Under-Rated Movies #12: Mr. Lucky (1943); Dir. H.C. Potter

12. Mr. Lucky


This is Cary Grant’s 43rd film and it came out in 1943! So that HAS to mean SOMEthing! (Uh, yes. It means that you’re nuts, Sheila, for even knowing that.) This actually was a hit when it was released and was one of the highest-grossing RKO movies that year. But it’s not really remembered. It’s not a perfect film – it has its flaws – but the moments that work are particularly good – and Cary Grant shows elements of himself he’d never before shown – and it works. He’s doing something different with this part – it is really well worth a look. There are some truly hysterical moments (uhm – see photo above) – and one spectacular bit of responsive acting from Cary Grant – which involves him just listening to someone else. (Howard Hawks said about Grant: “He was the best receiver I’ve ever known.” Wanna know what that means? Watch Cary Grant when he is NOT talking. Watch him when he is listening … to Katharine Hepburn babble in Bringing Up Baby, to Ingrid Bergman’s slutty acting-out in Notorious, watch him listen to Jimmy Stewart’s drunken monologue in Philadelphia Story … In Mr. Lucky, near to the end of the film, Grant is sitting in a dark church with a Greek priest – he needs the Greek priest to translate a letter for him … The Greek preist reads the letter, which is a harrowing story of murder and war … The entire time the priest reads, the camera stays on Grant, who is staring straight ahead, listening. You just watch him. Just watch him listen! It’s one of my favorite bits of Grant’s acting ever.)

Cary Grant plays Joe Adams – a totally amoral gambler, who runs and owns a gambling ship called The Fortuna. He keeps it docked in lower Manhattan under some other name. Joe Adams lives just one step in front of the law. He’s not really a nice guy. I mean, he’s charming – because he’s freakin’ Cary Grant – but the guy is a mover, a shaker, a maniuplator, and a callous liar. There’s a Casablanca element to this film – especially in the love story – and most especially in the very last scene, which even looks like the last scene in Casablanca – fog, night, blurry street lamps, shadows, etc. But Joe Adams doesn’t, in the end, have the character that Rick Blaine has. He’s too selfish. Rick Blaine would never pull the shit that Joe Adams does.

For example: In order to avoid the draft, he takes on the identity of one of his crew members who has just died. Unfortunately, this crew member has had 3 prior convictions (Grant;s character doesn’t know this, though – hence all the hijinx that eventually ensue) – but the good thing about this guy is that he was declared unfit to be drafted. So that’s pretty sleazy, right?

Adams and his gambling cronies need to raise some cash quick – so they eventually come up with a scheme: The war is going on and they decide to infiltrate the female-run War Relief organization and cheat it out of the money it will make at a huge upcoming charity function.

Some of the funniest scenes are when Cary Grant, this slick sleazy gambler, walks into this female-run office – and tries to convince them that he is so passionate about war relief that he is willing to work with women – even learn how to KNIT (see photo above) – do anything in order to help. Laraine Day plays Dorothy Bryant, the brisk efficient woman who runs the organization.

Of course – pretty much instantly – Grant takes a shine to her. But you can’t tell what’s real with this guy because he has no scruples. Maybe she’s just a dame like any other dame? He can’t help but flirt with her because she’s pretty and that’s how he gets what he wants? Grant plays that, for sure – but he also plays another level. (This is why I think Grant is the greatest of all film actors. No exaggeration. There’s never just one thing going on with him. EVER.) Grant also, throughout the film, is letting us know that Joe Adams’ conscience is awakening. That sounds so stuffy and un-fun and moralistic – and I suppose there is a level of that in the film – but it’s more about: can this guy be a good person? Can he ever do something totally selflessly? (Hence – the whole Casablanca similarity). Can he ever act altruistically? Is his soul lost? Or can it be saved?

This is NOT just a plot-point. Many actors just play the plot. By that I mean: when the character is bad and selfless – they play bad and selfless. During the revelation scene when the character realizes that they no longer want to be bad and selfless – the actor plays the revelation moment. After the revelation moment – when the character is now trying to be good – the actor plays trying to be good. It’s a very LITERAL way of acting.

Good actors are always letting the audience in on secrets – secrets unknown even to the character himself. Watch how Cary Grant does this in Mr. Lucky. Sometimes it’s just a flash in the eyes, or a hesitation before he speaks … You start to root for this bad guy. You root for him to be honest, tell Dorothy the truth … We root for him not just because he’s being played by Cary Grant (although that has to be acknowledged as a huge part of it) – we root for him because Cary Grant subtly, and with no dialogue, lets us know that something is starting to bother Joe Adams … Joe Adams can’t even admit it yet … but the lying and swindling life is starting to … not sit well with him … It’s not just about the fear of getting caught. It’s more spiritual than that. It’s an awareness of … sin, I guess you’d call it. Living wrong. When you’re amoral, you’re not even aware that it’s wrong – you just do whatever you have to do to get what you want. Joe Adams still moves forward in his scheme … but … something is not right …

It is because of this hesitation that we truly root for this character. He’s flawed. He actually needs people to root for him. There’s a similarity here to Jim Gandolfini’s acting in The Sopranos, especially in this last season. Gandolfini, very subtly, with not much dialogue to support it … is starting to show us that … this badness is no longer unconscious for him. He is now aware of it. He can’t deal with that knowledge yet – it’s too complicated – and how can one completely change? Can one ever really “go good”?

Grant and Dorothy Bryant have numerous very good scenes together. She’s from “society” – he – well, nobody really knows where he came from – although he does have a very good, and suddenly angry monologue at her – when all of his class resentment comes out. “You look through me like I was a dirty pane of glass.” Great line.

But my favorite moment between them – one which is so revealing about his character, and which also just works, dramatically – is a good-bye moment between them. He’s such a tough guy, all the walls up – this isn’t your typical romance at all. He’s got a wisecrack for everything. (Also – wonderfully – the guy knows all the Cockney rhyming slang – which is something Cary Grant added to the part, improvising it. We don’t know how Joe Adams would know all that Cockney stuff, but Cary Grant, as a Cockney himself, sure did – so it’s so so fun to watch him teach Dorothy Bryant all the slang, knowing that this was from Grant himself.) Anyway, at one point, at the end of the night, Dorothy leans in and gives him a tender kiss. They’ve never kissed.

Now there are a couple of problems here. First of all: Dorothy Bryant has no idea that this guy is actually planning to swindle her organization out of its bucks. She thinks he’s a do-gooder like herself. Second of all: Joe Adams has never been in love with a nice girl. How does one kiss a nice girl? It’s easy to kiss a floozy. How do you kiss a nice girl?

So he doesn’t really respond to the kiss. She pulls back and says, “Didn’t you like it?”

Out comes the tough-guy voice, cranky, flat, “I haven’t decided yet.” He turns, walks out of her house, gets in his car, and peels away from the sidewalk. We then see him in his car, driving – we see him going across a bridge, and the camera then shows us what he sees – we see the signs in the middle of the lane, as he drives across the bridge: over and over they come: NO LEFT TURN, NO LEFT TURN, NO LEFT TURN, NO LEFT TURN. Then the camera cuts back to Grant’s face – so much is going on there – suddenly his lips tighten, he grips the wheel – and jams the wheel left. We see the car do a shrieking U-turn in the middle of the bridge.

The next shot is him bursting back into her house – she is now standing on the staircase, maybe going upstairs to bed – she stops when he bursts in, looking at him absolutely stunned – He runs up the stairs, grabs her, and kisses her passionately. For what feels like forever.

Then he pulls back, looks at her, and says in the same flat voice, just confirming something for himself, “Yup! I liked it!” Then turns and runs back out of the house again, leaving her breathlessly staring after him.

How this whole thing works out – how the plot untangles itself – is something you’ll just have to see for yourself. I thought I knew where the film was going – but the ending is actually quite a surprise, and I found myself suddenly quite moved by it. It has the feeling of inevitablity – like the film has been moving towards it all along – and yet somehow it still packed a huge punch.

An interesting thing about this film is the date in which it was released. 1943. The heyday of screwball comedy was the 1930s. It had a very brief heyday. Cary Grant was the reigning king. In screwball comedy he found his first milieu. Screwball was what released him from being just a generic leading man. His spirit was never generic, although his looks could ONLY have given him a career as a leading man. But his spirit is that of a character actor. A goofball. Screwball comedy and Cary Grant were the perfect mesh. It liberated him.

1943 is already in post-screwball era. But this film still has screwball elements. The whole knitting thing – which is actually hilarious – because although Joe Adams is so embarrassed and PISSED at having to knit … eventually he really gets into it, becomes proud of his knitting – and all of his gambling goombah friends take it up as well. So Cary Grant will come out of an office, and a car is there waiting to pick him up, and some gambler is sitting at the wheel, knitting, while he waits for Grant. hahahaha It’s so ridiculous, so enjoyable.

But the 1930s are done. The depression is over. WWII is on. Casablanca has come out. Screwball comedy was strictly a 1930s genre. Many actors who flourished during the 30s in that vein didn’t really translate well into the more serious world of the 1940s.

This film represents the cross-over. It’s a screwball – yet the war is going on – it’s a screwball – yet suddenly the whole class-war element is present (something that rarely came up in screwball comedy – where everyone wore tuxedoes, and traveled by train, and drank martinis) – People have dark secrets here. The world is a darker more ominous place. Would Cary Grant, with his glitter, his international charm, his humor, his ease … translate in the 1940s? Or would a new kind of movie hero be necessary?

For a couple of years in the 1940s, after Mr. Lucky – Grant made some not so good pictures. He was looking for his new spot … Screwball comedy fit Grant like a glove. Was that it for him? So for a couple of years, Grant floundered. I mean, he’s always good – but the films themselves are not up to his level of genius. He is an awkward presence in them. He is either trying too hard to be socially relevant and personal (None but the Lonely Heart – although I do love him in that, and he got an Oscar nomination – but still: that was not his milieu) – or he was lost in a project that was meaningless and silly (Night and Day) – or the projects were cutesy and plot-driven (Once Upon a Time). Cary Grant in the 1930s made, in succession: The Awful Truth, Bringing Up Baby, Holiday, Gunga Din, and Only Angels Have Wings. Maybe Jack Nicholson in the 1970s gave such a series of iconic performances – but nobody else comes even close to that kind of record.

Was the Cary Grant persona only relevant to the needy dark 1930s?

Well finally in 1946 came Notorious. This was a new Grant. A darker Grant, cruel, humorless, pained. It is his greatest performance. He messes with our idea of him in the most courageous way of any actor I have ever seen. It is completely lacking in self-congratulation. Watch how other glittery handsome actors play “against type” and somehow – you can feel how much they want to be praised for it. No. Cary Grant never pulls that shit.

Notorious was a resurgence of the seriousness of Cary Grant’s career, and the re-assertion of his place as the #1 leading man in America. Nobody could touch him. Grant, of course, went on to play dozens of silly films – and it was more often than not Hitchcock who would swoop in, on occasion, and give him a chance to really mess with his own persona. But Grant wouldn’t let just anyone mess with his persona. Hitchcock was allowed to – but nobody else was.

So all of this is just to say:

Mr. Lucky can be seen, now, in light of what came afterwards – as a bridge. It is the connecting link – between the screwball Cary of the 1930s and the serious romantic leading man of the 1940s and beyond.

And watch the scene where Cary Grant listens to the priest read the letter.

You can see him, the actor, on the bridge of his own career in that moment. Screwball is over. What next? Cary Grant was always ready for whatever came next.

The film is well worth a look.

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17 Responses to Under-Rated Movies #12: Mr. Lucky (1943); Dir. H.C. Potter

  1. Emily says:

    The Hollywood Forever cemetary is screening Philadelphia Story tonight. If you get on a plane RIGHT NOW you could be here in time. I’ll bring the wine.

  2. red says:

    DAMMIT where is my private jet??????????

  3. Sal says:

    Trivia – this is one of the movies the troops are shown watching in “Band of Brothers”. The scene is the one in which his henchman is demonstrating his knitting.

    I so need to see this again. I was never sure about the scene where he refuses to elope with her – was it awakening conscience or class resentment? or a bit of both?

    Just realized dh “borrowed” “Notorious” from the gift videos at his library. With that, and “Something’s Got to Give”, I have a glorious cinema day ahead…

  4. dorkafork says:

    Great choice. I loved the line about his tie. “You like it?” “It’s… fascinating.”

    The end, though, always seemed “off” to me. I was never sure what Grant was going for there.

  5. red says:

    dorkafork – I know what you mean about the ending. I agree.

    And hahahaha with the tie line – I had forgotten that!!

  6. Steve Ely says:

    That’s another really good essay. It’s impressive the amount of knowledge and insight you have about movies.

    Meanwhile, I just realized that besides North by Northwest, I haven’t seen any Cary Grant films. I’ve got to work on that.

  7. Nightfly says:

    “Cary Grant in the 1930s made, in succession: The Awful Truth, Bringing Up Baby, Holiday, Gunga Din, and Only Angels Have Wings. Maybe Jack Nicholson in the 1970s gave such a series of iconic performances – but nobody else comes even close to that kind of record.”

    Yeah, in succession it’s hard to pick anyone who could match hit after hit after hit like that. DeNiro’s always excellent but not every movie really hits – “King of Comedy” for example. One can also make excellent decisions but have it all cut too short. I mean, that’s a pretty good stretch of five films, the difference being that Cazale is supporting, not leading.

    Harrison Ford ran off, in succession, Empire Strikes Back, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Blade Runner, Return of the Jedi, Temple of Doom, Witness, Mosquito Coast, Frantic, Working Girl, Last Crusade, Presumed Innocent, Regarding Henry, Patriot Games, and The Fugitive. You wouldn’t call all of those good movies, but most are at least entertaining, and only a couple weren’t successes.

  8. Nightfly says:

    Dratted close tag. Sorry.

    PS – Turns out that Ford turned down the role of Eliot Ness in the Untouchables. That would have been something to see…

  9. Nightfly says:

    GAAAAH! Close tags! All right, enough out of me… =P

  10. red says:

    Nightfly –

    I actually don’t think DeNiro is always excellent – and my view is that his Rupert Pupkin in King of Comedy is actually one of the best performances he has ever given.

    And there’s a huge difference between being in a successful movie – a movie that makes money – and what I’m talking about. I’m talking about being an ICON. Giving performances that change how we look at movies – or giving performances that end up defining an era, a style, a genre.

    I don’t think Harrison Ford would even be on that list. I love him, don’t get me wrong – but those films are not his personal successes (and he’s the first to admit that – he will not take credit for those successes – he’s a part of something larger, that’s his gift) Those films are MASSIVE blockbuster hits – and the movies themselves changed everything in the movie-making landscape – but not his acting in them. Not even CLOSE.

    Character actors are a whole different category – because they don’t have to CARRY a film.

    So I stand by my choices.

    Cary Grant and Jack Nicholson. Maybe Barbara Stanwyck should be on that list, too. If you look at a list of her movies in the late 30s and early 40s it’s hard to find a bad performance.

    Not only that – any movie actress who came after has had to deal with the fact that she set the bar that high.

    She DEFINED the noir heroine. She is IT.

  11. red says:

    Also – I’m not talking about “hits”, actually, Nightfly – Bringing up Baby was a huge flop – such a failure that Katharine Hepburn couldn’t get work and went back to Broadway.

    I’m talking about something deeper, I guess.

  12. red says:

    And yeah – Ford was born to play Elliot Ness. He’s definitely just got that vibe of having the moral high-ground. Not sure how or why … but he does!!

  13. Nightfly says:

    Ah. I’d always thought Bringing Up Baby was a hit – but I guess that’s what you mean. Seventy years later it’s hard to imagine that movie NOT being made. Another question to ask would be, could anyone else have made that movie or played that role? The sort of vibe you get when you hear that a beloved part very nearly went to someone else and you double-take just thinking about it… “Wha-?” I think I’m getting you here.

  14. red says:

    Yeah – I could see any number of other actors playing Han Solo. I mean, Han Solo will always be Harrison Ford in my mind, and I am happy about that – he was great – but an iconic acting job? Absolutely not. He was part of an iconic project. That’s different.

    But with Indiana Jones, though – to me, there’s only one actor who could have played that. To me, that’s when Ford starts to approach mythic status. Legendary status.

    I still don’t think Ford is in the pantheon of great actors. He’s fortunate, he’s hard-working, everybody likes him, he’s a great collaborator, he’s reliable … but to me it doesn’t add up to a Bogart level, or a Grant level, or a Gary Cooper level.

    Jack Nicholson is in the pantheon. Five Easy Pieces? Marvin Gardens? Cuckoo’s Nest? And look at him – look at him STILL taking chances. About Schmidt. Something’s Gotta Give. He is getting MORE interesting as he gets older – while Ford gets LESS interesting.

    Kind of a bummer, but I haven’t been psyched to see a Ford film in quite a while.

  15. red says:

    And DeNiro stopped taking chances in his work 15 years ago – which is a HUGE loss. But I never thought DeNiro had great range – I think he’s very limited (this is not a criticism) – but within that very narrow limit, he is unbelievable.

    But Nicholson seems to have no limits. He is still willing to FAIL (his performance in As Good As It Gets was WAY out of character for him – an OCD nervous-wreck? A prissy fussbudget dude who can’t get a girl??) But there he was – creating a character, taking risks … I don’t think that performance was perfect but I LOVE IT because he’s in his 60s and he’s still willing to fall flat on his face.

    DeNiro isn’t anymore. Neither is Ford.

    sniff, sniff …

  16. red says:

    Speaking of all of this:

    weird coincidence: Today is the 25th anniversary of Raiders of the Lost Ark!


  17. red says:

    Oops – had the day wrong. It was the 11th not the 12th – but still!!