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“Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day” is a modern movie with all the hallmarks of a 1930s screwball comedy. The film, set in pre-World War II London, stars Frances McDormand as Guinevere Pettigrew, a governess who just got fired from her fourth job. Desperate, Miss Pettigrew steals a job meant for someone else, but it turns out that the young lady wanting help—singer/actress Delysia Lafosse (Amy Adams)—needed a social secretary, not a nanny. Within a day the drab Miss Pettigrew is swept up into Delysia’s turbulent social life, gets a makeover, helps Delysia choose which out of three men she should be with, and falls in love herself.
“Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day” is based on the book of the same name by Winifred Watson, and it very nearly did get made into a screwball comedy in the 1930s. Universal Pictures bought the rights from Watson in 1939, and intended to adapt it for a film with Billie Burke starring as Miss Pettigrew. One can only imagine how great a film that would have been; Burke is best known for playing Glinda the Good Witch in 1939’s “The Wizard of Oz”, but throughout the 1930s she played a series of wonderfully ditzy society woman in films like “Dinner at Eight”, “Topper”, and “Merrily We Live”. But when the U.S. got involved in World War II, the project was tucked away, forgotten until the publisher rereleased the book in 2000.
The film adaptation we finally got, however, is great. Other than containing some innuendos that likely would not have appeared in a 1930s film version due to the Production Code, the tone and content of the movie is very much that of a classic comedy, with the flighty Delysia and the more straight-laced Miss Pettigrew getting entangled into all sorts of complicated social situations. Amy Adams is as charming as can be, and her performance as the flighty Delysia is reminiscent of the likes of Carole Lombard and Jean Arthur. Frances McDormand anchors the film with her solid, heartfelt performance that complements Adams’ perfectly. While screwball comedies aren’t really made in Hollywood anymore, “Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day” proves that, with the right cast, story, and direction, it’s still possible to make a film that appeals to modern sensibilities while retaining a vintage flair.
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