POCKETFUL OF MIRACLES, Frank Capra’s other Christmas movie, came out as his holiday sentiment & cheer offering for 1961. Enjoyable, stacked with talent, also lumpy and overlong, it had been a headache (literally) for the old pro to shoot, left snippy critics sniping he was out of touch and failed to pocket a miracle at the box office. He never made another feature film. *
New York City, 1933. Popular gangster ‘Dave the Dude’ (Glenn Ford) relies on luck from apples he buys off gin-favoring street peddler ‘Apple Annie’ (Bette Davis). Spinning tales of a sophisticated high life, the beat-down but big-hearted gal panics when her daughter (Ann-Margret) comes to visit from Europe, bringing her aristocratic fiancée. Under pressure from his brassy showgirl partner (Hope Lange), the harried Dave stages a dignity rescue operation using a motley crew of riff raff to pose as society swells so Annie can carry off her well-meaning deception.
A long-delayed remake of Capra’s 1933 hit Lady For A Day, its attempt at an old-style screwball comedy flavored with Damon Runyon characters (sprung from his 1929 short story “Madame Le Gimp”) seemed sappy in the time of West Side Story and La Dolce Vita. Sloppy as well, poorly edited, overstaying for fluff at 136 minutes. Highbrows sneered, and audiences only brought it up to 34th place, not strong enough to mask a $2,900,000 cost.
On the debit side, the script structure is lopsided, wobbling between Dave’s end and its two subplots, and Annie’s unlikely situation. A comedy about gangsters can be–is–silly–but it unless goes outright daft as a musical (Robin And The 7 Hoods) its make-believe still ought to have a certain kind of sense to give it cohesion. Not only can you see the ending coming a decade away here, it gets the bums rush and leaves a major plot point flat. Duh, it’s a wishful fairy tale gig, but how did Lange (giving it gusto and great gams) go from sweet orphan to furniture-busting showgirl and mob moll? Because. How did a soused street shill pay for her daughters years abroad, and how does the cultured girl (Ann-Margret, 20, sparkles in her debut) speak perfect American English after living in Spain all her life? Because. How does Annie’s vocal delivery and manner go from blowsy to regal? Because. Ford puts out a ton of energy, but he was always better at drama than comedy, convincing conveying tension, less so selling suave. Capra had wanted Sinatra or Dino (and either would likely have dialed it back some), but Ford was co-producing and calling shots.
On the happier end, the fun pockets bulge with an emotionally strong turn from Davis, and top-rate comic support, particularly from ‘good hoods’ Peter Falk and Mickey Shaughnessy, and old pros Thomas Mitchell (his last role), Edward Everett Horton (delightful as ever) and Arthur O’Connell (looking actually dapper). Falk gets most of the best comeback lines and earned an Oscar nomination for Supporting Actor. It’s all stagebound, but looks great in color. I liked it as a kid, and thanks to the cast it still holds charm, even if the flaws are obvious.
Along with Falk, it pulled nominations for Costume Design and the title Song. In the trove of character actors Capra rounded up: Sheldon Leonard, David Brian, Barton MacLane, Jerome Cowan, Mike Mazurki, John Litel, Jack Elam, Jay Novello, Frank Ferguson, Willis Bouchley, Ellen Corby, Fritz Feld (a funny bit), Benny Rubin (ditto), Gavin Gordon, Doodles Weaver, Hayden Rorke, George E. Stone, Peter Hansen, Byron Foulger, James Griffith, Snub Pollard, Angelo Rossitto, Vito Scotti.
* Grosses are cited as both $2,500,000, which would constitute a real flop, or $7,000,000, indicating a squeaker. Defensive, Capra wrote that it “was not the film I set out to make; it was the picture I chose to make for fear of losing a few bucks. And by that choice I sold out the artistic integrity that had been my trademark for forty years…I had lost my courage.” Further, it was “shaped in the fires of discord and filmed in an atmosphere of pain, strain and loathing.” Co-producer Ford exercised more star clout than the director was up to battling, and Davis stomped into immediate acrimony with Ford and Lange (involved with him at the time, how she got the part). Davis, 56, had been away from American film for five years and needed the money. Inadvisedly telling the press he’d secured the part for her as a favor for her giving him a break years before on A Stolen Life, Ford had Bette lambast him for “bad manners and a lack of professionalism”. That was in public. Her off-record retort: “Who is that son of a bitch that he should say he helped me have a comeback! That shitheel wouldn’t have helped me out of a sewer!” Hope volleyed that Davis was “about as delicate-spirited as a tank!” They all fought with Capra. He developed killing migraines over the demands and egos. Blame, properly, should be equally apportioned. The Glenn-Hope (45 +27) fling continued and they later did another comedy Love Is A Ball. With that her once promising movie career shifted to TV, while Ford’s forward momentum was hammered by expensive failures like Cimarron and The Four Horsemen Of The Apocalypse. Bette was back in favor for a while, with Whatever Happened To Baby Jane? and Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte. The two whose pockets got the biggest miracles from this fray were Falk, whose second Oscar nomination in a row (first a not-cute mobster in Murder,Inc.) gave him a steady stream of jobs, and Ann-Margret, who dropped the sweetness of her launch for a string of sizzling sexpot romps. Poor also-introduced Peter Mann only managed five more credits, the last in 1965, billed 18th in Frankenstein Conquers The World.