Pocketful of Miracles (1961)
Boy oh boy, does Pocketful of Miracles (1961) have some juicy behind-the-scenes drama!! Seriously, it’s NUTS! I’ll do my best to present all sides of the drama here, and I make no judgment as to which side is the truth. Glenn Ford and the legendary Bette Davis play the leads in Miracles, and to use Davis’ famous phrase to describe the ambience of the film set,
“Fasten your seat belts, it’s going to be a bumpy night!”
If you missed this feel-good film on TCM Monday, you can still watch it on tcm.com. Just log in to your cable provider through TCM’s website. It will be available through Sunday. Or you can find the film here.
Ok, before we jump into the aforementioned drama, let me tell you a bit about the actual film. And heads up, it stars just about everyone, and was directed by the great Frank Capra. Miracles was Capra’s last feature film EVER. Pretty significant!
Pocketful of Miracles (1961) is set in Depression-era New York City. We immediately meet Apple Annie, the Bette Davis character. She’s a…well…she’s a street hag who sells apples for a living and is the ringleader of all the beggars and hustlers on Broadway. Would you expect anything less from a Davis character? Being the leader of the pack, I mean. Davis is quite hilarious as she takes her monthly cut from her crew, and screams remarks such as this at kind-hearted passersby who buy her apples:
“A nickel?!!! Thank you Mr. Rockefeller, you lousy cheapskate!”
Ah, how endearing. And delivered as only Bette Davis can!
Dave the Dude
Apple Annie’s best customer is NYC mobster Dave the Dude, played by our guy Glenn Ford. The Dude is super superstitious, and thinks that all his success as a bootlegger and racketeer is thanks to the “lucky” apples he buys from Annie each day. His right-hand man, Joy Boy, played by Peter Falk, teases the Dude constantly about his dependence on Annie’s apples. (You probably recogogize Falk best from television’s Columbo (1989-2003), and he’s the best part of this film!)
Annie has a grown daughter, Louise (Ann-Margret in her film debut), living in Spain. She’s been there since forever, getting her education (try not to think about the logistics of how Apple Annie pays for this education), and has no idea that her mother is a hustler. In fact, Louise thinks her mom is a hoity-toity society lady. Annie and her daughter write to each other all the days, and then the inevitable happens: Louise says she’s coming to visit! And she’s bringing her fiancé! And his father! And they’re both Spanish Counts!!! Naturally.
A Good Deed
It’s a Capra film, so there’s got to be some sort of helping your fellow man element, right? Right! Dude, thanks to the urging of his kind-hearted girlfriend Queenie (Hope Lange), decides to help Annie out, and turn her into a lady to both fool and impress her daughter. Annie gets a full makeover, new wardrobe, the works! Dude sets her up in a ritzy apartment, complete with a butler named Hudgins, played by the delightful Edward Everett Horton. (How I love this man! He’s just so darn cute, and gives the other standout performance in the film.)
The Dude even arranges for his buddy, Henry “the Judge”—played by Capra favorite Thomas Mitchell (Uncle Billy in 1946’s It’s a Wonderful Life)—to pretend to be Annie’s husband.
Do They Pull it Off?
If you don’t want to know the ending to the film, skip to the next heading!
After Louise, fiancé Carlos, and Count Alfonso arrive in NYC, endless complications threaten to thwart Annie’s plan. But quick thinking Dave the Dude somehow rolls with all the punches, using his connections to fulfill Annie’s dreams of impressing her daughter and never letting her know the truth.
The film ends with Annie successfully pulling off her charade, and it’s not until Louise, Carlos, and Count Alfonso are on the boat sailing back to Spain, with Annie biding them an emotional goodbye from the dock, that Annie breaks from her rich dowager character. Her daughter is barely out of sight when Annie chides her old crew, who are there with her:
“Why are you all standing here with your mouths open?!! The crowd at this dock is LOADED! Start hustling!!!”
And with that line, the film ends!
Capra Gets His Chance
By the early 1960s, Frank Capra was thought to be all but retired from directing films. Most would agree that Capra’s directorial prime was in his consistently spectacular films of the 1930s and 1940s. Pocketful of Miracles was actually a remake of another Capra film, Lady for a Day (1933), and Capra had attempted negotiations with studios for years trying to get the film remade. It never panned out, partly because by the 1950s, the Capra name didn’t carry the prestige in Hollywood it once had.
It wasn’t until Glenn Ford showed interest in the project that things really got off the ground. Glenn made a deal with Capra he couldn’t refuse: Glenn would help finance the film, with Capra directing, in exchange for Capra giving Glenn the lead role and a producing credit.
Capra and Ford: A Troubled Partnership
Capra wasn’t so keen on the deal—he had envisioned Frank Sinatra or Dean Martin for the role of Dave the Dude. (I must say, either of these guys would have been excellent choices! And you know I’m particularly partial to Dino!) Capra also feared he’d be giving up some of his artistic freedom by accepting Glenn’s deal. But in the end, Capra went for it, and Franton Productions was born. (The name is a combination of Capra’s first name and Glenn’s middle name, Newton.)
According to Capra in his autobiography, Frank Capra: The Name Above the Title, things basically just went downhill from there. He was quite disappointed with the end result of the film. Capra even shared in his autobiography that on Miracles, he felt he had
“sold out the artistic integrity that had been my trademark for forty years.”
So sad. Definitely not the way you want to end your film career.
Capra felt that Glenn frequently undermined him on the film, even down to the casting of the other female lead, Queenie Martin. Capra envisioned Shirley Jones in the role. By some accounts, Jones actually already had the role of Queenie Martin before Glenn stepped in and insisted that his real-life girlfriend, Hope Lange, be given the role instead.
Because of Glenn’s star power, which was necessary to the film even being made, Capra had to go for it, and Lange got the role in the end. The stress of feeling like he had no control over what was happening on his film set evidently led to intense headaches for Capra throughout filming.
When Capra’s autobiography came out in 1971, Glenn read the book, and according to his son Peter, was mystified at Capra’s negativity towards him. Peter shares in his book on his father that Glenn wrote Capra a testy telegram:
“What a shame you did not have the guts to say this to my face—what you said in the book.”
Ouch! No judgment from me on either side, this must have been an extremely difficult situation for both men to handle. Glenn probably felt he was doing an unappreciated good deed by getting Capra’s film made, and on the flip-side Capra felt disrespected and denied control on the film set.
From Friends to Foes: Glenn and Bette Davis
Well, Frank Capra wasn’t the only one on the Miracles set who reportedly had a problem with Glenn. As I hinted at the beginning of this post, Bette Davis also looked back on this film with…shall we say ill-will?…towards Glenn.
Remember how Bette had been instrumental in re-vamping Glenn’s career after WWII? How it had been her star-power and insistence that he play the lead opposite her in A Stolen Life (1946) that made him a star? Bette reportedly even liked Glenn enough at the time to make a pass at him, which Glenn, newly married to the dazzling Eleanor Powell, rejected, with apparently no harm done to his friendship with Bette.
By the 1960s the roles were reversed: Glenn was the superstar, and Bette was experiencing a bit of a career slump. According to the pro-Glenn team, Glenn now used his star power to get Bette the role of Apple Annie in Miracles.
Team Bette vs. Team Glenn
Team Bette disputes this, insisting that Bette was offered the role by Capra with no strings attached from Glenn. Bette was furious when she read an interview Glenn gave where he stated that he had been instrumental in getting Bette her comeback role in Miracles.
The fact that Glenn felt responsible for her comeback, coupled with the fact that he expressed this feeling so publically, led to this indelible statement from Davis:
Who is that son of a b—- that he should say he helped me have a comeback! That sh–heel wouldn’t have helped me out of a sewer!”
Never one to mince words, that Bette.
Again, where does the truth lie? I love the old adage:
“There are three versions of every story—his version, her version, and the truth.”
Whatever the facts behind Bette’s casting, it is a fact that Bette and Glenn fought like cats and dogs on the Miracles set—even down to playing musical chairs with dressing rooms between Bette and Hope Lange, because although Bette was the bigger star, Hope held power as Glenn’s girlfriend. I’m sure all these fights didn’t help with poor Frank Capra’s headaches!
A Growing Classic
Despite all the behind-the-scenes drama and Capra’s personal dissatisfaction with the film, Pocketful of Miracles has faired well with the passing of time, and is a holiday favorite for many.
I wanted to spend more time writing about the fascinating drama than analyzing the film in this post, but I will say quickly that I did really enjoy this one, and would watch it again! Pocketful of Miracles is a little long, and I’ll warn you, it does drag at times, but the second half of the film goes by like that, and it’s really fun seeing some classic Capra elements—even if they are slightly underdeveloped—in a more modern film.
Have you seen Pocketful of Miracles? What are your thoughts? Do you have any more interesting insights to the behind-the-scenes drama?
Don’t miss our last day of Glenn Ford films, starting Monday! Check out the TCM film schedule for showtimes.
And as our last full week in the month of July, it’s time to start prepping for TCM’s annual “Summer Under the Stars,” where a different classic star is highlighted every day of August! It’s a month of fantastic films you don’t want to miss! Can you tell I’m excited?!!! (: