The Happy One for the Holidays!

It’s always fun to revisit a movie you’ve liked, but, frankly, ignored for a number of years – then give it a (Blu-Ray-refurbished) spin, and discover that the pic is way better than you ever remembered.  Such is the case with Frank Capra’s 1961 retread POCKETFUL OF MIRACLES, now in High Def from the gang at Kino Studio Classics/20th Century-Fox Home Entertainment/MGM Studios.

The movie, a high-tech remake of the director’s 1933 triumph Lady for a Day, chronicles the Damon Runyon tale of a soft-hearted (yet frequently ruthless) New York mob boss who helps a waterfront hag realize her fantasy of reuniting with a long-lost daughter, shipped off to a European convent and about to wed into Spanish royalty.  Whew, that’s a lot of stuff!  The crone in question, one Apple Annie, has been lifting stationery from a high-brow Manhattan hotel for years, exaggerating her importance in Le Grand Apple society.  The lovable thug, Dave the Dude, can’t “do business” without one Annie’s “special” fruits, so he reluctantly foots the bill for an all-out lifestyle lie once Annie’s daughter and future in-laws plan a Christmas visit to New York.  Dave and his beloved moll, Queenie, pull out all the stops, and in a contradictory nasty-pixie world that only Capra could envision, floods the most joyous time of the year into a tsunami of multiple Kleenex-friendly moments that generally result in audiences screaming “Oscar!” for all concerned.

In the original pre-Code version, the Dude, Annie and Queenie (then monikered “Missouri”) were more-than-ably personified by Warren William, May Robson (who won the coveted Academy statuette) and Glenda Farrell.  In the 1961 super-deluxe edition, it’s associate producer Glenn Ford, Bette Davis and Hope Lange.  In true Hollywood double-standard gender politics, Davis is the weepie old wizened dame and Ford the handsome beloved rogue (even though they had played lovers a mere fifteen years earlier in A Stolen Life).  Never mind, it’s a celluloid fun fest for dedicated classic movie buffs, as Capra has gone beyond sweetening POCKETFUL‘s pot; he’s turned his self-named CapraCorn into Eye-candyCapraCorn, recruiting every surviving character actor from the 1930s-60s, and giving them all (some delivering their last hurrah) at least one more time to shine.

The Lady for a Day upgrade is virtually a scene-by-scene redux, but expanded to nearly two and a half hours (as opposed to the original’s 96 minutes) of DeLuxe-colored/Panavision compositions.  Everything about the 1961 epic is lavish, including the period décor (the 1930s Prohibition repeal theme is repeated), costumes, music, etc.

The script, laden with liberal doses of wisecracks and pathos, was coauthored by Hal Kanter and Harry Tugend (based upon Robert Riskin’s original screenplay, adapted from the Runyon story).  The director, himself, after being considered “washed-up” (resorting to having to do some fondly-remembered Bell Telephone educational films), had rebounded in style with 1959’s A Hole in the Head, a massive hit for co-producer/star Frank Sinatra and the United Artists.  Capra was A-list again, and spared nothing to bring this earlier smash back in 1960s opulence (with UA gleefully picking up much of the tab).  Problem was that A Hole in the Head smacked of modernity, beautifully meshing the Capra of yore with a savvy script by Arnold Schulman, loaded with beat culture, current sex mores, and post-WWII middle-class fantasy.  POCKETFUL, albeit vastly entertaining, was dated from frame one.  It was heavily touted as the move that “delights up the screen.”  Acclaimed scripter Ric Menello and I dubbed it “the happy one for the holidays,” our favorite nonsensical homage to cinema hyperbole.  Nevertheless POCKETFUL needed a miracle, and performed less than admirably, although has deservedly grown in reputation (and home vid revenue) in the past half-century-plus since its release.  One needs only look at the studio’s blockbuster 1961 titles to get the message:  West Side Story and Judgment at Nuremberg (or even their previous year’s smashes, Elmer Gantry, The Apartment, The Magnificent Seven).

POCKETFUL would be Capra’s last completed feature, and began a scary spiral downward into semi-madness.  The physical evidence is in the director’s flagrantly inaccurate 1971 autobiography, The Name Above the Title (a best-seller, and one of the first Golden Age Hollywood anecdotal reminiscences); you know, the one where he takes credit for teaching Sergei Eisenstein about montage.  In this tome, Capra blamed the failure on POCKETFUL squarely on the head of star Ford, and in rather mean-spirited accusatory terms (“Glenn Ford…made me lick his boots…[He] used [the]…film to make himself a big man with a young chick…”).  This proved to be a shock to all concerned, as many recall how smoothly the shoot had gone.  Most dumbfounded was Ford himself, who eagerly unwrapped his copy as soon as it rolled off the presses.  At first he was hurt, then angered (and justifiably so); Capra later recanted his j’accuse finger pointing, blaming his fragile mental state.  Ford gracefully accepted his apology, but it’s doubtful that they ever exchanged Christmas cards.  After all, the book is still available with no updated retraction.

But leave us focus on the picture itself, 1961’s best movie of 1934.  Admittedly, the 136-minute running time seems to whisk by in a flash.  Much of this is, naturally, due to Ford’s charm and Davis’ proficiency at being sincerely poignant.  Surprisingly, Hope Lange’s Queenie, a gamin turned Guinan, is terrific, and she got some of the finest reviews of her career.  But that ain’t where the magic of the pommes d’Annie rests.  The aforementioned supporting cast is stupendous – a veritable Yuletide gift to every serious classic movie buff on the planet.  I won’t go into details, but will simply list the players in question:  Thomas Mitchell, Arthur O’Connell, Edward Everett Horton, Sheldon Leonard, Jerome Cowan, David Brian, Ellen Corby, Mickey Shaughnessy, Barton MacLane, John Litel, Jay Novello, Frank Ferguson, Willis Bouchey, Fritz Feld, Benny Rubin, Jack Elam, Mike Mazurki, Hayden Rourke, Doodles Weaver, Betty Bronson, Jacqueline deWit, Byron Foulger, Amanda Randolph, Paul Newlan, Angelo Rossitto, Edgar Stehli, George E. Stone, Kermit Maynard, Snub Pollard, etc.,etc.

Rising above all of them (no small feat) is Peter Falk as Joyboy, essentially, the all-purpose Warren Hymer role (copping his second Best Supporting Actor nom in as many years), exchanging barbs with the crème de la crème of Tinsel Town scene-stealers (but specifically Edward Everett Horton).

1961 laughs (or laffs) come by the way of the director’s and writers’ belief that blowtorch-under-the-armpit torture is one hilarious imaginary visual.  That said, Capra knew that to get “the kids” in, he had to pony up some new blood, and he canceled himself out with his big-screen finds, famously, Ann-Margret and, infamously, Peter Mann (the latter being an example of the great Montgomery Pittman’s quote, “You might as well be playing against a life-sized cardboard standee”).

Even though the movie, released nationwide on December 18,  faded rather quickly, it did rack up a number of award nominations, including Edith Head’s and Walter Plunkett’s Best Costume Design for a Color Motion Picture and Sammy Cahn and James Van Heusen for Best Original [Title] Song .

The Kino Studio Classics Blu-Ray is phenomenal.  The only time I saw this movie in scope was at a late 1970s screening, via a particularly unattractive soft, mahogany-tinged print.  Screw that!  This pristine 35MM transfer pops with gorgeous restored color and crystal-clarity (thus elevating d.p. Robert Bronner’s work to the level warranted).  The mono audio is loud, dynamic and buoyant (and kicks like crazy if you play it through a system with a subwoofer).

To make a sarcastic, old bastard like myself sniffle at its aorta-tugging finale is a testament to POCKETFUL‘s borderline deranged director.  It literally is a December party-platter, and, 55 years after its unveiling, actually lives up to Menello’s and my ballyhoo (which we have, incidentally, also used to describe Hiroshima, Mon Amour, Last Year at Marienbad and Sophie’s Choice).

POCKETFUL OF MIRACLES.  Color.  Widescreen [2.35:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA.  Kino Lorber Studio Classics/20th Century-Fox Home Entertainment/MGM Studios.  CAT # K1486.  SRP:  $29.95.

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