Monday, 17 October 2011
Mr. Lucky (1943) dir. H.C. Potter
Starring: Cary Grant, Laraine Day, Charles Bickford, Paul Stewart, Gladys Cooper
By Greg Klymkiw
As a light romantic leading man, endowed as he was with infinite charm and that distinctive, mellifluously clipped delivery, nobody will ever really come close to the perfection that is Cary Grant. When we see his dark side - which is rare - there's no question he has had few equals as an actor. In spite of its cop-out conclusion, Grant presided over Alfred Hitchcock's Suspicion with equal parts charm and malevolence. His brave work playing against type as a layabout Cockney in Clifford Odets's magnificent downer None But The Lonely Heart is, perhaps, the ultimate testament to his versatility.
Though he collaborated with Hitchcock four times, (Hitch loved him more than any other actor - including James Stewart), I think it's Grant's collaborations with the great George Stevens that yielded two of his finest performances: In Gunga Din, Grant proved he was equally at home in rock 'em sock 'em boys' adventure and in the exquisite, almost-criminally forgotten Penny Serenade, Grant not only wrenches tears from us, but delivers one key scene where he breaks down with such sadness, desperation and unflinching raw emotions, that one almost wishes he made more pictures like it - even if it were at the expense of forgoing some of his magnificent comedy.
Mr. Lucky is a picture I saw many times during those halcyon days of the seeming innocence of my childhood. From my first helping on a Sunday afternoon television broadcast to the numerous times I hunted down listings for it and watched the picture each and every time I could, it was a movie that - even then - obsessed me. I recall sensing just how odd it was - it felt, for much of its running time, like a breezy comedy, though with few laughs. When the laughs come, though, they're big, but for much of the picture, its wispy veneer needs only a few scratches to reveal a dark tale of deception and redemption.
I finally re-visited the picture for the first time in some 40-or-so years and was delighted to find its as strange, confounding and eminently compelling as it ever was.
Grant plays Joe Adams, a gambler, con man and owner of a gambling boat who fakes his death to avoid the draft (WWII) and assumes the identity of a lower-drawer dead thug called Joe Bascopolous. When he discovers that his new "identity" is a wanted three-time loser, he needs one major score so he can take it on the lam. He finds the perfect mark in the rich society gal Dorothy Bryant (Laraine Day) who is leading a major War Relief campaign. He charms her - of course - and convinces her to hold a major casino event that he will run for her. His goal, is to run the casino, steal the dough and hit the road - or in his case, the high seas.
It's a perfect sting.
The spanner in the works is that he genuinely falls in love with Dorothy. With the law on his tail, however, and Zepp (the deliciously smarmy Paul Stewart), his nasty, greedy partner putting the screws to him, Joe finds himself in a major pickle barrel.
Love or survival? These are his choices.
As directed by H.C. Potter, Mr. Lucky, is shrouded in portent. There's no doubt about it - the picture is strange. Some might say "flawed", but I think the movie's blend of doomed romance, redemption and desperation against the backdrops of both world war and the criminal underworld, is what makes it one of the most tantalizingly original films of this period and perhaps one of the best works to come out of RKO, the studio that gave us King Kong, Citizen Kane and the atmospheric Val Lewton horror pictures.
Potter was a brilliant Broadway stage director who made very few films. As a filmmaker, his output was erratic, but when he was good, he was great. His film version of the hit Olsen and Johnson Broadway show Hellzapoppin' was inspired insanity of the highest order and his helmsmanship of Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House (which also starred Grant), rendered one of the best film comedies of the 1940s. I also hold a special soft spot for his film adaptation of William Saroyan's Pulitzer Prize winning play, The Time of Your Life which featured one of James Cagney's best performances ever.
Mr. Lucky is a film that grapples with issues of shirking duty, responsibility and love. It's an incredibly complex and sophisticated work and even more surprisingly, was a huge hit for RKO. Perhaps the truly hilarious comedy set pieces were enough to inspire audiences of the day - God knows the sight of Cary Grant learning to knit is a mega-knee-slapper. But for all of the mirth, it's an extremely dark movie and is, in fact, rather daring in terms of blending light comedy with big themes that surely must have resonated with wartime audiences. They had to accept - even if the role WAS played by Cary Grant - that the protagonist was a liar, cheat, criminal, unrepentant womanizer and draft dodger.
Much as I'm going to sound like some old curmudgeon, I think the audiences of that time were, frankly, smarter. I find it hard to imagine a picture as strange and compelling as Mr. Lucky being a big hit in this day and age.
Mr. Lucky is available on DVD via the Warner Home Entertainment Archive Collection. This, of course means, a special order online of a DVD-R pulled from best available sources - at a premium price and including shipping costs. Of course, you'll find some retailers and rental houses do, indeed, carry it. In Toronto, Canada the best places are the Sunrise Records flagship store at Yonge and Dundas and the old Starstruck Video at Tomken and Dundas. Check your independent dealers. The transfer on this picture is pretty decent, but for the big bucks the studio is asking, you get the movie and a trailer in a keep case. I could care less about extras, however, as the movie is all I really want. $30 for a DVD-R is highway robbery. Alas, the studios know there are enough nutcases out there willing to pay it for movies they want.