This post is part of the Bette Davis Blogathon hosted by In The Good Old Days Of Classic Hollywood.
When you look at the work of Bette Davis, Pocketful of Miracles (1961) is probably not going to be very high on most people’s list of favorites. With a career that included greats like, The Letter (1940), Now Voyager (1942), All About Eve (1950), and What Ever Happened to Baby Jane (1962), it’s no wonder that it’s no more than a blip on the radar for Davis. Directed by Frank Capra, the film is a remake of his 1933 film, Lady for a Day.
I always try to avoid spoilers when I can but here I think I need to do a brief recap. Still, all spoilers will be pretty mild and will all appear in this paragraph. Glenn Ford plays the Dude, a superstitious gangster who depends on apples from homeless Bette Davis (Apple Annie) as a good luck charm. Apple Annie has a daughter in boarding school but panics when she learns that her daughter is coming for a visit and will discover that she’s a street person. The Dude agrees to set up Apple Annie in a penthouse with stylish clothes and friends to maintain the illusion that she is rich to her daughter.
Pocketful of Miracles seemed somewhat doomed from the start. Capra had been trying to do a remake for years, but Columbia owned the rights and thought the story too old fashioned. Columbia ultimately pursued it as a way to lure Shirley Booth to the studio. That project fell through and Capra ended up buying the rights himself to get it done. Bette Davis was leery of taking the role for her comeback (her last American film had been four years earlier), because her character Apple Annie is an old lady. Bette Davis was 53 when the film was released. She is made to look easily 10 or 20 years older. Still, Davis needed the money.
Other casting issues abounded. Frank Sinatra was initially cast as the male lead, but quit over issues with the script. The part was offered and turned down by Kirk Douglas, Dean Martin, and Jackie Gleason. Glenn Ford offered to help finance the film in exchange for being cast in the lead. Capra thought he was all wrong for the part, but was desperate to get the film made and agreed.
Bette Davis wasn’t the first choice either. Her part was offered to Shirley Booth, Helen Hayes, Katherine Hepburn, and Jean Arthur first. In addition, there was conflict between Glenn Ford and Davis. Ford was dating Hope Lange (who plays his girlfriend) and wanted her to have the dressing room next to his. Davis didn’t want to give it up and ultimately won out. Pocketful of Miracles lost money, and most film critics thought it missed the mark. Still, the film did get three Oscar nominations, Best Original Song, Best Costume Design, Color, and Best Supporting Actor for Peter Falk. Capra considered Falk’s performance the best thing in an otherwise miserable film.
So is Pocketful of Miracles worth watching? At 136 minutes, it’s probably longer than it needs to be. But like many lesser works of Hollywood greats, it’s well worth it. Peter Falk really is great as Joy Boy. Probably 90% of the great lines, and there are plenty, come out of Falk’s mouth. Glenn Ford and Hope Lange both have solid performances. Bette Davis is great as usual. She was afraid of being typecast as an old hag, and ultimately that more-or-less came to pass. Still, if Pocketful of Miracles led to her being cast in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane, Hush … Hush Sweet Charlotte, and The Nanny, who am I to complain. The film is also the last film for both Frank Capra and Thomas Mitchell, as well as the first film of Ann-Margret.
For me, it mostly comes down to the cast. Like many Capra films, there are brilliant performances from the top all the way down to the bottom. Edward Everett Horton is great as Apple Annie’s pretend butler. Thomas Mitchell is another bright spot as a pool hustler posing as Annie’s husband. Then you have little tiny roles like Sheldon Leonard as a rival mob boss and Mike Mazurki and Jack Elam as miscellaneous thugs. Finally, you have Ellen Corby (you’d know her if you saw her) as Soho Sal, a deaf and dumb street person, one of Apple Annie’s cronies. Corby is best known as Grandma Walton from The Walton’s. She worked pretty much continuously from the mid-1940s through the early 1980s.
Pocketful of Miracles is a good, though probably not great, movie. It is overly sappy and sentimental. It is Frank Capra, after all. It does work more often than not, though lacks the finesse that you see in Capra’s better films. For Bette Davis, it is a transitional film. It takes her from a middle-aged actress to an older actress, but an older actress, one who can carry a whole film by herself. How many can say that. That makes Pocketful of Miracles a miracle indeed.