New York City, the 1920s. Dave the Dude (Glenn Ford) is a small time hood who for superstitious reasons always buys an apple from street seller Apple Annie (Bette Davis). When he learns that Annie has a daughter called Louise (Ann-Margret) – who was sent to Europe as a baby – about to marry into high society and that she is on her way to New York with an aristocratic fiancé in tow to meet her, Dave helps Apple maintain her ruse as a wealthy socialite.
Pocketful of Miracles, released in 1961, was the final film Frank Capra directed, the end of a career which began in the silent era 39 years earlier. For a period in the 1930s, Capra was one of the highest-profile directors in Hollywood, one of the few whose name was known to the general film going public, his style and sensibility soon becoming an adjective, “Capraesque”. Not for nothing was his 1971 autobiography called The Name Above the Title. Part of that run was Lady for a Day in 1933, of which Pocketful of Miracles is a remake.
Capra set great store on optimism, on happy endings, of prevailing over adversity, and that chimed with what audiences in the Depression wanted to see. However, World War II changed Capra, spending most of the duration working on the Why We Fight series of documentaries. Capra found himself out of step with changing times, post-war America becoming a more cynical place and less welcoming to comedies. After the war, his first feature film was It’s a Wonderful Life, which contains the optimistic messages of earlier films but traded in quite a lot of darkness before getting there. The film was a box-office disappointment, but became a much-loved classic since, especially at Christmas, initially due to its regular showings on American television. Future films were not successful, and Capra effectively retired in the 1950s, concentrating on science-based educational films. He did, however, make two more features. A Hole in the Head (1958), his first film both in colour and CinemaScope, which was followed by Pocketful of Miracles.
The script is by Hal Kanter and Harry Tugend (with other writers contributing without credit), based on the Lady for a Day screenplay by Robert Riskin. Both are based on a short story by Damon Runyon, with the rather unfortunate title “Madame La Gimp”. Runyon was a popular writer in the 1920s, his stories, written in the then-unusual mode of present tense, conjuring up his own New York world of fast-talking slang and gangsters, bootleggers and showbiz folk with colourful character names. The best-known Runyon adaptation is the musical and film Guys and Dolls. But there’s plenty of Runyon in this film, not least by the fact that the two lead characters are called Apple Annie and Dave the Dude.
Capra had considered remaking Lady for a Day for some time. A Hole in the Head was made independently in cooperation with his star, Frank Sinatra. Pocketful of Miracles was set up in a similar way, but after various A-list actors passed, Glenn Ford came on-board and the film became the one and only product of Franton Productions. The result wasn’t cheap – the production had to pay Columbia Pictures a large sum to secure the rights to remaking Lady for a Day. Ford and Capra’s collaboration was also not harmonious. Ford insisted in casting his then girlfriend Hope Lange as Dave’s girlfriend Queenies. Capra had wanted Helen Hayes as Annie, but she was unavailable with Bette Davis cast instead. Capra suffered stress headaches throughout the shoot, but it was completed on time and on budget. The film was released in time for Christmas but was not a success. Capra made one more film, the short documentary Rendezvous in Space, in 1964 and then retired. He died in 1991 aged 94..
Despite its colour and widescreen gloss, there’s no doubt that Pocketful of Miracles harked back to a past era and most likely seemed quite old fashioned on cinema screens in 1961. Where the original was a contemporary story, the remake is a period piece. There’s also the issue that many later Capra films had extended running times: Pocketful of Miracles is 8 minutes longer than It’s a Wonderful Life (which ran at 129 minutes) and 41 minutes longer than Lady for a Day. While it doesn’t earn its longer duration there are compensations. Capra cast Peter Falk as a more cynical audience stand-in so they could buy what is still a sentimental story, and he steals every scene he’s in.
Falk gained one of the film’s three Oscar nominations, along with the costume designs of Edith Head (women’s) and Walter Plunkett (men’s) and the Jimmy Van Heusen/Sammy Cahn title song. Howver, none of them won. The film was the debut of Ann-Margret, who won a Golden Globe as Most Promising Newcomer (Female) with Ford winning Best Actor (Comedy or Musical). And while it was Capra’s last feature film, the same could also be said of Thomas Mitchell, a veteran actor with a career stretching across 5 decades. Pocketful of Miracles is not the most essential Capra but it’s an attractive ending to a great career.
Pocketful of Miracles is released on Blu-ray from the BFI, encoded for Region B only. The film had a U certificate on its cinema release, cut for I know not what, but it retains the same certificate now, uncut.
The film was shot in 35mm with Panavision anamorphic lenses, while the Blu-ray transfer is in the correct ratio of 2.35:1. Shot by Robert Bronner, the film is, like many comedies, bright and colourful and the transfer reflects this: sharp with solid blacks and film-like grain.
The soundtrack is the original mono, presented as LPCM 2.0, sounding clear and well-balanced. English subtitles for the hard-of-hearing are available, and I spotted no errors in them.
Extras begin with a commentary, recorded for his release by film historian Jim Hemphill. This is a very informative talk by a Capra specialist, taking in Capra’s career beginning as a gag writer in silent comedy to his films as director. There are a few pauses, but is well worth listening to. Also on the disc is the trailer (2:58), with Ed Sullivan introducing proceedings, and a self-navigating stills gallery (7:50).
That’s it for extras specifically to do with Pocketful of Miracles. However, this being a BFI release, there are a series of archival items touching on the themes and iconography of the main feature, with a Play All option. We begin in 1898 with “Street Scene – Men with Cart” (1:03), a brief skit most likely the work of Welsh producer and exhibitor Arthur Cheetham. Two years later, Cecil Hepworth made “Beggar’s Deceit” (0:53), another short comedy artfully done in a single shot with staging in depth doing the work in front of a static camera. As Pocketful of Miracles hinges on a transatlantic journey by ship, we have two films of genuine ships leaving harbour. First is the Mitchell and Kenyon production from 1901, an extract from “Cunard Mail Steamer Lucania Leaving for America” (2:37), leaving Liverpool for New York. At the other end of its voyage in 1911, “American Liner ‘Lusitania’ Entering New York Harbour” (0:30), 5 years before the luxury liner was sunk by a German U-boat. These four films are silent with music scores, and “Beggar’s Deceit” has an audio-descriptive narration available as well.
“Fruitlands of Kent” (11:39) was made in 1934 by Mary Field, a documentary on the fruit-picking season in the South-Eastern corner of England, with no natural sound but a voice-over narration. “Love on the Wing” (4:26) is a short animation by Norman McLaren for the GPO Film Unit, in colour, with images scratched into the celluloid as an advertisement for air mail. Finally, “I am a Reporter” (12:38), from 1961, follows Hertfordshire Mercury journalist Peter Gibbs as he spends a day looking for stories.
The BFI’s booklet, available in the first pressing only, runs to 32 pages. First up is an essay by Leigh Singer which contains plot spoilers. It looks at the film’s background and its inspiration in the Damon Runyon story and the previous film version. This is followed by Maura Spiegel’s piece on Capra as “studio-system auteur” and Sarah Wood takes a look at the life and career of Bette Davis. Also in the booklet are full film credits, notes on and credits for the extras, and several stills.
Pocketful of Miracles is available on Blu-ray from September 21.