A Lady for a Day seems to offer the perfect sentimental material for Frank Capra’s brand of filmmaking. An elderly woman in Depression-hit New York maintains a complex ruse with the aid of hotel porter to make it seem as if she is living in suite in the luxury hotel, while she is actually scraping together a meager living by selling apples on the street. When her daughter announces a trip to New York with her European count fiancé, a big-shot gambler named “the Dude” who believes her apples bring him good luck and her panhandler friends her keep up the ruse of a society lady when her daughter is in town.
While it seems like perfect fare for Capra, the director was himself uncertain about the project, reminding Columbia Studios head Harry Cohn that they were “making a comedy centering on a 70-year-old starlet.” He was also worried because Columbia was still a struggling studio and the limited budget would only allow a cast of character actors borrowed Warner Brothers. Capra’s indifference to the project is reflected in the final product, and there a long slow patches, creaks and lulls in the story.
But there are some good moments as well. May Robson is perfect both as the downtrodden “Apple Anny” and as Mrs. E. Worthington Manville. Capra enjoys giving a lot of character and color to minor parts in the story, and some of the character actors he worked with for the first time here would turn up again in his films for decades. One of the many memorable characters would not have been allow if this film had been made one year later, after the Film Production code went into enforcement. French fashion designer Pierre (Leo White, another Capra regular) is part of the team of stylists and beauticians recruited by Missouri Martin (Glenda Farrell) to give Apple Annie a makeover. Delighted to have a filthy face to work with, they whisky the old woman away to the bedroom on lone to her. “Hey! He can’t go in there!” hollers The Dude, objecting to a man entering a lady’s bedroom. Pierre simply holds up his nose. “Oh, one of those.”
It is this attention to minor roles that would help make Capra’s later films, such as It’s A Wonderful Life, such a success.