Academic journal article Journal of Film and Video

"Spent for Us": Capra's Technologies of Mastery in Lady for a Day

Academic journal article Journal of Film and Video

"Spent for Us": Capra's Technologies of Mastery in Lady for a Day

Article excerpt

With a child's eyes I used to look up at Mama. There she was, standing all day . . . in the miasmic steam of the olive plantten hours a day for ten dollars a weekher flying hands pasting labels on cans she rhythmically snatched from a line without end: cans, cans, cans, jiggling by on a witch's cackle of clanking, clanking chain belts.

I'd look up at Mama's face, her strong, peasant face, now wet with strain; nodding, nodding, nodding; a robot chained to the monster's rhythm, no time to brush stringy hair from her eyes ... And Mama looked like a witch to me. A Halloween witch. And I'd run off, and clench my fists, and curse America.

-Capra, The Name above the Title

To date, Frank Capra's 1933 film Lady for a Day has received little critical attention, perhaps because it has been relatively inaccessible: prints are rare, the original negative was lost in the 1950s (Wolfe 99), and the film was not available on laser disk or videotape until 1991.1 Robert Riskin's screenplay, which for years has served as the basis for a few critical comments, was published in 1936, but there are substantial differences between the screenplay and the finished film.2

The film version of Lady for a Day is very revealing of Capra's attitudes toward both his own background and his chosen profession. Like many of his films, it dramatizes contemporary anxieties (including Capra's own) about social class and mobility. Lady for a Day is unusual, however, in that it approaches these issues and the question of individual creativity through the figure of the mother.

The film's heroine, Apple Annie, embodies popular fantasies about the self-sacrificing nature of maternal love, but her story also casts the mother as the source of creative energies and nurturing relations that the individual subject must both tap and transcend in order to achieve self-individuation and material success. In effect, the film "claims" material production (the making of real and meaningful things) as the work of individual masculine agencies, yet, at the same time, it confronts the disturbing power of maternal (re)production and feminine creativity. These issues were, and continue to be, relevant to all members of male-dominated, materialist societies, but, because of his family history, they were of strong personal interest to Capra. Lady for a Day shows Capra, at a crucial period in his early career, struggling to create a fiction that would "prove" his creative mastery and demonstrate his independence from his own powerful mother.

In his autobiography and in various interviews, Capra revealed powerful ambivalence about his immigrant mother, as is exemplified in the quote at the beginning of this essay. According to her son, Saridda Capra was "a very nice mother," "very strong in her ideas, strong in her work," but also "a terror," "a witch" who dominated her easy-going husband and struck her sons. Saridda quickly adapted to American capitalism, becoming the family's primary wage earner. Capra himself connected his mother's character with the perception that "`all the women in my stories are strong. They are stronger than men"' (McBride 39).

Saridda initially opposed Frank's wish to go to school rather than work, and her son's resentment apparently led to his repressing the fact that she eventually had a change of heart:

The Capra myth was that he did it all by himself, and his claim in his autobiography that he never received a penny from his mother while attending college but instead gave her ninety dollars a month for most of that time outraged family members who knew the true story (McBride 71).

Capra's relationship with his mother was punctuated by disputes over money, particularly his failure to make it. Capra claimed Saridda once threw him out of the house with ten dollars in his pocket when he was still recovering from a severe illness and that she consistently refused to be impressed by his success as a filmmaker (McBride 110, 270). …

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