the hand of Ford in that decision.

Lange was hardly a disaster in her role. But her presence represented a mounting list of initial casting choices that weren’t turning out as Capra had wished.

Ford himself was not his preference for superstitious gangster “Dave the Dude.” But his desired choices—Steve McQueen, Jackie Gleason, Kirk Douglas, Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra—didn’t work out, for one reason or another. (Sinatra’s association with the production would, in the end, be limited to turning its theme song into a hit.)

Likewise, Bette Davis was not whom Capra had in mind for street peddler Apple Annie. But Shirley Booth felt she couldn’t improve on May Robson’s Oscar-nominated performance in Lady for a Day; Helen Hayes couldn’t find space in her schedule; and Katharine Hepburn and Jean Arthur (so memorable in Capra’s Mr. Deeds Goes to Town and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington) both turned down the role.

Davis, with increasingly lower-profile roles since her triumph a decade before in All About Eve, was eager for the work and the $100,000 salary, and agreed to take on the part when Capra offered it.

As great an actress as she was, Davis was, at 53, younger and less believable as woebegone Annie than the two-decades-older Robson. But Capra had a more immediate problem with her, caused by—yes, Ford.

The trouble began a week after Davis came to the set, when Lange requested a dressing room next to Ford. That room belonged to Davis, who was miffed about yielding her position to a younger, less-established actress. 

In a well-intended but clumsy attempt to smooth things over, Ford only made matters worse by saying in an interview that he was repaying Davis for giving him his start in films by putting her in this movie, hoping it would be a comeback vehicle for her.

“Who is that son of a bitch that he should say he helped me have a comeback!” Davis stormed. “That shitheel wouldn’t have helped me out of a sewer!”

From then on, the production was “shaped in the fires of discord and filmed in an atmosphere of pain, strain, and loathing," Capra wrote in The Name Above the Title.

Years later, he regretted that with Davis, he “didn’t see that needed consolation and reassurance after so long away.” But on set, he was not inclined to mediate the noticeable tension between her and Ford, and he developed increasing headaches.

It’s hard not to read Capra’s memoir without the sense that, over and above everything else, he resented Ford for undercutting his authority and creative freedom as the director: “My ‘one man, one film’ Hollywood had ceased to exist. Actors had sliced it up into capital gains.”

The results showed on the screen. It wasn’t so much in the performances of the supporting players. (Particularly wonderful are “It’s a Wonderful Life”’s Uncle Billy, Thomas Mitchell, here in his last movie role; Mickey Shaughnessy, given perhaps the funniest line of the film, “She's like a cockroach what turned into a butterfly!”; and Peter Falk, nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar as Dave the Dude’s cranky right-hand man “Joy Boy”).

Rather, the trouble is apparent in the film’s pace—which, uncharacteristically for Capra, is uneven, even slack at points. Lady for a Day had a running time of an hour and 34 minutes—plenty of time to tell its story and be on its way. In contrast, Pocketful of Miracles clocks in at two hours and 16 minutes but feels like it could use a good half hour cut.

Capra received a Directors Guild of America nomination for this film. But overall, he agreed with reviewers like The New York Times’ A.H. Weiler, who noted, “Mr. Capra and his energetic troupe manage to get a fair share of laughs from Mr. Runyon’s oddball guys and dolls, but their lampoon is dated and sometimes uneven and lifeless.” 

A couple of years later, Capra expressed interest in directing an adaptation of the Broadway satire The Best Man, but creative differences with playwright Gore Vidal kept him from taking on that project, probably for the best.

Pocketful of Miracles was an exercise in nostalgia for a world that had passed. So had the studio system in which Capra had once flourished.

(The image accompanying this post shows Ford, Falk and Davis. Though it seemed imperative to have the two feuding co-stars in a still for my commentary, I couldn't resist including Falk, whose performances gives viewers as much pleasure as it did Capra.)

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