Back in 2008, a friend and I went to see the movie Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, based on the 1938 novel of the same name. (Fun fact: The novel was so instantly popular that Hollywood was going to make a movie version of it back in the 30s but WWII beginning put an end to that plan.) Recently, I bought a copy of the DVD as a gift and lo and behold, Amazon.com also then told me I could have access to an instant copy online for a limited time. So, I almost immediately capitalized on that gift from Amazon by watching the movie again today.
Set in the late 1930s, Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day follows the eponymous character over two days of her life. On the first day, Miss Pettigrew, a middle-aged governess with high morals, is fired from her job and reduced to getting food from a soup kitchen and spending the night on the London streets. The next day, Miss Pettigrew tries to secure yet another governess job from an agency but is refused due to her past record. Out of desperation, she pilfers the business card of Delysia Lafosse, a woman seeking assistance, and shows up at Delysia Lafosse’s door pretending to be from the hiring agency. Of course, Miss Pettigrew has misinterpreted the situation, thinking that Delysia Lafosse is a married woman looking for a governess instead of a social-climbing young woman looking for a “social secretary” to help her manage her whirlwind lifestyle, which includes juggling her three lovers – Nick, the wealthy nightclub owner who employs Delysia as a singer and finances her flat and wardrobe; Philip, the young producer who promises to make Delysia a star on the West End stage; and Michael, the impoverished pianist who loves Delysia despite seeing through her pretenses. In spite of her moral reservations, Miss Pettigrew finds herself charmed by Delysia and in desperate need of employment, so she comes along for the ride and finds herself transformed in more ways than one throughout the day.
Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day is a delightful comedy, similar to the kind of screwball comedies that proliferated in the 1930s-1940s but are rarely seen today. Given the movie’s setting and the timing of the original novel, this is hardly surprising but it’s still a refreshing change from what often passes as comedy in Hollywood these days. The movie’s set and costumes embody the timeframe, with the swinging big band and jazz music also providing a great touch from the era. Besides the color filming and a few more risqué scenes than we would have seen back then, this movie transports viewers right back into the silver age of cinema.
While the movie is overwhelmingly light-hearted and funny, it is not just a piece of fluff. Miss Pettigrew’s morals, though wavering at times, serve to keep everything in its proper perspective. For instance, in a rare fit of anger, she lashes out at a cocktail party by telling a fellow guest, “You people, with your green drinks and your parties and your subterfuges! You're all playing at love. One minute her, the next minute someone else, flit, flit, flit! Well, I'm not playing. Love is not a game.” She serves as a foil to Miss Lafosse by reminding her of what is important in life – the love of someone who knows her true self rather than the endless pursuit of empty fame and money. Also, the desperation of Miss Pettigrew’s situation is a recurring theme, as we are often reminded of her hunger, her lack of money or worldly possessions, and how easily she might be spending another night on the streets.
It’s not just Miss Pettigrew’s welfare that is at stake. Throughout the movie, we are given often small but constant reminders of the world at large. And that world is on the brink of another world war, even as the older set of characters is still reeling from the consequences of the first world war. To be clear, this is not a movie about the horrors or tragedies of war, but it is not all just about the frippery that appears on the surface.
The movie wraps up fairly predictably but, to be fair, most comedies do and this is something we tend to like in light-hearted films. The happy ending was perhaps a little too easily tacked on, but it leaves the viewer feeling satisfied.
Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day also succeeds by having a great cast at its heart – Frances McDormand as Miss Pettigrew plays the transformative part with understated perfection, Amy Adams channels Marilyn Monroe as Lorelei Lee in her bubbly role of Delysia, Ciaran Hinds plays the one character with any insight into the absurdity of this lifestyle with the appropriate amount of English gentlemanliness, and Lee Pace as the lovable Michael does not fail, as usual. These actors were particularly notable, but the rest of the casting was spot on also.
In case you couldn’t tell yet, I wholeheartedly recommend this movie, especially when you’ve having a down day and need something cheery!