Frank Capra is undoubtedly an icon of American cinema, standing out as one of the most influential filmmakers of the 20th century. While he lived until the early ’90s, his final theatrical film was released in 1961 in the form of Pocketful of Miracles. A remake of his own film, 1933’s Lady for a Day, It would become an experience that would give Capra something of a headache, with a long war for film rights, to friction with stars on set creating tensions which undoubtedly lead to his decision to call it a day on calling the shots. That unease is very much reflected in the film itself, meaning that Capra’s last film is not the capping glory one might expect such a landmark director to have.
Glenn Ford stars as Dave the Dude (no Lebowski relation), a charming, swindling, bootlegging raconteur, who believes the apples he receives from a poor street peddler, Annie (Bette Davis), bring him good luck. He soon finds himself giving something back for all the luck Annie’s apples have given him when he discovers that Annie has a daughter in Spain (Ann Margaret, in her screen debut), whom Annie has never met. Due to marry a Count, Annie’s daughter wants to come to America to meet her mother, but she’s under the impression that her mother is a wealthy woman of society. With the help of his fiancee Queenie (Hope Lange), Dave puts together a plan to turn Annie into a Lady up to the image that her daughter expects. Can they keep the facade going for long enough?
At its heart, Pocketful of Miracles is a screwball comedy about the performative nature of high society. As a screwball, it sometimes works, thanks to a combination of game performances amongst the cast. The likes of Thomas Mitchell as a pool hustler posing as Annie’s husband, and Peter Falk as The Dude’s right-hand man Joy Boy, get the best share of the laughs as the scheme becomes more and more elaborate. Ford himself keeps The Dude just on the right side of being a charming scoundrel, even if some of his actions are often quite questionable.
The strongest performance belongs to Bette Davis, who best finds the sweet spot between the silly comedy beats and the bittersweet sentiment that often overtakes the whole thing. She gives Annie a lot of heart, embracing her flaws as well as her loving and caring nature. That she gets a little lost in the going’s on is a shame, as the film loses its heart for the sake of constructing more comedic beats around Ford’s character. Ford was also an executive producer on the film, and while he pushed for Davis’ casting, the two did not get along on set, and that tension often feels like it creeps in, reducing Davis’ screen-time.
Where the film falls apart is simply down to strangely paced writing and situations. The film weaves back and forth from its screwball tendencies to a more sentimental drama. Sometimes, it’s a little hard to tell which one it’s actually aiming for, with a number of scenes hanging in the air awkwardly. Should we laugh? Should we feel pity? You’re never quite sure and it gives the whole film a weird uneasy atmosphere. Pair that with the fact that at nearly 140 minutes, Pocketful of Miracles very much outstays its welcome, moving through the story beats with little in the way of surprise or wit, which is a damn pity when you look at Capra’s track record. The lasting impression is more of confusion than anything else, particularly as the resolution of the story makes little sense, even in the context of screwball comedies.
Pocketful of Miracles is undoubtedly one of Capra’s weaker efforts, and it is a shame that it ended up as his last feature. Put simply, the film feels unwieldy, the control has gone out of his hands and driven by movie star ego, with little opportunity for Capra to leave his mark. Having tackled the material before, there doesn’t seem to be much evidence here to suggest why Capra was so keen to re-do this tale. Some fine performances can be found within this screwball, but it is largely dictated by an awkward tone and a testing languorous pace. For Capra completists only.
Dir: Frank Capra
Prd: Frank Capra
DOP: Robert J. Bronner
Music: Walter Scharf
Run time: 136 minutes
Pocketful of Miracles is out on DVD and Blu-Ray from September 21st 2020.