Giddy and buoyant, Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day is a modern day variation of a screwball comedy. Picturing players like Carole Lombard as Delysia, Marie Dressler as Miss Pettigrew, and Robert Taylor as Michael should give you an idea about the type of movie we’re talking about. It’s full-throttle and completely committed to its artifice, and that’s not a bad thing even if it doesn’t add up to a lot.
Movies and movie stars can get by with a lot of charm, and if awards were given out for charm then Miss Pettigrew would topple Titanic for the most Oscars a film has ever won. Not to say that it’s adherence to joy and warmth is without its own merits, it’s just that it evaporates from the mind and doesn’t linger in the way that classic screwball comedies do. Think of Lombard and William Powell washing dishes in My Man Godfrey, Rosalind Russell and Cary Grant sparring in His Girl Friday, and Barbara Stanwyck sexually dominating Henry Fonda in The Lady Eve.
Not even the intrusion of World War II’s air raids and sirens can damper the jolly spirit here, and Miss Pettigrew’s few moments of seriousness, of questioning the British class system, of harsh poverty do not gel with the rest of the bourgeoisie gaiety. It’s best to focus on the romance and rapid-fire sexual innuendos, many of them deployed with fizzy, ditzy relish by Amy Adams. Even better is how so much of the movie is about the blossoming friendship and connection between two women who support and help each other.
Frances McDormand has displayed a strong hand at darker comedy, look at Fargo, but she’s positively sublime here in her Cinderella-like transformation. McDormand’s grit, dignity and persistent inventiveness and wit keeps Miss Pettigrew from blowing away with the gentlest breeze, and she works well with Adams’ peppy, freewheeling wannabe starlet. If the film ends up being another variation of “love conquers all” pabulum, but McDormand and Adams make the film worth the journey. Sometimes your spirit needs a bit of uplift, and Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day is the perfect remedy for that.